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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Cathedral Restoration Forces Atheist Exodus

In Soviet times, one of the most jarring sights for foreigners in Leningrad was a beautiful, centrally located church housing the Museum of Atheism -- the very name of which rings absurd to the Western ear.

The church, the famous Kazan cathedral, is one of the city's most spectacular architectural structures, and its arch-shaped colonnade dominates the western part of Nevsky Prospect. It was commissioned by Tsar Paul in 1799 as a replica of St. Peter's in Rome. A year after architect Andrei Voronikhin completed the construction, Napoleon's troops were defeated and driven out of Russia. The cathedral, complete with two statues of Russian military leaders, became a symbol of the victory.

All the same, the cathedral's symbolic status did not save it from the looting that took place after the Bolshevik Revolution. In 1922 the 1,400-pound silver altar was cut into pieces and molded into silver bricks. The museum was founded in 1932, and since then very little inside or outside the magnificent building hinted at the building's spiritual function.

It was only with the collapse of communism that the spirit slowly started coming back. The cathedral was officially returned to the Russian Orthodox Church. But with the museum collection still in the building, the handover was more legal than practical. In 1991, occasional services were resumed, but only in the peripheral left wing of the cathedral. Last year, an Orthodox cross was reinstalled on the cupola and eight newly cast bells mounted in the belfry.

The transition from museum to church would probably have kept the same leisurely pace for another decade or so were it not for the efforts of the newly appointed Metropolitan of St. Petersburg and Ladoga, Vladimir. He took notice of the fact that the city's main street, Nevksy Prospekt had no working Russian Orthodox church and so focused his attention on the Kazan cathedral.

At a recent press conference, held by Vladimir and Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, a plan was announced to turn Kazan into St. Petersburg's principal Orthodox cathedral.

The museum collection, despite all the ridiculous and useless Marxist propaganda materials, is quite a unique assembly of religious items, totems and artifacts from all over the world. The mayor announced that the city will provide the museum with a building in Pochtamtskaya Ulitsa, near the main post office.

Even though the Kazan cathedral has a glorious past and an impressive exterior, its choice as St. Petersburg's principal church was still unexpected. Likelier choices were St. Isaac's cathedral or the Alexander Nevsky Lavra with its seminary and the metropolitan's official residence. The new metropolitan, however, wants to return the lavra to its previous status as a closed monastery with limited access by rank-and-file communicants, and even less for curious tourists.