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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Orthodox Church on Way to Antarctica

For MTMembers of the Russian church-building expedition to Antarctica walking up a hill last month to plant a wooden cross at the planned site of the Orthodox church.
Loggers in the Altai region of southern Siberia began a project of truly global scale this month: They are cutting cedar logs to be used next year to build the first Orthodox church on the world's highest, driest, coldest and windiest continent -- Antarctica.

The future St. Nicholas church, its builders say, would not only offer pastoral care to a handful of Russian researchers on the Bellinshausen base on King George Island but would also stand as a memorial to the 47 Russians buried on the continent over decades of exploration. Moreover, the 12 meter-tall structure -- conceived as a mix of ancient Russian wooden architecture and modern construction technologies -- would welcome tourists visiting this relatively mild area of Antarctica.

Some 180 years after Fabian Gottlieb von Bellinshausen led the first Russian naval expedition to the Antarctic area, and 45 years after the Soviet Union established its first station on the continent, the Russian government faced a dilemma last September: It either had to abandon the continent entirely or increase funding for new expeditions and the four stations remaining after two were closed in the 1990s.

Since a complete evacuation would cost about $120 million, officials said, the Cabinet preferred to allocate $10 million in the 2002 budget to Antarctica -- half to repair a research ship and half to invest in the stations.

To raise Russia's profile in Antarctica, State Duma Deputy Speaker Artur Chilingarov -- himself a former polar researcher -- undertook an expedition last month to plant the Russian flag on the South Pole. The venture, however, ended in embarrassment when, despite a congratulatory telephone call from President Vladimir Putin, Chilingarov's plane got stuck on the South Pole and his group had to be evacuated by a U.S. aircraft.

Just 10 days later, another Russian expedition journeyed to Antarctica, this time to bless the site of the planned church and erect a wooden cross. The group included the continent's would-be first Orthodox priest, Hegumen Georgy Ilyin; two of the small church's patrons, businessmen Pyotr Zadirov and Alexander Kravtsov; and its architect, Pyotr Anisiforov.

"A great deed has been done," Zadirov said in an interview last week at his modest Moscow office decorated with Orthodox icons. "In my view, the entire continent was blessed. We put soil from Jerusalem and poured water from the Jordan River in the foundation of the cross."

For Zadirov, a soft-spoken man whose first profession was testing parachute systems -- "a profession that strengthens one's faith," he says -- the history of the Antarctic church dates back to the early 1980s. At the time, Soviet polar researchers called on him to drop food and fuel on ice floes in the Arctic Ocean when researchers at drifting stations were cut off from vital supplies. In 1989, Chilingarov, who headed the Arctic and Antarctic Institute, convinced Zadirov to create a specialized air company for emergency polar deliveries. Since then, Zadirov's Antex-Polus has grown into a holding company that operates several aircraft and has branched out into fields as diverse as kerosene trading and real estate.

Zadirov was approached with the idea of sponsoring an Antarctic church by Valery Lukin, head of the Russian Antarctic Expedition, after Lukin learned that Zadirov had spent three years building a church in his native village in the southern Urals to replace one destroyed in 1928.

Lukin said no budget money would be used to construct the church.

"We are not pursuing any political goals there, only ideological ones," Lukin said in a telephone interview from St. Petersburg. "The Orthodox Church will be present in Antarctica ... and we will have the opportunity to fully, religiously commemorate our people who died there."

With Patriarch Alexy II's blessing, Zadirov set up a special foundation in July 2000 and was joined by another businessman, Kravtsov, to share the project costs.

For MT

A model of the wooden Orthodox church to be built in Antarctica by spring 2003.

"I simply decided that not everybody should be building luxury homes -- someone should build something else," Zadirov said, explaining his motivation for sponsoring the church. "When during every liturgy, the prayer is said 'for the founders, benefactors and beautifiers of this holy church,' it is of great importance to you."

The sponsors hope the church will also be of great importance to the handful of Russians isolated in the Antarctic.

"When one researcher's wife was killed in an accident in St. Petersburg, or another man's wife abandoned him -- what could they do? Only go get a liter of vodka and drink," Zadirov said. "Now we are at least offering an alternative -- go drink vodka or go weep at the church. The Communists did not offer us such an alternative."

While Soviet polar bases made do with "red corners" for party meetings, other nations built chapels at their Antarctic stations, with the Chapel of the Snows at the U.S. McMurdo Station believed to be the world's southernmost building constructed for religious purposes.

During last month's visit, the Russian Orthodox delegation visited a Chilean chapel made of trailers topped with a makeshift cross. "That's not what the Russian heart yearns for," said architect Anisiforov.

When five sketches were presented to the patriarch last year, he signed off on the design submitted by Anisiforov, who was also the architect of the Urals church funded by Zadirov. Anisiforov said his design for the polar church combines two types of traditional Russian wooden architecture: fortresses and churches.

"It is, so to speak, a lighthouse and an outpost of Russia that must simultaneously comply with all the requirements of Orthodox canons for church buildings ... and withstand Antarctica's harsh climate," he said in a telephone interview from Barnaul. "This is a very complicated task."

The church was placed on a hill above Bellinshausen on King George Island -- which is off the tip of Graham Land and the closest island to Cape Horn (about 1,000 kilometers away) -- because the area has a relatively mild climate and is most frequently visited by tourists. The hope is that tourists' purchases of candles and small donations will help maintain the church at a place where only 10 Russians stay through the Arctic winter and 15 more join them during the summer. Lukin said a total of 90 scientists populate the four Russian stations permanently and up to 80 more join during annual summer expeditions in December.

From last month's trip, Anisiforov brought samples of the soil that are now undergoing tests to determine the right structural design for the church to stand on Antarctica's mix of stone and ice. Siberian cedar and larch were picked as the most durable material: They can stand for hundreds of years in Antarctica's bacteria-free environment, where metal rusts easily due to the high alkaline levels and concrete is soon eroded by wind. But to withstand the terrible gusts reaching 50 meters per second, the log structure has to be braced by internal steel cables akin to those in the Ostankino television tower in Moscow. Special rust-resistant screws are to be used to keep the roofing shingles in place.

Zadirov said that $10,000 out of the planned $60,000 construction budget has already been spent on the lumber, which has to be cut in the wintertime. From March to June next year, the church is to be built in the Altai region. After the wood yields during the Siberian summertime, the church will be disassembled in November and shipped in containers, first by railroad from Barnaul to St. Petersburg, and then, in December, by ship to Antarctica. If all goes as planned, by March next year, the small St. Nicholas church will stand on the hill above Bellinshausen.