Eighty years ago, on 5 December 1931 at noon Russia’s largest church, the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow was blown up.
The moment of the explosion and the ruins left by it. Photos by Ilya Ilf – about which we have already written –, taken from the window of his own apartment
A recently found archival film on the looting and explosion of the church. The background music is Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Ouverture, which premiered in the cathedral in 1882
This history reaches back to one less than a hundred and twenty years. On Christmas of 1812, “when the last enemy soldier had left the border of Russia”, Tsar Alexander I made a vow to build a cathedral in gratitude to the Saviour.
The tender for the cathedral was won by a young architect patronized by the Tsar, Alexandr Lavrentyevich Vitberg, with a boldly new Neo-Classical plan, filled with Masonic elements in conformity with the expectations of the Tsar’s inner circles. An article in the 2004/5-6 issue of Москва и Москвичи sheds some light on the project. The church was designed for the Sparrow Hill, from where a hundred years later, in The Master and Margarita Satan and his train watch the city. Had it been realized, it would have probably given a different direction to the city’s development. But it was not realized. After ten vexed years the construction went bankrupt.
The idea of the cathedral came up again fifteen years later, under Nicholas I who, unlike his elder brother, was strictly Orthodox. His favorite architect, Konstantin Thon prepared the new plans in the spirit of the then unfolding Russian historicism (“Russian Revival”), modeling the cathedral on the Hagia Sophia.
The site also changed. After a long search it was designated much nearer to the center, in the riverside Chertole district just outside the historical walls. However, the place was not empty. Here had developed and increased with ever new buildings the Alexeevsky women’s monastery, which had a special relationship with the Romanov dynasty. In its church, consecrated in 1634, was baptized the crown prince on the name of the monastery’s patron Alexios/Alex, and the successive Romanovs expressed with several donations their respect for the monastery. Understandably, it seemed astonishing that precisely a Romanov ruler wanted to destroy it, and the legend arose that the abbess predicted: no building will have a long life on the site of the destroyed monastery. However far-fetched the legend, it was even cited as late as in the 1980s by the opponents of the rebuilding of the cathedral.
The Transfiguration church in the Alexeevsky monastery. Painting by K. Rabus, 1838, immediately before the demolition of the church
Relationship of the buildings of the Alexeevsky monastery with the Christ the Savior Cathedral built on their place from D. Ivanov’s Тайна древнего Чертолья (Secret of the old Chertole, 1980). Below, relationship of the former monastery church to the later cathedral from the good summary by Y. V. Tarabanina on the monastery and its pictures
The construction began with a great impetus and continued incessantly for almost forty years. Its committee was appointed in 1837, the foundation stone was laid on 10 September 1839. The scaffolding was pulled down in 1860. By 1881 the facade towards the river was also completed. In 1882 Tchaikovsky’s ouverture 1812 premiered here. The cathedral was consecrated on 26 May 1883 by Metropolitan Yoannik in the presence of Tsar Alexander III and his family.
Construction of the cathedral. Photo by Roger Fenton, 1852: this is one of the earliest photographs on Moscow
The cathedral under building in 1856. This photo still shows the 17th-century Big Stone Bridge (of All Saints), demolished in the next year
1861-62: the scaffolding was dismantled, but the internal works continued for almost a quarter of a century more
The cathedral and (below) its altar in 1931, shortly before its demolition. From the earlier published Moscow photos by Branson DeCou
Aerial view of the cathedral’s square in 1930. To the right, the base of the already dismantled memorial of Alexander III
Alexander III who had the church consecrated, died in 1894, and his statue erected in 1912 from public donations stood on the church square. Not for long. In 1918 it was cut in pieces on Lenin’s personal orders together with all the ruler’s statues in Moscow.
Repetition of the dismantling of the statue for the film Октябрь in 1927. Photo by Alexandr Tartakovsky, Советское Фото 1977/12
The cathedral was left thirteen more years. During this time, the idea of the building intended for its place, the Palace of Soviets gradually unfolded and became more and more monumental. This development process has been studied in detail, and a thought-provoking post of the history of ideas could be written on it.
Stalin opened in 1931 the design contest for the Palace of Soviets. 272 plans arrived, including 24 foreigners, and such names as Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius or Albert Kahn. The jury – also chaired by Stalin – chose three winners, Boris Iofan, Ivan Zholtovsky and a young British architect, Hector Hamilton. A common characteristic of all three was that they definitely turned away from the avant-garde architecture of the 20s, and represented that eclectic Neo-classical style whose mature version, called “Stalin Baroque”, became the dominant style from the 30s on. Stalin was therefore bitterly reproached by European avant-garde architects. Le Corbusier and Sigfried Giedion, leader of the CIAM declared that “this decision of the jury is an open attack against and a tragic betrayal of the spirit of the Revolution and of the Five-year plan.”
Stalin, who was not shaken by the bitter words, chose the plan by Boris Iofan, on which he recommended a number of changes.
The plan by Boris Iofan approved by Stalin in 1931. A monumental statue of Lenin replaced the originally planned statue of the proletarian
The content of the tender can be imagined from the project versions below:
The Palace of Soviets with its 425 meters was intended as the tallest building of Europe, and even now it would be higher by over 100 meters than the Federal Tower intended as the highest building in Russia when completed. Its proportions can be appreciated from the following designs:
The Christ the Savior Cathedral compared to the Spas na Boru church in the Kremlin (founded 1330, demolished in 1851) and to the Great Ivan bell tower (1508). Design by N. V. Dmitriev, 1851. Below: the relation of the Palace of the Soviets compared to the Christ the Savior Cathedral
The Christ the Savior cathedral was blown up after the approval of the plans. Only to clean up the debris required a year. The undamaged parts of its marble cladding were used to cover the walls of the nearby metro station, named after the Palace of the Soviets and renamed Kropotkinskaya only in 1957 when they abandoned the plan of the palace. Its benches were taken to the Novokuznetskaya metro station. The portions of the marble cover decorated with the names of the heroes of the Great Patriotic War of 1812 were used to pave the roads in Moscow’s parks.
Laying the foundations of the Palace of the Soviets. This photo was published on the Russian web just a few days ago
The foundations were laid by 1939, but the constructiion of the first level stopped at the outbreak of the war. Its iron structure was used in 1941-42 to protect the city, and its foundation was filled with groundwater. After the war they planned to take it up again, and Stalin in 1947 ordered the construction of the “high houses” or “the Seven Sisters” so that they focused to their “mother”, the Palace of the Soviets as their ideal center, and their silhouette was referenced to the skyline of the nonexistent building.
Location of the “Seven Sisters” and the (nonexistent) Palace of Soviets (number 5) from Высотные здания в Москве (Skyscrapers in Moscow, 1947)
The building, however, was never touched again. In 1958 the Soviet leadership finally officially resigned from it. Its remains were turned into the largest outdoor swimming pool in the city.
In 1990 the Soviet leadership gave permission to the rebuilding of the cathedral, solicited from the late 1980s. The new church was built over ten years, and it was consecrated on 19 August 2000, the feast of Transfiguration
This cathedral is of course not identical with the one demolished in 1931 any more. While maintaining the main lines, a large number of – often politically motivated – changes were introduced during these ten years. Their interpretation, however, just like the period between 1918 and 1931, requires a separate post.
Enlarging the map