Nicholas II attends consecration of Naval Cathedral in Kronstadt in 1913

PHOTO: Emperor Nicholas II speaking with an officer in front of the Naval Cathedral

One of the most iconic cathedrals constructed during the Tsarist era, one which has survived to the present day has to be the magnificent 20th-century Byzantine-style Naval Cathedral of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, situated on Anchor Square in Kronstadt, a town and naval base on Kotlin Island, just west of St. Petersburg.

Kronstadt has been a place of pilgrimage for Orthodox Christians for more than 100 years due to the memory of Saint John of Kronstadt (1829-1909), one of the most venerated Russian saints, served there as priest from 1855 to 1908.

The Naval Cathedral of Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker in Kronstadt is a Russian Orthodox cathedral built between 1903–1913 as the main church of the Russian Imperial Navy and dedicated to all fallen seamen.

PHOTO: Emperor Nicholas II attends the ceremony for the laying of the foundation stone for the Naval Cathedral of St. Nicholas the Wonderworkder, Kronstadt, 21st (O.S. 8th) 1903

Father John of Kronstadt, who was then justly regarded the major figure in the ecclesiastical guidance of the Russian Imperial Navy, prayed for many years: “Let the house of God be created for naval ranks in Kronstadt, not hurriedly but steadily and befitting the glorious fleet. Let the blessing of the Almighty spread from it on the entire naval force.” In 1898 he urged: “You must hurry to build the Church, in the same way as you hurry to build ships. The Church is also the ship led by God Himself with the Father and the Holy Spirit, and it can protect not only the Navy, but the entire army and Russia as a whole, too.”

PHOTOS: the Imperial Family arriving at the Naval Cathedral of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker for the consecration ceremony, 23rd (O.S. 10th) June 1913

If Father John of Kronstadt regarded the Naval Cathedral as an implemented prayer, for Emperor Nicholas II, who energetically supported the idea of building the memorial naval cathedral, it became his dearest creation. On 7th March 1897 the Tsar opened a subscription for the construction of a stone cathedral in Kronstadt and allotted for its building a large sum of money together with the Imperial family. Moreover, Nicholas II ordered to provide timber, cannon bronze and copper kept in the Kronstadt Port for the construction of the new cathedral. In the same year the Committee for Collecting Donations was established, on behalf of which its chairman, Vice-Admiral Nikolay Kaznakov, appealed for a feasible financial help “to all classes of Russian society”. Father John of Kronstadt, who actively participated in the creation of the church, supported him – he was a member of the Council of Trustees responsible for the construction of the cathedral and donated a large sum of money for this purpose. Father John addressed his compatriots with the following words: “Beloved brothers-sailors and all Orthodox Russians! Living in Kronstadt for forty-two years and seeing all this time how small, poor and ramshackle it is, I’ve felt deep concern about it and a desire of a vast, durable and splendid church, and now I’ve made a donation of 700 roubles for the construction of such a church. And you, too, show good will that is within your powers to provide help for its construction.” A large contribution to this common cause was made by major commanders of the Kronstadt Port – Admirals Nikolay Kaznakov, Stepan Makarov, Alexey Birilov and Konstantin Nikonov, Minister of the Navy Ivan Grigorovich, and Admiral Robert Viren. All the ranks of the Navy took a decision to remit 0.25 per cent of their salaries without indemnity for the construction of the cathedral. Ship crews donated to the future church their articles of worship and icons without compensation. In total Russian sailors collected 280,000 roubles.

PHOTOS: the Imperial Family leaving the Naval Cathedral following the consecration

All Russia made voluntary contributions for the construction of the cathedral, but it was largely funded by the state – the general cost of the building at the time of its consecration was 1,995,000 roubles, of which 1,675,000 roubles were provided by the government.

Yakornaya (Anchor) Square in the centre of Kronstadt, between the old (Peter’s) and the new Admiralty, was chosen as a site for the construction of the cathedral. For many years it served as a warehouse of anchors, hence its name. The area was so vast that it became possible to arrange a park behind the cathedral and create a square for religious processions near the building. Besides it was decided to locate the cathedral building so that there would remain enough space for military parades.

After several competitions on 3rd June (O.S. 21st May) 1901 the project of the cathedral building designed by Vasily Kosiakov, Professor of the Institute of Civil Engineers, was approved by the Tsar. In March 1902 the Committee for the Collection of Donations was transformed into the Construction Committee supervised by Vice-Admiral Stepan Makarov. On 14th (O.S. 1st) September 1902, Archpriest St John of Kronstadt held a prayer service for the beginning of the work on cleaning the territory and preparing the foundation. On 21st May (O.S. 8th May) 1903, in the presence of the Emperor, Empresses Alexandra Feodorovna and Maria Feodorovna, Grand Duke Mikhail, son of Alexander III, and Grand Dukes Alexey and Vladimir, sons of Alexander II, a ceremony of the foundation of the cathedral’s brick walls was held. After the end of the service a 31-gun salute was made from the fortress and from ships on the Kronstadt roadway. On the same day Nicholas II and members of his suite planted 32 one-year-old oak trees in the garden around the cathedral. In 1907, the building’s construction was complete, and work on the interiors began.

PHOTO: early 20th century view of the Naval cathedral of Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker in Kronstadt

On 23rd (O.S. 10th) June 1913, which marked the 300th anniversary of the Romanov dynasty, there was a great festive event in Kronstadt – the consecration of the naval cathedral. Father Georgy Shavelsky, the Proto-Presbyter of the military and naval clergy, consecrated the cathedral in the presence of Emperor Nicholas II and members of the Imperial family, thousands of Orthodox Christians and members of the naval ranks. The service was concelebrated by the mitred Archpriest Alexey Starovsky, Senior Priest of the Cathedral of St Spyridon of Trimithoundos at the Main Admiralty, and the entire Kronstadt clergy. Father John of Kronstadt, who had prophesied that “when the Cathedral will be roofed”, he would be dead, but that moment had already left this transitory life in December 1908.

The cathedral was closed in 1929, first converted to a cinema, then a House of Officers (1939) and a museum of the Navy (1980).

The Russian Orthodox Church attempted to repossess the cathedral in the 1990s, however, it took many years for the transfer to take place.

In 2002, the Russian Orthodox Church reinstalled the cross on the main dome and (for the first time since 1929) served the Divine Liturgy in the cathedral in 2005. In 2013, Patriarch Kirill of Russia, with Prime Minister Dmitriy Medvedev and his spouse attending, conducted the ceremony of grand reconsecration in the now fully restored cathedral.

© Paul Gilbert. 14 April 2022