Lost Orthodox Churches of Imperial Russia

PHOTO: On 5 December 1931, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow was dynamited and reduced to rubble

Unlike many of his predecessors, Emperor Nicholas was devoted to the Russian Orthodox Church. It was upon his ascension to the throne in 1894, that his devotion to the Holy Orthodox Church showed his greatest strength. It was during the reign of Russia’s last Tsar – 1894 to 1917 – that the Russian Orthodox Church reached her fullest development and power.

In 1914, the Russian Orthodox Church consisted of 68 dioceses, 54,923 churches, 953 monasteries, 4 theological academies, 185 religious schools, 40,530 schools and 278 periodicals. The clergy consisted of 157 bishops, 68,928 priests, 48 ​​987 clerics, 21,330 monks in monasteries and 73,229 nuns in convents.

The construction of new churches had the full support of the Emperor, who approved funding for the construction of over 7576 new churches and chapels, and the opening of 211 new monasteries. By the end of Nicholas II’s reign there were 57,000 churches in the Russian Empire.

PHOTO: the desecration and looting of Russian Orthodox Churches by Bolshevik thugs and criminals after the 1917 Revolution

Lost Orthodox Churches of Imperial Russia

The Decree on the Separation of Church and State was proclaimed by the Bolsheviks in January 1918. It declared all Church property to be the property of the state. Sanctioned by this licence, Bolshevik squads went round the country desecrating and looting churches and monasteries, mocking religion and religious people unmercifully, even murdering priests, monks, nuns and believers by the thousands.

During the Soviet years, three Anti-religious campaigns were carried out by the Bolsheviks and later the Soviets: 1917–1921; 1921–1928 and 1928-1941, which resulted in the destruction of thousands of cathedrals and churches. Many others were converted to secular use, whereby church buildings were transformed into warehouses, state institutions, cinemas, ice rinks and prisons

Between 1927 and 1940, the number of Orthodox churches in the Russian Republic fell from 29,584 to fewer than 500. In 1987, only 6,893 Orthodox churches and 15 monasteries remained in the USSR.

In this post, I have researched the fate of five randomly picked cathedrals and churches which were destroyed during the Soviet years. It is part of an important large-scale historic project which I have planned for 2023-24 and one, which goes hand-in-hand with my own personal journey to Orthodoxy.

No. 1 – Church of the Transfiguration of the Lord (Bezhitsa)

PHOTO: early 20th century view of the Church of the Transfiguration of the Lord

The Church of the Transfiguration of the Lord was built in 1880-1884 in Bezhitsa (now the region of Bryansk), according to the project of the Russian architect Alexander Groener. Construction was paid for by the workers of the Bryansk rail-rolling, iron-making and mechanical plant.

The church was five-domed and cruciform in plan. Its frame had been welded from iron rails and sheathed inside and outside with oak planks. The central part was crowned with a massive illuminated octagon under a tent with a dome. The interior decoration was distinguished by its magnificent splendour.

PHOTO: interior of the Church of the Transfiguration of the Lord in Bezhitsa, 1895.

In 1894, a parish school was built. In 1897 and 1909, two chapels were added.

On 20th April (old style) 1915, the church was visited by Emperor Nicholas II.

In 1929, the church was closed by the Bolsheviks and converted into a circus and later a cinema. In 1933-1935 it was destroyed.

In 1937, the former rector of the church, priest Athanasius Preobrazhensky and priest Simeon Krasovsky, were shot by the Bolsheviks. The former site of the Church of the Transfiguration of the Lord is now a wasteland. Only the building of the almshouse has been partially preserved to this day.

No. 2 – Church of Praise of the Most Holy Theotokos (Moscow)

PHOTO: the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour (left), the Church of Praise of the Most Holy Theotokos (right) and a monument to Emperor Alexander III (also left). Moscow, 1912.

The magnificent monument to Emperor Alexander III was created by the outstanding Russian sculptor Alexander Mikhailovich Opekushin (1838-1923) and opened in 1912 near the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow.

Opekushin’s creation was to become one of the first victims of Bolshevik vandalism. The monument to the “Tsar-Peacemaker” was destroyed in 1918.

The fate of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow is well known. When Napoleon Bonaparte retreated from Moscow in 1812, Emperor Alexander I signed a manifesto declaring his intention to build a cathedral in honour of Christ the Saviour “to signify Our gratitude to Divine Providence for saving Russia from the doom that overshadowed Her” and as a memorial to the sacrifices of the Russian people. It was destroyed in 1931 on the order of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.

PHOTO: early 20th century view of the Church of Praise of the Most Holy Theotokos

The Church of Praise of the Most Holy Theotokos is lesser known. Originally constructed in the 15th century, it was rebuilt several times. In 1705, the Russian nobleman Dementiy Bashmakov rebuilt a stone church at his own expense. The church was rebuilt with the same external and internal appearance: high, five-domed cupolas, a baroque decor and a rare six-tier iconostasis. The church featured a miraculous icon of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, to which many pilgrims came to venerate.

The Church of Praise of the Most Holy Theotokos existed until 1932, when it to was demolished.

The demolition of both houses of worship was supposed to make way for a colossal Palace of the Soviets to house the country’s legislature, the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. Construction started in 1937 but was halted in 1941 when Germany invaded the Soviet Union during World War II. Its steel frame was disassembled the following year, and the Palace was never built. In 1960, an enormous outdoor swimming pool was built at the foundation site, which existed until 1994.

Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was rebuilt on the site between 1995 and 2000. There are no plans to reconstruct either the Church of Praise of the Most Holy Theotokos or the monument to Emperor Alexander III.

No. 3 – Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (Vyatka)

PHOTO: the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Vyatka

The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Vyatka [renamed Kirov in 1934], was founded on 30th August 1839 in memory of the visit to the city by Emperor Alexander I (1777-1825) in 1824.

The construction of the cathedral was funded by voluntary donations in the amount of 120 thousand rubles, collected over 40 years. Work was carried out by the Russian architect of Swedish origin Alexander Lavrentievich Vitberg (1787-1855).

Completed and consecrated on 8th October 1864, the cathedral combined features of different styles: Romanesque of the Middle Ages, elements of Gothic, and the interior in the Old Russian and late Empire styles.

PHOTO: the main iconostasis of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Vyatka

The construction of the main iconostasis was completed in 1858, the carving in 1859. The committee contracted Academician Gorbunov and artist Vasilyev from St. Petersburg to make the icons for the main iconostasis. The icons were brought to Vyatka in 1863, and the following year, in 1864, the main iconostasis was gilded.

In 1895, a large public garden was built around the cathedral, surrounded by a cast-iron lattice fence. Four gates to the cardinal points were named after four Russian emperors – Nicholas I, Alexander II, Alexander III and Nicholas II. In 1896, a bronze bust of Emperor Alexander III (1845-1894), cast in St. Petersburg, and mounted on a tall marble pedestal was installed in the northern part of the garden. In 1905, electric lighting was installed in the cathedral.

In June 1937, at the insistence of the Presidium of the City Council and the Regional Executive Committee, and permission of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee, the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral was removed from the list of architecture protected by the state and was blown up.

For thirty years the square of the cathedral sat empty, and it was only in the 1960s, that the Kirov Regional Philharmonic was constructed on the site of the once magnificent Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.

PHOTO: the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Warsaw

No. 4 – Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (Warsaw)

The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Warsaw was built on Saxon Square (later renamed Pilsudski Square) in the Kingdom of Poland (then part of the Russian Empire). The cathedral, designed by the distinguished Russian architect Leon Benois (1856-1928), was built between 1894 and 1912. Upon completion, the bell tower of the cathedral reached a height of 70 m [230 ft.], making it the tallest building in Warsaw at the time.

The idea of building a large Orthodox cathedral in Warsaw was expressed in a letter from the Governor General of Poland, Joseph Vladimirovich Gourko, to Emperor Alexander III (1845-1894). He indicated that the Orthodox churches in Warsaw at that time were able to accommodate less than one tenth of the city’s 42,000 Orthodox residents, who urgently needed a new place of worship.

Alexander III gave his approval to fund the cathedral, a significant part of the funds needed were raised by personal donations from almost every corner of the Russian Empire.

PHOTO: aerial view of Saxon Square in Warsaw and the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

Work on the interior of the cathedral, designed by Nikolay Pokrovsky (1848-1917), continued for another 12 years. The frescoes were painted by Viktor Vasnetsov (1848-1926). The cathedral was decorated with 16 mosaic panels designed by Vasnetsov and Andrei Ryabushkin (1861-1904). The decorations of the cathedral used precious and semi-precious stones extensively, marble, and granite. The altar was decorated with jasper columns, donated by Emperor Nicholas II. The largest of the 14 bells was the fifth-largest in the Russian Empire.

The main chapel of the cathedral was solemnly consecrated on 20th May 1912, by the Metropolitan of Kiev and Galich Flavian (Gorodetsky) in the name of St. Prince Alexander Nevsky.

At the beginning of 1915, during the First World War, the Russian population was evacuated from the city along with the Orthodox clergy. The iconostasis and the most valuable details of the interior decoration were removed from the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.

PHOTO: view of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral after its demolition in the 1920s

The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral was demolished in 1924–1926 – along with all but two Orthodox churches in Warsaw – by the Polish authorities less than 15 years after its construction. The demolition itself was complex, and required almost 15,000 controlled explosions.

The negative connotations in Poland associated with Russian imperial policy towards Poland, was cited as the major motive for its demolition. The cathedral shared the fate of many Orthodox churches demolished after Poland regained its independence from Russia.

No. 5 – Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (Moscow)

PHOTO: architect’s drawing of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, 1904

The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Moscow was the largest of a series of cathedrals erected in Imperial Russia in commemoration of Alexander Nevsky, the patron saint of Emperors Alexander II and Alexander III.

The creation of the project was entrusted to the architect Alexander Nikonorovich Pomerantsev (1849-1918), who executed it in the Old Russian style according to the sketches of the artist Viktor Mikhailovich Vasnetsov (1848-1926), as a 70-metre-tall memorial to Alexander II’s Emancipation reform [the liberation of peasants from serfdom] in 1861.

In 1894, Emperor Nicholas II approved a plan to place the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral on Miusskaya Square on a site donated to him by the city authorities. The foundation stone of the votive church was laid in 1911, on the 50th anniversary of the Emancipation Manifesto, in the presence of Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna. Construction did not start until 1913, and the First World War impeded further progress.

The first chapel was dedicated to St. Tikhon of Voronezh in 1915, Divine Liturgies were performed here until 1920.

PHOTO: the abandoned Alexander Nevsky Cathedral as it looked in 1921

After the Russian Revolution, the huge 17-domed church [one unconfirmed source cites 21 domes] capable of accommodating more than 4,000 persons stood unfinished, while the Soviets debated whether to have it reconstructed into a crematorium or a radio centre. The building were used as a warehouse for storing the rolled up 115-meter canvas of the Borodino Panorama and parts of the dismantled Triumphal Arch.

The cathedral stood abandoned on Miusskaya Square for many years. The dilapidated concrete shell was eventually torn down in 1952. A Pioneers Palace was constructed – now the Palace of Creativity of Children and Youth – on the old foundation in 1960.

© Paul Gilbert. 26 January 2023