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The cathedrals of St. Petersburg are among the most magnificent buildings in that amazing and beautiful city. Not so surprising? In this case, maybe it is. But to understand my point, you need a little Russian history.
St. Petersburg was founded by Peter the Great in 1703, so it is not an ancient city like some in Europe. It’s only four hundred years old. The Tsar hired European architects to design the city to be as European as possible, so it resembles just that, but with a definite unique Russian flare. That, in itself, isn’t so remarkable.
What I find remarkable is that the Russian churches and cathedrals survived at all. According to what I learned while traveling in Russia, and confirmed through research, after the October Revolution of 1917, thousands of churches and monasteries were confiscated by the government and either destroyed completely or converted to secular use.
But still, religion survived.
During the 1920s and 1930s, nearly all the clergy and many of the believers of the Russian Orthodox Church, were shot or sent to labor camps. During this period, many of the churches were looted and left in shambles or converted to government use. Many of the wonderful artifacts and artwork was lost. In spite of new political and social freedoms under Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s, which resulted in many church buildings being returned to local parishioners, religious persecution continued until the fall of the Soviet Union.
It is, in my opinion, remarkable that the churches have survived long enough to be restored and some returned to religious purposes and some of their former glory.
A few of the many examples follow. The Church On Spilled Blood is my favorite, and figures prominently in the title of my new romantic suspense release, All For Spilled Blood, so let’s start our tour there.
Church of the Savior On Spilled Blood
This Russian Revival-style church is known as Resurrection of Christ Church and The Church of Our Savior On The Spilled Blood, but it is generally called The Church On Spilled Blood. Everyone questions the word “on” in the name, but there’s a reason. It marks the exact spot where, in 1881, Emperor Alexander II was fatally wounded in an assassination attempt by a group of revolutionaries who threw a bomb in his royal carriage. Alexander II died of the wounds, and his heir and younger brother, Alexander III, insisted on building the church on the exact spot of the assassination.
After the Revolution, this church was looted and closed for services in the late 1920s. It served briefly as the venue for an exhibition of revolutionary propaganda and gradually fell into decay.
After World War II, it was used as a warehouse for an opera theater. In 1970, it became a branch of the St. Isaac's Cathedral museum and restoration began. It was reopened in 1997 as a museum and for weekly requiems and sermon readings.Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul (1712-1733)
Designed in the Baroque style, this was the first wooden church to be erected at SS Peter and Paul Fort on Valsilyevsky Island. It is the burial site for nearly all the rulers of Russia since Peter the Great through Alexander III.
As the tallest structure in St. Petersburg, the bell tower was often stuck by lightning and burned down in 1756. The bells were destroyed, but the iconostasis was removed in the nick of time. In 1766, Catherine the Great ordered the bell tower rebuilt exactly as it had been.Smolny Cathedral (1748-1761)
This cathedral was part of a complex planned by Empress Elizabeth to include a nunnery and a school for girls. The cathedral was completed, but when Elizabeth died, the work on the monastery came to a halt. By the early 1830s, much of the cathedral had fallen into disrepair until it was restored in 1832 by Nicholas I.
After the revolution, the cathedral suffered a similar fate to most of the churches in St. Petersburg. In 1922, its valuables were looted, and a year later the cathedral was closed. It stood in decay until 1972, when the iconostasis was taken out and the building was converted first to a museum and then to a concert hall, which is still one of its primary functions today.St. Issac’s Cathedral (1818-1858)
St. Isaac's Cathedral was at one time the largest cathedral in Russia. Today, the rebuilt Church of Christ the Savior in Moscow exceeds its size, but St. Issac’s gilded dome of still dominates the skyline of St. Petersburg and it boasts much more impressive façades and interiors than its competition.
The church was closed in the early 1930s and reopened as a museum. Although the building was designed to accommodate 14,000 standing worshipers, today church services are held here only on major ecclesiastical occasions.Karzan Cathedral (1801-1811)
Inspired by the Basilica of St. Peter’s in Rome, this cathedral was intended to be the country’s main Orthodox Church. Instead, it became a monument to Russia’s victory against Napoleon in 1812.
Cathedral at SS Apostles Peter and Paul at Peterhof
This cathedral is part of Peterhof, the luxurious imperial palace and gardens built by Peter the Great. Everything about the palaces and gardens is so overwhelming that there is little information on this cathedral.
Church of the Birth of St. John the Baptist / Chesme Church
This is another of my favorites because the fairytale Gothic design makes it exceptionally unusual and delightful. And it’s off the beaten tourist path between St. Petersburg and the Summer Palace at Tsarskoe Selo, although now it is within the St. Petersburg city limits.
After the revolution, the complex was turned into a forced labor camp by the Soviet government and the cross on the central turret was replaced with a hammer, tongs and anvil. Before the Second World War, the complex was given to the Institute of Aviation Technology, which still occupies the palace.
In the 1970s, the church became a Museum of the Battle of Chesme, and was eventually returned to the Orthodox Church in 1990. It is now an extremely popular, with regular services and numerous visitors who come to pay their respects to the war dead.They’re Still Awesome
In spite of everything, these churches are still magnificent. Regardless of religion, their artistic beauty is appreciated worldwide.