In Moscow, a grand cathedral may rise again

The $300-million reconstruction of a church commemorating Russia's victory over Napoleon is seen as both a spiritual and political venture

AS Alexei Pankratov, a young off-duty soldier, waited for a friend the other evening at the Novokuznetskaya subway station, he shifted uncomfortably on the imposing marble bench where he was sitting.

The ornately sculpted seat, he complained, was ``too big and clumsy'' for a subway station. ``It would fit better in a cathedral.''

He never spoke a truer word. For the 22 high-backed marble stalls that grace one of Moscow's busiest subway stations, each intricately carved with scrolls of oak and vine leaves, were indeed first made for a cathedral: the Russian Orthodox Christ the Savior Cathedral to be exact. Christ the Savior was once the city's grandest church before Stalin blew it up in his campaign to rid the Soviet Union of religion.

And if Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov and Orthodox Patriarch Alexei II have their way, those benches will soon be back in an exact replica of that cathedral, due to be built on the spot where it originally stood.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin earlier this month gave his blessing to a grandiose scheme to rebuild, stone for stone, the cathedral built to commemorate Russia's victory over Napoleon, consecrated only 70 years later in 1882.

``Russia today needs the Christ the Savior Cathedral,'' he wrote in an open letter to the public committee overseeing the project. ``This is a Russian national shrine, and it has to be resurrected.''

The reconstruction project has taken on strong Russian nationalist overtones, symbolic of Russia's revival, and Mr. Yeltsin's show of support for the idea is clearly politically motivated.

Millions of Russians, cast into poverty by Yeltsin's free-market economic reforms, have been lured by right-wing nationalist politicians' promises to salve their wounded pride. Since radical nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky won nearly a quarter of the vote in last year's parliamentary elections, Yeltsin has been seeking to placate nationalist sentiment.

The massive project, expected to cost more than $300 million, is not without its critics, however, including Mr. Pankratov as he waited for his friend.

``This is not the right time for our country to do this,'' he argued. ``We should pay more attention to our economic situation, and anyway, we have a lot of cathedrals.''

Others question the aesthetic wisdom of simply copying an old church that was hardly an architectural gem in the first place.

But for the project's organizers, the rebuilding of the cathedral is more of a political and spiritual venture than a cultural one.

``We want the fact of reconstruction ... to be symbolic of Russia's recreation, the start of a movement of renewal,'' says Andrei Shanovsky, chief of staff to Moscow's highly nationalist Mayor Luzhkov.

``We want our society to get together, to be reborn as a great nation,'' he adds. ``The whole idea of rebuilding the church is very uniting.''

The site of the planned cathedral, just up the river from the Kremlin, has had a checkered history since an 18th-century nunnery was knocked down to make way for the original Christ the Savior.

The cathedral, a heavy square building faced with cream marble and topped with golden onion domes, stood for only 50 years before Stalin had it stripped of its ornaments and blown up to make way for the ``Palace of Soviets.''

This was intended as a stupendous pile, higher than New York's Empire State Building and topped with a 270-foot statue of Lenin, to trumpet Soviet superiority. But only the first 90 feet were built before World War II broke out, when everything was dismantled and put to the war effort.

After the Nazis had been turned back and the war won, Stalin dropped the idea of an edifice glorifying Lenin, and the building was never restarted. The site lay unused until 1961, when the city council built a massive outdoor swimming pool, heated and open throughout the coldest winters, that became a Moscow landmark.

Now, using the foundations dug for the Palace of Soviets, a public committee chaired by Patriarch Alexei II plans to replicate the original cathedral in time to mark the 850th anniversary of Moscow's founding in 1997. The finishing touches, officials hope, will be ready by 2000, to celebrate two millennia of Christianity.

Those targets are unrealistic, the project's chief designer Boris Mogilnikov says. ``Such a serious construction as a cathedral should not be carried out like a factory, just to report successful completion by a set date,'' he argues. ``This is a holy place, and it should be built without any hurry.''

Brushing aside such criticisms and suggestions that $300 million might be better spent elsewhere at a time when millions of Russians find it hard to make ends meet, the cathedral's sponsors have launched an appeal for public donations.

``For many of us, life is difficult, but the time of social troubles is the time for heroic deeds,'' the committee urged in an open letter to Russians recently. ``Let us carry out this heroic deed.''

Most of the money, however, is expected to come from the Russian government. ``The state destroyed the cathedral. The state should help pay for its reconstruction,'' Mr. Mogilnikov says.

And the organizers' plea to Yeltsin that the federal government put up 85 percent of the cost has not fallen on deaf ears. ``I am confident that the Russian government and regional authorities at all levels will relate to this as one of the most important state tasks,'' Yeltsin told them in his letter.

As they look for money to build the new cathedral, sponsors are also looking for bits of the old one, starting with the architectural plans. From archives in Moscow and St. Petersburg, chart by chart, planners have redrawn the original designs.

And although most of the ornamentation is unlikely ever to be retrieved, bits and pieces are turning up, according to Mogilnikov. A set of icons that decorated the main altar - once given as a gift to Eleanor Roosevelt by Stalin's henchman Anastas Mikoyan - are now kept in an Italian monastery, and Pope John Paul II has promised to give them back.

The marble benches, of course, are at Novokuznetskaya station; some columns, faced with malachite, are in the Moscow mineralogical museum. A chandelier has been found hanging in a Moscow borough council office.

The impossibility of ever completely recreating the cathedral's sumptious interior decor, though, has raised questions about the value of building a replica cathedral.

Mogilnikov says that competitions for a new design ``yielded no valuable ideas.... After 70 years [of Communist rule] architects have lost the ability to design churches, so we went back to the 19th-century plan.''

Art historian Alexei Rastorguyev, finds that ``idiotic.''

``It's as if tradition were much more important than we are,'' he laments. ``We are devoting ourselves to the past, like Old Believers,'' religious groups that broke with the Orthodox Church in the 17th century.

At the same time, he points out, the plan to recreate the cathedral as a symbolic recreation of Russia's glorious past ``reflects quite well the current state of mind, both official and unofficial.

``They want to show that nothing was spoiled for ever by the Bolsheviks,'' Dr. Rastorguyev says. ``But they are wrong. We cannot return now to the past.''

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