Inside The $100 Million Russian Church Meant To Honor Putin, Stalin And War
Religion Unplugged •
(REVIEW) I rarely discuss contemporary ecclesiastical art. I am, after all, a Byzantinist, and find it much more interesting to think about Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia than contemporary architecture, which thus far hasn’t provided us with any stunning revelations.
But one can’t avoid noticing the development of the Resurrection of Christ church complex in Kubinka, Russia, conceived as the Armed Forces’ main church and planned to open on the 75th anniversary of the Victory in the Second World War on May 9. If I were to sum up my impressions of this project, I’d call it grandiose, symbolic, and a church about the triumph of deified power rather than about God.
Yes, evidently the church’s founders intended to create something that would capture the imagination. And I have to acknowledge that to a great extent they have succeeded. The church is the third highest in Russia, after [Moscow’s] Church of Christ the Savior and St. Isaac’s Cathedral in Petersburg. The enormous territory of 11,000 square meters, incorporating the so-called “Patriot Park.” The colossal internal space, able to hold around 6,000 people – practically a whole division in one go. Moreover, they say this is the most expensive ecclesiastical building project in Russia’s contemporary history: an encyclopedic article on Wikipedia talks about three billion [rubles] collected in donations, and much more than this amount from state funds (about $100 million USD). Clearly, grandiosity costs.
The church’s symbolism is also striking, beginning with the fact that a huge number of diverse and occasionally convoluted meanings are invested in it. In particular, the enormous cupola’s diameter measures 19 meters 45 centimeters, which symbolically references the victorious year of 1945. Other numerically symbolic themes are built into the church, such as the height of one of the small domes corresponding with the number of days of the “Great Patriotic War.” How an Orthodox Christian – or just someone popping in to have a look – might discern this secret symbolism if it is not explained by a guide, or if they do not read some special commentary, is entirely unclear. For me, this sort of secret numerical symbolism evokes far more pronounced historical associations with masonic symbolism than with the Byzantine, Orthodox tradition.
Iron steps molded from the melted down, captured weapons of a vanquished enemy are another detail that evokes amazement. This is strongly reminiscent of pagan practice – something from the cult of Mars, god of war. Byzantium had a different tradition: the relics of the saints were laid in the walls, the vaults, in the dome of a church, so that the very body of the church itself became a reliquary and an organic part of sacred space.
The very face of the church is also given a militarized appearance, underlined by the unusual choice of color – reminiscent of the color of armaments – for a Russian church. The church’s columns call to mind enormous shells or combat missiles. Only in what direction are these missiles to be fired? Into heaven? And overall, how appropriate is it for a church – even a church for the Armed Forces – to resemble a weapon of war? Yet another question without an answer.
The internal space has been ordered in interesting fashion too – I see here a conscious step away from Byzantium in the direction of an idiosyncratic modernism. This can be seen, for example, in the technique which fuses concrete and glass. This may be considered not just a stylistic but a technological innovation. What has been promoted in the place of Byzantium? A strange eclectic, a mixing of different architectural styles and traditions, like a child’s construction set from which individual elements are picked out and combined.
I won’t comment on the artistic quality of the mosaic panels, two of which have been the subject of hot debate on social media, since I am more disturbed by their overall meaning. For many Orthodox people it grates that an image of Stalin appeared on one of the panels depicting a victory parade on Red Square. The designers insist that they had nothing more in mind than historicity. But here another question arises in connection with historicism: in the given triumphant context this is about glorification – about the glorification in a church of a tyrant and mass murderer responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent people, including some 85,000 Orthodox clergy wiped out in the years of the Great Terror on orders which are still preserved in the archives. No one is suggesting that we eradicate the commander-in-chief from history but glorifying him in any form is simply unjustifiable. Interestingly, this was understood even in Ancient Rome, in which the “oblivion of memory” law prohibited any public depiction of criminal emperors, while historians wrote about their actions – including military victories – in detail. On April 30, the Russian media reported that Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, banned the church from featuring the images of Stalin and Putin, with Putin’s input.
It matters not that the mosaic panels are located in the narthex – this is nevertheless ecclesiastical space, and they – including the “Annexation of Crimea” amongst others – pointedly diverge from Byzantine stylistic traditions and, accordingly, from the medieval Russian understandings of the image. We see a turn towards well-known models of last century’s socialist realism art. And the first thing that comes to mind on looking at these triumphal scenes is the mosaics of the Moscow metro, those most popular and famous models of Stalinist “grand style.” Thus, from the point of view of style, we have an unexpected return to Soviet art, to the artistic models of socialist realism. It is curious that the designers chose that style, specifically, to depict the jubilation of the people. That portraits of the country’s leaders make an appearance is also absolutely in the spirit of that style. The president’s principled announcement is important here – he has said that he considers the appearance of his portrait in the center of this row to be untimely. And one can only agree with that.
My main objection is that the end result of all this is not an Orthodox church. It is a church which speaks not of God, but of the triumph of sacralized power, and– since Stalin’s authority was far from Christian– of power that does not in the least need to be Christian.
From the point of view of both social psychology and cultural studies, this is a very interesting phenomenon. Where is the real, main theme of Orthodoxy and the Christian faith? With the repentant “Lord, have mercy” and the vital, resounding, “Trampling down death by death” of the Easter troparion, evoking an image of suffering and death as the indispensable condition of triumph? It has been shorn away entirely. In the Christian iconographic tradition this dramatic combination and simultaneous presence of tragedy and triumph has always played a very important role. We all know the tragedy that transforms into triumph by living through Passion Week, which ends with the Bright Resurrection of Christ.
This Christian content, in my opinion, has vital significance in the celebration of Victory Day too, in a context where the majority of Soviet soldiers were unbelievers. The war is the greatest tragedy in the history of Russia, wiping out tens of millions of lives, not a pageant in the “may be repeated” genre but a lamentation for victims in a historic victory of Good over Evil.
In the military church the Christian meanings of Victory take second place – the idea of triumph and the unity of power and people dominate. One may debate such an approach, but what has this to do with Orthodoxy? This is about a different system of values. Yes, these values may be given a sort of Orthodox veneer, they may be styled as if in the spirit of Orthodoxy, adding a few common Christian symbols, but they can’t be made Orthodox by doing so. And people entering this church will not be praying to the suffering God, but to victorious power, a sort of ‘heavenly generalissimo’. And from the perspective of social psychology it is interesting that many people are quite comfortable with this sort of understanding of Christianity, with the love of God soothingly transformed into the veneration of power.
It seems to me that the church we’re talking about aspires to become a monument of the era and a bright reflection of contemporary Russian religious consciousness, as the most vivid manifestation of the deepest spiritual crisis but nowhere near a manifestation of triumph. And there is something paradoxical in this. I think this ambiguity and incongruity has been felt by many Orthodox people and this is precisely why the military church has evoked such an explosive reaction, and occasionally also deep antagonism, despite the unprecedented promotion of the project via state mass media. And it seems to me, too, that this will live on as a memorial of sorts to the era. But in my opinion, the proposed path is — undoubtedly — a ruinous dead end and should certainly not become an example for imitation.
This article has been updated to reflect that the head of the Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill demanded that the images of Stalin and Putin be removed from the church.
Alexei Lidov is an art historian and specialist in Byzantine iconography, Christian sacred images and theory of art. He’s the founder and director of the Research Centre for Eastern Christian Culture in Moscow (since 1991), the head of the Department at the Institute for World Culture of Lomonosov Moscow State University, and a Full Member of the Russian Academy of Arts as well as a Member and Fellow of St. Catherine’s College at Oxford University.