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Religious Snapshots

April 4, 2009 at 12:38 pm
By Andy Shenk and Tigan Harrison

From its early days Moscow has had the reputation for being a city of churches.  Visiting foreigners commented that it was home to “forty times forty” cathedrals, monasteries, and other places of worship.  However the history surrounding these religious structures is a rich and descriptive illustration of Moscow’s development.  No two sites have the same story, and each provides an insight into the needs and ideology of Russia’s changing government.  Among these are included the Choral Synagogue, St. Basil’s Cathedral, and the Spaso-Andronikov Monastery.

The Choral Synagogue was built in the 1890s to serve the needs of Moscow’s Jewish community.  The synagogue originally had a dome, until the tsar mistook the synagogue and its dome for an Orthodox church and crossed himself while passing by.  Indignant to learn that the building was a synagogue, the tsar ordered the dome removed so that Orthodox believers would not make the same mistake. Soon after it was built, in 1891, Moscow’s Jews were expelled from the city and the synagogue became a charitable institution.  Jews were allowed to return in 1899, and the building functioned as a synagogue throughout the Soviet period. During the '70s and '80s were only allowed to emigrate if they could demonstrate Jewish heritage.  As a result, the synagogue, whose rabbi had authority to validate Jewish ethnicity, became a gathering place for Russians attempting to leave the country.  More recently, Moscow’s Mayor Yuri Luzhkov ordered that the synagogue’s dome finally be restored.  

Choral Synagogue 

 St. Basil's Cathedral, officially named Pokrovskii Sobor, was built by Ivan the Terrible to commemorate his victory over Mongol khans in Kazan in 1552. Located next to the Kremlin’s Spasskaya Tower, the cathedral consists of eight churches surrounding the main chapel, The Intercession of Our Lady. Legend has it that the architects were blinded after building the cathedral so that they wouldn't be able to duplicate its dazzling beauty. St. Basil’s received its popular name from the “holy fool” St. Basil who was buried underneath a previous church located on the site.  In 1588 an extra chapel was built to cover his grave.  St. Basil was famed for his ability to criticize Ivan the Terrible without suffering any consequences.  The cathedral dominates the approach to Red Square from the east, but in the 1930’s the Soviet government seriously considered destroying the church to make room for Stalin’s military parades. Pyotr Baranovsky, the great Soviet conservationist, however, is reputed to have saved the church by chaining himself to the front door and threatening to cut his throat if it was razed.  Today, thanks to Baranovsky’s heroic actions, St. Basil’s stands as perhaps the most prominent symbol of Russian culture. 

St. Basil's Cathedral 

 The Spaso-Andronikov Monastery is one of Moscow’s oldest structures.  Its founder established the monastery in the mid-14th century in fulfillment of a vow he made to God when in danger of drowning at sea. Spaso is from the Russian word “to save” and Andronikov was the name of the saint on whose day the vow was made. The monastery was built to function as a fortress, as well as a religious community, and thus is surrounded by a thick wall, with towers and narrow windows to defend against attack. The famous artist Andrei Rublev painted the frescoes in the church and was also buried on the grounds in 1430. During an excavation in the 1920's, Pyotr Baranovsky discovered Rublev's grave-marker and made a plaster copy, intending to return to the grave later.  But by the next morning workers had removed the marker and thrown it into a rock-crusher, much to Baranovsky’s dismay.  During the Soviet period the monastery served as a forced-labor camp, workers’ hostel, and museum of early Russian art. More notably, in the mid-20th century the monastery housed a firing range, where Carleton professor Anna Mikhailovna Dotlibova earned her Komsomol badge for marksmanship.

Spaso-Andronikov Monastery 

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