Facade of Glory
A Potemkin Cathedral for the New Russia
Moscow, 24 November 1996, THE WASHINGTON POST

For the connoisseur of kitsch, all is not lost in post-Soviet Moscow. While it may be hard to find large trinkets from Socialist Realism past -- those giant posters picturing the Soviet Union on the conveyor belt of abundance -- there are other grand examples of illusion masquerading as reality.

Consider the reconstruction of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, along the banks of the Moscow River not far from the Kremlin. The city's mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, has used the cathedral both at home and abroad as an emblem of Russia's revival. For President Boris N. Yeltsin, it "shows that Russia is alive, the Russian spirit is alive." At first glance the project is impressive.

The cathedral was constructed over a 44-year span in the last century, then razed on Stalin's orders in 1931. A replica is being built in a heroic three-year effort that began in 1994. The breakneck tempo of construction and the feeling of "movement" are perhaps as important as the object itself, appealing as they do to the sense of accomplishment that was at the original core of communist fervor and is still a part of people's identity. The notion of "Building the New Russia" taps into the same sources as "Building Communism" once did. If the cathedral's reconstruction looks like an achievement and makes people feel better, why play the spoiler? It is simply because the consequences are too sad to be ignored.

When the project got underway, there were some objections in the press and in cultural and political circles. But as the walls were raised, criticism seemed increasingly futile, and with the advent of parliamentary and presidential elections, public opposition became out of the question for politicians of all stripes, including Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist leader. (The politicians were being very careful not to offend the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Alexei II and with him millions of Russian believers.) The "gilding" of the cathedral domes, in time for Easter celebrations last April, seemed to settle the matter, demonstrating a widespread willingness to believe that all that glitters is gold.

Around the city billboards declare: "Cathedral of Christ the Savior -- Symbol of Russia's Renaissance." Ask passersby what the new/old cathedral represents for them, and you will get this same slogan, with minor variations on the core themes of national repentance, cultural heritage and spiritual rebirth.

This cannot be taken at face value.

First, national repentance. It is unclear who is supposed to repent and for whose sins, but the main backers of the cathedral do not appear to be overcome with excessive modesty. How could they, when the whole spirit of the enterprise and the architecture of this imposing five-dome building is clearly triumphant? Early promoters of reconstruction, members of national-patriotic groups which flourished with glasnost and the rediscovery of Russian -- as opposed to Soviet -- history, frequently stated their case in an openly chauvinistic and antisemitic discourse.

Second, cultural heritage. This area is a particularly sorry aspect of Moscow's current transformation. As the head of the State Institute of Art History, Alexei Komech, wrote with alarm this year in the architectural journal Arkhitektura i Stroitelstvo Moskvi, "The preservation or reconstruction of facades is seen as the greatest proof of respect for historical heritage," but "unfortunately one must notice that the destruction of Moscow is continuing at no slower a pace than in past years." But his is a rare brave voice still to be heard.

The pressures of commercialism and plain ignorance of the difference between restoration and reconstruction mean that old buildings are stripped to their bare facades, roofs are pierced with glass skylights and remade with Paris-style mansards and that traditional Russian courtyards are built over for maximum profitability, given the outrageous price of Moscow real estate. The Cathedral of Christ the Savior, with its marble-covered reinforced concrete structure, its projected fake-stone sculptured reliefs and its computer-outlined frescoes is the ultimate symbol of this Epcot-ization process, tragically erasing real historical understanding.

It is parading as "old" when, in fact, everything but the foundation is new. Worse, because all firms based in Moscow -- Russian and foreign -- have been asked to contribute in cash or in kind to finance this $ 300 million white elephant, many potential art patrons feel they have already paid their dues and leave smaller but infinitely more valuable historical buildings to their crumbling fate. Illusions, fast paint jobs and Potemkin walls will multiply in the months ahead as the capital prepares to celebrate its 850th anniversary next year.

Religious revival is the third area in which form triumphs over substance, ritual over faith. Only recently freed from 70 years of state hostility which nearly drove it to extinction, the Russian Orthodox Church seems more interested now in satisfying its urges for acquisition and adornment than in providing the moral leadership the country craves. A deputy director of the governmental Commission for Humanitarian and Technical Relief recently published a letter to the Moscow News stating that the commission had given the church a vast quantity of cigarettes which the church then sold and kept the proceeds of. Gleb Yakunin, a former member of the Russian parliament and a former priest, was not alone in questioning whether such trafficking was proper.

The manipulation of religion by politicians is also to blame for the sapping of the church's moral authority. Afraid of leaving people at sea -- and open to foreign ideas and "sects" with the disappearance of communist ideology as an organizing principle -- many politicians seem to remember just enough Marx to reduce religion to "opium for the masses." Mayor Luzhkov disclosed in an interview last January that he was not a believer. But he realized that religious symbols were an asset in helping legitimize his authority and he values Christian principles as "useful for society." Not long ago he was christened by the patriarch himself and, though the two of them often parade together on public occasions, Luzhkov keeps the upper hand, as management of the cathedral project shows.

The project's first architect, Igor Pokrovski, was dismissed without appeal because he rated the patriarch's wishes higher than the mayor's. Predictably, when awarding the commission for the cathedral's crosses, Luzhkov did not forget his friend, the sculptor Zurab Tseretelli, whose name already was associated with Moscow's major projects (from the shopping center near the Kremlin to the Moscow Zoo and the World War II Victory Park). The mayor awarded the production of the cathedral's 14 bells to the near-bankrupt car factory ZiL, which the Moscow city administration is committed to helping.
When Mikhail Possokhin was appointed to be the new architect, the construction plan was modified in at least one significant way. A Sunday school was initially included. It could have served to spread knowledge of the Bible and faith to the Moscow population, but it was traded for a high-tech media center to broadcast official ceremonies. The size of the parking garage in the cathedral's foundation is still a subject of dispute: Should there be 400 or 600 prestigious parking spaces to repay the city for its efforts?

There was one instance when Luzhkov yielded to Patriarch Alexei's choice, and that had to do with gold. The way things were decided between them is an endearing scene, almost too good to be true, but which I have from a reliable source. According to the account I was given, Luzhkov went to the patriarch with two pieces of golden metal, asking him to select the one covered with a layer of authentic gold. The patriarch, fallible after all, chose the wrong piece, which was titanium nitrate sprayed over with golden lacquer. "See! Even you can't tell the difference!" exclaimed the mayor.

If the illusion works, why dig too deep into the 53 kilos of gold offered by the Stolichny Bank of Savings a year ago, amid much publicity and good press about the "renaissance of patronage"? Why explain the difference either?

Officially, "because of modern techniques," only 15 to 20 kilos of gold have gone toward gilding the giant cupola and the four smaller bulbs (in the original construction, more than 312 kilos were used, according to the art historian Yevgenia Kirichenko). Another reason was offered inadvertently by Yuri Mamoshin, the deputy director of Mospromstroi, the company in charge of building the cathedral: cladding the bulbs with actual gold leaf would have taken "five to six years" -- much too long, given the electoral imperative of Easter 1996, when both presidential and mayoral campaigns were picking up speed.

An additional three kilos of gold were used for Tseretelli's crosses, but the rest of the bank's donation will not be used anytime soon, since the cathedral's interior decoration is connected to no ritualistic or electoral necessity. Only the exterior outline of the old cathedral is needed for next year's jubilee festivities and even this marble-cladding process has been slowed down, given financial problems. Indeed, the pace of fund-raising has come to a near standstill since July, after private banks and enterprises secured Yeltsin's reelection, and work at the construction site has been reduced to one shift (as opposed to three shifts around the clock last year).

So is "Golden Moscow" a fraud in this symbolic case? A restoration specialist checked a piece of metal from the dome that I brought back from a visit to the construction site and scoffed, describing the color as "revolting," and refused to call it gold, given the mere micro-molecular presence of the precious metal.

Yet, from the sidewalk and from afar, the sight of the cupolas fills the hearts of Muscovites with pride. Undeniably, there are millions of Russians who are genuinely moved by something that was unimaginable only a few years ago -- the reversal of Stalin's blind destruction.

"A cathedral should not be shown in the process of construction; it is just supposed to appear," said Yuri Grimov, creative director of the ad agency Premiere SV, which donated a TV publicity film to stimulate popular donations for the cathedral. The building, meanwhile, is being integrated into everyone's field of vision, and, at 30 stories high, it already has become a familiar vertical power symbol in the Moscow landscape.

Flore de Preneuf is a graduate student in Russian studies at Oxford University who is writing her thesis on the reconstruction of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior.

© Flore de Préneuf