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
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
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.
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
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.