Architectural preservationists say that plans to build a new cathedral on the grounds of Moscow’s 14th-century Sretensky Monastery will destroy other historic buildings on the site, irrevocably alter the surrounding cityscape, and set a troubling example for other heritage sites across Russia.
“There are no guarantees that the abbots of other ancient monasteries with ‘cramped’ Medieval cathedrals won’t want to follow Moscow’s example,” said Konstantin Mikhailov, a leader of the Archnadzor preservationist organisation in an appeal published on 23 October. “It will be hard to cite [architectural] preservation legislation [in response], if Moscow shows how to overcome it. And if monasteries start becoming arenas for new construction, then the system of monuments protection could collapse.”
The construction project has received particular attention because the Sretensky Monastery’s abbot, Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov, is a best-selling author who is remoured to be the confessor to Russian president Vladimir Putin. Shevkunov says that construction of the cathedral is essential because the monastery’s existing church cannot handle the flow of pilgrims and that it is intended to honor those who died for their religious faith in the Soviet Era and have been canonised as the “new martyrs and confessors”. The cathedral is due to be built by 1917, in time for the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution when attacks on the Russian Orthodox Church began, and its full name will be the Cathedral of the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia on the Blood, on Lubyanka. On 13 November, a Moscow city committee that oversees construction on heritage sites approved the cathedral project.
The Sretensky Monastery is near Lubyanka Square, the site of the headquarters of the KGB, which carried out the Soviet era persecution of religious believers. Several of the monastery’s churches were destroyed in the early Soviet years and its facilities were used as a killing ground in Stalin’s time. President Putin, a former lieutenant colonel in the KGB, is now avowedly Russian Orthodox. The Russian media and bloggers have dubbed the florid style of the cathedral design by the Moscow architect Dmitry Smirnov “Chekist gothic”, a reference to Cheka, an early name for the KGB.
Mikhailov and other activists say that they are not against the construction of a memorial cathedral per se, but that they oppose the size and methods in this case, and accuse city officials of failing to enforce zoning and preservation laws.
In an interview with The Art Newspaper, Shevkunov said that activists’ objections were being taken into account in alterations to the design that are being worked on now and will be presented by the middle of 2014. He denied, however, that there is widespread opposition to the project and said that most of the criticisms from activists are groundless.
“I repeat: not a single one of the structures designated for demolition is or ever was an architectural monument,” he told The Art Newspaper. “Moreover, all of these late 19th-century and early 20th-century structures have had additions built on and have been reconstructed and lost their authentic appearance, which is confirmed by historical-cultural research. And one of the buildings that is so fiercely defended by activists was built by us around a decade ago. It’s an [electrical] substation. Another building is a brick shed. But they are fighting for them as if we want to destroy the [Kremlin’s] Spasskaya Tower or the Bolshoi Theatre.”
Another church construction project that is also garnering attention is a huge new church being built in Sochi in time for the 2014 Winter Olympics. Critics have raised question about its size, style and financing.
Sergei Chapnin, the editor of the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate, has created a new magazine, Khramozdatel (“Church Builder”), and organised conferences to address the often controversial issue of new church architecture as the Russian Orthodox Church continues to rebuild.
“In my view, the intense scrutiny of the external appearance of new Orthodox churches speaks of two important tendencies,” Chapnin told The Art Newspaper. “First of all, the copying of designs from the 16th or 19th centuries is becoming a thing of the past. The question of what a 21st-century church should look like is becoming more and more acute. Secondly, there is the question of how a new church fits into the cityscape. For now, there are quite a few unsuccessful examples, not only in new [city] districts, but in historic districts as well.”