Notre-Dame and the restoration of historical buildings – The Russian Experience

The News of the Week seems to be the tragic fire that destroyed the roof, the spire and some of the interiors of the Norte-Dame de Paris Church, in the French capital, and the worry that it will be extremely hard to restore it to its former glory.

Russia, sadly, suffered the destruction of many historical buildings, but this also made the Russian a sort of experts in the field and the results of their workmanship are absolutely stunning.

To illustrate this point I decide to take an example for each cause of the original destruction:

  1. Accidents
  2. Enemy invasion
  3. Internal politics

Accidents: Fire in the Winter Palace

On the evening of 17 December 1837, due to an error in the design of narrow ventilation canals between highly inflammable wooden partitions, a raging fire engulfed the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg, at the time the main residence of the Emperor Nicholas I. In spite of the fire fighters effort, it was soon realized that it would be impossible to stop the the spreading of the fire and the operation became a matter of salvaging everything they could from the flames rather than seeking to extinguish them. This unprecedented fire destroyed the entire interior decoration of the sumptuous Imperial residence and with it a whole era in the history of the Palace.

Fire in the Winter Palace
by Claude Joseph Vernet
(Source)

The palace, however, was fully restored to its former glory and it is now the main building of one of the world’s largest and most beloved museums: the Hermitage.

Hermitage ceiling
Pygmalion and Galatea in Hermitage museum, Saint Petersburg

If you want to know more about Pygmalion and Galatea (and read about a photo-tip) you are welcome to do so at this post.

Enemy invasion: Peterhof Palace

The Second World War, known in Russia as “The Great Patriotic War” had an unimaginable cost in terms of human lives for the then Soviet Union, with an estimate of at least 27 million deaths (8.7 million military and 19 million civilian). Besides this insufferable toll of human lives, the loss of economic and historical value was also huge.

In the senseless tragedy that war always is, there is a fact that, for some reason, shocked me even more. At the very end of the siege of Leningrad, in January 1944, when the battle for Leningrad was already lost (the siege ended on 27 January 1944) and the outcome of the war was clear, with an unavoidable Nazi defeat, the German armies, on Hitler’s express orders, looted and destroyed the historical Palaces of the Tsars, such as the Catherine PalacePeterhof Palace, the Gatchina Palace and the Strelna Palace. Many other historic landmarks and homes in the suburbs of St. Petersburg were looted and then destroyed, and a large number of valuable art collections are moved to Nazi Germany.

To me this senseless act of destruction always seemed like the tantrum of a capricious kid who decides that if he can’t have something, then no one else can, either and destroy everything out of pure, stupid spite. That is why I chose to use, as the feature image of this post an image of the Peterhof Palace as it appeared right after the war (I found this historical image here).

What remained of Peterhof Palace in 1944

When visiting Peterhof Palace, its palace and its gardens today, it is hard to image the condition they laid in at the end of the war. Reconstruction began almost immediately after the end of the conflict and the gardens opened to the public already in 1945. To bring the palace back to its former glory took, of course, decidedly longer, but today it is an absolute gem and a very popular tourist destination (with most people being completely oblivious to the fact that it is, in fact, a reconstruction and very little of it actually dates back to the time of the palace’s construction in the 1700s).

Peterhof Palace and its fountains in 2017. Photo by me.

If you are interested in finding out more about the Siege of Leningrad, I wrote a post about it: The first of the longest 872 days.

Internal politics: Christ the Savior Cathedral

Faith in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was the only one allowed (and expected!) during the time of the USSR. The official state atheism resulted in the 1921-1928 anti-religious campaign, during which many, if not most, religious buildings were either razed or repurposed (like this church turned into a macaroni factory).

Moreover, the government plans for economic development seemed to always require more funds than were available at the time. So, on 24 February 1930, the economic department of the OGPU sent a letter to the Chairman of the Central Executive Committee asking to remove the golden domes of the Christ the Saviour Cathedral. The letter noted that the dome of the church contained over 20 tons of gold of “excellent quality”, and that the cathedral represented an “unnecessary luxury for the Soviet Union, and the withdrawal of the gold would make a great contribution to the industrialization of the country.” The People’s Commissariat of Finance did not object to this proposal.

On December 5 1931, by order of Stalin‘s minister Lazar Kaganovich, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was dynamited and reduced to rubble.

It took more than a year to clear the debris from the site, which was selected to build the grandiose Palace of the Soviets. It was a huge undertaking (you can read how furious Le Courbusier was when his project was not selected) and if completed it would have become the world’s tallest structure of its time.

Construction begun in 1937 and the foundation was completed in 1939. The builders drove a perimeter of 20 m (66 ft) steel piles, excavated the pit, demolished and hauled out the old cathedral foundations. The new foundation was a slightly concave concrete slab with concentric vertical rings, intended to carry the main hall columns. By June 1941, the steel frame for the lower levels was erected. Then World War II interfered: the steel frame was cut in 1941 and 1942 and used for Moscow’s defense fortifications and railroad bridges. The empty foundation stood unused, filled with seepage water, but well guarded, until 1958. That year, under Nikita Khrushchev, it was transformed into the world’s largest open air swimming pool, named Moskva Pool, which had a diameter of 129.5 m (424 ft 10 in). Considering the weather in Moscow, think how much use an open air pool could get in a year….

Even before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, however, in February 1990, the Russian Orthodox Church received permission from the Government to rebuild the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. A temporary cornerstone was laid by the end of the year.

Christ the Saviour Cathedral in 2018. Photo by me

A construction fund was initiated in 1992 and funds began to pour in from citizens in the autumn of 1994, and about one million Muscovites donated money for the project. In this year the Moskva Pool was demolished and the cathedral reconstruction commenced. The lower church was consecrated to the Saviour’s Transfiguration in 1997, and the completed Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was consecrated on the Transfiguration Day, 19 August 2000. A footbridge across the river from Bersenevskaya embankment (from which I took the picture above) was constructed between 21 June 2003 and 3 September 2004 .

Christ the Saviour Cathedral in 2018. Photo by me

The cathedral was rebuilt using the original plans and based on a very large number of photos, paintings and other documents depicting its former appearance, with painstaking attention to detail and materials used to make sure that the final result is, in fact, practically indistinguishable from the original.

As a further “link” to its past and Russian history, in the year 2000 the cathedral was the venue for the Canonization of the Romanovs when the last Tsar Nicholas II and his family were glorified as saints


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