Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood

Located just off of Nevsky Prospekt, the Holy Resurrection Church (Spas-na-krovi) was originally erected in memory of Tsar Alexander II by his son, Alexander III.  As the Great Reformist Tsar, Alexander II became a symbol of the new, liberal Russia, legally free of serfdom and moving ever closer to Westernization. Ironically enough, Alexander II was assassinated by a terrorist group, the People’s Will (Narodnaya volia), in a planned bombing.  Alexander III commissioned a church to be built on the site where his father’s blood was spilled when he was mortally wounded, giving rise to its popular nickname, The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. The project began in 1883 and was finally completed in 1907, because of the complex mosaic work in its construction (Antonov, “Holy Resurrection Cathedral ” ). But the Church on Spilled Blood, as if cursed by the crime that commissioned it, has never played by the rules.  After all, while it was in use as a holy site, it was only used for “weekly requiems [for Alexander II] and sermon readings” (“Church on Spilled Blood, Saint Petersburg.”).  There were no proper services or rituals held within the Church, perhaps to cement its primary role as a house of commemoration rather than worship. In short, the Church was not actually a church, at least not in a traditional sense.  On its most basic level, the Church was built as a memorial, but became a symbol of the fetishization of Old Rus’ and then new Russia, by the monarchy and later the people themselves, and over the years has evolved into an icon of the commodification of traditional “Russian” culture.

The first step in the Church’s journey away from its originally intended meaning was in the choice for its location. Alexander III did choose partially based upon where his father had been wounded, however, the Church is only a block away from the Kazan’ Cathedral  (Kazanskii sobor), which was modeled after several European Catholic Cathedrals, including St. Paul’s. In fact, a visitor can stand on a bridge across the Griboyedova canal, into which the Church on the Blood intrudes, and see both with only a turn of the head.  Built between 1733 and 1737, Kazan Cathedral is a “monument of Classical architecture” (Antonov, “Kazan Cathedral.”).When one looks at the structure, everything from Athens to Rome to the Vatican City come to mind, while any thoughts of Moscow and its onion domes are quickly dismissed, or only brought up as points of comparison. It is a western church in a western city, and although the cathedral held Russian Orthodox ceremonies and  featured icons, it is still laid out much like a Catholic Cathedral. As a result, it becomes a symbol of the liberal European influence, which Alexander III so despised and blamed for his father’s death.  So, by putting the Church in memory of an act of violence, which resulted from everything Kazan Cathedral represented in the minds of the residents of St. Petersburg,  right down the street from said Cathedral, he was reminding his citizens of the dangers of liberalization and reform.

Next, came the choice in architectural style, which Alexander II used to glorify a traditional aesthetic, which is thrown into sharp relief in a distinctly European city.  While his predecessors were obsessed with using European design for their monuments, the reactionary Alexander III looked back toward Russian ideals. But St. Petersburg was built using architectural techniques borrowed from every major city in Europe and, as a result, the pointed arches and onion domes of traditional Russian cathedrals stand out in sharp relief against the surrounding area. Even in the picture, the church looks out of place against the classically European building in the left of the picture. The result is an ostentatious display of “traditional” Russian religious architecture. But how traditional is it really?  In fact, the Church of the Savoir on Spilled Blood more closely resembles St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, which was built in the 16th century. Although in its early years, it resembled St.Sophia’s Cathedral, which was modeled after its predecessor in Kiev, St. Basil’s was refurbished into its current incarnation between the 17th, and 19th centuries, with the current paint design emerging roughly 20 years before the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood was built (“St. Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square, Moscow.”). Thus, the Church on the Blood is a symbol of Alexander III’s idealized Russia, the Russia of Moscow, which was the antithesis of all things St. Petersburg. In this, it becomes more a symbol of Russia’s seemingly eternal struggle between Europe and Asia. It is a celebration of “Russian” as an ideology, a point of comparison, a symbol, not a way of life.  Therefore, even in the early stages of the Church’s history, its placement and design were used to remind the people of St. Petersburg of their ‘real’ antecedents.  It invoked an idealized and fetishized past of saturated colors that clashed with the muted pastels of Europe.

During the Soviet Era, Communists used the Church as a symbol of archaic Russia, as a point of comparison against the new modern USSR.  Shortly after the revolution in 1917, the Communist Party sought to defame and desecrate the holy site by using it as the Museum of The People’s Will, beginning in 1931, turning it into a commemoration of Alexander’s assassins.  One of the most striking features of the Church is the series of stunning mosaics, which decorate the walls.

To the minds of the Soviets, these works became symbols of the folly of religion and monarchy. After all, these were the results of time and money, which could have been spent on bettering the lives of the working class, upon whom Russia depended. Instead, the Tsar decided to pour that money into a Church which did not even cater to the spiritual needs of his people, instead remaining as a permanent house of mourning for his father.  Thus it became a source of propaganda, as a Soviet could look at a scene like the one below, which is located on one of the walls, and see the inlaid gold, the precious stones and expertcraftsmanship, not as a work of art, but as yet another example of the tyranny of Tsarist Russia and its exploitation of the people.  The tabernacle in the corner, which shelters the actual cobblestones on which Alexander II’s blood was shed, becomes a site of triumph, a symbol of the working classes’ overthrow of  the distant and oppressive Tsars.

In the Soviet era, it was not the idea of Old Russia, which the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood fetishized, but rather the Russia of the Revolution, that passionate revolutionary spirit, which inspired the people to brave the dank, tuberculosis-ridden prison system to better the lot of the common man.

In the later Soviet period, it became another feather in the cap of the atheist movement, which sought to eliminate Marx’s opiate of the masses. The Soviet regime was well known for its sacrilegious treatment of churches and other holy sites and for its attempts to eradicate religion from the USSR.  According to official figures, “[o]f the 163 bishops claimed by Metropolitan Sergei in 1930, only four survived the decade in office. The 30,000 churches which he had claimed in 1930 had been reduced to 4,225” (Fletcher, 81).   As for the Church on Spilled Blood, “[i]t was closed in 1932, and essentially turned into a garbage dump. Rumors abounded that the church would be torn down” (“Church on Spilled Blood, Saint Petersburg.”). Ultimately, the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood was scheduled for demolition, but the Soviets lacked the manpower to carry out the ambitious demolition projects they had planned (“Church on Spilled Blood, Saint Petersburg.”).  Instead, it was used as a warehouse from everything from opera supplies to vegetables to bodies during the Siege of Leningrad.  In this, it became a symbol of the Soviet Union’s almost fanatical desire to take sites of the old regime and reclaim them, turning the “useless” into the “useful”.  Thus, the Church becomes a symbol of the objectification of and obsession with the transformation from the ignorant and oppressive Old Rus’ into a new, Soviet Russia.

But history came full circle, and the modern day once again sees the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood as a symbol of the rebirth, or perhaps the fetishization, of “Old Rus”.  Today, the Church has been relegated to little more than a tourist trap with an interesting back-story.  It is one of the few “churches” in which photography is not only allowed, but also encouraged, and its gift shop goes beyond the typical religious fare of icons and prayer books to much the same items as can be found in the kiosks that line the streets.  Besides the normal ticket window tucked away in the corner of some churches, if the church has one at all, the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood has a separate building with room for several lines of patrons to pay some of the more expensive entrance fees in the city. The Church does not even function as a church in the cursory way it did during the reign of the Tsars, instead functioning solely as a museum where tourists can pay for the experience of a “traditional” Russian church. In this, the church itself, with its iconography and elaborate artistry, has become just another thing to be purchased, as Russian culture and aesthetics are exoticized to delight tourists.  Not only does it look like what the rest of the world has come to expect from Russian Orthodox Churches, it does so in a breathtakingly beautiful and picturesque way.

In truth, though, it is an example of a relatively modern interpretation of Russian religious architecture.  Arguably the most famous Church in Russia, St. Sophia’s Cathedral in Novgorod sets the standard for Russian Orthodox Churches. Modeled after St. Sophia’s Cathedral in Kiev, and thus an heir of Kievan Rus’, it intentionally echoes the Byzantine past of Orthodoxy (“St. Sophia’s Cathedral”).  Thus, it becomes the anchor of that ever-reverent traditional Russian architecture. After all, built between 1045- 1050, it was the one that started it all. But The Church of the Savior of Spilled Blood looks very little like its model. True, they share the same basic layout and the tell-tale onion domes, but those onion domes are richly decorated, as are the walls. In fact, even with the benefit of roughly 800 years of technological innovations, it took nineteen years longer to build the Church on Spilled Blood than it did to build St. Sophia’s because of the elaborate decorations.St. Sophia’s, on the other hand, is very modestly decorated on the outside, with simple, whitewashed walls and undecorated domes surrounding a single gilded one. In fact, it is arguably the most modest building within the Novgorod Kremlin, surrounded by far more intricately decorated structures, like the school constructed by the town’s early rulers and the large bell-shaped Monument to the Millennium of Russia.  Truly, religious architecture had moved far from its roots by Alexander III’s time, and the level of lavish decorations outside resemble the Kazan’ Cathedral more than St. Sophia’s, which follows the old Russian Orthodox tradition of saving the lavish decorations for the inside of the Church.

Moreover, behind the Church is one of the largest souvenir markets in St. Petersburg, where visitors to the museum can spend exorbitant amounts of money after they have been inspired by Russia’s mysterious and exotic past. Manned by English-speaking vendors and stocked with typical “Russian” knickknacks, like fur hats and everything one can imagine could be emblazoned with the hammer-and-sickle.  A favorite haunt of tourist groups and cruise ship passengers, who have a limited amount of time in the city, tourists at the Church on the Spilled Blood can ignore that fact that they are outsiders in Russia at all.  They do not need to know Russian, can pay in dollars, or even credit cards, and it is all within the idea of Russia that they have been sold by Anastasia and James Bond. Essentially, the Church on the Blood and its surroundings has become the reader’s digest version of popular culture’s Russian history.

In its varied history, the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood has gone from a symbol of an idealized and conservative Russia, to an archetypal example of the follies of the past and the monarchy, to a commodity to be sold to foreigners.  Under the Tsars, it was a physical symbol of the fetishization of Old Russia. During the Soviet era, it was a huge glaring example of all things archaic and oppressive and provided the regime with the perfect outlet for their obsession with reclaiming and repurposing the sites of memory, which were tied to the Tsars. Finally, in modern times, it has become the epitome of Russia-as-commodity. It is a nonthreatening tourist trap in which its patrons can be awed by impressive and foreign-looking art and architecture and then spend their lusted after vacations funds buying trinkets that seem just as “Russian”. But not once has it ever been what it was meant to be- a church. The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood has been robbed of its namesake from the start and has spent the entirety of its existence being used by the whims of those in power, regardless of their differing ideologies.

Works Cited