Seventy-five, 1945, 1418 … To understand the concept of the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ one needs to know the meaning of these numbers. The cathedral, an imposing edifice in the town of Odintsovo near Moscow, was consecrated in June by Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church and is now the official church of Russia’s armed forces.
2020 marks 75 years since the end of the Second World War, though few Russians use that term. In 1941 Joseph Stalin deemed the conflict a “Great Patriotic War”, a direct reference to the 1812 “Patriotic War” against Napoleon’s invading army. The name has remained official ever since. Neither the USSR, nor post-Soviet Russia, has recognised Stalin’s invasion of Poland as the day the Soviet Union entered World War II. Hence for the Russians 1418 is the number of days the war lasted – from June 22, 1941, when Hitler invaded the USSR, until May 9, 1945 when the German armed forces ceremonially surrendered in Karlshorst. Germany had already surrendered to the Allies in Rheims, but Stalin demanded a second ceremony to satisfy his vanity.
Those three numbers define the shape of the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ. The bell tower height is 75 metres. The small cupolas are 1418 metres high. The diameter of the main cupola is 1945 meters. This obsession with numerology is only the beginning of the surprises the new cathedral sprang on the media, art experts and the general public. Its main vaults, unusually, are made of stained glass: light shines through huge images of historical Soviet military decorations, complete with red stars, hammer and sickle. A large mosaic of the Virgin Mary pays an undisguised homage to the famous 1941 war mobilisation poster “The Motherland is calling!”
The new church is painted in a regulation military dark green. It is widely seen as a monument to Vladimir Putin’s vision of Russian history defined chiefly by victorious military exploits. In the words of Sergei Chapnin, a prominent Christian journalist and art curator, “Cathedrals honouring the war dead usually focus on prayerful remembrance as well as rejection of the horrors of war. The new cathedral glorifies it instead. It clearly feeds the narrative that God always reserved a special blessing for the Russian forces – even when it was the Red Army of the atheist Communist state!”
Irina Yazykova, a widely respected expert on Christian art, told the Catholic Herald that in her view, “the cathedral’s iconography is a strange mix of Soviet propaganda posters and academic-style painting. There are also many mistakes. For example, the Image of Edessa is on the main cupola which is traditionally reserved for the representation of heavens. The figure of Christ in the apse resembles a pagan god. Even the angels look somewhat Soviet”.
Other controversies surround the cathedral. Russian investigative journalists revealed that although officially it was financed through private donations and cost about £35 million, the real figure is closer to £70 million – most of that from state coffers. They also found that supply contract prices were highly inflated and (unsurprisingly) went to undisclosed companies. The list of the church’s designers and decorators is a Who’s Who of Kremlin-friendly artists. It includes Salavat Shcherbakov, the creator of a massive statue of Prince Vladimir, the president’s patron saint, erected in front of the Kremlin in 2016 as a not-too-subtle monument to Putin’s annexation of the Crimea two years earlier.
But the most controversial event in the cathedral’s short history was an attempt to mount two mosaics on its walls. One depicted Vladimir Putin, defence minister Sergei Shoigu and other regime luminaries celebrating the Crimean annexation among jubilant crowds in 2014. Another represented the June 1945 victory parade on the Red Square in Moscow – with a large portrait of Stalin featuring prominently on one of the banners.
When photographs of the mosaics appeared on social media a few weeks before the consecration, there was an outcry. Critics accused Patriarch Kirill of pandering to Putin and ignoring the horrors Communism had inflicted on the clergy and believers. Fr Leonid Kalinin, head of the Church’s council for the arts and himself a sculptor, told me at the time, in a bizarre e-mail exchange, that views of believers and unbelievers should be equally respected and that only a referendum could decide whether or not to mount a Stalin mosaic. He also claimed that workers fixing the Putin mosaic “refused to take it down because they have relatives in Crimea who if not for Putin would have been crushed by Ukrainian tanks”.
Soon presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov relayed to the media Putin’s (alleged) reaction – with the usual royal “we” appended: “One day future generations will laud our achievements. But now it is too early.”
Some believe the President had not known about the mosaic and had to beat a hasty retreat once the designs were leaked. Others think it was a manufactured PR event designed to show Putin as a modest people’s man. In any case, the same Father Kalinin told the media later that both mosaics would now be on display in the multimedia museum adjacent to the cathedral and dedicated to the Great Patriotic War. So people will see these images after all – just not in the church itself.
The mosaics will share exhibition space with what one of Mr Shoygu’s deputies in a brilliant instance of unintended irony called “true relics”: Hitler’s peaked cap and his suit. In response Russian social media exploded with memes. One described the cathedral as “The Church of St Adolf”. As the biblical scholar Andrei Desnitsky quipped: “It seems like an interesting architectural ensemble, only it has nothing to do with Christianity.”