Monday, January 2, 2012


Competition launched to decorate Moscow churches
Programme aims to build 200 churches across the Russian capital

By Sophia Kishkovsky. Web only
Published online: 15 December 2011

The Russian Orthodox Church has launched a competition for the decoration of 200 modular churches that are being speedily built with state support in the Russian capital. Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church has said that the churches are desperately needed in crowded districts of unsightly Soviet high rises.

After laying the cornerstone of the first church in the 200 churches programme in April, the patriarch said that [the new churches] account for “about one-fifth of what was destroyed in the Soviet era”, and that some districts have just one church for up to 200,000 residents.

Some residents of Moscow’s “sleeping districts”—largely residential areas—have petitioned for new churches. Others have protested, saying the sites allocated by the city are in much needed parks or squares. One church is being constructed on the site of the 2002 hostage taking of nearly 800 people by Chechen rebels at a Moscow theatre during a performance of “Nord-Ost”.

The competition for the decoration of the 200 churches was announced in November at “Pravoslavnaya Rus,” or “Orthodox Rus,” an annual fair and conference held in the Manezh exhibition hall at the foot of the Kremlin's walls, devoted this year to the rebuilding of the Russian Orthodox Church. “These churches must become not only a decoration of our city, but truly a phenomenon of civic and church art of our 21st century,” said Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov, the executive secretary of the Patriarchal Council for Culture, at a news conference. “They must become a kind of pearl of ancient tradition, uniting historic Moscow with its new districts and buildings.” He said the terms of the competition would be announced by the end of the year.

Since the collapse of communism, a new generation of iconographers and artists specialising in religious art has appeared. New examples of church architecture have also been created, such as a wooden chapel, an homage to 16th- and 17th-century tented roof churches, at Butovsky polygon, a killing field on the edge of Moscow where at least 20,000 people were shot and buried from August 1937 through October 1938.

Several hundred of the victims have been canonised as “new martyrs” of the Russian Orthodox Church, and are depicted on new icons. Nicholas II and his family, canonised in 2000, are now also frequently depicted on icons. But the quality of icons, which are traditionally painted slowly and reflectively, has been affected by the speed with which many of them are now produced to meet market demands and fill the empty walls of newly restored churches. “On the surface everything is right, but there is no substance,” said Aleksander Kopirovsky, a specialist in church art at the St Philaret's Orthodox Christian Institute in Moscow.

Thousands of churches were destroyed across Russia during the Soviet era, or turned into warehouses, clubs, hospitals or museums. Toilets were often installed in place of altars, and frescoes on walls and ceilings were wiped out or whitewashed. The construction of new houses of worship was banned. Icons were smashed, burned, or sold abroad to fill Soviet coffers. Iconographers were killed by the Bolsheviks or became Soviet artists, such as Pavel Korin, who created mosaics for the Moscow metro. Indeed, after the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was razed to the ground on Stalin’s orders in 1931, fragments were used to decorate elaborate new metro stations. Reconstruction of the cathedral was begun in the 1990s and was completed in 2000.

Some critics have derided the 200 churches programme as an ecclesiastical version of prefabricated Soviet architecture. Yuri Grigoriev, the deputy director of the architectural institute that is overseeing their construction, has defended the programme, saying the churches will have amenities such as wheelchair ramps, which are still very rare in Russia.

The Reverend Georgy Mitrofanov, a historian who is often critical of the official Church, says that the Russian Church should, in general, focus on restoring souls. In an interview published on, a Russian religion news site, he said that in some cases it would be better to leave the ruins of a church as a reminder of Soviet destruction and build a smaller church nearby. “These ruins would remind us what we did not only with church buildings, but to the Church and to our own souls,” he said. “Such a monument would be extremely appropriate.”

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