Under communism, the state religion — atheism — tried to silence the faith professed by the majority of Russians. The Russian Orthodox Church survived, but many church buildings were seized by the government and repurposed (as ice-hockey rinks, swimming pools, and so on). Many more were destroyed. Soviet citizens who openly belonged to the church sacrificed any hope of advancement within the communist system. But since the fall of communism, Russians have flocked back to their church. (Even Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent and avowed atheist, revealed that he had secretly been an Orthodox Christian all along.) Today, three out of every four Russian citizens follows this faith — a high percentage for a country whose government was aggressively atheistic just a generation ago. Photos by Trish Feaster, The Travelphile.com.
While visiting each of St. Petersburg’s top churches, with the help of my fine local guides, I was able to beef up and improve the descriptions in our guidebook.
The exuberantly decorative Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood, with its gilded carrottop of onion domes, is built on the place where a suicide bomber assassinated Czar Alexander II in 1881. Its designers created a building that was a romantic, fairy-tale image of their own national history and traditions — similar to Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria or the Matthias Church in Budapest. Psychologically, it seems fitting that as the Romanovs were finding themselves fighting a rising tide of people power and modernity, they would build something so classically Russian.
Alexander II freed the serfs in 1861. But he gave them no land (no opportunity for building a new life), so they moved to the cities, where the seeds of proletarian discontent were planted (and would burst into revolution a half-century later). For a czar and for the times, Alexander II was a great reformer.
The Kazan Cathedral reopened as a church after years as a “Museum of Atheism.” Inside, worshippers wait in a long line to kiss the church’s namesake: the icon of Our Lady of Kazan. Considered the single most important icon of the Russian Orthodox faith, the original icon was discovered in 1579 by a young girl (directed by a vision of the Virgin Mary) under the ruins of the destroyed city of Kazan on the Volga River. A monastery was erected on that site, and replicas of the icon were sent to other Russian cities — including St. Petersburg — to be venerated by the faithful.
Russian Orthodoxy has revived since the end of communism as you’ll experience when you duck into any neighborhood church — full of incense, candles, and liturgical chants. It’s usually OK to visit discreetly during services, when the priest opens the doors of the iconostasis, faces the altar, and leads the standing congregation in prayerful chants. Dress conservatively (no shorts or bare shoulders). Women are encouraged, though not normally required, to cover their heads with scarves or bandannas, which are sometimes available at the entrance.