Non-Orthodox Religious Spaces on Nevsky Prospekt: Oppression, Privacy, and Memory (Vincent Rampino)

Founded with greater connections to the West in mind, it is almost a cliché to describe St. Petersburg as a cosmopolitan city. From its creation, St. Petersburg hummed with the noise of many languages, spoken first by the various foreigners brought by Peter the Great and later by the descendants of those people. As the history of St. Petersburg progressed, this was not always the case, with an ebb and flow of Westernizing and Slavophile currents. One battleground of this conflict is the history of the relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian Government. With the official atheism of the Soviet era gone, the Russian Orthodox Church now enjoys a close relationship with the government of President Vladimir Putin. How does this relationship affect the activities of non-Orthodox Christian sects in Russia? In examining the context and presentation of the Lutheran Church of St. Peter and St. Paul and St. Catherine’s Catholic Church (both on Nevsky Prospekt), it can be seen that by keeping commemoration within the community, such religious communities have been able to rebuild healthy congregations since the end of the Soviet Union, without running afoul of the seemingly two-headed apparatus in power.

Organized religion began in Russia with the introduction of Christianity through missionaries from Constantinople and the Eastern, Byzantine portion of Christendom. The most reasonable date for the beginning of Christianity in Russia is 988, when Prince Vladimir, who was married to Anna, the sister of the Byzantine emperor, converted to Christianity (Murarka, 2841). Christianity was brought to Russia with a Slavonic translation of the Bible and its own alphabet created for the Slavic people, which allowed it to become a religion of the people, as the common man could understand it without having to speak Latin, as was necessary with Christianity based in Rome (2841). It was isolated from the West due to this language barrier and its accessibility allowed religious practice to become more ingrained in daily life, leading to a religion that was “more devotional than intellectual,” and more closely aligned with national feeling (2841). This identification of Russian Christianity with Russian identity itself made convenient the use of religion as a political tool and, thus, Christianity, particularly the Eastern Orthodox variety of Christianity practiced in Russia, became closely linked with political authority (2841).

This fusion of Russian folk culture and Byzantine religion created a distinctly Russian religion, and its clear emphasis of devotion over the intellectual pursuit of theology placed it apart from its Byzantine-Greek roots (2841). With the Turkish conquest of Constantinople, the Russian religious began to see their role as that of the only remaining protectors of the one true faith, one that had to be preserved at all costs (2841). This sacred mission led to a “deeply imbedded attitude against change” that valued orthodoxy most of all, and relied on strictly hierarchal structure to maintain it (2841). This structure was held up by the principle of “symphonia,” cooperation between the church and state that tied the imperative protection of “true Christianity” to the Russian state; a strong state would protect the “third Rome,” and thriving Christianity would help legitimize and keep stable the authority of the Russian government (2842). Though debate has continued over the centuries within both the Church and the Russian government as to the exact nature of this union, close ties were consistent up until the 20th century.

With Peter the Great, the state took control of the relationship, essentially establishing the Church as a “little more than a government bureaucracy” (Caridi, 6). In return for its subjugation, the Church was granted even greater latitude in Russia, including exclusive rights to religious education in Russian schools, as well as legal protection from defamation (Murarka, 2343). This ended in 1905 with the “Edict of Toleration” that granted much greater freedom to non-Orthodox confessions, though as many Russians immediately left Russian Orthodoxy, most for Roman Catholicism, these freedoms were restricted again a few years later (Caridi, 7).

Throughout the centuries of Christian presence in Russia, adherents to non-Russian Orthodox religions have been almost exclusively foreigners (7). Their numbers and freedoms have typically been bolstered by Westernizing efforts, particularly Peter the Great’s construction of St. Petersburg and his recruitment of foreign experts to work in Russia. These surges for non-Orthodox groups have typically been met with renewed restriction, due to the conflict over Russian identity. As Russian national identity is so closely tied to the Russian Orthodox Church, any influx of Western ideas or religion can be seen as an assault against the Russian way of life and the stability of the state, leading to action against confessions and sects outside of the mainstream (8). The centrality of the Russian Orthodox Church to the idea of Russian identity was reflected in the Soviet Union’s suspension of repression of the Orthodox Church in the Great Patriotic War (9).

This pattern of enthusiastic modernization and the expansion of freedoms, followed soon after by “objectors who [strive] furiously to beat back the tide of Holy Mother Russia,” can be seen in the last couple of decades and the aftermath of the Soviet Union (11). After the establishment of “western-style” freedom of religion in Russia in 1991, Russia witnessed an influx of well-funded foreign missionaries from other religions and Christian sects that threatened the traditional role of Orthodoxy at the center of the Russian state (11). In response, the Orthodox Church pushed for restrictions that would protect its position and preserve Russia as an Orthodox state (11). These efforts were somewhat successful as legislation made it through the Russian parliament a couple of times in the early 1990s, but Boris Yeltsin refused its approval on each occasion (12). By 1997, Yeltsin gave in and signed into law a measure that once again put the Russian Orthodox Church above all other confessions (14).

The current relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and other religions remains fraught with conflict, as non-Orthodox religions are seen as unjustly encroaching on the rightful territory and people of the Russian Orthodox Church (Dunn, 7). In the last decade, the Russian Orthodox Church and local Russian government authorities have acted against the established Catholic Church in Russia by threatening to close Catholic churches in Russia, accusing Catholics of espionage, and canceling the return visas of Catholic clergy (8). This recent tightening of restrictions over non-Orthodox religious establishments should be viewed in contrast with the Russian government’s prosecution of the punk rock band Pussy Riot over their February 2012 “Punk prayer service” performance in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral (Kizenko, 609). Importantly, this cathedral has come to symbolize the ties between the church and the central Russian government since its reconstruction after the fall of the Soviet Union, as it is the location “where Patriarch Kirill I celebrates Christmas and Easter services attended by Putin and…Medvedev” (609). During the performance, Pussy Riot “[entreated] the Virgin Mary to liberate Russia from Vladimir Putin” (609). Band members were accused of blasphemy by the Russian Orthodox Church, and the Russian Government responded to this pressure by prosecuting them for hooliganism inspired by religious hatred (609). Despite significant criticism from both within and without Russia, the Russian government pressed on with strict legal proceeding, going far toward legitimizing Pussy Riot’s claim that the supposedly secular Russian government has an inappropriately close relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church structure.

There are a few key points that should be understood from this brief history. The close relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian state is founded on Russian Orthodoxy as a central pillar of Russian identity and life, which provides for a mutually beneficial arrangement. If the Russian Government protects Orthodoxy and maintains its position at the center of Russian life, governing will be easier. This is especially true after the fall of the Soviet Union, as Russian society lacks definitive structures and meaning. Beyond this, it is important to observe that the Russian Orthodox Church considers itself to be the only religion that should be allowed to operate in Russia, and will see any other religious activity as a threat against its position, and thus, the stability of “Holy Mother Russia.” The current relationship does bear some resemblance to the earlier-mentioned “symphonia” of the pre-Soviet church-state arrangement.

The fairly extreme position of the Russian Orthodox Church makes the presence of non-Orthodox religious spaces on the bustling section of Nevsky Prospekt between the Fontanka and the Neva interesting, if problematic. Despite the great power of the Russian Orthodox Church, there are minority religions operating freely on the central street of one of the most important Russian cities. Certainly, St. Petersburg has always been a special case in Russia, and non-Orthodox religions, such as Roman Catholicism, have been “present in St. Petersburg from its inception” (8). However, St. Petersburg has not been isolated from the dynamics present in Russia as a whole. During the Soviet period, the Lutheran Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, located opposite Kazan Cathedral, was the site of a swimming pool (Richardson, 71-73). St. Catherine’s Catholic Church, close to the Armenian Church and opposite Gostinyi Dvor, was ransacked in 1938 after its closing and was used in a variety of capacities until its return to its parishioners in 1992 (“A Summary of the Temple”).

The Lutheran Church of St. Peter and St. Paul was designed by Alexander Briullov and built from 1833-1837. The church provided a home to the sizable German Lutheran population of St. Petersburg, and managed other community services as well, including the Petrischule, a notable secondary school of St. Petersburg emphasizing the study of German language (History of the Church of St. Peter). As mentioned above, the Soviet period saw the church requisitioned for use as a swimming pool, a period of its history that is still visible in the structure of the church hall (History). In June 1993, the church was returned to the remaining Lutheran population of St. Petersburg. Today masses are offered in both German and Russian (History).

The Catholic Church of St. Catherine of Alexandria was designed by the architects Pietro Trezini and Jean-Baptiste Vallin de la Mothe, and was consecrated on October 7, 1783 (“A Summary of the Temple”). From its beginning, the church hosted a very international congregation comprised of Poles, Frenchmen, Germans, Italians, Lithuanians, Latvians, and Russians” (“Summary”). St. Catherine’s was a significant church in Eastern Europe, boasting many celebrated priests and housing the tombs of Polish kings Stanislaw August Poniatowski and Stanislaw Leszczynski, as well the head of the allied armies against Napoleon, General Jean Victor Moreau (“Summary”). On September 7, 1938, the church was closed by the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR and ransacked, later being used as a storage space for the Museum of History of Religion and of Atheism located in Kazan Cathedral (History of St. Catherine’s Roman Catholic Parish). In February 1992, city authorities succumbed to public pressure and returned St. Catherine’s to Catholic hands (“Summary”). During the time St. Catherine’s was controlled by the state, two fires gutted it beyond recognition, and looting when it was initially closed down stripped it of much of its splendor (“Summary”). Today, the church has only about 600 members in its congregation, requiring masses to be offered in English, Russian, Polish, and French due to their ethnic composition (“Summary”).

Today, both churches take very similar approaches to commemorating their past and using it to direct their present activity. Approaching either from the street, there is little external commemoration of their histories aside from small plaques memorializing the dates of their construction and the names of their architects. In fact, the manner in which they are publicly identified through commemoration seems to suggest that the value of the buildings is artistic in nature, as two more attractive facades to add to the parade of buildings on Nevsky Prospekt. Furthermore, the churches tend to disappear into their surroundings, hardly noticeable except by deliberate effort. The front of St. Catherine’s Church is crowded and obscured by street vendors selling flowers, finished artwork, and street portraiture made to order. The Lutheran Church of St. Peter and St. Paul crouches behind a gate at the end of a short sidewalk off of Nevsky, past restaurants and bars and a sign commemorating the role of Germans in the history of St. Petersburg.

It seems wrong to think that there is any intention or malice in the reduced visual impact of these buildings. They seem to be hidden more by circumstance and casual disregard than by deliberate action. If anything, it appears as if they are hiding behind the bustle of Nevsky Prospekt, as concealed oases for those who already know where to find them. Most evidently, though, it is fairly clear that most who pass by on the street simply do not care that they exist, leaving them to squat unnoticed mere yards from their own daily activity space.

Mimicking this physical positioning on Nevsky Prospekt is the positioning of the parishes in cyberspace. The websites of both churches have limited accessibility, as St. Catherine’s is only available in Russian and the Lutheran Church’s only in Russian and German. This suggests that there is little to no thought paid to the potential of these churches as tourist or quasi-pilgrimage sites for those outside of their communities. They are little more than functioning parishes. There are sections on each site concerned with the history of the churches, but in both cases, these histories are brief. On the website for St. Catherine’s, the history section must be sought, and is not readily evident from the front page, crowded with stories about Pope Francis, minor saints and devotions, and the day-to-day activities of the parish: typical fare for any unremarkable church (St. Catherine Parish). Ultimately, the posture of both parishes in cyberspace is consistent with the unassuming posture they have in perceived physical space.

This positioning in the common mental landscape of Nevsky Prospekt is key to the manner in which the Lutheran Church and St. Catherine’s commemorate their history. Upon entering St. Catherine’s, the noise of Nevsky Prospekt quickly dies away and is replaced by the tranquility and modest grace of a typical urban Roman Catholic Church. At the threshold between the foyer and the church itself are a few plaques in both Cyrillic and Roman letters commemorating those who were buried in the church, as well as a short timeline of the Church’s history. This is all very similar to what is to be found online. However, in the midst of the renovated church are two memorials to the predations of the Soviet period. Both transepts house an altarpiece unaltered from its condition when the church was returned to its parishioners. There are a few words on each piece, but the visual impact of the crumbling piles of stone against the well-kept and gleaming church is powerful enough to provoke consideration of acts against religion of all creeds.

The Lutheran Church is home to a significantly more thorough commemoration project, perhaps due to its larger congregation. Throughout the building that contains meeting halls, classrooms, chapels, and the main church hall for its congregation are many posters, each about the height of a person, that tell the history of Germans in St. Petersburg, from their arrival at the behest of Peter the Great, through World War II, and all the way to today. These posters are in either Russian or German, suggesting an internal focus to the commemoration once again. Perhaps most importantly, though the main church hall has been significantly renovated, with seating, an altar, and a band area, the stands remain from the church’s days as a swimming pool. Additionally, the acoustics of the space have been forever altered by its former use, creating a somewhat jarring disconnect between the matter of a church service and the ambience of an indoor swimming pool.

In the case of both churches, commemoration occurs internally and is similarly directed internally, allowing commemoration to continue without impediment from a Russian Orthodox Church at the elbow of the Russian Government. The history of the community can be transmitted within community with the privacy granted to the communities by remaining externally silent. Such a subtle approach to charged memories of repression grants non-Orthodox Christian sects in St. Petersburg the latitude to continue to practice their faiths how they choose. Though the situation might, perhaps, be different in another city, or in the provinces, the minority religious communities of St. Petersburg are able to keep memory most vibrant by keeping it quiet, and they continue to add to the varied cultural makeup of St. Petersburg, as they have since their foundation.

Works cited