Religious Persecution & the St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral (Celia Metzger)

For over 250 years, the St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral (Nikolo-Bogoyavlenskii Morskoy Sobor)has been revered as one of the oldest, largest, and most important Orthodox Christian churches in St. Petersburg. This church has remained functioning since its completion in 1760, even throughout the Soviet period of religious persecution. In addition, the cathedral’s icon of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, both the patron saint of the cathedral and a spiritual protector of Russia, contains a fragment of the saint’s relics. Orthodox Christians believe that this endows the icon with holy properties, making the St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral a center of Orthodox spirituality in the city of St. Petersburg. As a result, this cathedral is steeped in rich history and has long held an irrefutably important place in the hearts of St. Petersburg’s inhabitants. But how has 20th century Soviet persecution shaped contemporary self-fashioning and perception of the St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral, particularly in regard to its role as a holy site? After examining numerous historical writings and conducting in-depth interviews with church leaders and Orthodox Christians, I argue that the cathedral’s history of resilience under Soviet anti-religious persecution has cemented its reputation as a bastion of Orthodox spirituality, a major influence on the St. Petersburg community, and a miracle-working site.

The question of why the St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral and its icon have the reputation they do and how the Soviet era of persecution shaped this reputation is very important to many facets of everyday Russian life and culture. For one, Orthodox Christianity is the dominant religion in Russia, with approximately 70.6% of Russians identifying as such as of 2010 (PEW-Templeton). Furthermore, scholars claim that icon veneration has long been a method of resistance for Russian Orthodox Christians, as such practices were persecuted even during imperial times, from the 17th-19th centuries, in an effort to modernize the country (Alter Icons 11). Since religious activity was heavily persecuted during Soviet times, this remained a way of rebellion against the state. Miracle-working icons are particularly mysterious in this respect, as they are centers of spiritual energy for the faithful, even to an international degree, but during the Soviet Union such sites were destroyed and mocked (Wynot 20). Now that religious tolerance of Orthodox Christianity has been restored and the church has successfully reintegrated itself into society, it’s unclear what icons and the holy sites that house them mean to everyday Russians now. This project hopes to answer this question, particularly with respect to how the era of Soviet persecution shaped this reputation, which lies deep at the heart of modern Russian Orthodoxy. After exploring the history of the cathedral and the origins of its modern-day fame, this paper will analyze the sources narrating this history, contemporary perceptions of the cathedral from native and international perspectives, and the history of the miracle-working icon of St. Nicholas and how the cathedral’s history has shaped the reputation of this holy site.

Unfortunately, there is not much written by scholars about the St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral. It is uncertain why this is, considering how important the cathedral has been to St. Petersburg and the Orthodox community in Russia as a whole. However, one explanation is that after the fall of the Soviet Union, much attention was directed to restoring churches that had been destroyed or shut down, and it’s possible that the St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral has suffered neglect because of this (Mitrokhin & Nuritova 295-6). Nonetheless, due to this lack of scholarly research focusing on the cathedral itself, this paper primarily focuses on analyzing multiple primary sources, mainly interviews, church materials and pamphlets, and personal observations. In order to interpret these observations, this paper also relies on the support of secondary resources mainly in the form of scholarly research on icons and religious practices in Orthodox Christianity.

Pivotal scholar of memory studies Maurice Halbwachs claims that memory is social and passed down to younger generations from the older, thus continuing specific versions of history and creating a collective memory (Halbwachs). As for this paper’s topic in particular, it has been said that, “The St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral is one of the oldest temples in St. Petersburg – the living history of our city and its modernity, merged together” (Metropolit Sankt-Peterburgskiy i Ladonski 1). Therefore, it is clear that, in order to fully understand the St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral of today, its reputation as a miracle-working site, and the collective memory surrounding it, it is necessary to thoroughly examine its history and the history of its icon. However, it is important to first note that the only available narrative of the cathedral’s complete history comes from the church itself, both from the cathedral’s official website and church journalism. As a result, the following information comes from a synthesis of such sources, in addition to the research of one scholar with close ties to the church.


Commissioned in 1752 by Tsarina Elizabeth and completed in 1760, St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral can be found in Nikolskaya Square, approximately a 10-minute walk from the Mariinsky Theater. As St. Petersburg was a young city with a new navy during the time of the cathedral’s founding, many turned to St. Nicholas, the patron saint of travelers and sailors in particular, which may explain why this cathedral was dedicated to him (Nikolo-Bogoyavlenskii Morskoy Sobor). The cathedral to this day serves as a memorial to the navy and features many monuments to sailors who died or were lost at sea. In the centuries before the revolution, many memorial services were held for the navy and those in power, namely generals and tsars, and many services were conducted in honor of naval victories as well (M. V. Shkarovsky, “Nikolo-Bogoyavlensky”). Unfortunately, not much else is written about the church in its years before the revolution.

However, much more has been recorded about the trials it endured at the hands of the Soviet government after the Bolshevik Revolution. According to St. Petersburg archivist M. V. Shkarovsky, the church faced opposition by the new atheistic social order even before the 1917 Revolution, and by 1919 valuable holy instruments were already being confiscated (Shkarovsky, “Sobor” 17). In December of 1921, the clergy was ordered by the Soviet government to cease and desist from all church activities, but they resisted. According to Shkarovsky, many members of the clergy quickly became leaders amongst their community by gathering funds for restoration of the church and serving on underground religious councils (“Nikolo-Bogoyavlensky”). Many of these figures suffered arrest, torture, exile, and even execution for these efforts. This often led to an increase in resistance — when Archpriest Vladimir Rybakov of the St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral died from torture at the hands of the state on March 20, 1934, over 2000 people attended his funeral (Shkarovsky, “Sobor” 20). Despite this resistance and involvement in the community, by 1941 the St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral was one of only 21 churches left in the entire Moscow Patriarchate, a significant decrease from before the 1917 Revolution (Shkarovsky, “Nikolo-Bogoyavlensky”).

The church’s history during World War II is also integral to its modern-day significance, as it gained major influence. For one, religious sentiment and activity increased during these years (Shkarovsky, “Nikolo-Bogoyavlensky”). Because the St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral was one of only five churches left in Leningrad by 1941, the same year the Nazi powers began to invade Russia, it became a center of religious activity during the war and even held daily services throughout the infamous Siege of Leningrad. At this time, the Leningrad diocese helped to raise money for the defense of its city, and the St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral contributed approximately 30% of these funds, more than almost any other church (Shkarovsky, “Sobor” 23). In honor of these achievements, for the first time under Soviet Power, the state awarded 12 government prizes to members of the clergy, including many members of the St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral (Shkarovsky, “Nikolo-Bogoyavlensky”). Although the church suffered damage from the battles and was even hit by three aerial shells in one day, it stood proud as one of the few remaining, functioning churches in Leningrad and was even recognized by the anti-religious government.

While the fact that this narrative comes primarily from the church itself can be problematic, it can also clarify what areas of its history the church wishes to highlight. For example, one small magazine published by the church summarizes the history of the St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral, beginning not at the cathedral’s founding, but at the birth of St. Nicholas himself. This narrative recounts the stories of both St. Nicholas and Prince Vladimir, canonized as a saint for baptizing Russia in Orthodoxy in the 10th century. It is only after these stories that the history of the St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral begins. By recounting the story of this cathedral in the context of the long history of Orthodoxy, particularly alongside these pivotal figures, this narrative gives the cathedral great importance in the timeline of Orthodox Christianity.

In addition, most texts outlining the church’s history focus mainly on the Soviet period, particularly the mid 10’s to late 40’s. Notably, it is in these years that the church’s suffering was greatest and its victories of resistance most evident. Both the secondary-source article and church publication from Shkarovsky focus almost exclusively on this period, emphasizing how much this cathedral’s reputation is tied to its past of resistance. Because Shkarovsky has close ties with the church and some of his research has been sponsored by it, his focused attention on this period further indicates how important it is to the church (Pospielovsky). Through this narrative, it seems that these years truly solidified the cathedral’s importance to the St. Petersburg community and earned it the respect of its inhabitants, religious or not.

As for the notable figures mentioned in these texts, such as Archpriest Vladimir Rybakov, the inclusion of their efforts, triumphs, and sometimes even their untimely ends emphasizes the church’s influence and importance during the harshest period of religious persecution under Soviet power. However, the modern-day church also has this to say:

But the naval cathedral of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker was not closed a day from the very beginning of its existence. Whom to thank for this – courageous parishioners and priests or city authorities – is not so important. More importantly, not only the silhouette of the heroic and magnificent Elizabethan baroque was preserved, but also the soul of the cathedral, its spiritual tradition … -Metropolitan Vladimir of St. Petersburg(Shkarovsky, “Sobor” 16)

That is, rather than honor the acts of individuals who helped keep the cathedral functioning, the church prefers to focus on the preservation of old traditions and the atmosphere of the cathedral, which they claim has been kept alive due to their history of uninterrupted church life. Therefore, it is the history of resilience under Soviet persecution, contributions to the St. Petersburg community, and preservation of the old ways, dating back to St. Nicholas himself nearly 2 millennia ago, that forms the basis of the collective memory around the St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral.

While this examination of church narrative was a key part in my research, I also wanted to hear the opinions of ordinary citizens to get a better grasp on the true influence this cathedral has had on its city and everyday residents. Thus, I conducted an interview with Natalia Evgenievna, a Russian-as-a-foreign-language teacher at St. Petersburg State University and an Orthodox Christian. When asked what she knew about the cathedral, she said that it was one of the oldest and grandest temples in the city. In addition, she mentioned that, as it was made in the style of Russian baroque, it is the second most popular cathedral in St. Petersburg for artists to draw, right after St. Isaac’s Cathedral, thus making it a visual landmark in the city. After visiting many stores in St. Petersburg, I can attest that the image of this cathedral can be found on various souvenirs, from calendars to postcards. Although Natalia did not choose this cathedral as her own personal place of worship, she clearly held a great respect for it. She was also very aware of the miracle-working icon that it housed, saying that it was famous in the city (Krylova, 23 June 2018).


The St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral’s page on TripAdvisor also features similar sentiments. The cathedral has an average of 4.5 out of 5 stars, accrued from 425 reviews by tourists from all over the world (TripAdvisor). In addition to remarking on the cathedral’s stunning visuals, many tourists, religious or not, describe the church as having a “special atmosphere,” different and more intimate when compared to the more touristy religious sites, like St. Isaac’s Cathedral or the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. Reviewer Viajeros9 from Florida, US comments, “This was the only cathedral we visited that felt like the Real Deal. Most of the churches and cathedrals seemed more like ‘cultural centers’ but not (the) Naval Cathedral” (TripAdvisor).Multiple reviews attribute this “special atmosphere” to the fact that the church never closed down during the Soviet Union and is still a functioning church. Plan41 from Hyderabad, India writes, “Our hearty congratulations to the authorities responsible for preserving its pristine and lasting glory!” (TripAdvisor) From these reviews, one can sense a feeling of marvel at the cathedral’s long history and preserved spiritual atmosphere.

In order to verify these observations for myself, I visited the St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral multiple times, analyzing its architecture, icons, services, and how the people within interacted with the church. The church itself is split into two halls of worship: the lower chapel, where smaller services are held, and the upper chapel, where the main services take place. Gold gilding can be seen everywhere in both chapels and even on the exterior. As for its visitors, I observed many religious supplicants and groups of tourists flocking here on excursions with guides. In fact, the church receives so much traffic that the lower chapel is split in two by a heavy-duty chain, separating the entrance from the main site of worship and the stairway to the upper chapel, with signs across banning unprepared tourists from entering further or taking photographs.Like many other cathedrals in the area, almost every surface is adorned with icons. As for the miracle-working icon of St. Nicholas itself, it was undoubtedly the most popular icon housed in the lower chapel. In front of certain icons was placed a receptacle for candles, as, according to Orthodox tradition, lighting a candle before an icon is a method of prayer. The receptacle before the icon of St. Nicholas was nearly full of lit candles, while all the others had much fewer, including even the icon of the Mother of God. In order to pray before and kiss the icon, once again according to Orthodox tradition, there was a small platform in front of the icon, and one had to stand in line for one’s turn to approach it. While there weren’t many people in the chapel during the off hours when I visited the lower chapel, almost all the religious visitors were venerating icons, particularly the one of St. Nicholas. What really spoke volumes, though, was the condition of the platform in front of this icon: the wood had been scuffed from the shoes of supplicants so much that it was damaged beyond repair. It became clear just how important this icon was to the cathedral — but why?

One hypothesis is that the icon contains the holy relics of St. Nicholas himself, an important religious artifact, especially after the purging of many holy relics from Russia during the Soviet era (Wynot 20). However, after visiting dozens of churches in both St. Petersburg and Moscow, I noticed many other icons that were imbedded with the relics of their respective saints, but these were not well-known by the St. Petersburg community. Furthermore, according to the St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral’s website, the relics were not installed as part of the icon until 1947, very recently in the church’s history. In light of this, the question arose: what is it about this particular icon of St. Nicholas that makes it so important, or in the words of Natalia Evgenievna, even famous (Krylova)?

After speaking with Margo Sinkevitch, an Orthodox Christian and visitor of over a dozen miraculous icons, I learned that many miracle-working icons are famous for their unique histories. She recounted stories of icons moving and weeping tears of myrrh upon notable interactions with supplicants. There were also stories of icons, such as the icon of St. Nino in Bodbe housed in Georgia,which were abused during the Soviet Union by non-believers, who were later punished for their deeds. Margo even shared personal stories of miracles within her own family, from a godson healed from a life-threatening disease to the conception of her own son, who was born after many years of unfruitful attempts (Sinkevitch, 12 August 2018). Amidst all these stories, there was no connection to relics — rather, it was the unique history that made its mark on the icon’s reputation. The question arose: what is the history of the miraculous icon of St. Nicholas? Particularly, how does its importance relate to the reputation and history of the St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral? Has it been influenced by the cathedral’s previous persecution by the Soviet state?

To answer these questions, I sought out Father Vitaly of the St. Nicholas Cathedral. Serving the cathedral since 2008, both by performing religious services and teaching Orthodox youth, he has received awards for his contributions to the religious community. During our interview, I asked him many questions about the cathedral’s history and the icon of St. Nicholas.

Considering that one common aspect that many miracle-working icons share is a unique backstory, passed down from generation to generation, I sought out to ascertain whether the cathedral’s icon of St. Nicholas the Miracle-worker was any different (Shevzov 615). In my interview with Father Vitaly, he told me that the icon has been a part of the cathedral since its founding over 250 years ago. Made in Greece in the 17th century, the icon was a gift from the Greeks in honor of the cathedral’s founding. The icon reportedly traveled by river, honoring St. Nicholas’ status as the patron saint of sailors and travelers.

Another commonality shared by miracle-working icons is special holidays for venerating it to honor the saint it represents (Shevzov 620). Naturally, I inquired about St. Nicholas’ feast days and how the icon is used during these times. Father Vitaly answered that the icon of St. Nicholas is used as a central part of the service during two important holidays in honor of St. Nicholas: the 19th of December and 22nd of May. On these days, the icon is removed from its protective case in the iconostasis and carried around the cathedral in a procession, after which parishioners may approach the icon and venerate it. These holidays attract huge gatherings from all over Russia and even the world, making it a center for international religious tourism. Celebrations like this harken back to Orthodox traditions during the late imperial period, when miracle-working icons were paraded across the country to be venerated and used in processions (Shevzov 614). Even in those times of limited transportation, these icons would attract hundreds of visitors from all over the world. In addition, these icons helped to create a sense of community responsibility and closeness (Shevzov 620). It seems as though the St. Nicholas Cathedral hopes to continue these traditions: the church’s Sunday school, banned under Soviet power but flourishing now, passes these old spiritual customs on to the next generation (Kirilina).

Finally, according to scholars Gatrall and Greenfield, it is the church and prayerful atmosphere therein that give the icon its importance. That is, if the icon had been confiscated during the 20th century and housed in a museum instead, like many other icons at the time, it wouldn’t carry the same spiritual importance as it does today in the cathedral’s iconostasis. This rings true when compared to many other icons and relics I observed which do not carry the same spiritual significance after being rehoused in their original churches post-Perestroika. In light of this, I wanted to explore how the history of the icon connected to the history of the cathedral, and how its reputation as a miracle-working icon has been affected by this. Father Vitaly, when asked what miracles the icon has performed, replied that the church does not record these events — in Eastern Orthodoxy, miracles are more generally accepted as everyday occurrences. However, after saying this, he began to recount the history of the church — through its persecution under Soviet power to its survival through the Siege of Leningrad. He explained that people would kneel before the icon and pray day and night for the city to be saved. He then said, “The most important miracle worked through this icon was the preservation of this church — that it was never closed down and remained standing through the war.”

Aside from Father Vitaly, many other members of the clergy at the St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral also attribute these victories to miracles worked through the icon. When recounting the history of the icon and the cathedral, these stories are intertwined and nearly always focused on the persecution endured by its community. In an article in Voda Zhivaya, the official news journal for the St. Petersburg Diocese, Metropolitan Vladimir says, “The Cathedral never suffered from moral damage” during the Soviet era (Metropolit Sankt-Peterburgskii i Ladonskii 1). Considering the interview with Father Vitaly, it seems apparent that this lack of “moral damage” relates to the preservation of this icon and the miracles it is believed to have worked.

Upon reflection, it appears the importance of this icon is tied to its long history with the church and the larger city of St. Petersburg as a whole, rather than the presence of holy relics. Amidst the persecution, executions, and wars of the 20th century, the icon remained a constant. During these hardships, the congregation and even those outside the church came to the cathedral to pray before the icon. Today, in retrospect, these victories of Orthodox resilience are attributed to miracles worked through this very icon of St. Nicholas, relics present or not. According to scholar Cherie Woodworth, icons are dynamic objects whose physical properties and collective memories change over time. Therefore, it seems that this icon has been given great significance by the Orthodox community as a result of the changes the cathedral and the icon bore witness to under Soviet power.

For the St Nicholas Naval Cathedral has certainly endured many changes throughout the years — from persecution by the state to bombings in WWII. It went from being one of hundreds of functioning churches in imperial St. Petersburg to becoming one of only five remaining temples of worship in Soviet Leningrad. Today, though, it seems that these hardships have only reinforced the cathedral’s steadfast image as an unchanging symbol of Orthodox spirituality, and its reputation as a miracle-working site through its icon. Russian Orthodox are proud of the cathedral’s history of resilience against the state, and this powerful history lives on today in the collective memory surrounding all aspects of the cathedral, including its icon and its reputation as a miracle-working site. In conclusion, the contemporary reputation and perception of the St Nicholas Naval Cathedral as a protector of Russian Orthodox tradition, an influencer on the city of St. Petersburg and international Orthodox community, and miraculous site rely greatly on its history of resilience throughout the hardships of the 20th century.

Photo gallery of the official St. Nicholas Cathedral Website

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