Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior was built to immortalize Russia’s 1812 victory over Napoleon. After the French retreat, Alexander I wanted to show “gratitude to divine providence for saving Russia from the doom that overshadowed her.” Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture was commissioned to mark its opening. Half a century later, Stalin blew it up in order to build a monument to Communism that reached to the sky. Unfortunately for him, the ground was too boggy; it never got built and ended up an open-air swimming pool.
This patch of ground personifies Russia and its tortuous history. And the story was by no means done. As soon as the Soviet system collapsed, Boris Yeltsin decided to rebuild the church. The marble and gold monstrosity that now stands there was the venue where Pussy Riot made their name with their “Punk Prayer,” as well as the place where Patriarch Kirill now blesses conscripts on their way to a likely death on the battlefields of Ukraine.
Lucy Ash starts her book, The Baton and The Cross, at this very spot. Using stories of individual priests, individual churches and individual cities, Ash aims to trace the story of the Russian Orthodox Church back to its roots one thousand years ago and to show that, whatever the violent and extreme changes of political power, those at the top of the church have done whatever it takes to curry favor. Kirill has described Putin’s leadership as “a miracle from God.” President and Patriarch have struck a mutually beneficial deal that provides the former with spiritual cover in exchange for Kremlin influence and protection. Ash’s presentation at the IWM painted a picture of the Cathedral and traced the strands of the Russian Church down the ages.
Lucy Ash is an award winning presenter of radio and TV documentaries. She has won the Sony Gold, Amnesty International, the One World Radio Documentary Award, New York Festivals Radio Award and Radio Story of the Year award from the Foreign Press Association. Her current work on The Baton and The Cross explores the impact the Orthodox Church is having on Russia, its view of itself and its role in the world.
Misha Glenny, IWM Rector, provided comments and moderated the discussion.