Onion Domes: Layers of Orthodoxy in Russia

Cathedrals of the Russian Orthodox Church are iconic and instantly recognisable. The distinctive domes of St Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square and the Church on Spilled Blood in St Petersburg attract visitors from all over the world. These famous onion domes sprout up all over Russia, particularly in the west of the country, where the towns tend to be older and more numerous. To the north east of Moscow, cities such as Yaroslavl, Vladimir and Suzdal make up the ‘Golden Ring’, ancient towns which played a large part in the formation of the Russian Orthodox Church. These picturesque towns are largely a source of tourism, but in recent years Russia’s Orthodox Church has been undergoing something of a revival. 

Cathedral of St. Theodore Ushakov, Saransk

Cathedral of St. Theodore Ushakov, Saransk

Russia and religion have a chequered past. Orthodoxy arrived in around 988 AD, when Vladimir the Great chose to introduce Christianity from Byzantium rather than Rome into the then pagan Kievan Rus’. During Ivan the Terrible’s reign in the 16th century, the church was given more power to combat the threat of Christianity in Europe. However, members of the clergy were quashed throughout the Soviet Union as the bolsheviks sought to crush religion. Priests were the target of Lenin and Stalin’s terror, and it is estimated that around 200,000 were killed. 

Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, St Petersburg 

Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, St Petersburg 

However, despite the Party’s best efforts to infiltrate the minds of its citizens, it was unable to crush religious thought. What is more, the glorification of Party leaders, Lenin and Stalin in particular, arguably served to perpetuate religious sentiment. Fortunately, not all churches were destroyed and many of those that remain are spectacular. The towns on the Golden Ring were largely untouched by Soviet industrialisation and retain their authentic, old-fashioned feel. The town of Sergiev Posad, less than two hours north of Moscow, is home to an impressive fortress, containing several cathedrals, black-robed clergymen, Chinese tourists, and old women coming to pray. 

Assumption Cathedral, Sergiev Posad

Assumption Cathedral, Sergiev Posad

Nowadays, there are strong links between the church and the state. The church benefits financially from the state, while the state uses the church as a conservative influence on government. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that the increase in people self-identifying as Russian Orthodox is part of a wider nationalist trend, and not necessarily one inspired by religion. The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, has supported Russian expansion into Crimea and eastern Ukraine, and has close ties to Vladimir Putin. 

Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Moscow

Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Moscow

Putin likes to be seen in church. He was recently filmed visiting relics of St Nicholas at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. The relics were on loan from Greece, a deal negotiated between Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis when they met in Cuba in 2016. Putin’s overt religious displays sit well with the more conservative voters, especially this who attend church regularly themselves. 

In 2012, the Pussy Riot scandal became headline news not just in Russia, but around the world as well. The ruthless arrest of the Pussy Riot performers led to large protests and international condemnation. The line from the Kremlin was that these female activists were western puppets and that Russia was under threat from liberalism, in a bid to drum up more nationalist and conservative sentiment. When the protestors turned their attention to Patriarch Kirill and his alleged links to corruption, the Kremlin was given another card to play: that these protestors were blasphemous, anti-Orthodox, and therefore anti-Russia. Naturally, this helped the president to garner yet more conservative support.

St. Basil's Cathedral on Red Square, Moscow

St. Basil's Cathedral on Red Square, Moscow

Whether or not Putin’s increasingly overt religious sentiment has influenced more people to turn to religion it is difficult to say. There has certainly been a rise in ‘Orthodox Atheism’. In other words, those who uphold some of the church’s values, yet don’t believe in god or attend church. Many households have an icon on the wall, but perhaps don’t practice religion. It does seem to be the case, however, that large swathes of the population respect the religious views and traditions of the Orthodox Church. 

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Please enjoy this little video showing just a handful of the churches and cathedrals I have visited in the past few months. The music is a traditional folk song, Kalinka, with an amusing little twist at the end!