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"A new cathedral to war Putin’s folly, or a magnificent building?"

Is this huge new cathedral to war Putin’s folly, or a magnificent, unique building that tells a lot about the East-West divide?

A huge glass and camouflage green cathedral dedicated to Christ’s Resurrection and the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany is being built at Patriot Park, a venue run by Russia’s Defence Ministry in a forest near Moscow that is used for arms shows and patriotic rallies.

..."The huge cathedral (which can accommodate up to 6,000 people and has six gilded domes) is dedicated to the glory and memory of the armed services, and cost around six billion rubles ($86 million). Steps are made of steel from captured Nazi tanks. "

The magnificent six billion ruble building in a forest outside Moscow can accommodate 6,000 people and is an unashamed paean to Russian military might. Would any Western nation dare erect such a public spectacle?

14th of June 2020 was consecrated Russia’s newest public buildings, the Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces, Moscow. It is a grand statement of Vladimir Putin’s vision of what is most important in Russia: Russian Orthodox faith, national pride and the armed services.

The huge cathedral (which can accommodate up to 6,000 people and has six gilded domes) is dedicated to the glory and memory of the armed services, and cost around six billion rubles ($86 million). Steps are made of steel from captured Nazi tanks. The colour schemes of stained-glass windows replicate those of military decorations. The architecture and interior design (with its extensive use of gilding and iconography) makes the cathedral very clearly Eastern Orthodox, with no concessions to modernist taste. The height of the cross on the main dome is 95 meters above ground level. It is located in a forest on the outskirts of Moscow and contains extensive symmetrical landscape features echoing the traditional layout of a church.

The architecture is Russian Revival, using aspects of the Romanov style and traditional Russian Orthodox ecclesiastical design. The opulent decoration and detailing marks a decisive rejection of USSR-era functionalism (The Stalin-era saw a brief, limited return to historical styles, which can still be seen today in the Moscow Metro). It is defiantly not postmodern (the prevailing international style) and this can be read as a sign of an attachment to the native Russian form of architecture, particularly in church design. Amalgams of tradition and innovations – such as LED lighting and areas of glass ceilings in the new cathedral – are dismissed as “pastiche” and “inauthentic.”

As an assertion of confidence and clarity, the project is impressive. How accurately the project reflects social, economic and geo-political conditions of contemporary Russia is for each of us – and history – to judge. Not having visited the cathedral, I am not in a position to say how well the building works architecturally. Whatever one’s personal taste, the cathedral will become a touchstone for how we view this era of Russian history (favorably or otherwise).

For those of us who are unlikely to visit Moscow, the reception of the cathedral reflects back at us the question “So what will the architecture of your society tell history?” In the West, we maintain our historic cathedrals and build art museums as new sites of sacred contemplation. Our most expensive buildings are airports and super bridges, which must eventually be replaced. Are we content to allow our message to posterity to be that of shopping malls and airports?

Our cities are dominated by hotels and office towers built by foreign architectural firms in an international style, funded by multinational corporations, which are not designed to last more than 50 years. It is common knowledge that many firms build mediocre, unoriginal buildings deliberately so that they will not become listed buildings of national interest. It is more convenient for owners to demolish ageing buildings than to maintain them.

Our urban structures are postmodern designs meant to be clever rather than serious; they are essentially interchangeable. The office towers of Shanghai, Qatar, London and Lagos could be swapped and we would barely notice the difference. Like, love or loathe the Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces, it is a unique building in a specific location serving a constituency and it is intended to last. The architects have some faith that this building belongs somewhere rather than anywhere. How history treats it, we cannot yet tell.

Estimates of the Soviet Union’s losses, both military and civilian, in the Second World War, range from 20 million to 40 millon people. The war effort is promoted by both the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church as one of the most sacred events in Russian history and has become central to the close ties between the two institutions.

According to the official Tass news agency, the new church “will become a spiritual, learning and teaching and educational center” that will also include “an exhibition devoted to the history of the establishment of the Russian state and armed forces”.

Some of Russia’s main churches are devoted to military themes, such as the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, originally built to commemorate Russia’s 1812 campaign against Napoleon’s invasion, and the Kronstadt Naval Cathedral near St. Petersburg.

“Icons of the holy protectors of Russian warriors” will be located in the new church,” Tass quoted Col. Gen. Kartapolov as saying at the 4 September meeting with Shoigu. “The main church will be decorated with frescoes of battle scenes from military history and scriptural texts.”

The church’s altars will be dedicated to the patron saints of Russia’s military, including the Prophet Elijah for the aerospace and airborne troops and St. Barbara the Great Martyr for the strategic missile forces.

Shoigu said that construction was funded by voluntary contributions.

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