02 июня, 2023

Fr. Christopher Hill. Bearing Witness to Orthodoxy: St. Catherine’s OCA Church in Moscow

Zamoskvorechie (‘the-area-beyond-the-River-Moscow’) epitomizes Orthodox Moscow, the Russian capital famed before the 1917 Revolution for its ‘forty-times-forty’ churches. The quite courtyards and nineteenth-century manor houses, occasionally broken by the characteristic onion domes of Russian Orthodox churches, convey more than anywhere else in Moscow the atmosphere of a patriarchal way of life, of the Moscow of her priests, of bells calling the faithful to vespers or the Divine Liturgy, the smell of incense and the sonorous chanting of Old Church Slavonic.

The names of the churches are indicative of the merchant guilds who patronized first their construction and then their maintenance: the Resurrection Church of the Barrel Makers, St. Nicholas’ Church of the Blacksmiths, the Resurrection Church of the Coin Minters… If one walks southwards from the Kremlin along Zamoskvorechie’s most important thoroughfare Bolshaya Ordynka St. (until the sixteenth century the highway to the Tartar ‘Orda’ or Golden Horde headquarters) one will encounter one such church before reaching the end of the street, St. Catherine’s Church ‘na Vspolie’ (‘in-the-Fields’), built in the mid-eighteenth century on the territory of the region’s cosmetics guild.

The cosmetics merchants’ settlement was originally established in the sixteenth century by order of Tsarina Anastasia Romanovna, while an adjacent church dedicated to St. Catherine was built by order of Tsarina Irina Feodorovna. A seventeenth-century chronicler tells us that in 1612, during the Time of Troubles when the Russian dynasty was threatened by Polish and Lithuanian adventurers, the site became a battleground between Russian soldiers and Lithuanian hetman Jan Karl Khotkevich. Having endured defeat once at the hands of the Russians, the redoubtable hetman dug himself and his troops into a fortification on St. Catherine’s parish territory. In the afternoon of 24 August 1612 the Russians attacked and drove the invaders out: ‘the bloodshed was great and awesome1, writes a contemporary eyewitness, ‘and out of shame the enemy scuttled all the way back to Lithuania’.

The original church, which was made of wood and may have suffered during the battle, later had a side-chapel dedicated to St. Nicholas dating from 1636. By 1657 the church is indicated as being made of stone with an additional side-chapel dedicated to St. Theodore Stratelates (known since 1625 and later dismantled). In 1696 the church underwent a renewal and a new antimins (a rectangular cloth upon which the Divine Liturgy is served and showing an image of Christ in the burial tomb and with relics of saints sewn into it) was presented to the church.

The eighteenth century saw the parish church of St. Catherine’s undergo major changes and reconstruction. The style was no longer that of the medieval onion domes and elaborate Oriental low slung gables. The order of the day in architecture, inherited from the Westernization that Tsar Peter the Great had subjected his vast empire to, was European baroque and rococo, pavilion gardens and aristocratic elegance. This tradition was continued by the Empress Catherine II the Great, who, though German by nationality, had married into the Russian dynasty, adopted the Orthodox faith and inherited the throne in 1762 after a palace intrigue. Catherine never held Moscow in high esteem, condemning it as ‘the seat of sloth… full of symbols of fanaticism, churches, miraculous icons, priests and convents, side by side with thieves and brigands’. She visited this (in her view) semi-Asiatic city only a handful of times during her lifetime, preferring the vibrant court life of the northern capital St. Petersburg. Nevertheless, her reign left its mark on the city, not least of all through the new church dedicated to her patron saint Catherine of Sinai and executed by her favourite architect Karl Blank.

At present the parish of St. Catherine’s consists of two churches, the older summer (‘cold’, because it does not have heating) church in honour of the saint herself, and the winter (‘warm’, because it has heating) church, dating from the mid-nineteenth century. Construction on the summer church, commissioned by the empress and paid for by the state treasury, began on 25 May 1766 and was consecrated on 28 September 1767. The church combines Moscow baroque with elements of rococo. The imposing baroque iconostasis contained silver Royal Doors weighing approximately 130 kilograms and was erected by a craftsman by the name of Blokhin, who lived in the vicinity of the church. The icons in the iconostasis were painted at a slightly later period by artists D.G. Levitsky and V.I. Vasilevsky. The frescoes, like the icons, were painted by Levitsky in the naturalistic style that betrayed the prevalent Western influence on Russian church art. Levitsky later gained fame as the artist who painted the frescoes for the original Christ the Saviour Cathedral, a monumental structure built to commemorate the defeat of Napoleon in 1812 and Russia’s main church. Some of Levitsky’s work has been uncovered beneath a later layer of frescoes and can be seen in the northern transept of the church. The large rotunda, purely European in origin yet capped by the traditional Russian onion dome cupola and cross, dominates the exterior aspect of the church. On the interior walls of the dome there can be seen nineteenth century frescoes depicting the Meetng of Our Lord in the Temple. At the west entrance of the church a belfry towered over the architectural complex and dominated the Zamoskvorechie skyline.

Of especial interest are the outer metal railings of the territory of the church that were placed here under Blank’s supervision in the 1769. These ornate railings are a unique example of eighteenth-century Moscow metal work and are broken by stone columns topped by the imperial state symbol of Russia borrowed from Byzantium, the double-headed eagle. The double-headed eagles also crowned the main metal gates to the church, but were removed in the 1920s. Before their installation at St. Catherine’s, the railings fenced off Cathedral Square in the Moscow Kremlin between the Cathedral of the Archangel Michael and the Patriarchal Palace. They were forged during the reign of Peter the Great according to a design by H. Konrad and later transferred to St. Catherine’s by order of the Empress Catherine, thus making them the oldest extant structure of the present architectural ensemble. The railings and columns lend to the church an air of elegance procured by the then imperial penchant for imitating English pavilion parks and gardens.

In 1870-1872 the winter church was constructed with three altars: the main altar was dedicated to the Image of the Saviour-Not-Made-by-Hands (consecrated on 21 November 1872) and two side altars, dedicated to St. Nicholas (consecrated on 24 November of the same year) and St. Alexander Nevsky (consecrated on 10 November, also in the same year). The later church was executed according to a design by the architect P.P. Petrov, although some documents list the architect as one D.N. Chichagov. The bell tower was also enlarged during this period. Although containing few of the refined features of the earlier summer church, the architect did consciously build the new church in harmony with the style of the old. In 1879 the parish engaged the architect G. Ivanitsky to construct in the southwest part of its territory a two-storey retirement home for the widows of state councillors to replace an earlier wooden retirement home built in the 1750s. In the northwest corner of the church a rectory was also built.

By the turn of the century St. Catherine’s was one of the richest parishes in the area, with buildings extending along Bolshaya Ordynka St. and maintaining a large number of parish clergy. Among her parishioners was the Russian theologian, philosopher, poet and spiritual leader of the Slavophile movement Alexei Khomyakov, baptized here in 1804 and born in a house adjacent to the parish (the Israeli Embassy now stands on this site). At present it is the only parish church in Moscow dedicated to the great martyr Catherine and one of the few Russian Orthodox churches dedicated to women saints. The church’s existence before its closure in the Soviet period was crowned by pastoral visits and the celebration of the Divine Liturgy on St. Catherine’s Day (24 November Old Style, 7 December New Style) by the recently-elected Patriarch Tikhon (Belavin), canonized a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1989, a fact that would acquire providential meaning when the church would be reopened for worship after the collapse of the communist regime in the 1990s.

When the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia in 1917, the Church was the primary object of their hatred. The sufferings visited upon the Russian Orthodox Church in these years of militant atheism were unrivalled in history. Bishops, priests and ordinary believers, remnants of the old ‘reactionary’ imperial Russia, were declared enemies of the people by the Bolsheviks and shot in their tens of thousands. Church buildings were desecrated and blown up (including the aforementioned Christ the Saviour Cathedral), icons looted and destroyed, church property plundered ruthlessly. St. Catherine’s Church did not escape the communist terror. We may surmise that along with most of the parish clergy in Moscow St. Catherine’s priests were tried by a pseudo-legal Cheka commission and summarily executed. Soviet records show that on 6 April 1922 seventy two gold and silver objects weighing approximately 200 kilograms were confiscated from the church. In 1931 the church was closed completely and all of the icons stolen, save for the patronal icon of St. Catherine, which was transferred to the neighbouring the Resurrection Church of the Coin Minters. When this church was closed the icon was taken to the Church of Ss. Florus and Laurus, located some ten minutes’ walk away from St. Catherine’s. The fate of the icon became unknown after the closure of this church. The bell tower of St. Catherine’s was dismantled in 1931, while the two desecrated churches were used for profane purposes.

After its closure the church was used to house the offices of a machine equipment institute and up until the 1970s was used for living accommodation. The summer church was divided into three floors with communal flats. After the church was reopened for worship in 1994 it has not been uncommon for people to drop by and say that they used to live in the church, often poitning out the window to their old room. Indeed, one priest who was passing by dropped in to say that he had actually been born there! In the early 1980s the church buildings were turned over to the Igor Grabar State Restoration Centre which began restoration on the church — the green onion dome with a golden cross again appeared on the top of the church while the living accommodation was torn out and part of the frescoes on the wall were uncovered.

The collapse of the Soviet regime and the end of communism in Russia in the early 1990s changed the fortunes of the Russian Orthodox Church dramatically. The Church was now free to claim back its lost property and naturally St. Catherine’s Church was one of hundreds of places of worship to be formally returned to the Russian Orthodox Church. The collapse of communism also brought with other freedoms for the Church, not least of all the opportunity to establish closer ties with her sister Local Orthodox Churches. It was in 1992 that the first representative of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), Archpriest Daniel Hubiak, arrived in Moscow to set up a representation church (usually denoted by the Greek word ‘metachion’) to the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. Orthodox Christianity arrived on the American continent in 1794 through the efforts of Russian missionaries in Alaska. Cut off from the Mother Church after the Revolution of 1917, the Orthodox of America divided along ethnic lines, with the Russian Orthodox Church in America having no genuine contact with their brothers and sisters in Soviet Russia. Contacts were renewed in the 1960s and resulted in the granting of the Tome of Autocephaly to the young Orthodox Church in America in 1970. The agreement between the Russian Orthodox Church and the OCA provided for the establishment of a metachion and the advent of democracy in Russia was an opportune moment to realize this stage in the OCA’s growth.

OCA services were initially held in English in the bell tower Church of St. Symeon the Stylite at St. Daniel’s Monastery until a suitable church could used by the OCA in Russia. The lot fell on St. Catherine’s Church in-the-Fields because of its central location and size. On St. Catherine’s Day 1994 the first prayer service in the church in more than sixty years was conducted jointly by the primate of the Russian Orthodox Church His Holiness Alexy II, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia and the primate of the Orthodox Church in America His Beatitude Theodosius, Archbishop of Washington and Metropolitan of All America and Canada. Fr. Daniel Hubiak was appointed rector of the recently returned church.

Among the worshippers at this joyous occasion was Mikhail Vladimirovich Przhevalsky, grandson of the famous Russian explorer. Mr. Przhevalsky, now deceased, shared with the younger generation of new parishioners his memories of being an altar boy at St. Catherine’s before its closure by the communists. His most vivid recollections are of the visits to the parish by Patriarch Tikhon, who had earlier spent ten years of his episcopal career as head of the Russian Orthodox Church in the USA. It was St. Tikhon who gave his blessing to the first translations of the liturgical services from Church Slavonic into English and it was St. Tikhon who first considered the possibility of an autocephalous American Church. And now it was the turn of a living eyewitness to describe how this saintly bishop preached the word of God in a church that would come to represent the interests of Orthodox Americans in Moscow some seventy years later.

The OCA’s mission is to minister to English-speaking Orthodox Christians in Moscow. Among the regular parishioners there have been Americans, English, Australians, Dutch and Belgians, as well as Orthodox Christians from the conventionally more traditional Orthodox countries such as Greece, Serbia and Romania. The growing community is, of course, made up overwhelmingly of Russians of all ages and backgrounds. The OCA representation church in Moscow provides for them a unique window upon world-wide Orthodox, a means of coming to know the truth of the Orthodox adage that it is the faith, not nationality, that brings people together. St. Catherine’s OCA Church has become a byword in Moscow for the unity and the universality of the Holy Orthodox faith.

Nevertheless, the effects of the brutality meted out to the Orthodox Church in Russia for over a period of seventy years cannot be eradicated overnight. St. Catherine’s OCA Church shares with her sister Russian parishes not only the joys of spiritual regeneration but also the myriad tribulations that sudden freedom can bring. The communist bureaucracy has left a legacy of inertia, inefficiency and corruption that will take generations to overcome. This has entailed frustrating delays in the return of all of the church property. The shadow of the past still hangs over St. Catherine’s in the form of the rectory, which is now occupied by the Federal Security Service (the former KGB).

However, these considerations pale into insignificance when confronted by the mammoth cost of financing the church restoration project. The needs of the church far outweigh the sacrificial contributions that Russian parishioners make and have always made out of love for the Church. Economic reform in Russia in recent years has meant that prices for materials have soared to world levels or above, while the average monthly salary for Russians remains at the equivalent of $170. St. Catherine’s Church, while representing the interests of a Church from the most affluent country in the world, finds itself in the paradoxical situation of being one of the poorest parishes in Moscow. The needs of the church are formidable: a new iconostasis has to be constructed and new icons painted, the parish house needs major remodelling, new window frames are urgently required to replace the rotting old ones; the list can go on.

Yet it is the ardent belief of those who are labouring for the growth of St. Catherine’s OCA Church and her unique mission that with the grace of God these needs can be met so that she can truly be an embodiment of Universal Orthodoxy. The Byzantine double-headed eagles which adorn the surrounds of St. Catherine’s gazing in the direction of both East and West are an eloquent symbol of the spiritual bridge that is being formed between Orthodox of the old and new worlds. It is our hope that this bridge will last well into the next millennium.

Fr. Christopher Hill

This text was written in 2000. Since 2001, renovations have taken place at the church.