The story of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior (also called Christ the Redeemer) begins in 1812. Tsar Alexander I made a vow that year to honor Russia’s victory over France with a cathedral dedicated to Christ the Savior. On September 10, 1839, ground was broken for a massive, Russo-Byzantine cathedral designed by the architect Konstantin Ton. Leading Russian artists, including Vasily Surikov, Ivan Kramskoy and Vasily Vereshchagin, decorated the interior. The construction was financed by popular donations and lasted for nearly fifty years. For the nation, the cathedral became the symbol of Russian glory, faith and compassion for its war heroes. The cathedral was consecrated on May 26, 1883—on the same day as the coronation of Tsar Alexander III. Later, Tsar Nicholas II commissioned an immense statue of his father, Alexander III, that was placed near the cathedral to commemorate the Romanov tercentenary in 1912.
Fifty years later, the Soviet state slated the cathedral for destruction, to make way for a huge Palace of Soviets—a 420 meter high skyscraper (12 meters taller than the Empire State Building) that would have included a 100 meter statue of Lenin (with 3-meter-long fingers). On December 5, 1931, after two attempts to explode the cathedral failed, a third succeeded. Few original decorations were preserved—some bas-reliefs from the interior have been displayed on the walls of Moscow’s Donskoy monastery for many years. Facing stones were used around the city, in metro stations and on the Lenin Library annex.
As it turned out, the Second World War and a leaky foundation (117 springs were found flowing here) thwarted Stalin’s ambitious schemes for the Palace of Soviets. Eleven stories of girders had been erected by the end of 1939, but the steel was needed for the war effort (including for tank traps outside the city). The foundation slowly filled in and became a popular swimming and fishing spot. It was first filled in with dirt in 1957. Then, in 1960, Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, brought Soviet architectural dreams down to earth. An open-air, heated swimming pool, the largest in Europe, was built on the former site of the cathedral. For nearly thirty years, Muscovites would swim there even when temperatures sank to –30o C. Huge clouds of steam from the pool bewildered passing tourists and assaulted the delicate collections at the nearby Pushkin Museum.
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