A Cathedral's Second Coming

Earlier this year, when former Russian president Boris Yeltsin lay in state in the dramatic Cathedral of Christ the Savior, his presence was a powerful symbol of the new Russia. The cathedral exists today thanks to Yeltsin himself, and the story behind it is a tumultuous epic.

The original structure was decreed by Alexander I to commemorate the "divine providence" of the Russian victory over Napoléon in 1812. The gigantic church, with its five golden domes, was funded in part by public donations—peasants came to drop their last savings into collection bowls—and finally consecrated in 1883 near the Kremlin. Lavishly ornamented with marble, granite, and precious stones, the interior was lined with plaques honoring the commanders and battles of Napoléon's defeat. Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture premièred here.

After the revolution the atheist masters of the Communist Kremlin denounced the structure as a monument to czarism, and in 1931, on Stalin's instructions, it was destroyed. In its place a 1,300-foot-high Palace of the Soviets was to be erected, crowned by a statue of Lenin. World War II put a stop to the scheme. Then in the late fifties Nikita Khrushchev commissioned the world's biggest open-air pool on the site, and for decades the steam rising from it wreathed the Kremlin.

Following the collapse of communism, Moscow's ambitious mayor Yuri Luzhkov and the Russian Orthodox Church campaigned to rebuild the structure exactly as was when it was first built. Some opposed the project as a fake and, at $360 million, obscene. But in 2000 the cathedral, thanks largely to Yeltsin's support, was completed. Now it stands as an unavoidable statement of the country's renewed pride.