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The Moscow Cathedral That Was Once a Swimming Pool

Cathedral of Christ the Saviour

The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour near Moskva river, Moscow. Photo credit: Valeri Potapova/Shutterstock.com

On the northern bank of the Moskva River, in Moscow, there stands one of the tallest Orthodox Christian church in the world—the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Two churches had stood here, one after the other, for the greater part of the last 150 years. In the intervening period, there was an enormous swimming pool in this place, the largest in the Soviet Union.

The Original Cathedral

After Napoleon’s disastrous campaign against Russia and the fatal walk back home in the middle of an unforgiving Russian winter, Tsar Alexander I vowed to build a cathedral in honor of Christ the Savior, because he believed it was the Lord’s divine providence that saved Russia from doom. The Tsar asked for a flamboyant Neoclassical design full of Freemasonic symbolism, and architect Aleksandr Lavrentyevich delivered it. But Alexander I’s successor, Nicholas I, was profoundly orthodox and he didn’t like the Neoclassicism and Freemasonry of the design. He had the blueprints altered—the new design took after Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. The original site for the cathedral, at Sparrow Hills, was also abandoned and a site closer to the Moscow Kremlin was chosen. Ground was broken in 1839, nearly three decades after Alexander I first expressed his desire to build the cathedral.

It took another forty years before the last scaffolding was taken down. The cathedral was consecrated in 1883.

Cathedral of Christ the Saviour

The old Cathedral of Christ the Saviour between 1883 and 1918.

Cathedral of Christ the Saviour

Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and Big Stone Bridge in Moscow, circa 1905.

The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was a marvelous building. Nicholas I employed some of the best Russian painters to embellish the interior. This itself took twenty years. The inner sanctum of the church was ringed by a two-floor gallery, its walls inlaid with rare sorts of marble, granite, and other stones. The ground floor of the gallery was made into a memorial dedicated to the Russian victory over Napoleon. The upper floor was occupied by church choirs. The giant dome of the cathedral was plated with a thin layer of gold.

But just 34 years after its sanctification, the October Revolution of 1917 overthrew the monarchy and a few years later the Soviet Union was born. The Bolsheviks carried an aggressive attitude towards religion—they did not believe it. Specifically, they did not like the Church controlling the state. So the first thing they did after coming to power was to eliminate religion and promote atheism. Religious property was confiscated, believers were harassed, and clergymen deported by the thousands to labor camps in Siberia.

The grand Cathedral standing near the Kremlin became an ugly sight. Still it survived another ten years. But in 1931, on the orders of Joseph Stalin, the magnificent building was dynamited out of existence.

Cathedral of Christ the Saviour demolished

The demolition of the original Church of Christ the Saviour, in 1931.

The Palace of the Soviets

Meanwhile, plan was afoot for another building. Soviet officials wanted a new administrative center that was large enough to accommodate delegates from all the new republics that joined the Union. Stalin wanted this building to be the emblem of the Union and a celebration of the triumph of communism. The Palace of the Soviets, as this building was called, was to be the tallest on earth with a proposed height of 415 meters. The top 100 meters was to be a statue of Lenin.

Palace of the Soviets

The Palace of the Soviets was to be built at the site of the now demolished Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Construction began sometime in the late 1930s. A large circular pit was excavated and the old cathedral foundation was dug out. The new foundation was a slightly concave concrete slab with concentric vertical rings, intended to carry the main hall columns. They had just begun erecting the steel frame for the lower levels when Hitler invaded Russia, and construction had to be stopped. It never resumed. During the war, the partially erected steel frame was pulled down and used for Moscow's defense fortifications and railroad bridges.

But the Soviets remained hopeful, especially Boris Iofan, the Jewish Soviet architect who designed the building. He continued to perfect the design, incorporating a Victory theme after the war with Order of Victory motifs decorating the interior walls. His drafts remained unused, and in 1958, the entire project was scrapped.

The Moskva Pool

On the suggestion of the First Secretary of the Party Nikita Khrushchev, the unused circular foundation was filled with water and turned into a public swimming pool. The Moskva Pool (Moscow Pool) opened in 1960, and at that time it was the largest swimming pool in the Soviet Union and one of the largest in the world.

The one-of-a-kind circular pool had a diameter of 130 meters and capacity of twenty thousand people. The pool was open all round the year, even during winter. The water temperature was regulated, so that the pool was cool in summer and hot in winter. It became very popular during the initial years, attracting 24 million visitors during the first decade.

Moscow Pool

Moscow Pool

Moscow Pool

Moscow Pool

The New Cathedral

Towards the end of the Soviet Union, religious politics began to lose its grip and Christian communities across the country began restoring their churches and religious services were held once again. After the Soviet Union broke up, a decision was taken to rebuild the iconic church that once stood where the swimming pool was then. Over a million Muscovites donated money for the project. In 1994, the Moskva Pool was demolished and reconstruction of the cathedral commenced. The completed Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was consecrated in 2000.

Cathedral of Christ the Saviour

The new Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. Photo credit: PixHound/Shutterstock.com

Cathedral of Christ the Saviour

The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour from the opposite bank of the Moskva River. A footbridge across the river connects the cathedral to the other bank. Photo credit: Lids123 / Shutterstock.com

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