Cathedral rises on site of Stalin's Palace site

Steve Crawshaw in Moscow sees Russian history turn full circle with the rebuilding of Christ the Saviour, destroyed in 1931

Many strange things can be seen in Moscow these days. But one of the strangest is a building site on Volkhonka Street, opposite the Pushkin Museum, in the city centre. First, a cathedral stood here. Then half a Stalinist skyscraper. Then a swimming pool. And now, the beginnings of a cathedral again. Architectural life-cycles do not come much odder than that.

An enormous building is rising, day by day. The site is filled with huge cranes. Hundreds of helmeted workers scurry around mixing cement, welding, bricklaying. It looks like the scene in one of those heroic old Stalinist paintings, with titles like Building Socialism. This extraordinary endeavour is, however, a search for the old Russia, not a search for the new. Lenin statues, toppled across Eastern Europe, still stand proudly in Moscow. But the Muscovites have started rebuilding the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour - six decades after Stalin's men destroyed it for ever one December day in 1931.

The plans for this site have always been on an epic scale. The cathedral was originally built to commemorate the Russian defeat of Napoleon in 1812. It took half a century to complete, and was eventually consecrated in 1883. Its epic qualities annoyed Stalin, who was in any case an enthusiast of destroying churches. The cathedral was duly blown up - though not without difficulty. The engineers had to be threatened with dire punishment before they finally succeeded in collapsing the building.

Once the cathedral was gone, a giant Palace of the Soviets was to go up in its place. The Kremlin announced an international competition - even Le Corbusier put in a bid. Eventually, however, a home-grown design received Stalin's approval, for this, the biggest building in the world. The statue of Lenin alone, standing on the top of the building, was to be 100m high (his index finger was to be 6m long). The whole building, including Lenin, was to be 415m high - three times as high as the cathedral had been. One hall alone was to hold 15,000 people; the "small" hall could hold a paltry 6,000. Big, bigger, biggest.

But Stalin's dreams, too, were doomed. Building was cut short by the Second World War. Then the site became waterlogged. Further construction was impossible. Change of plan: the site became an outdoor swimming pool, in use all the year round. Emerging through heavy curtains, one could swim in the huge, steaming pool, surrounded by ice and snow. Now the pool too has vanished as everything in Russia goes into reverse.

Around pounds 15m has already been donated for the cathedral to be rebuilt just as it was - at a total cost of pounds 150m or more.

Near the cathedral, few seem to find the project inappropriate, even at a time of such poverty. Natasha Morozova, a concierge, said: "This is not just a cathedral. It's a memorial, to our Russian heroes." In the visitors' book, in the little museum that has opened up beside the building site, the messages declare: "Russia is freeing itself from evil. Good is triumphing!", "We must rebuild churches! We must redeem our sins!" and "Thank you for restoring the pride and glory of the Russian people".

Such sentiments are not confined to older generations. This weekend, several of Russia's most popular rock bands will give their services free at a huge concert to raise funds for the rebuilding of the cathedral. The daily Moskovski Komsomolets noted: "Good actions have always brought people together in Russia."

The rebuilding of Christ the Saviour is, perhaps, the most obviously extraordinary of the projects now under way in Moscow. But it is not the only project which would, presumably, make Lenin turn in his mausoleum.

Traffic in central Moscow now regularly comes to a standstill because of a giant building site in Manege Square, close to the Lenin Museum: just beneath the walls of the Kremlin, a huge shopping mall is being built. This is much less popular than the cathedral among ordinary Muscovites. "If the Americans have malls, then we must have them, too. Isn't that right?" said one bystander in Manege Square, with heavy sarcasm. "If you ask me, it is just ridiculous."

All across Moscow, fancy new foreign-funded projects are popping up, as the Russian phrase has it, like mushrooms after rain.

Meanwhile, not everybody is thrilled about the rebuilding of the cathedral, despite its impeccably Russian credentials. One woman declared: "They shouldn't have knocked it down, that's certain. But there's no point trying to rebuild it now. It won't be the same. It'll just look like an imitation, a fake. What are they thinking of?"

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