Out of Russia: Trying to sink or swim on Stalin's holy building site

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The Independent Online
TO SWIM or to pray? That is the essence of the dispute between administrators of Moscow's most famous outdoor swimming pool, the Moskva, and leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church, who want to rebuild a cathedral on the site.

The vast circular pool stands within sight of the Kremlin on a spot where, 62 years ago, Stalin demolished one of Moscow's architectural glories, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. However, it was not the tyrant's intention to provide Muscovites with free facilities for practising breaststroke.

He intended to replace the cathedral with the world's tallest building, a huge Palace of Soviets that was to serve as a Communist Party and government headquarters, complete with a 300ft statue of Lenin. This monument in Stalin's preferred style of totalitarian surrealism was never built, mainly because the ground on the riverbank site turned out to be too soggy to support it. Older Muscovites say that an Orthodox priest cursed the spot in the 1930s, predicting that nothing would ever stand on it again. But in 1958 the authorities decided to turn it into a swimming pool. 'It has always been very popular with Muscovites. It has helped many people to improve their health,' said Nikolai Portnov, the pool's director.

But Orthodox leaders, more concerned with people's spiritual well-being, say it is time to rebuild the cathedral, which had a special place in Muscovites' hearts, as it commemorated the 1812 victory over Napoleon's invaders. 'The cathedral was built with money collected by the people. The state also gave some money, and so did the Tsarist family,' recalled Alexander Bulekov, a spokesman for Patriarch Alexy II.

The Church recognises that it may be difficult both to raise money for the project and to guarantee that the new cathedral, like Stalin's monstrous vision, will not subside into the bowels of the earth. A wooden chapel was built on the site in 1991, but Orthodox leaders remain dissatisfied. They will not be fobbed off with promises that a second chapel can be built near the site of the Church of Our Lady, which was built in Peter the Great's time and was blown up with the cathedral in 1931.

Mr Portnov has a Soviet-style proposal for 'peaceful co-existence' between the pool and the chapels. But he is more interested in who is going to pay for improvements to the pool, which has been closed since July and for several weeks has been covered with snow. 'We can easily find sponsors but who is going to invest money without a guarantee of a profit and when a cathedral may go up there?' he asked. Though relatively new, the pool has its own curious traditions, some more Soviet than Russian. Women are not allowed in without undergoing a preliminary gynaecological examination. Whereas one might think that an outdoor pool would be open in summer and closed in winter, the opposite is true at the Moskva. In summer, it is closed for remont (repairs) while Russians go swimming in rivers. Until this year, it was heated so effectively in winter that clouds of steam rose from the surface as in some chemical experiment. Up to 15,000 Muscovites used to visit the pool on a typical winter's day, when air temperatures fall to as low as -20C.

Pool and Church officials alike do not regret that Stalin was foiled in his attempt to create a nightmarish celebration of dictatorship. 'In the same way, they were unable to complete the Tower of Babel,' observed Mr Bulekov.