Spilled Blood: The church that was never a church

The Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ is its official name. It’s also known as the Church of the Saviour. However, most of us know this most recognisable of St Petersburg’s landmarks as the Church on Spilled Blood. Because that is literally what it is.

Multi-coloured onion domes and towers

A church from a fairy tale

Many rhapsodise about its other-worldly beauty, its glittering mosaics, its kaleidoscope of colours. Of course it is beautiful, and of course you must visit if you are in St Petersburg, but I found it sad, despite all the artistry.

In March 1881, the carriage of Tsar Alexander II passed along the embankment of the Catherine Canal, as it did every Sunday. As the carriage did so, Nikolai Rysakov, a member of the revolutionary group People’s Will (Narodnaya Volya), threw a grenade at it. Tsar Alexander was unscathed but two people in the street were wounded. Alexander got out to see what was going on and reassured his people: “I am safe, thank God.”

“Do not thank God yet!” shouted Ignacy Hryniewieckiy, another conspirator in Narodnaya Volya, seizing the chance to throw a second bomb, mortally wounding both the Tsar and himself in the process. Blood ran over the cobblestones. Alexander’s Cossacks took him by sleigh to the Winter Palace, where he died a few hours later. Hryniewiecki also died later the same day. Rysakov was hanged.

The Tsar’s son, Alexander III, decided to build a church in memory of his father. The church covers the spot where the Tsar was murdered and his blood stained the cobblestones. The builders had to fill in part of the canal so that section of road could be included within the church walls. This explains both the church’s name and the reason why it encroaches into the canal.

The Church on Spilled Blood and the Canal Griboedova

The Church invades the canal because it needed to assimilate the fatal roadway

The assassination was meant to ignite revolution. It had the opposite effect. Tsar Alexander II had been a great liberator; he was the man responsible for the emancipation of the serfs and was moving Russia ever closer to democracy. His son, who had witnessed his father’s death, believed that the nation could only be saved from such revolutionary agitation by oppression and repression.

He commanded that his father’s memorial church be built in “traditional Russian” style, making it a contrast to the rest of St Petersburg’s neoclassical — and so dangerously Western — architecture. (Curiously, the church’s designer, Alfred Parland, was an Anglican.)

Parland's beautiful (and surprisingly modernist) wrought-iron fences for the church are based on curves and flowers

Parland’s beautiful (and surprisingly modernist) wrought-iron fences for the church

The Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ was never used as a public church — and was never intended to be — it simply held memorial services for the murdered Tsar.

After the Revolution of 1917, there were plans to demolish what is, after all, essentially a monument to the Russian royal family. Large buildings were useful, though: the church would make a good warehouse, and that is what it became. In 1931, it briefly housed a Museum of The People’s Will, commemorating the good work of Alexander’s assassins. A few years later, Stalin closed the museum, just in case it gave people the inspiration to assassinate him.

During World War Two, the church was used as a vegetable warehouse (“The Saviour on Potatoes”, people called it) and, during the Siege of Leningrad, as a storage place for dead bodies. After the war, the Maly Opera Theatre kept their props and scenery inside.

There continued to be calls for the church to be demolished — it was falling into decay day by day — but it doggedly dodged the calls and persisted.

In 1970, Saint Isaac’s Cathedral took over responsibility for the church and began a decades-long programme of restoration. The Spilled Blood re-opened in 1997, but was not re-consecrated; it is not a place of worship; it is quite simply, a tourist attraction.

Had he lived, Tsar Alexander II would have guided Russia down a road his assassins might have welcomed: towards freedom and liberalisation; he had already set free 23 million of his subjects, after all. Instead, the Narodnaya Volya bombs opened the door to a century of further blood-spilling.

Behind the Church is one of St Petersburg’s largest souvenir markets. It is a fitting place to turn and view this beautiful monument to what might have been.

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