I didn’t have many images in my mind of what Russian cities would look like. Probably the dominant image was of St Basil’s Cathedral – the red-bricked church with colourful onion-shaped domes. It was certainly astounding to finally see this for real at the Red Square in Moscow, but what was more astounding to me was realising that Russian cities are full of these captivating churches. While not all are as bold as St Basil’s, each have their own unique design, and all of them seem to be from a mystical and magical other world.
It’s amazing that these churches are even still in existence, considering that under the Soviet regime religion was made illegal and religious property was confiscated. Many of the churches we viewed were only reopened in the 1980s and 90s.
Unlike catholic or protestant churches, the interiors are empty of seating or pews, but instead are large cavernous spaces, with a central alter and numerous small shrines, the walls lined with religious artworks illuminated by candlelight. Women cover their heads with scarves to enter the church and women seemed to be the main visitors, quietly lighting candles or praying by the picture of a saint. One time we heard deep chanting coming from the balcony, the chanters unseen. Another time a priest walked through the room, swinging a golden incense burner.
Each day brings a new church and a new favourite. I think at the time of writing that the Church of the Spilled Blood in St Petersburg is our favourite. We are lucky it is still around as its former uses include being a morgue for storing dead bodies during the war and then a warehouse for storing vegetables!