Note: This is the fourth in a series of essays on ‘Russia’s DNA.’ The first essay ‘Russia’s DNA: Fear of Invasion’ explains the background for this series.”
Russia’s Unique Geography
Russia is the largest country in the world in terms of area, covering one-eighth of the earth’s inhabited land. The country’s 10,672,000 square miles (17.1 million kilometers) includes the world’s deepest lake and Europe’s highest mountain and longest river. Russia extends 5,625 miles (9,000 kilometers) from east to west and includes eleven time zones. Russia shares its 13,125-mile border with fourteen countries and is only 55 miles across the Bering Straits from its fifteenth neighbor, the United States. Russia’s global position and size contributes to the sense of its rulers and its people that it is a “giant,” a major power in the world, and to a sense of entitlement in terms of international leadership.
A Real-Life Parable
In my judgment, the story of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow captures this sense of “giantism” that is a part of Russia’s DNA. The Cathedral was originally commissioned by Tsar Alexander I on Christmas Day in 1812 to celebrate the defeat of Napoleon. Its construction near the Kremlin began in 1839 and was completed forty years later. Konstantin Ton, the Cathedral’s architect, used an original neo-Russian design mirrored on the traditional plan of a Russian Orthodox Church, but on an unprecedented scale. When construction was complete, its enormous golden dome was visible from all over central Moscow.
Joseph Stalin, at the peak of his power in the 1930s, decided to destroy the Cathedral and replace it with a new “temple” – the Palace of the Soviets. Stalin’s dream was to erect a giant building that would exceed the height of the Empire State Building in New York, and to top the building with a massive, 100-meter-tall aluminum statue of Lenin. In the middle of one night in 1933, the Cathedral was demolished and preparations for construction of the Palace of the Soviets began.
However, Soviet engineers soon realized that the ground on which the Cathedral was located would not hold a structure of this massive size, and numerous delays ensued as they tried to figure out how to fulfill their dictator’s instructions. With the outbreak of World War Two, there was no time to work on this project and steel was desperately needed for armaments and weapons in the battle against the Nazis. After the war, the plans for the Palace of the Soviets were set aside and a massive outdoor swimming pool was constructed on the site of the Cathedral. I remember visiting this huge outdoor pool in 1990 in the middle of the winter and being impressed by the size and audacity of its creation.
In 1990, with the radical changes initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev, the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church approached the federal government and the city government of Moscow with a proposal to rebuild the Cathedral on its original location and to its original size and design. In the midst of the tumultuous 1990s, despite all of the radical economic and political changes that the Russian Federation was experiencing, the Cathedral of Christ the Savior was rebuilt. By 1995, the foundation of the restored Cathedral was finished; by the following year, the main cupola was restored and the massive golden cross installed. The Cathedral was completed and open for worship in 2000. Once again, the Cathedral is the largest church in Russia and one of the largest in the world.
The rebuilding of the Cathedral was more than just an act of benevolence to the Russian Orthodox Church that had suffered at the hands of the Communist Party, it was also an effort on the part of the government to restore Russian patriotism and to make a statement about the newly restored power of the Russian Orthodox Church, a close ally of the state. Every facet of this story involves facets of “giantism” — building the biggest, the largest, the first cathedral of its kind.
But Wait! There’s More…
One of the Kremlin’s most popular tourist sites is Ivan the Great’s Bell Tower, which is said to mark the exact center of Moscow and resemble a burning candle. Completed in 1600, it is 266 feet high and, until the Russian Revolution in 1917, it was the tallest structure in the city. Until 1917, in fact, no buildings were allowed to be taller than the Bell Tower, a law that changed under Soviet rule. Right next to the Bell Tower are the Tsar Bell and the Tsar Canon, two curious monuments to Russian “giantism.” The 16th century canon weighs 40 tons and has an 890 millimeter caliber – but it has never been fired. The 18th century bell, weighing 200 tons, has never been rung. When they were built, these monuments were the biggest cannon and the biggest bell ever constructed — but they never worked. Why these symbols of Russian non-functioning “giantism” have not been removed, I do not understand. Russians themselves have poked fun of this bell and cannon for decades, and yet, these giants remain, forever a testament to this potent strand of Russia’s DNA.”
The evidence of Russian “giantism” is present everywhere you look, both in Russian history and in contemporary Russia, especially in Moscow. The gigantic size of Russian missiles and nuclear submarines, a Metro system that is the largest in the world, the enormous size of Russian gas and oil corporations – all of these are indicators that Russians pride themselves in the size and strength of their country. This is a part of what it means to be Russian.