Spas na Krovi – the Church of the Saviour on the Blood – was built on the spot in St Petersburg where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881.
With its domes outside like brightly coloured twirls of ice-cream, and glittering mosaics covering every inch of wallspace inside that isn’t covered in polished marble, it’s as gaudy as the cloth of gold Lord Frederic Hamilton recalls as the only notable thing about the Tsar’s funeral.
In the later Soviet era, the building was used to store props from the Maly Opera Theatre. Appropriately, since the whole building looks like some over-the-top and faintly ridiculous piece of stage scenery. The scrolloping shrine over the cobblestones where the Tsar was blown up was once carved of marbles and jaspers from Siberia and the Caucasus. The top section is now an imitation, painted pasteboard, because the original got destroyed by some careless theatrical Communist…
(Or played the part of an especially heavy and expensive prop in some long-forgotten Soviet-realist opera)
Alexander II got a gigantic overblown church as gravestone. His assassins got a gallows. In one of his books, Frederic Hamilton describes how he watched them being driven to their execution in open tumbrels, accompanied by brass bands playing incessantly loud and inappropriately cheerful marches. This was supposed to prevent them from addressing the crowds and inciting further revolutionary violence.
They considered themselves martyrs to the cause. The Tsar, meanwhile, was by implication joining the ranks of Christian martyrs depicted on the walls of Spas na Krovi.
The cause carried on; six years later to the day, a group of young revolutionists tried to assassinate Alexander II’s successor, Alexander III. They were arrested before they even got the bombs out of their pockets. The bombs they’d made were so amateur they would not have gone off anyway. One of them was Lenin’s older brother Alexander.
More than fifty years and the revolution later, when the city had a name neither the assassinated Tsar nor hanged Alexander Ulyanov could possibly have guessed, during the siege of Leningrad the memorial church was used as a morgue for all the nameless dead.
On this Sunday morning the church is full of a different kind of worshipper than the Spaso-Preobrazhensky up the road. Tourists at the altar of history and luxury. I drift around from tour group to tour group, listening to the guides.
One of them is telling the stories behind the biblical scenes depicted in the huge wall mosaics. Her middle-aged Russian flock, deprived of religion through years of Communism, listen as dutifully as Sunday-school children.
Another describes the expensive and painstaking process by which the smalti glass mosaic tiles were made. A third is explaining why there are blank spaces on the iconostasis – the icons and decorations disappeared sometime during the Soviet era, when the church was looted by the heroic revolutionary proletariat/by dishonest amoral opportunists (delete as appropriate).
“And why hasn’t the museum returned these icons, you ask,” the guide says fiercely ( no one has asked). “Because we don’t know where they are, that’s why! They were stolen, these treasures of the Russian empire, and never returned, and maybe some rich person has them now in some private collection…” she purses her lips and scowls, it’s clearly a personal affront, this theft of her heritage of gold-framed icons and crosses carved of rock crystal.
From high mosaic domes the sad-eyed saints and virgins look down at Putin’s citizens enjoying the splendours of Imperial Russia. The revolutionaries might never have existed. Light falls in through the high windows in pale, dusty blades. Outside, St Petersburg hums with sun and Sunday, the homeless and the impoverished grandmothers line up with their plastic cups and pathetic begging notices, while inside in gilt and smalti Jesus is feeding the five thousand.
All photos from www.spas-na-krovi.ru