To the Soviet Union the church was and had always been a part of the problem as a supporter of the monarchy. The new regime set out to destroy and eradicate the church. In 1918, Lenin decreed the separation of church and state which took away the church’s right to own property, teach religion in private or state schools or to minors, and prohibited the church from operating in public.
Many churches were seized by Soviet authorities and repurposed. This post focuses on just 3 of those churches that underwent dramatic transformations under the U.S. S. R. and what they have become today.
St. Anne’s Lutheran Church
This was the first Lutheran church built in Spb. The first St. Anne was a wooden church built in 1704 on the territory of Peter and Paul Fortress (The second construction in Spb when the city was founded in 1703. The first was Peter the Great’s Cabin.) The German community and, therefore, the congregation grew in size and the church moved several times. The last move was in 1720 to the current location on Kirochnaya Street. This house of worship was redesigned and rebuilt many times, but the last overhaul was between 1775-1779 and financed by Catherine the Great (Wasn’t she great?!).
Looking at it now, it’s hard to imagine that the church was built in an area that had a lot of open space at the time. It was also constructed in the area where many of the city’s German residents lived. A total of 12,000 people made up the congregation at the beginning of the 20th C, so as the church grew in size and popularity it quickly led to two new roads being built. In 1826, the street facing the main side of the church (so to speak) was named Kirochnaya Street. Kirche in German means church, so this street was named in honor of St. Anne’s Church. Being a huge part of the community, it housed not only a congregation, but also a school, orphanage, shelter, hospital, poor house and other charitable organizations within the church.
Closed in 1935, it transformed into a cinema, The Spartak. It should be noted that in 1992 worship was allowed on Sunday mornings in the theater.
The Soviets hated anything religious so not only was it revamped as a cinema, but also the street name was changed from Church Street to Militant Atheist Street. Clearly nothing better to do with their time, someone also looked at this building and envisioned a nightclub and so Erato opened inside the building at the beginning of the 21st C and offered all kinds of debauchery: bar, slot machines, rock concerts, etc. Obviously, the church was not happy about the new use for St. Anne and filed to reclaim their building from the nightclub in 2002. They were granted custody, but right after that it mysteriously caught fire and burnt down. The roof didn’t survive but the walls were mostly ok.
The restoration isn’t complete, but the church is active now. Miscellaneous (but tasteful) concerts and other events take place inside the church on occasion and once again it is back in business as the home of not only a congregation but also a school that offers lectures in philosophy, history and psychology.
The Lutheran Church of Saint Peter and Paul
For decades, the Lutheran community was held in high esteem by the royal family (Anna Ioannovna, Catherine II, Paul I and Nicholas II to name a few) who made regular donations to the church which is why it comes as no surprise that Emperor Peter II donated this plot of land on Nevsky Prospect to the German community in 1727 so they could build a church for their growing community. The first sanctuary was built by one of St. Petersburg’s most beloved architects, Trezzini. The church as it is today was redesigned in the Neoclassical architectural style from 1832-38.
Like most churches during the Soviet Union, it was closed and confiscated by the government. Many valuables were stolen and others were relocated to the Russian Museum. The church underwent a dramatic transformation from sanctuary to community swimming pool and bleachers were installed for spectators.
When Hitler invaded Russia in 1941, many of the churches were reopened under German occupation. However, the real game changer was when Stalin called upon the Orthodox church to help rally the people and gain the support of the West in 1943. The doors of St. Peter and Paul church were opened again and for its originally intended purpose in 1944. The pool was covered with a floor, but the bleachers still remain today. What’s also fascinating is that the entire staff of the pool (with the exception of the director) became the staff of the church. Furthermore, one of the original pool staff supposedly still works in the church today.
This church plays an important role in Russia as it is one of the oldest Protestant churches in the country and currently the seat of the Evangelical Lutheran Church’s Archbishop in Russia, Ukraine and Central Asia.
St. Nicholas’ Church
Ok, I’m gonna be honest here…there wasn’t a lot of information about this building as a church, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to write about this place. I’ve passed by it so many times and it never crossed my mind that in its past life it was a church! I was shocked when I found out about that and now I’ve started to look at other buildings and speculate as to whether they too had a higher purpose back in the day.
It’s my impression that St. Nicholas was built between 1820-38 in Neoclassical style by architect Avraam Melnikov. The transformation took place in 1933 when it became a museum dedicated to Russian exploration of the Arctic and Antarctic. It’s now the largest museum in the world that’s devoted to polar exploration. Several of the museum directors were explorers themselves.
I’ve never been in this museum before, so I decided to go in since I was already there taking pictures. I started to ask a lot of questions about Russian polar exploration and even got to speak with the director who was happy to share with me about his adventures in the Antarctic. He said the coldest temperature he ever experienced was -65º. Yikes! But he insisted that it wasn’t as bad as it seems. The snow was dry and there was no wind.
There’s no information in English in the museum, but the director assured me that they have employees who can speak English and a tour can be arranged should anyone who doesn’t speak Russian want to visit the museum.
If you enjoyed this post, check out what’s left of the Brusnitsyn Mansion. The story of how the beloved home of a hardworking family became run-down, state-owned factory offices.