Moscow's largest Orthodox cathedral has a colorful past of destruction and reconstruction. Built between 1839 and 1883 as a memorial to the Russian troops who fell fighting Napoléon's forces in 1812, the cathedral was for more than a century the largest single structure in Moscow, and it dominated the city's skyline. It took almost 50 years to build what only a few hours would destroy: on December 5, 1931, the cathedral was blown up. Under Stalin, the site had been designated
for a mammoth new "Palace of Soviets," intended to replace the Kremlin as the seat of the Soviet government. Plans called for topping the 1,378-foot-tall structure with a 300-foot statue of Lenin that would have spent more time above the clouds than in plain view if the plans had ever materialized. World War II delayed construction, and the entire project was scrapped when it was discovered that the land along the embankment was too damp to support such a heavy structure.
The site lay empty and abandoned until 1958, when the Moscow Pool, one of the world's largest outdoor swimming pools, was built. Divided into several sections, for training, competition, diving, and public swimming, it was heated and kept open all year long, even in the coldest days of winter. The pool was connected to the locker rooms by covered tunnels, and you could reach it by swimming through them. The pool was dismantled in 1994. Then—in perhaps one of architectural history's stranger twists—the cathedral was resurrected in 1997 from the ruins at a cost of more than $150 million.
You enter a hallway lined with writing that surrounds the central chamber. These marble panels covered in prerevolution Russian script describe the Napoléonic invasion of Russia in 1812. Hundreds of battles are detailed, beginning with the French army's first steps into Russian territory and ending with Napoléon's downfall in Paris and the reinstatement of peace in Europe. The immense main hall is covered in frescoes. Look straight up into the central cupola to see a dramatic painting of the Holy Father with baby Jesus in his hands. Across from the figures is the word "elohim" (meaning "God") written in Hebrew. Off to one side are two thrones behind a short fence. These are symbolic seats for Saint Nicholas the Miracle-Maker and the legendary Russian war hero Prince Alexander Nevsky, who has been honored as a saint by the Orthodox Church since his death in 1243.
The cathedral has been at the center of several controversies. A consumer watchdog group has accused the fund that oversees the church of profiting on the Orthodox Church's property by allowing a car wash, parking lot, dry cleaner, conference center, and café to operate underneath the huge structure. In 2012, the all-female, Russian punk band Pussy Riot performed a now-notorious protest concert inside the church. The stunt landed three of the members behind bars after a trial critics claimed was the Kremlin's harsh punishment for dissent.