A Tour of Sacred Places in Moscow


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As I more-or-less expected, my trip to Toulouse, Moscow, and St. Petersburg was too intense (and the internet connection too iffy) for me to be able to blog. Lots of new ideas, impressions, and topics to blog about, however. One of these is a walk I took in Moscow last week, next day after the Seventh International Cliodynamics Conference concluded (I’ll write about the conference in a future blog).

This was the first free day I had after a series of conferences, and I decided to enjoy it by going on a walk. It also happened to be a holiday – Russia’s Independence Day (although it is not very clear what precisely it celebrates – independence from whom?). It is now known simply as Russia Day, and naturally I thought back to the series of blogs I wrote about Russia’s Sacred values.

So I decided to go on a thematic walk that explored Moscow’s Sacred Landscape in all of its diversity – Sacred Places dating from different historical periods. The starting point of my walk was at the Novodevichy Convent, the best-known monastery of Moscow, which has been designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site.


(all photographs in this blog are by the author)

Novodevichy Convent is a nexus of Russian history, culture, and religion. It was part of a defensive belt of walled monasteries that ringed medieval Moscow, and protected its southwestern approaches. During the twentieth century, the Novodevichy Cemetery became the most prestigious necropolis in Russia, where the most famous Russians are buried – from writers and musicians to generals and even heads of state (Nikita Khrushchev and Boris Yelstin).

But there is something more about the Novodevichy. It has been a place where nuns, clergy, and general people have prayed continuously for centuries (with a short break during the Soviet period). The Russians refer to such places as “a prayed-over place” (намоленное место). And indeed, even for a non-believer like myself it is hard to escape a feeling that there is a kind of an aura surrounding this location.

Leaving the Novodevichy, I descended into the Moscow Metro (Subway) and rode it for three stops, emerging near another religious building – Cathedral of Christ the Savior.


This church had a very different history. It was built to commemorate the victory of Russia in the Napoleonic wars. But it was demolished by the Bolsheviks in 1931. It was then restored in the 1990s, after the Soviet Union collapsed. Unlike the Novodevichy, it doesn’t have the “prayed-over” aura, serving instead as a monument of both the Imperial and the post-Soviet Russian periods.

On the grounds of the Cathedral I discovered a monument to Alexander II, who pushed through the abolition of the serfdom in 1862 (and later was assassinated by the Russian revolutionaries).


As I walked from the Cathedral towards the Kremlin, I passed by the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, one of two best fine arts museums in Moscow (the other one is the Tretiakovsky Gallery).


Such places of concentrated culture are in many ways as Sacred Places as cathedrals.

Another notable Moscow landmark that I passed by was the Pashkov House, which now belongs to the Russian State Library (another locus of concentrated culture, and thus a Sacred Place).


Continuing past the Pashkov’s House I have now reached the Kremlin, which is without any doubt the focus of the Moscow’s (and Russia’s) Sacred Landscape. The current Kremlin was built in the fifteenth century, and although it was then “improved upon” by successive rulers of Russia, it retains its medieval flavor. Nevertheless, it is possible to capture in one photo the symbols of three (or even four) epochs:


In this photo, the double-headed eagle on the Moscow’s coat of arms dates from the Muscovite period (c. 1480–1700), the red-blue-white tricolor is a symbol of the Imperial Russia (1700–1917; it is also the flag of modern Russian Federation). The ruby star gracing the spire of the tower is, of course, the symbol of the Communist period (1917–1991). After the Fall of Communism some argued that the red stars should be removed from the Kremlin towers. I am glad that this wasn’t done – they look quite beautiful, and they are now an inalienable part of the Russian history. For the same reason, it now looks like the Lenin Mausoleum is there to stay.

The Red Square was off limits on that day, because it was reserved for some kind of a huge official reception (invitation only). But I am sure you all have seen innumerable photos of the Red Square, the St. Basil Cathedral, and the Lenin’s Tomb, and don’t need mine. Fortunately the most interesting place (in the light of my previous blogs on this topic) was outside the walls.

This is the monument to Hero Cities, about which I wrote in my blog on Russia’s Sacred Landscape. Here’s what the monument looks like:


It’s a series of marble blocks, each commemorating one of the Hero Cities (the one in the foreground is for Smolensk). Because my walk coincided with a holiday, Moscow’s downtown was full of tourists, most of them from all over Russia. People who came from one of the Hero Cities posed for pictures in front of their city’s monument. Two young women from Kursk (the site of the largest tank battle in the world history) graciously agreed to allow me to take their picture (the one on the right is pointing to their city, Kursk):


And here’s the monument to Sevastopol:


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I doubt that museums, libraries and monuments by themsleves make a place sacred. In most cases it is the spilt blood that makes it so. Moscow is a sacred city because in the course of history inumerous Russians died defending it, the heart of the country.

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