After Napoleon Bonaparte had retreated from Moscow, Emperor Alexander I signed a manifest on 25 December 1812, for a grand cathedral to be built in honor of Christ the Saviour and “to signify Our gratitude to Divine Providence for saving Russia from the doom that overshadowed Her.” The cathedral was to be a memorial to the sacrifices of the Russian people.
The original plans laid out a design full of Freemason symbolism. Construction work was begun on the Sparrow Hills, the highest point in Moscow, but the site wasn’t able to accommodate the plans. When Alexander I was succeeded by his brother Nicholas I, the devoted Orthodox Tsar disliked the Neoclassicism and Freemasonry aspects of the project and called for renowned Russian architect Konstantin Thon to create a new design.
Thon used the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (modern day Instanbul) as his inspiration. With the design approved in 1832, the Tsar chose a new site which was closer to the Moscow Kremlin. Work began by removing a convent and church in 1837 and cornerstone for the new church was laid in 1839. The cathedral took years to build and was consecrated on the day Alexander III was crowned, 26 May 1883.
After the death of Lenin the site was chosen by the Soviets for a monument to socialism known as the Palace of the Soviets. Design of the monument would make it one of the tallest buildings in the world at the time, sitting on buttressed tiers to support a gigantic statue of Lenin at the top of a dome with his arm raised as if to point the way to a future of Communism. With plans for the Palace of the Soviets approved, Stalin ordered the famous Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to be dynamited. State workers took more than a year to clear the debris from the site and marble from the cathedral was used in the construction of nearby Moscow Metro stations. The original marble high reliefs were preserved and are on display at the Patriarch’s Donskoy Monastery in Moscow.
Due to war with Germany Stalin’s plan was never realized and later because of the ultimate infeasibility of the design, Nikita Khrushchev transformed the site by constructing the world’s largest open air swimming pool.
In February of 1990 the Soviet Government granted permission for the Russian Orthodox Church to rebuild the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. A temporary cornerstone was laid and construction funds began to be donated by ordinary Russian citizens. The project lasted several years and the completed Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was consecrated on the Transfiguration day, 19 August 2000. At capacity the cathedral is the largest Orthodox church in the world and able to accommodate between almost 6,000 persons.
A small wooden chapel, dedicated to the Sovereign Madonna (Державной иконы Божией Матери), is located close on the grounds to the rear of the Cathedral. Built in 1995, the chapel became a place to pray for the reconstruction project and for the builders and artists labouring to rebuild the cathedral.
The Cathedral served as the venue when the last Tsar Nicholas II and his family were declared as “Passion bearers” (minor saints) in 2000. After his death in 2007, former Russian President Boris Yeltsin lay in state in the cathedral prior to his burial in Novodevichy Cemetery.
The Cathedral was the site of the official signing and joint liturgy when the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia rejoined the Russian Orthodox Church in full communion and administrative authority.
The interior walls are bronze reliefs listing the names of every Russian soldier who died in the war of 1812.