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Russia: St. Petersburg Debates Reconstruction Of Trinity Cathedral

St Petersburg, 14 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Since the Soviet Union relaxed persecution of religion in the late 1980s, followers of all Russia's confessions have been active reconstructing and rebuilding their houses of worship.

Perhaps, most notable among these has been the reconstruction of the mammoth $300 million Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Savior, now dominating Moscow's skyline.

Years in the financial doldrums, however, have prevented St. Petersburg from embarking on any construction project in the 1990s, let alone church-buildings. But, as the city economy grows, money is now available to rebuild one of St Petersburg's previous leading churches -- the Trinity Cathedral, which was destroyed in 1933 and replaced by a park square.

"The idea (to rebuild the cathedral) was originally my submission in a competition in 1991 to build a memorial to the victims of the (Communist) repression," Dmitri Butirin, a local architect, told RFE/RL. "I thought that the best way to honor their memory would be to rebuild the Trinity Cathedral."

On the park square, where activists want to build the cathedral, now lies a small stone memorial, adorned with a metal crown of thorns, in homage to the victims of communism.

Before the Revolution of 1917, Trinity Cathedral was considered St Petersburg's second most prominent church, just after the awe-inspiring and cavernous St. Isaac's Cathedral. Despite, the title of "cathedral," however, Trinity Cathedral was one of the city's smallest, and the only one made of wood.

The reason for Trinity's pre-eminence lies in its history. Many historians say it was St. Petersburg's first church and Peter the Great's favorite. He decreed its construction in 1703, the year the city was officially founded, and it was completed in 1711.

In the words of Father Gennadi Zveryev, a Russian Orthodox priest active on the Orthodox Church's commission to rebuild the Trinity Cathedral, "it is important to reconstruct St Petersburg's first church, because it was in the Trinity Church that the city was 'baptized' and that Peter's (the Great) idea of building our city was given blessing from heaven."

But, instead of uniting the city's spiritual and earthly authorities, the issue is proving divisive and looks set to remain unresolved for some time. Rebuilding the church has found many opponents in the city administration.

Deputy City Governor Vladimir Yakovlev, (who is not related to City Governor Vladimir Yakovlev), who is responsible for cultural issues in the city, told RFE/RL that construction is not necessary, because it would be better to build a new church in areas of the city without any churches. The center already has enough churches, he says.

"If we were just talking about the construction of a new church, I too would be against it," admits Father Gennadi. "But the Trinity Cathedral was an important and unique monument in the history of our city and country."

To make the issue even more complex and divisive, even advocates of reconstruction are arguing among themselves.

Architect Butirin proposes building a small, wooden church -- a copy of the very first church built on that site by Peter the Great.

Oddly enough, the Orthodox Church hierarchy is going against the grain of tradition, and wants to build a brick church, and one larger than the original. Since the original Trinity Cathedral burned down or was destroyed five times between 1711 and 1933, the Orthodox Church suggests the next be built of material more sturdy than wood.