Next on the itinerary was the Russian Orthodox Cathedral, which has been recently restored in an ugly duckling style transformation from a dirty grimy grey (which was of course the shade of paint that the communists used to paint everything) to a resplendent sandstone yellow under black domes with gleaming crosses. The renovated building is clean and sharp with painted red brick stripes and elaborate white columns soaring proudly into the sky above.
Although most of Riga old town is restoring its vibrant colours to the buildings there are still examples of the communist absence of finesse or style. Just across the road from the cathedral for example is a splendid old building that still retains its dreary grey exterior and is awaiting its own overdue transformation. The Soviet Union must have had the biggest grey paint factory in the world and it was used indiscriminately everywhere. I imagine that the paint shop colour chart probably had restricted options like, overcoat grey, battleship grey, storm grey, grease grey and so on and so on.
The Nativity of Christ Cathedral in Riga is a magnificent and impressive building that sits between the old town and the new and was built in a Neo-Byzantine style between 1876 and 1883 at a time when Latvia was part of the Russian Empire. It is the largest Orthodox cathedral in the Baltic provinces and was built with the approval and a blessing of the Russian Tsar Alexander II on the initiative of local governor-general Pyotr Bagration and bishop Veniamin Karelin.
Russian Orthodox Church buildings differ dramatically in design from most western type churches. Their interiors are enriched with many sacramental objects including holy icons that are hung on the walls and murals often cover most of the interior walls with images that represent the Theotokos (the Mother of God) and scenes from their lives of the Saints. The cathedral in Riga is especially renowned for its icons some of which were painted by the famous Russian war artist Vasili Vereshchagin. During the First World War German troops occupied Riga and turned its largest cathedral into a Lutheran church but after the war the Nativity of Christ Cathedral once again became an Orthodox cathedral in 1921.
There was more unhappiness for the building under the communist regime because the Soviet Union was the first modern state to have the elimination of religion as an ideological objective and to achieve that objective the communists confiscated church property, ridiculed religion, harassed believers, and propagated atheism in the schools. The main target of the anti-religious campaign was the Russian Orthodox Church, which had the largest number of worshippers in Russia and its subjugated territories. Nearly all of its clergy, and many of its believers, were shot or sent to labour camps, theological schools were closed, and church publications were prohibited.
After the Second-World-War things relaxed a little for a while and the number of open churches increased and by 1957 about twenty-two thousand Russian Orthodox churches had become active again but in 1959 Nikita Khrushchev initiated a new campaign against the Russian Orthodox Church and forced the closure of about twelve thousand, including the Nativity of Christ Cathedral in Riga. Members of the church hierarchy were jailed or just simply removed and their places were taken by state conforming clergy many of whom had links with the KGB. The Cathedral in Riga was converted into a planetarium and it became neglected and was allowed to lose its magnificent façade. Now that it has been restored the place is surely more heavenly than ever having been returned to its intended purpose.
We have visited the Cathedral before of course but because it is so fascinating we just had to do so again. In a side chapel there was some activity and because on a previous visit here there had been a corpse laid out in a casket we suspected that this might be a funeral service but I wasn’t tall enough to see over the shoulders of the congregation and I though it rude to intrude to close to the front because of a macabre interest. The service was attended by nuns in black robes and pointy hats who looked like extras from a Lord of the Rings movie and was led by a priest in a lavish scarlet and gold robe.
The interior of the cathedral is bright and cheerful, adorned with shining icons and smelling of sweet incense and today there was a lot of frantic activity because inside there were cameras and a film crew and I can only imagine that the were preparing for a broadcast on Latvia Songs of Praise or whatever its equivalent is. There were a lot of people inside all bowing, crossing their chests, kissing the holy icons and doing their best to look solemn. I suppose we must have looked a bit conspicuous. Kim felt obliged to leave after she was rebuked for taking photographs. I was a little more discreet and didn’t get caught but a little later on was chastised by a priest with a wild wiry beard for having my hands in my pockets. Little did he know that I was looking for loose change to put in the offertory box but now that I had been told that hands in pockets was disallowed I decided not to bother.
We left the cathedral and retired as usual to the Skyline bar and from our window seats we watched the people flocking into the church and wondered just how it was managing to accommodate them all. At the front door were some clergy in yellow cassocks who were obviously waiting for someone important to arrive and just before, what we guessed was, the scheduled five o’clock start a black limousine pulled up outside and the occupant was greeted with exaggerated reverence and hurried inside, presumably to get on with the service. I wished that we had stayed a while longer to see exactly what was happening but I will never know if we would have been welcome to stay for the proceedings.