How did the Soviets use captured churches?

Klepikov/TASS
An army barracks, a warehouse and even a planetarium: These are just some of the functions that the Communists came up with for churches that they had forcefully shut down.

As part of their anti-religion campaign, the Bolsheviks closed, destroyed or dismantled (for the bricks) tens of thousands of churches. If before the Revolution of 1917 Russia had 54,000 churches and over 1,000 monasteries, by the beginning of Gorbachev’s perestroika in the 1980s their number had decreased to 6,893 and 15, respectively.

The churches that survived the zealous Bolshevik persecution of the 1920s were closed and used for a variety of purposes. Many were rebuilt as ‘houses of culture’ or clubs for pioneers; some monasteries were turned into gulag prisons.

A warehouse

Many churches that survived were adapted for economic needs: for example, used as storage facilities by factories, which might have kept grain, flour or sugar in them.

During the Siege of Leningrad, the city’s residents knew that German warplanes wouldn’t bomb St. Isaac's Cathedral because it was used as a landmark to guide their attacks. So, valuable items from other museums were moved to the cathedral. Also, before the war, in the 1930s, a Foucault pendulum was installed in the cathedral.

Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood

Paradoxically, the War saved the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg from demolition - local authorities simply had other priorities at the time. During the Siege it was turned into a morgue for those who had died from starvation. After the war the church was handed over to the Maly Opera Theater, which used it for storing stage decorations.

St. Clement's Church

In 1943, St. Clement's Church in Moscow was handed over to the State Lenin Library, which used it for storage. By the way, the books were removed only in 2008!

An army barracks

Church of the Resurrection in Foros, Crimea

During World War II a Soviet army detachment was stationed in the Church of the Resurrection in Foros, Crimea. The building was badly damaged in Nazi air raids. After the war the authorities wanted to demolish it completely but the church miraculously survived. After perestroika it was returned to the Russian Orthodox Church, and is now open again for religious services.

A fire station and bus station

Church of the Resurrection of Christ and Michael the Archangel in the town of Kasimov

In the 1930s the authorities prohibited the ringing of the bells of the Church of the Resurrection of Christ and St. Michael the Archangel in the town of Kasimov in the Ryazan Region. Their resounding chimes allegedly disrupted lessons in local educational establishments. So, in the 1940s the bell tower was demolished and the church was converted into a fire station. Looking at the building today, it is impossible to guess that it was once a church. In the Soviet period it was many times reconstructed, and finally turned into a bus station, which is still in operation.

A factory

Church of Saints Peter and Paul in Suzdal

Some churches were handed over to factories, and not only for use as storage depots. Some churches ended up housing production facilities. For example, the Church of Saints Peter and Paul in Suzdal was used as a bakery.

Church of the Annunciation in Kostroma

TheChurch of the Annunciation in Kostroma met a similar fate - it was given to a bread-making facility and returned to the Orthodox Church only in the 2000s.

Church of the Holy Martyrs Boris and Gleb in Degunino

In 1941 the Moscow Church of the Holy Martyrs Boris and Gleb in Degunino was converted into an outpatients clinic. In the 1960s the church housed the workshops of a textile factory, and during perestroika the building was rented to the Eye Microsurgery Research Complex, which used it as a garage. Now the building has been returned to the Orthodox Church and services have resumed.

Church of the Nativity in Cherkizovo

Another Moscow church - the Church of the Nativity in Cherkizovo - has been used at different times as a mill, a warehouse and even a furniture store. But in the 1990s it was restored and returned to the Orthodox Church.

Resurrection Monastery in Torzhok

The premises of the Resurrection Monastery in Torzhok, however, are still occupied by a garment factory.

A planetarium

Church of St Nicholas at the Kremlin in Vladimir

Arguably, the Church of St Nicholas at the Kremlin in Vladimir was used in one of the most unusual capacities. In 1962 a planetarium was opened in the church, for which purpose a special plastic dome was built. Despite plans of the local authorities to transfer the planetarium to another building, it still remains inside the church. Today, it remains an important educational establishment, with astronomy classes, lectures and tests conducted here.

A museum

Still, many Communists were aware of the cultural and historical significance of the most renowned churches, which were spared and turned into museums. The state took these buildings under its protection and had them restored. These state-protected churches that have survived to the present day are often better preserved than churches that were always looked after by the Russian Orthodox Church.

St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow

One of the first major churches that the Soviet authorities turned into a museum was St. Basil's Cathedral, Moscow's most famous landmark. It became a museum of history and architecture. According to legend, in the 1930s Soviet officials several times proposed demolishing the church - first as part of Red Square’s reconstruction and later because it allegedly obstructed traffic. However, Stalin refused permission for the church to be demolished. Incidentally, the cathedral formally remains part of the State Historical Museum.

Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg

In 1932 the Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism opened in the Kazan Cathedral on Nevsky Prospect in St. Petersburg. At the beginning of the War patriotic exhibitions devoted to great historic military commanders were held there. But soon the cathedral faced German shelling and there were holes in the dome, parts of the ceiling collapsed and the cathedral-museum was closed.

A prison

Prisoners (mainly political ones) were kept in many big monasteries even before the Revolution. This was often because of their remote locations, their impregnable fortifications and their thick walls in whose vaults the cells were located. The Soviet authorities also took advantage of the “facilities” offered by monasteries for use as prisons and prison camps. Bunk beds were installed in the monastic buildings and sanctuaries, and prisoners were incarcerated by the thousands.

Solovetsky monastery

The best-known example of a prison monastery is Solovetsky Monastery. A total of 500 prisoners were kept on the Solovetsky Islands from the time of Ivan the Terrible until the end of the 19th century, but about 200,000 people were incarcerated in the USSR’s Solovetsky prison camp.

Novospassky Monastery in Moscow

Apart from the Solovetsky Monastery, other monasteries were used as prison camps - for example, these two in Moscow. Novospassky Monastery [New Monastery of the Saviour] housed the economic department of the NKVD [precursor of the KGB] and a correctional home for women.

Andronikov Monastery of the Saviour in Moscow

Also, Andronikov Monastery of the Saviour became a detention center for street children and a department of the People's Commissariat of Defense.

Read more: 10 of Russia’s most beautiful churches 

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