5 facts about Russia's biggest synagogue

Alex 'Florstein' Fedorov (CC BY-SA 4.0)
The Grand Choral Synagogue's construction in St. Petersburg was a huge event for the local Jewish community in the late 19th century.

1. Emperor Alexander II personally gave permission for the construction

The Grand Choral Synagogue of St. Petersburg.

Until the 1850s, the Russian Empire had strict laws on the residency area for Jews. For example, they were not allowed to relocate in the big cities of Central Russia (Read more about the so-called ‘Pale of Settlement’ here). But, Emperor Alexander II then softened the restrictions, so more and more Jewish merchants, scientists, students and craftsmen started moving to Moscow and, of course, to the capital of those times - St. Petersburg.

There were already small prayer houses in the city, but the growing community, which numbered about 10,000 people, needed a larger prayer house. And, in 1869, the tsar granted St. Petersburg Jews the right to build a synagogue in the city. In memory of the emperor, the Wedding Hall in it was named after Alexander.

2. The money was provided by the richest Jew in the empire

Horace Ginzburg; the synagogue in the 1900s.

The synagogue only began to be built in 1883. At first, the community was looking for a suitable place, which was eventually found in the Kolomna District, not far from the Mariinsky Theater.

Then, there were problems with financing and, eventually, most of the money was allocated by Baron Horace Ginzburg, one of the richest men in the empire. Ginzburg came from a dynasty of bankers and was consul of the Duchy of Hesse in St. Petersburg, where he was granted the title of baron and Alexander II allowed him to use the title in Russia.

According to the recollections of poet Osip Mandelstam, Ginzburg made an important contribution to the life of the community and he always occupied the most important and honorable place at the services in the synagogue.

Railroad magnate Samuel Polyakov also contributed a considerable sum. 

3. Built in the Moorish style

Torah ark and the big hall of the synagogue.

The synagogue owes its appearance to architectural-  and art critic Vasily Stasov: it was him who suggested that it should be built in the Moorish style, just like the then recently built New Synagogue in Berlin. Architects Ivan Shaposhnikov and Lev Bakhman won the competition project. However, the sketch was not approved by the emperor and he ordered to “redesign the project in more modest dimensions”.

The construction dragged on for 10 years and was only completed by 1893.

In the end, the building still impresses with its size and it is the largest synagogue in Russia (with a prayer hall for 1,200 seats) and the second largest synagogue in Europe, after the one in Budapest.

Its huge dome is visible from afar and the building stands out from the typical architectural appearance of the city, distinguished by its, unusual for St. Petersburg, terracotta color and oriental flavor.

Inside, the ornate Aron Kodesh (a holy ark similar to an altar), which contains seven Torah scrolls that were brought there at the consecration, particularly attracts attention.

4. Only temporarily closed in Soviet times

Ornate metal arch in front of the synagogue and stairway decoration.

After the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, Judaism in Russia was persecuted, just like other religions. Still, the Jewish community managed to exist until the Summer of 1929, when it was banned, accused of being bourgeois and nationalist. On January 17, 1930, Leningrad city authorities closed the synagogue, also blaming it for being too bourgeois under the pretext that Jewish workers did not visit it. But then, the Jews complained to the All-Russian Central Executive Committee (VTsIK), one of the most important state bodies of the USSR. To everyone's surprise, it had an effect and the decision of the city authorities was canceled and, in June 1930, the synagogue was reopened.

However, valuable property inside was confiscated: some of the precious items were given to the anti-religious museum and some joined the State Fund, where all nationalized valuables were kept.

In the early 1940s, city authorities made another attempt to close the synagogue and proposed to use the building as a movie theater or a concert hall. They almost succeeded, but, because of the war, they never got round to closing or re-purposing it. During the Siege of Leningrad, the corpses of dead Jews were brought to the local courtyard and buried in mass graves in the Jewish Preobrazhensky Cemetery.

5. Renovated for the 1980 Olympics

Another large-scale restoration  had been carried out by St. Petersburg's 300th anniversary in 2003.

During the entire Soviet era, the synagogue was under the watchful eye of the KGB. Undercover agents were most likely always present at all meetings and services. However, when it was decided to hold the Olympic Games in Moscow, the Leningrad synagogue was surprisingly included in the list of the main sightseeing sites of the former capital. And, two years before the 1980 Olympics, it was renovated for the first time since the revolution at the expense of the state budget.

After the collapse of the USSR, the synagogue and the Jewish community began a new page in history and active development. By St. Petersburg's 300th anniversary in 2003, another large-scale restoration of the building had been carried out. And, today, the Grand Choral Synagogue is an important cultural center for the local Jewish community, with a kindergarten and a school, a charitable canteen, a kosher store and a restaurant.

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