Political, unprecedented and unapologetically pastiche, the churches of ‘Program 200’ are a modern portrait of Moscow.
In 2010, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow unveiled plans to build 200 Russian Orthodox churches in Moscow within 10 years: the most ambitious church-building campaign in the history of Christianity. At the time of writing, 97 of the 200 have been built or are under construction since its launch four years ago. By 2023, you will never be further than one kilometre from a church in Moscow.
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In stark contrast, it was just 80 years earlier that the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, a symbol of the old order God-appointed autocracy of the Tsars, was spectacularly and publicly blown up and eventually flattened to make way for the Moskva Pool, built in 1958 – at the time the largest open-air swimming pool in the world. The story of the now famous cathedral is an allegory of Russia’s tumultuous relationship with the church, painstakingly rebuilt between 1995 and 2000. With every sparkling white marble slab, the Russian Orthodox Church reasserted its return to prominence after its defenestration during the enforced ‘state atheism’ of the Soviet era.
Since the fall of the USSR just 26 years ago, the Russian Orthodox Church has seen a resurgence, with 71 per cent of Russians identifying as Russian Orthodox Christians in 2015, nearly doubling since 1991.
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Moscow’s extraordinary city-wide church-building project, known as ‘Program 200’, is driven by this dramatic increase in numbers of Russian Orthodox parishioners, with as many as half a million churchgoers said to require a pew in Moscow today – potentially double the current capacity. This estimate has not passed unchallenged, however, with recent research countering that construction on such a vast scale is not justified, and neither is it in the locations that have been proposed. While queues snake around small chapels outgrown by the colossal housing estates that have risen around them, cavernous churches in the city centre stand empty.
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This is according to research conducted by a trio of young Russian designers known as Quadratura Circuli, meaning ‘squaring the circle’, a tongue-in-cheek reference to the apparently impossible task of reinventing Russian religious architecture. Contemporary church design in Russia fosters a prevailing taste for ecclesiastical pastiche. ‘Our designs are considered too innovative,’ rues Quadratura Circuli member Philip Yakubchuk. Design entries for a competition in 2016 – for churches with a capacity of 300, 600 and 900 people and apparently siteless – are almost invariably gilded, onion-domed and straight from the pages of a 19th-century Russian pattern-book.
Available styles cater for all possible historicist leanings: ‘Temple in the Byzantine Style for 500 People’, or perhaps the ‘Temple with Italian Motifs for 200 People’, both designed by Mosproekt-3, an enormous engineering and infrastructure company which builds everything from roads to kindergartens. Of the churches built so far, a good number originate from the same set of blueprints reused across the city, while others are prefabricated and available off-the-shelf. An unsettling sense of déjà vu pervades as identical churches reappear in different corners of Moscow.
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Rather than receive government funding, these ‘petroleum churches’ are bankrolled by ‘charitable donations and voluntary contributions’, often from large corporations. This unprecedented construction crusade does, however, coincide with the ever-thickening entanglement of Putin’s administration and the Russian Orthodox Church.
Views voiced in the church are echoed in the Kremlin (in 2013 Patriarch Kirill was quoted as saying that gay marriage is ‘a very dangerous sign of the Apocalypse’, while at the same time legislation was passed criminalising ‘homosexual propaganda’). In 2012 the punk group Pussy Riot had staged a controversial protest performance at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour after Patriarch Kirill allegedly urged its congregation to vote for Putin in the upcoming election. It was a stunt for which the three female members were sentenced to two years’ imprisonment.
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Ivan Mikhailov’s ghostly photographs from 2015 depict a portrait of contemporary Moscow: a city of contrast, contradiction and hyperbole. Many of the churches are still in construction, the swaddling of scaffolding betraying the illusion that the churches here are not in fact 150 years old as their traditional architectural detailing suggests. The golden cupolas and chocolate-box turrets are dwarfed by their backdrops of glassy new corporate skyscrapers, or decaying housing blocks in distinctively Soviet dusty pinks, oranges and greys. Like toys at the feet of giants, these fabricated remnants from a fetishised past of piety sit uneasily alongside both the new icons of Putin’s capitalist Russia and the crumbling memory of socialist revolution.
All photographs by Ivan Mikhailov