The demise of a dominant historical status quo is sometimes presaged in the tiniest portents, with participants hardly aware of ushering in a new order. Around a.d. 30 a small delegation of Gentiles approaching the apostles for audience with their Master was the signal to Jesus that His task of saving the world was about to shift into high gear. ("The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.") In late December of a.d. 406, the freezing over of the Rhine began the end of the Roman Empire. (The barbarians would cross over into unsuspecting Rome.)
Likewise, Satan might well have shivered to see humble and unself-conscious goings-on by the Moscow River beginning in 1958. That's when Nikita Khrushchev ordered that the embarrassing swamp that was to have been Communism's glory be turned into a huge open-air swimming pool. For 30 years Moscovites came to bathe in its 27 degree Centigrade waters even in high Russian winter.
To be sure, in some ways the spiritual motive of what unraveled in the history of that bit of riverfront opposite the Pushkin Fine Arts Museum is as murky as the blanket of mists that rose from the surface of the thermal waters: The Alexseyevsky Monastery was ham-handedly removed to make way for a cathedral. The cathedral was to the glory of God-but also of Russia. The reconstruction of the cathedral was financed by bankers, not believers. And in any nation where national identity is so enmeshed with religious identity, devotion to God will be alloyed with patriotism and politics.
And yet, the story has God's fingerprints all over it.
Our tale begins in 1812 with the rout of Bonaparte, and Tsar Alexander I commanding a cathedral to commemorate Russia's victory. Several tsars and 71 years later, it was completed-30 stories of marble and granite capped with gleaming copper.
It was everything the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 hated, and in 1931 it took three tries with explosives for Stalin to bring it down. The plan was to replace "Christ the Savior" with the "Palace of Soviets," a different kind of cathedral-wedding cake shaped, taller than the Empire State Building, and topped with a Lenin three times the size of the Statue of Liberty. As if under the curse of Leviticus 18:28, the tons of concrete and steel foundation were vomited up by the water-laced substratum of earth, despite the best efforts of specialists from Britain and Germany. The project was abandoned.
Khrushchev built a heated swimming pool from the ashes-for years used by Christians to perform clandestine baptisms. Even Party officials, like latter-day Nicodemuses, secretly brought their offspring to be baptized there. Headless, armless, and legless, the little piece of real estate on the Moskva was sacred ground that could not be killed.
The Latins had a saying: Stillicidi casus lapidem cavat, or "constant dripping hollows out a stone." And so the Soviet Empire, the house that Lenin built, came down. Conventional wisdom says it fell from corruption on the inside, but one wonders if it wasn't just as much from irrepressible life on the inside-the seed that was plowed under and presumed dead; the drip, drip, drip erosion of a hundred years of quiet and illicit prayer of the faithful.
One thing is clear: The Communist graft onto the Russian soul didn't "take." Tissue rejection presented everywhere. In 1994 work began on the reconstruction of the Cathedral of Christ Our Savior, and you may visit it today.
It brings to my mind many a Bible story, such as the tower of Babel that God would not let be built (Genesis 11); the toppling of the Philistine god Dagon in the days of Samuel (1 Samuel 5); the Temple that, if destroyed, Jesus said He would raise up in three days (John 2:19).
And this: "A stone was cut out by no human hand, and it struck the image on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces. . . . But the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth" (Daniel 2:34-35).
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