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St. Nevsky Cathedral, Warsaw

The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (Polish: Sabór św. Aleksandra Newskiego) was a Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Saxon Square built in Warsaw, Poland than a part of the Russian Empire. 

The cathedral was designed by distinguished Russian architect Leon Benois and was built between 1894 and 1912. When it was finally completed, it was 70 meters in height, at that time, the tallest building in Warsaw.

The project.
The Tsarist governor Joseph Vladimirovich Gourko.

The idea of building a new Orthodox cathedral in Warsaw, while it was in the Russian Empire, came from the Tsarist governor Joseph Vladimirovich Gourko. In a letter sent to Tsar Alexander III, he stated that the churches built so far in Warsaw could not serve all the Russian Orthodox population, which exceeded 40 thousand people. He also proposed that a new, splendid Orthodox church would show Russian domination in the region as well as serve the expanded Orthodox population. The tsar responded positively to Gourko’s letter and inaugurated a committee to organize the construction of the new church. Many Russian citizens donated money toward the construction expenses, while the remainder of the necessary funds came from mandatory donations required from all municipalities within Gourko’s jurisdiction and special tax increases within the city of Warsaw.

On August 28, 1893, a special committee for the construction of the new cathedral was organized, with Gourko as its head. The committee adopted the design proposed by Leon Benois and construction began in 1894. The place chosen as the site of the cathedral was a monument raised by Russian authorities in memory of Polish generals who were executed in the November Uprising by Poles for collaborating with Russian Empire.

The Cathedral shortly after completion in 1912.
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, 1918.

In 1900, the first phase of construction was completed and a special group of Petersburg artists started decorating the interior with mosaics, frescoes, and precious stones. Work on the interior of the cathedral, designed by Nikolay Pokrovsky, continued for another 12 years. The frescoes were painted by Viktor Vasnetsov. The cathedral was decorated with 16 mosaic panels designed by Vasnetsov and Andrei Ryabushkin. The decorations of the cathedral used precious and semi-precious stones extensively, marble, and granite. The altar was decorated with jasper columns.

The Cathedral interior, 1913.
Interior of the cathedral as it appeared in 1915.

Next, to the Cathedral, a bell tower was erected. It was 70 meters high and was the tallest building in contemporary Warsaw. There were fourteen bells, of which the largest one was also one of the biggest in the Russian Empire. The Cathedral was opened on May 20, 1912. 

Only three years later, the Russian population began leaving Warsaw as World War I began, in fear of it becoming the front line. The Orthodox clergy took with them most of the liturgic objects. After the German troops entered Warsaw, they pillaged the church (removing the whole roof), then turned it into their Protestant military chapel. In 1918, they retired from the city and the Cathedral was abandoned. The next three years saw it function as a German military church.

Saxon square as seen from the air in 1919.

After Poland gained independence plans were floated to demolish this symbol of Russian hegemony. The debate on what to do with it reigned for years, with arguments including that the building had no artistic value, that the square needed to be freed up for military parades and that the foundations were already sinking.

Finally, in 1922 the tower was taken down and between 1924-1926 15,000 detonations were set off to rid Warsaw of the cathedral. Much of the high-quality marble obtained during the demolition was reused in the decoration of various Warsaw buildings. Also, some of the mosaics were saved. These have since been preserved in the Church of Mary Magdalen in Warsaw.