Earlier this week, Kirill, the Russian Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow consecrated Russia’s new Cathedral of the Armed Forces in a forest 40 miles outside the capital. Travelling beyond kitsch into archaeofuturism, the building is spectacular, genuinely like nothing else on earth. Indeed, its mesmerising scale and steampunk ornamentation is almost like a glimpse of an alien civilisation (an impression only amplified by the Warhammer 40k video game music an anonymous Twitter wag added to its launch video).
Archaeofuturism in Russia. Mesmerising video, almost like a glimpse of an alien civilisation. pic.twitter.com/QsYDBK6e1m
— Aris Roussinos (@arisroussinos) June 15, 2020
The cathedral itself is riveted together like a weapon of war. Clad in bronze and iron, its towers soar skywards like an array of ballistic missiles. Inside, a huge mosaic of Christ’s stern and all-seeing visage looms down into a gloomy interior with the verdigris hue of a time-worn cannon. Glittering mosaics portray the Holy Virgin and the martial saints keeping watch over Moscow’s World War II defenders, and Russian soldiers in modern uniforms proudly bearing their Kalashnikovs like modern martyrs. With steel steps leading to the cathedral cast from melted-down Nazi tanks, its gilded domes surrounded by a vast museum to Russia’s military history containing relics like Hitler’s personal uniform, it is a temple to martial glory that goes far beyond Christianity, the architectural equivalent of a steppe khan drinking wine from the skull of a conquered foe.
The cathedral is the brainchild of Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, an ethnic Tuvan Buddhist who nevertheless showed himself in venerating its icons in full dress uniform with all due reverence. Indeed, one early mosaic design featuring Putin and Shoigu together was quietly abandoned, according to Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, after Russia’s autocrat decided it was too early to officially join the motherland’s pantheon.
The adoption of Christian symbolism by the non-believer Shoigu is not necessarily an indication of hypocrisy: like the also-abandoned mosaic of Stalin, or the stained-glass windows embellished with the hammer and sickle of the Red Army, this building, by neutering and assimilating the symbols of communism into the greater glory of Mother Russia, stands less as a temple to God than to Russia itself as a distinct and unique civilisation state.
Designed as a public spectacle and as a statement of Russia’s neo-traditionalist state ideology for the next century, the military cathedral’s dedication came at a serendipitous time for its designers, propaganda-wise. A statement of confidence in its own civilisation and of apartness from the liberal West, Russia’s temple to itself was consecrated at the same time its main geopolitical rival is tearing itself apart over its loss of faith in its own national story.
While Russia’s leaders publicly venerate icons of God and state, America’s elite are lost in an orgy of iconoclasm, rejecting their European founding as an original sin, tearing down statues and effacing their own history in an outbreak of civilisational self-harm swiftly adopted on our own shores. It is difficult to imagine what the equivalent monument would be in the Western world. Will the glittering skyscrapers of high finance (owned by Gulf investment funds) which stud the London skyline still be standing in a century? It is difficult even to feel certainty that the United Kingdom, or European Union, or United States will outlast them.