Everywhere you go in Russia, there are khramy. In Russian, this word means “place of worship” and is differentiated from the word for church or cathedral because one khram can contain multiple chapels or churches, as St. Basil’s on Red Square does. Many have onion domes and bell towers to distinguish them, others are behind monastery walls. Most still have services either weekly or on important holidays. Some serve as both museums and places of worship, and a few, like St. Basil’s, are just museums now.
There are a few defining characteristics of khramy. Almost all of them have a bell tower separate from the central onion dome and often a completely different building unto themselves. The churches and cathedrals all have iconostases, large structures separating the congregation from the altar. These are generally covered with icons, one identifying the church, others to assorted saints, and are crowned with a crucifix. In the oldest khramy, the walls can be painted with biblical scenes or yet more icons. In newer ones, ornate decorations and possibly gilding adorn the iconostasis, walls, icons, candlesticks, and chandeliers.
An iconostasis in St Basil’s
These gorgeous decorations may harken back to when a Russian prince sent out a group of nobles to research different religions in order that he might decide which was best to convert his kingdom to. The nobles returned with the information that Islam was impossible (for one could not drink as a Muslim and drinking was important for an induction ceremony for some warriors) and Catholicism seemed too cloistered. However, they described Orthodox services as one of the most beautiful events they had witnessed. Thus, Orthodoxy was chosen.
But what does this beauty and grandeur evoke? To me, they inspired little. Admittedly, I have not attended an Orthodox service and all the khramy I have been in served at least partly as museums. But the buildings themselves, while impressive and built with the fervor of zealots, did little to instill piety in me. I should say: I believe in God. But the grandeur and icons made me feel as though they were expressing more the grandeur and wealth of those who built them. See the chapel from the Winter Palace below.
If anything, the ornateness of the khramy detract from the religious experience. One marvels not at the glory of God but at the masterful painting of icons, intricacy of the carvings, and immensity of the building. To me, the khramy dotting the landscape of Russia signify more the power of the Orthodox Church in Russia than the power of God. But there is one exception: Bogolyubovo.
A tiny little khram built in a large field that floods frequently. One must walk more than a kilometer from the railroad tracks just to get there, and then, only if the path is not submerged. Why on earth would someone build a place of worship there? Faith. The faith that inspired its construction is the kind of powerful, personal faith that reminds one of people’s belief that their faith will help others and should be spread. It gives one hope that there is still a desire to do good in the world. That the wealth invested in all the other khramy and cathedrals in the world was not for nothing.