Churches of Harbin

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The world’s most glorious architecture is undeniably ecclesiastical.

This is none more true than in one of the most picturesque places anywhere in the world, Volga Manor. Lending to the beauty of the wetlands (for Volga is indeed a marsh on the outskirts of Harbin) is its rich history courtesy of the Manchurian Railway, which began to connect China to Russia at the dawn of the 20th century. That and the fact that the Russians built Harbin from scratch.

Harbin was actually a railway town, at one time packed with a Russian immigrant population that worked on the Chinese Eastern Railway, the formal name of the Manchurian line. Railway employees moving to Harbin brought their own furniture and infused Northeastern China with the Russian way of living.

God First
It was in the Russian tradition of erecting structures without using a single nail that the Church of Saint Nicholas was built. What stands in Volga Manor today is a replica of the original that was destroyed in 1966 by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution.

Rechristened Saint Nicholas Art Gallery, the reproduction was actually relocated from its original site in what is known today as Hongbo Square, where the original St Nicholas Russian Orthodox church once stood.

The original St Nicholas broke ground in 1899. The completion dates on record vary substantially. Some accounts say the church was finished in 1900. Other accounts label the structure circa 1920, which means it took the builders at least 11 years to finish the structure.

Whatever the case, the original St Nicholas church was Harbin’s first building, showing how pious Orthodox Russians chose to put God first.

Onion Domes & Tent Arches
The new St Nicholas was constructed in 2007 by the owners of Volga Manor, one of Harbin’s oldest families, along with private partners. The project cost upwards of US$6 million.

The hexagonal shingles, tent arches, and onion domes raised on cylindrical necks are characteristic of Russian ecclesiastical architecture circa 1900. These three Baroque trademarks are present in both the ancient and modern versions of St Nicholas. (The Russian architect overseeing the project is said to have ensured 1:1 accuracy by basing reconstruction on over a thousand blueprints of the original structure.)

St Nicholas is actually Petrine Baroque, the second of three stages of the Baroque movement in Russia; the other two being Moscow Baroque, characterized by white embellishments on red brick (like many buildings around the Kremlin), and Rastrelliesque Baroque, which is distinguished by repeating, bundled columns and statuary (like The Winter Palace in St Petersburg).

Petrine Baroque is most remarkable for one thing: it is strongly influenced by Swedish log-cabin architecture. That is why Petrine is considered a radical departure from the strong Byzantine influence that mark other stages of Russian Baroque.

Why the Swedish influence? Well, it has to do with the maritime victories of Peter the Great (tsar and later emperor of Russia) over Sweden. Petrine Baroque was the emperor’s preferred architecture. It was during Peter the Great’s reign that the Russian Orthodox Church was reformed.

A perfect example of Petrine Baroque is the Church of the Transfiguration of the Savior on Kizhi Island. The Russians built it in 1714 to celebrate their emperor’s Swedish victories. It uses the exact technique as St Nicholas: horizontally laid, mature pine logs are made to interlock sans nails. The only difference is that the Kizhi church uses rough-edged, hand-cut Aspen shingles as opposed to St Nicholas’ smooth hexagon ones.

St. Nicholas is undoubtedly the highlight of Volga Manor and the interior is a marvellous example of rustic Baroque splendor.

Nocturnal Wonder
A perfect counterpoint to the rustic St Nicholas is the Cathedral of Saint Sophia located in the heart of Harbin’s central district, Daoli.

The majestic Cathedral of the Holy Wisdom of God, as St. Sophia is also known, towers 53.3 meters in the chilly Harbin air and occupies 721 square meters on the busy corner of Zhaolin and Toulin Streets. Asia’s longest pedestrian street (Central St, which stretches 1.45 kilometers) is a brief walk from the cathedral steps and the commercial bustle is clearly heard around St Sophia way into the night.

St Sophia is at her most glorious after sunset. The interplay of light bouncing off moldings on facade and fenestration, even as it illuminates the steeples and central dome with a blue translucent glow, is nothing short of divine. Perhaps that is why the noise level suddenly drops as evening tourists approach the cathedral, even if the church has been a museum for over a dozen years.

However, the gigantic emerald green dome and steeples— topped by gold crosses that glitter in the sunlight—are best appreciated by architecture aficionados during daytime. Beholding such a sterling example of Russian Baroque right in the middle of a bustling Chinese city will give even the most jaded traveler pause.

A Ukrainian church (the more elaborately ornate if more squat Christ the Savior Cathedral) was actually the inspiration for St Sophia.

The two historic churches mark important milestones in the history of the Harbin Russians. While St Nicholas proclaimed their making their home in a new land, St Sophia was meant to buoy the spirits of the Fourth Russian Infantry Division after they returned to the area in defeat at the end of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. (The Trans-Siberian Railway had been completed two years prior to their return, finally connecting China to Vladivostok, Russia.)

The original St Sophia was completed in timber by 1907. In 1912, brick was added to St. Sophia’s timberwork. The structure as it stands today is the result of a nine-year reconstruction that began in 1923 based on the redesign of a Russian architect.

The Secret Cathedral
St. Sophia Cathedral became decrepit after nearly two decades of neglect following the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Unlike St Nicholas, the resilient Sophia did not collapse from the onslaught of the Red Guard—so she was used by the state as a warehouse for its department store.

For 30 years, industry overran St. Sophia, covering her windows with bricks, boxing her in on all sides with stalls, a pen factory, a car repair shop, and apartments for government employees. Small trees even started to grow on her majestic steeples and dome.

The grand cathedral became Harbin’s forgotten secret— inaccessible, invisible. Until 1996.

When it was declared a National Cultural Heritage Site, the people of Harbin bonded together to raise funds for St Sophia’s restoration. Corporations, small independents, and even workers from Daoli’s stores pooled their money together (some 12 million yuan) to give Sophia a facelift.

And then they tore down the surrounding concrete buildings to reveal her splendor to the world.

The Cathedral of St Sophia in Harbin is the biggest Orthodox church in the far east today and, once again, inspires sublime spiritual awe in all who behold her.

Print ed: 12/11 - 01/12


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