Onion domes, memories of a 19th century war define religious sites in Sofia, Shipka and Yambol
The impact of the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish war in what is now Bulgaria is hard to exaggerate. The nation regained its independence after five centuries of Ottoman domination, and established strong, but often troubled, relations with first imperial and then Soviet Russia, mingling the inevitable gratitude for those who died in the war with the need to have independent foreign, economic and social policy.
While Bulgaria is dotted with places that have strong political connections with Russia, from the names of central streets to monuments to the Soviet Army, a number of sites embody a point of both common ground and contention: the Russian churches. There are three of them in Bulgaria: in Sofia, at Shipka and in Yambol.
Initially, they were administered by the Russian Empire. When the Bolsheviks took over in 1917 and murdered the emperor, thousands of non-Communist Russian refugees fled to the then Kingdom of Bulgaria. The Russian churches became the focal points of Russian émigré spiritual and community life.
Obviously, Stalin was furious. In 1934, acting through his minister in Istanbul, he issued a decree that transferred ownership of the Russian churches at Shipka and Yambol to the Kingdom of Bulgaria, on condition that they would be governed by "purely" Bulgarian boards to which no Russian émigré element would have access. The church in Sofia, however, remained the property of the Russian legation.
In modern Bulgaria the Russian churches serve as memorials to the soldiers who died in 1877-1878, but also stand witness to the political changes that both Russia and Bulgaria went through in the 130 years after the conflict.
St Nicholas the Miracle-Worker Church, Sofia
Located on King Liberator Boulevard, which is dedicated to the Russian Emperor Alexandr II, the Russian Church is one of the most notable sights of the capital. With its gilt domes and colourful design it looks as if it had been transported from a fairy tale. The building of a chapel for the then nearby Russian Embassy (now House of Moscow in Bulgaria) started at the end of the 19th century. The church was consecrated in 1914, and its bells were donated by Emperor Nicholas II.
The fascinating exterior of the Russian with its onion-shaped domes is complemented by an equally fascinating interior, narrow and dimly-lit. Most visitors, however, make a bee-line to the crypt where Archbishop Seraphim Sobolev (1881-1950) is buried. He is believed to be a saint who grants wishes.
The Nativity Russian Church at Shipka
It is visible from afar: golden onion-shaped domes glistening among the tree-covered southern slopes near the Shipka Pass in the Stara Planina mountains. Built with donations from Russians on land given by the people of the nearby Shipka village, the Nativity Church is a beautiful edifice dedicated to the Russian soldiers who lost their lives at the Shipka Pass battle during the war of 1877-1878. The idea for the building came from the Russian diplomat Count Nikolay Ignatieff.
The church was consecrated in 1902 and has 16 bells, one of which weights 12 tonnes. The names of the fallen are inscribed on 34 marble slabs, and there are 17 marble sarcophagi with the remains of the dead. The frescoes inside are by Bulgarian and Russian artists. The church is part of a monastic complex which was given to Soviet Russia in 1934. The decree for this is still exhibited inside the church.
What makes a visit to the church a memorable experience is not only the architecture and the story, but also the setting. From the site there are vistas over the Valley of the Roses (or if you prefer, the Valley of the Thracian Kings), while the tall trees surrounding the church moan eerily in the wind.
St Spas Monastery, Yambol
The third Russian church in Bulgaria cannot compete in size, beauty or fame with its sisters. The St Alexandr Nevskiy church in the St Spas monastery (it's a bit confusing with the names here), however, is the oldest of them all. Its construction, proposed by the Russian General Mikhail Skobelev, began in 1879 with Russian and Bulgarian donations at the Bakadzhitisite heights near Yambol, on the site of an older monastery. Skobelev donated a gospel and a massive cross, which are still preserved, and left his division's priest, Parteniy Getman, to be the monastery's first abbott. Its icon doors were made by Russian monks, and icons were brought from Kiyv Pechersk Lavra, a major religious centre. The church was consecrated in 1884.
During the First World War, when Bulgaria and Russia were enemies, the government closed the monastery, but it reopened later. In the 1920s, it was part of the Russian Church in exile, and in 1925 the last Russian monk to serve in the monastery was ordained. The monastery has no monks now, and is looked after by a priest and his wife.
A nearby artificial cave, dug into the rocks in 1910, leads to a well with supposedly healing water.
A Borderline Case?
Actually, Bulgaria's largest cathedral, St Alexandr Nevskiy Cathedral in Sofia, is not Russian at all: it was built with Bulgarian donations and is the main church of the Bulgarian Patriarchate.
However, it has strong links with Russia. The very idea for its construction, which appeared as early as 1879 during the Constitutional Assembly, was to be a grand "thank you" to Russia for its role in the restoration of Bulgaria's independence from the Ottoman Empire. The architects of the project, led by Professor Aleksandr Pomerantsev, were all Russian. The 12 bells were made in Moscow, the domes were gilded using Russian technology and Russian specialists used to take care of them, with Russian gold, until 2001. The inscriptions on two memorial columns mark Bulgaria's eternal gratitude for the Liberation, and the main icons in the central nave are by famed Russian artist Viktor Vasnetsov.
The saint it was dedicated to is also Russian: St Alexandr Nevskiy was a Mediaeval prince famed for his victory over the Teutonic Knights. In 1915, however, Bulgarians were so enraged by the Russian bombardment of Varna that the cathedral was renamed Ss Cyril and Methodius. It kept that name for several years only and, when the building was finally consecrated, in 1924, it was as St Alexandr Nevskiy.
High Beam is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.