Today was odd. I’m in St Petersburg, Russia with a friend who is researching Georg Wilhelm Steller, a German scientist who accompanied Vitus Bering on his Second Kamchatka Expedition in 1740. The expedition was organised by the Russian Academy of Sciences, St Petersburg and took Bering’s crew from St Petersburg to America, via Siberia, over nearly ten years of travelling.
We’ve been conducting a treasure hunt round St Petersburg, with no ability to read or speak the language, looking for references to Bering or Steller. It has led us down some interesting rabbit holes.
Today we visited the Lutheran Church of Saint Peter & Saint Paul, which was built on the site of the original Lutheran church of the same name. Steller was likely to have been a member of the congregation. We were looking for his story, but we found someone else’s.
The church is on the Nevsky Prospect, St Petersburg’s buzzing main thoroughfare. It’s a stone’s throw from what must be a contender for the world’s largest Zara store. As soon as we entered the quiet foyer of the large, symmetrical yellow building something felt wrong. Instead of stepping into the nave of the church, we were funnelled to the side and into a small exhibition. Here we discovered something unexpected: during the soviet regime, when religion was banned in Russia, the church had been converted into a swimming pool.
The exhibition was written in Russian and German so, as I’m away from home, the following dates have been largely sourced from Wikipedia. Do tell me if you know more.
The present building was built in 1833 – 1837. By 1917 the church had 15,000 members and ran a school, a hospital and an orphanage. By the 1960s it had become a swimming pool.
Staffing the small exhibition was a white-haired man who spoke Russian, German and a few words of English. To our shame, my friend and I mainly communicated through pointing and miming (typical Brits). Perhaps he could sense our interest in the building (my friend was ecstatic at finding references to, and drawings by, Steller), or maybe he had a story he wanted to tell, I’m not sure. But what happened next will stay with me forever.
He signalled for us to follow him. Intrigued and still on the Steller hunt we trailed him through a corridor and several doors until we reached a room, where a lady with tight curled hair and glasses sat behind a desk. There was a brief heated discussion in Russian, and then the white-haired man took a key from a metal box on the wall. At this point I felt excited and anxious: what were we about to see?
We continued up a winding concrete staircase, the sound of a church organ growing nearer, until we came out into the main body of the building. The church is still there. Set up with pews. The new floor is clearly in the shape of the interloping swimming pool. The raised wooden spectator seats, complete with the metal bars of a lido, cascaded down. A strange combination of recreation and religion. The church is being reclaimed.
We thought our tour was done, but the white-haired man beckoned for us to follow him again. Back down the winding staircase, through another exhibition, down further into a cellar. Down through a locked metal door, through fractured layers of foundation, concrete and metal. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust. The swimming pool is still there, underneath the church. It is still covered in blue tiles, and you can see the struts in the ground from the diving boards. We were standing in a very unique layer of history.
Then another door, more metal steps, down deeper, until we were beneath the swimming pool itself. There were holes hacked into the ceiling, explosions of plaster up into the base of the pool, to let the light through. On the wall was a series of recently painted vignettes. I don’t know who painted it, perhaps the white haired man. In broken English, mixed with German he told us the story of the mural, the story of his community, the story of his life.
There was a scene of the church we were standing in; women were crying as Soviet officials pulled the cross from the top. A banner of Marx’s statement: ‘Religion is the opium of the masses,’ was brandished by people and men in military uniforms. The next painting showed a train packed with religious dissenters bound for Siberia. Then there was a depiction of a clandestine religious meeting of the Lutheran church.
At this point the man indicated he remembered attending these meetings as a small boy. He would tug on his mother’s coat and she would tell him to be quiet. They were frightened. Persecuted. Scared. The next scene showed a hard labour camp.
The final painting was of a concentration camp: dark, hostile, a military watchtower, barbed wire, snow falling. The white haired man pointed and said: “East Germany. Camp. Mother, father. I born here.” He tapped the wall.
Scattered around this hidden layer, this witness to what happened to a persecuted community, this shrine, were bibles and candles. I did not take any more photos, it did not feel right.
With thanks to @geowriter, Wikipedia and the Lutheran Church of Saint Peter & Saint Paul for allowing us access, photographs and postcard images.