This cathedral was built to a design by Mikhail Preobrazhensky, a Professor at the St Petersburg Academy of Arts, in a typical Russian Revival style between 1894 and 1900, during the period when the country was part of the Russian Empire. The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is Tallinn’s largest and grandest orthodox cupola cathedral. The building has five onion-shaped cupolas and follows examples of 17th-century Moscow church architecture.
The décor of the façades is very rich and includes mosaic panels (by Alexander Frolov) of a rather high artistic value. Depicted on the lower mosaic on the south façade is Alexander Nevsky (ab 1220-63), the Prince of Novgorod who gained a victory over the Swedes in a battle on the Neva (1240) and beat Teutonic Knights in the Ice Battle on Lake Peipsi (1242), thus preventing them from advancing further east. This determined the borderline between the Catholic and the Orthodox faiths. The upper mosaic features one of Russia’s greatest men of religion, St Sergius of Radonezh (ab 1321-91), as well as Prince Vladimir (1015) who brought Christianity to Kiev. Inside there are altars dedicated to these three men. The interior of the church is more moderate. The stained glass windows above the main altar depict the Redeemer, the Mother of God, and John the Baptist.
Icons of the Apostles stand in the upper row of the gold-plated wooden iconostasis of the main altar. The lower row has figures of the Virgin and Child, Christ and the archangels Michael and Gabriel to both sides of the royal gates, with local saints in the background.
The church has icons that are older and more valuable than the building itself. There are also some quite recent pieces, such as the Icon of the Martyrs of the Czar’s Family, icons of the Czar-martyr Nicholas II and of the bishop-martyr Platon (by Nikolay Merkurev, 2000-01). The icon on the southeast pillar is a gift to the church by Czar Nicholas II who visited the church twice. It depicts the patron saints of the Czar’s family and was created to mark the amazing escape of the Czar’s family from a train accident on 17 October 1888. A symbolical grave of Christ and an interesting icon expressing a variety of ways of depicting the Virgin can be seen in the north aisle. Side by side with the rather simple buildings in Lossi plats Alexander Nevsky’s Cathedral looks slightly out of place. Built at the high peak of Russification, it can be seen as a symbol of that policy, even though there are Orthodox believers also among the Estonians.
It is dedicated to Saint Alexander Nevsky who in 1242 won the Battle of the Ice on Lake Peipus, in the territorial waters of present-day Estonia. The late Russian patriarch, Alexis II, started his priestly ministry in the church.
The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral seems to be competing for attention as it sits across the street from the Castle. They face each other as if in a staring match. The cathedral crowns the hill of Toompea which is one of several places where according to legend, the Estonian folk hero Kalevipoeg’s father Kalev is said to have been buried.
As the USSR was officially non-religious, many churches including this cathedral were left to decline. The church has been meticulously restored since Estonia regained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
In 1710 Estonia became the German Baltic Sea Province of Russia.
The period of Russian rule lasted for over 200 years. In the beginning, the course of everyday life changed little. Peter the Great confirmed the existing privileges of the local nobility and gave back the lands confiscated by the Swedish king. The ‘Baltic special order’, it was called, retained for landowners their own judicial system, the Lutheran church and German as the official language, and thein self-government through Rüütelkond (Knightage) 1712 when Peter the Great, about to sign these privileges one of the Estonian emissaries, Renauld von Ungern-Sternberg, stepped forward and put his hand on the czar’s right arm, saying: ‘If Your Majesty has no intention of upholding our privileges, do not sign’. To this, Peter the Great responded in a mixture of Dutch and low German: ‘By God, I will stick to them!’and signed the paper. There were cases in which the Russian officials could not come to grips with the notion of political autonomy, but in general everything went smoothly until 1881, into law, reached for the quill, when Alexander III came to the throne.
Russification reforms began. Alexander III was the first Russian czar who did not recognize ‘Baltic special law’ or confirm the privileges of the Rüütelkond. Russian-speaking officials were dispatched to Toompea as governors, Russian became the official language and religious freedom was abolished. The language of instruction, from the village school to Tartu University, became Russian.
In the 1840s, 17 percent of Estonian peasants converted to Orthodoxy in the hope of getting land. The czar promised ‘soul-land’ to peasants if they joined the Russian Orthodox Church, and about a tenth of the Estonian peasants did so. When it was found that the promised land was situated deep in Russia, they wanted to go back to the Lutheran church but this was not permitted. Instead of the statue of Martin Luther intended for Toompea, Alexander Nevsky Cathedral had been erected by 1900. This became the symbol of Russification.
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