The Church on Spilled Blood and the Assassination of a Tsar
The morbid name of the Church on Spilled Blood should tip you off that this is not your typical house of worship but one with a grisly past. This is the story of the 6th and final assassination attempt of Tsar Alexander II also known as the reformer Tsar, a nickname that warranted him much hatred by the people and especially a group of radicals called The People’s Will.
On March 13, 1881, the tsar was making his usual Sunday trip to the Mikhailovsky Manege riding academy for roll call. As he was traveling along Catherine’s Canal (as Canal Griboyedova was then called), a bomb was thrown under the horses hooves wounding the driver and others on the sidewalk. The Tsar’s bulletproof carriage, a gift from Napoleon III, was hardly damaged. Shaken but unharmed, he got out of the carriage to reproach the suspect when a second conspirator threw another bomb saying, “It’s too early to thank God yet!” It landed at the Tsar’s feet and this time, when the smoke cleared, it became clear that the bomb was successful and had fatally wounded the Tsar. With both legs decapitated below the knees, he knew his time was short and asked to be taken to the Winter Palace where he died a few hours later. In the aftermath, they found out that there was even a third bomber in the crowd that day. The People’s Will were determined that it was Alexander’s day to go.
The reason they wanted him gone so badly was because he had planned to sign several new reforms just days away from the attack. However, those reforms were never signed and his son and successor even postponed his crowning ceremony for a couple of years until things died down some. Sadly, Alexander’s son (Alexander III) and grandson (Nicholas II) witnessed the fateful attack first hand. This left a lasting impression on them and they did their best to avoid the same fate by greatly suppressing the people which is part of what led to Nicholas’ downfall in the years to come.
The imperial family decided to have the cathedral built in Alexander’s honor. Built between 1883-1907, it was funded by the family and many private donors. Before building commenced, a temporary shrine was installed on the exact location of the attack and the canal was narrowed so that the section of ground where the Tsar was wounded could be included in the church. When you visit, you can still see a shrine that marks the location of his death.
His son wanted the church to be built with a distinct Russian style in stark contrast of the western-influenced baroque and classical architectural style that one typically sees in the heart of the city, so it was designed in Russian Ecclesiastical style. Architects channeled inspiration from Moscow’s St. Basil’s Cathedral as well as Vladimir’s Cathedral in Kiev. The chief architect for the project was Alfred Alexandrovich Parland of Baltic-German ancestry, but Petersborn.
After the revolution, the church was looted and desecrated. The interior was left badly damaged. It was officially closed in 1932, but during the siege it reopened and was used as a temporary morgue for soldiers as well as those who died of starvation and illness. After the war, it was converted to a vegetable warehouse and nicknamed “Church of the Savior on Potatoes.”
In 1970, the church was handed over to St. Isaac’s Cathedral and 80% of the funds from St. Isaac’s Cathedral funded the restoration of the Church on Spilled Blood. In August of 1997, the church reopened to the public.
Not ever functioning as a real church, it is considered to be a museum of mosaics. In the past, it has held memorial services for Alexander and readings, but has not functioned as most churches do nor has it held any funerals, weddings or baptisms.
Tips for Visiting
Church on Spilled Blood is open 10:30-6pm.
They are closed on Wednesdays.
Free entry for children under 7.
It is wheelchair accessible.
The exterior is being renovated until 2025.
Continue reading about St. Isaac’s Cathedral that lies on a forest of trees to provide the cathedral with a stable base in the marshy territory and find out why this building was chosen to house the valuables from the suburban palaces during the war.