A symbol of the invader survives and thrives

by Kiki Deere

Built in the late 19th century, the Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral was nearly demolished in 1924 as an unloved symbol of Russian influence. Photo Valery Bareta / Alamy

TALLINN’S Aleksandr Nevsky Cathedral sits atop Toompea Hill, dominating the city skyline. A picturesque landmark to visitors, it means a lot more than that to Estonians.

I cover my head with a shawl and make my way inside. A pungent smell of incense permeates the interior. A lady sits comfortably at a table behind an assortment of articles, among them candles and books, whose Russian script is clearly visible on the covers — to this day no books are sold here written in Estonian.

Built between 1894 and 1900, the church is a reminder of the country’s Russian occupation. The icons, intricate mosaics and 15-ton bell were imported from St Petersburg, and the building — somewhat provocatively — is named after Aleksandr Nevsky, who conquered Estonia in the 13th century.

No books are sold here written in Estonian

A large older woman waddles towards the front of the cathedral, where she lights two candles, muttering prayers under her breath. A steady stream of worshippers move into a nearby room. Intrigued, I follow. An infant wails as he is immersed in water, his screams echoing throughout the room. He is surrounded by men, women and children eager to witness his baptism. Some walk away; latecomers arrive, making their way to the front of the crowd.

I soon leave, feeling like an intruder on these intimate moments, and return outside to take a deep breath of fresh Baltic air.