Last June, when President Donald Trump met President Vladimir Putin for the first time, much was made of the parallels between the two leaders. Along with their nationalist tendencies, personal boastfulness, and carefully crafted cults of personality, both have rooted their rhetoric in promises to make America or Russia great again.
Traveling recently with my teenage son to St. Petersburg—home to Putin when he worked for the KGB—I saw many hints of the empire Putin may be envisioning as he puts a new and more impressive face on Russia, twenty-five years after the fall of the Soviet Union. Imperial palaces, the glittering art collection of the Hermitage Museum, and the orderly canals and grand avenues all hark back to a time when Russia was rising to become a great power in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
But as a symbol of past Russian greatness, nothing quite compares to St. Isaac’s Cathedral. The largest Orthodox basilica in the world, it was built on a foundation said to have consumed whole forests, with nearly eleven thousand piles driven into the swampland adjoining the Baltic Sea. Three hundred thousand tons of marble and granite were used to construct the neoclassical exterior. The cathedral has 112 polished red granite columns, some of them 60 feet high and a full 7 feet in diameter.
The structure’s crowning glory is its colossal dome, a technological wonder in its day, built out of cast iron and gilded with 220 pounds of pure gold. It was said that sixty men died in its construction, from the toxic fumes of mercury used to help spray the gold onto the dome’s surface. But when it was completed in 1858, it was considered a masterpiece both inside and out.
Curiously, St. Isaac’s played an important role in the erection of a similar shrine to national greatness, thousands of miles away, in Washington, D.C. By the mid-nineteenth century, the westward expansion and growth of the United States had increased the size of Congress, and in 1855 the decision was made to install a new and larger dome atop the recently expanded Capitol building. In designing it, architect Thomas Walter drew heavily on French architect Auguste de Montferrand’s designs for St. Isaac’s dome. As a result, the two possess almost identical proportions.