The Lost Mosque of Moscow

contribution by Kateryna Malaia

[1] Moscow Congregational Mosque (c. 1904) in the 1990s. Image from 
Like any mega city, Moscow has many hidden architectural treasures. Until recently, one of these monuments—the Congregational Mosque of Moscow (c. 1904)—was located in the Meshchansky neighborhood of the city, right next to the modern stadium constructed for the 1980 Summer Olympics [Fig.1]. The Congregational Mosque, one of only two historic Muslim landmarks in the Russian capital, managed to endure the vicissitudes of time and politics throughout the twentieth century,  but ultimately it could not withstand the recent boom of demolition and construction that is now threatening many architectural and historic landmarks in Russia. Just a few years ago, the mosque was torn down completely and is currently under 'reconstruction.' 

The 1904 Congregational Mosque is unique in that it belongs to the particular tradition of Moscow mercantile culture as well as the religious architecture of the Tatar community. Additionally, the old building reflects the socio-political and aesthetic conditions of the late (pre-1917) Russian Empire, when the government delivered to the public an ideological reinforcement of statehood through the arts. In terms of architecture, this emphasis placed on the state was reflected through loose interpretations of early imperial styles, Byzantine in particular. While only being a little more than a hundred years old at the time of its demolition, the old building of the Congregational mosque was truly embedded not only in the history of Moscow and Russian Tatar Islam, but also in the history of the Russian state itself. To understand the multiplicity of narratives represented in the architecture of the old Congregational Mosque, we will first examine the wider history of mosque building within the city of Moscow and the wider Russian lands.

[2] The Model Project of a Mosque for
Siberia authorized by Catherine the Great
in 1782. Image from Zagidullin, Islamskie
instituty v Rossiĭskoĭ imperii,
p. 220.
Historians have demonstrated that, since the early history of Moscow, the Tatar Muslim merchant communities in the city were permitted to perform their worship in privacy of their courtyards and construct wooden spaces for prayer in the city. Unfortunately, we do not know much about the typology or appearance of those early prayer spaces, as, throughout its history, Moscow has experienced a number of fires. Also, in 1649, Tsar Aleksey Mikhailovich Romanov issued a decree ordering all the non-Christians to leave Moscow and their houses of worship to be burned. This tense situation shifted after the rise to power of Aleksey's son Peter the Great in 1689. Besides political changes, Peter's ambitious effort to European-ize old Muscovy began the introduction and standardization of architectural typologies and elements of style within the territory of the new Russian Empire. This process of architectural standardization further continued under Catherine the Great, who at the same time pursued a tolerant policy towards religious minorities; in 1773, the Most Holy Governing Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church issued a decree that advocated for tolerance of all religions, officially enabling the construction of mosques within the territory of the Russian Empire. This political statements resulted in the Model Project of a Mosque for Siberia authorized by Catherine the Great in 1782. [Fig.2]  The model project, produced by Russian architects, was said to be based on the architecture of the Muslim Tatars of the Middle Volga Region in its plan (a one room mosque with no courtyard). By choosing a Tatar mosque type to be used all over the state, Catherine and her administration attempted to enforce the "civilized" and loyal Tatar tradition on newly conquered communities, such as the Kirgiz and Kazakhs, whose way of worship was seen as barbaric and dangerous to the Empire. This model mosque, however, barely has any visual elements that could be attributed to the Tatar Muslim tradition. According to the architectural historian Nijaz Khalitov, 15th and 16th-century Tatar architecture was influenced by Ottoman examples (ex. Qolşärif Mosque before its destruction in the 16th century), but the facade articulation of this model mosque project diverges from any examples of early modern Tatar or Ottoman architecture. In fact, the facade elements--arched portico, rusticated minaret bases and the circular boss moldings--seen in the building were not much different from the rest of Catherine's neo-classical constructions. 

[3] A model project of a mosque approved
in 1829. From Zagidullin, Islamskie
 instituty v Rossiĭskoĭ imperii,
p. 228. 
Another model project of a mosque, produced in 1829, claimed to preserve the spatial and vertical organization of early Tatar mosques. [Fig.3] This time the  the model mosque not only had an ideological purpose; it was also an attempt to control the growing number of Muslim religious buildings, which according to a 1828 bureaucratic report, “only multiplied because of the desire of the  imams to get their own parish.” The 1829 model of the mosque was not accepted by most of the Muslim communities because of the expenses of its construction. As a result, in 1843 other models were developed that in many ways referenced the existing rural Tatar mosques. [Fig.4] Curiously, the model projects for wooden Tatar mosques allowed for more flexibility in the facade articulation—it was suggested that the facades could be decorated with recognizable Muslim motifs, yet they often acquired new unexpected readings after being re-imagined by non-Muslim architects and bureaucrats. 

[4] A model project of a Friday mosque approved in 1843. From Zagidullin, Islamskie instituty v Rossiĭskoĭ imperii, p. 244. 
In 1862, Muslim communities were given permission to independently determine the plans and facades for their mosques. Yet, in the vast majority of cases, the communities decided to preserve the standard plan and spatial organization (a single-room space with a small vestibule, similar to most of the then surviving Tatar mosques). In the case of larger congregational mosques, communities favored a rectangular, three-nave plan. [Fig.5] 

[5] Congregational Mosque of Moscow before demolition. Image from

[6] Tatar mosque in 'Zmoskvorecheje'
after the construction of a minaret.
Image from
While the plans of most mid-19th century mosques constructed in the Russian Empire remained rather conservative and uniform, the opposite phenomenon can be observed in the mosques' facades: the elevations of the mosques were often designed and constructed based on their particular context, rather than tradition or even suggested model mosque type. This was especially true for larger cities (except for Kazan), where the Muslim communities, no matter how deep-rooted, remained minorities. The two historic mosques of Moscow were built to reflect the style of the contemporary street facades and visually fit in with the surrounding city so perfectly that only a knowing person would have been able to easily recognize these buildings as mosques. The other mosque still surviving in Moscow today is the Tatar mosque in 'Zmoskvorecheje' or Tatarskaja Sloboda district (c. 1823). [Fig.6] The mosque was first constructed as a small building without a minaret; the minaret was erected years later in 1881, and at that time the entire building was also restored and remodeled. The second mosque, of course, is the Congregational Mosque of Moscow. 

[7] Congregational Mosque of Moscow before demolition. Image from

[8] Congregational Mosque of Moscow
between 1905 and 1930.
Image from
Before building the Congregational Mosque, the Tatar community petitioned Tsar Nicolay II to allow for the construction of a new mosque with facades in the Byzantine revival style, which reflected the political and ideological agenda of the Russian Imperial government at that time. [Figs. 7,8] The original building featured two stories with a basement and was roughly 65 feet tall from the ground level. The short minarets of the mosque were constructed only at roughly 1/3-height of the rest of the building. The entrance to the mosque was located under the axially-central minaret; this led to an interior space with a central hall flanked by two naves and balconies above them. The use of this standardized plan type clearly marked the genealogical connection of the building to the previous examples of Tatar mosque architecture. The facades were articulated with tall pilasters topped with braided ornaments. These pilasters separated the sets of arched windows on the second floor (characteristic of Byzantine Revival style) and truncated top windows on the first floor (characteristic of Russian 'Stil' Modern').

In the 1920s and 1930s, the Bolsheviks conducted a policy of uncompromising struggle with religious institutions and common expressions of religion. That struggle, however, was not as harsh against Islam as it was against Christianity; for multiple political reasons, especially the ongoing and uneasy Sovietization of Central Asia, the central government in Moscow was willing to mitigate the persecution of Muslims in comparison to other religions. Thus, the Congregational Mosque of Moscow survived and, as opposed to the majority of other religious buildings in the city, remained functioning until another threat in the late history of the USSR. In the late 1970s, a new stadium for the 1980 Olympics was mandated to be constructed right next to the mosque. The presence of a religious building next to this internationally attended venue, in the eyes of the political elites, contradicted the Soviet atheist ethos. Urban planners decided to demolish the mosque, but, thanks to the intervention of the international Muslim community and persistent petitions of the Moscow Muslims, the mosque was saved again. 

[9] The Congregational Mosque of Moscow and the construction of new buildings rising on around it, 2011. Image from Wikipedia, in the Public Domain.
[10] The Congregational Mosque of Moscow
under (re)construction, 2013. Photo by the author.
Yet, this century-old unique Byzantine Revival style Tatar mosque did not survive the present crisis of demolitions, which began in Moscow in the early 2000s. [Fig. 9] The land and the building were only returned to the ownership of Muslim organizations a couple of years ago. During this short period, the major Russian Muslim organization, the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of the European Part of Russia, managed to dispute the building's landmark status, demolish the mosque and make way for a new and inadequate 'reconstruction,' completely neglecting the historic and architectural value of the old building. [Fig.10] The conflict around the mosque was as complex as any major urban power and bureaucratic struggle and involved multiple stakeholders representing different groups of the changing Russian society. I plan to provide a larger overview and analysis of this recent conflict of interests and the new construction in a forthcoming article. In the meantime, one thing can be stated for sure: because of the current lack of government desire to follow legal mechanisms of historic preservation as well as the power struggle in the changing Muslim community and Moscow bureaucratic elites, the city and the architectural heritage worldwide has lost a unique and valuable building, which in itself served as a living monument to the history of Islamic architecture in Russia. 

KATERYNA MALAIA is a Ph.D. student in the Buildings-Landscapes-Cultures (BLC) interdisciplinary program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee focusing on the architecture and urban condition of post-Soviet mega-cities. 

**Liked this post? You might also enjoy "Little Mosques on the Prairie," by guest contributor Michael Połczyński.

KHALITOV, Nijaz. Tatarskai︠a︡ mechetʹ i eë arkhitektura: istoriko-arkhitekturnye issledovanie. Kazan:Tatarskoe knizhnoe izd-vo, 2012.
KHAYRETDINOV, Damir."Musulmanskaja Obshina Moskvy: Istorija i Sovremennost". Paper presented at the III Congress of ethnographers and anthropologists of Russia, Moscow, 8-11 June, 1999.
ZAGIDULLIN, Il'dusIslamskie instituty v Rossiĭskoĭ imperii: mecheti v evropeĭskoĭ chasti Rossii i Sibiri. Kazanʹ: Tatarskoe knizhnoe izd-vo, 2007.

Citation: "The Lost Mosque of Moscow," Kateryna Malaia, Stambouline (May 11, 2015).


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