The ensemble of Smolny Cathedral of Resurrection for All Educational Establishments produces an unforgettable impression even though it had not been completed fully, and the grandiose 140 m belfry (18 m higher than that of Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral) had never been built.
The cathedral amazes you as you approach because of its strange and mystical ability to decrease in size as you draw nearer, while still remaining as majestic.
Even those professional architects who did not feel any piety towards the baroque style gave Rastrelli credit for this work with its perfect proportions and exquisite décor.
Some said that when architect Giacomo Quarenghi who favored a very different approach to architecture and who had shown resolute and frank hostility towards Rastrelli, would stop in front of the main entrance to Smolny Cathedral, turn to face the building, take off his hat and exclaim: “Ecco una chiesa!” (“That’s one church!”).
Smolny Dvor area was very much familiar to the daughter of Czar Peter Alexeevich, Grand Duchess and future empress Elizaveta Petrovna. It was here in Smolny Palace that she spent her childhood years. During the reign of Anna Ioannovna she lived here under the ever-watching eye of Biron. The legend says that the all-powerful duke used to dress like a simple German artisan, and watch over Elizaveta personally because he thought she was plotting a conspiracy. It was here, too, that Elizaveta Petrovna decided to build a monastery where she could retreat from the commotion of the secular world, and live and pray here in the company of 120 orphan girls.
The construction of Smolny monastery was carried out on a very grand scale. But as the Seven Year War with Prussia started, the construction was halted. The Czarina died before Smolny Cathedral was consecrated.
For a certain while Smolny Cathedral was virtually abandoned. The building stood without interior décor for 60 years and was never consecrated throughout that time.
In 1764 by an order of Empress Catherine the Great a nunnery and a School for Noble Girls were founded in Smolny, followed in 1765 with creation of a school for low middle class, which were the first two Russian educational establishments for women. Two churches completed during the reign of the previous monarch, the Church of St. Catherine, and the Church of St. Zachariah and Elizabeth were consecrated to serve the needs of these establishments.
The church of St. Catherine in the north-eastern tower was adjacent to the quarters of the head priest and a dining facility. It had a rich and luxurious décor. During the reign of Catherine the Great some 22,000 gold Guilder were spent on gilding its molding décor. Like other Imperial cathedrals, the church had a special seat for the monarch, and the images on the iconostasis showed guardian angels of the imperial family and dates of their ascension to the throne. The spandrels of the cathedrals featured not the traditional four Evangelists but holy martyrs Daria, Agafia, Anastasia, and Catherine “whose feats comforted the Tsarevna Elizaveta Petrovna in the days of her tremendous desolation in Smolny Palace. She could find the description of their lives in the library of the palace,” wrote later Fr.K. Znamensky, head priest of the church.
In the end of the 18th century the Northern building contained an assembly hall and a theater, and the Western building housed the quarters of the Head Teacher of the school. During the reign of Empress Maria Fedorovna the Eastern building housed her quarters and the apartment of Nelidova, her lady-in-waiting.
Smolny Cathedral was consecrated on July 22, 1835 by Metropolitan Seraphim. There were the main Resurrection altar and the side altars of St. Mary Magdalene and Pious Elizabeth. The church housed 6000 people.
A medal was made in commemoration of the event. It featured the facade of the Cathedral and its wings, and the inscription read: “1748 – 1835, completed in the memory of Empress Maria Fedorovna.” The reverse side showed Savior Jesus Christ blessing children in the church. According to the wish of the late Empress the church was dedicated to all pupils and students. The consecration ceremony was attended by 2016 cadets, 348 students of civil educational institutions, and 1280 pupils of Empress Maria Society.
In the early 20th century Smolny Cathedral became a congregational church. In 1923 it was closed along with four Orthodox chapels and a Lutheran Church located in Smolny.