Petrikirche in St Petersburg: The Church That Became A Pool

Petrikirche Mystery Hidden Behind The Facades

Petrikirche in St Petersburg is considered to be the largest Lutheran church in Europe. It stands on Nevsky Prospect, in the historical centre of the city. All tourist itineraries pass nearby. But I’m sure 100% that tourists rarely visit Petrikirch. They just don’t know what secrets are living behind its modest yellow-pale facades.

Petrikirche in St. Petersburg, Russia
Petrikirche at night

Petrikirche is a Lutheran Church that is located in the historical centre of St Petersburg. I passed by many times and never entered it. But once I stumbled upon its incredibly sad story — and revealed one more St Petersburg’s hidden gem!

The more you know, the more you see. In St Petersburg, this rule works 100%. Especially in the historical centre of the city, full of mysteries and enigmas.

You may wonder why I am trying to draw your attention to one of the dozens of churches. In St Petersburg, churches of all confessions can be found on every step. However, I am sure that you will want to visit this particular church on your next visit to St Petersburg.

History of Petrikirche in St Petersburg

Petrikirche in the 18th century — a church

The full name of Petrikirche is the Lutheran Church of St Peter and St Paul. The story of this church begins in the 18th century, almost at the time of the birth of St Petersburg.

In 1727, Russian tsar Peter II assigned land between the current Bolshaya and Malaya Konyushennaya streets to the German Lutheran community. Peter II donated the land for the construction of an evangelical church, school and pastor’s house.

The first Lutheran church appeared in this place in 1728. It was a richly decorated church with a sumptuous baroque altar, gilded sculptures, and paintings. This building existed for 100 years.

Petrikirche in the 19th century — still a church

By 1832 the building became so dilapidated that the Lutheran community announced a competition to create a project for a new church.

The second building of Petrikirche in St Petersburg was designed by Alexander Brullov, professor of the architecture of the Imperial Academy of Arts. The church was consecrated in 1838. This is the building that we see at Nevsky Prospect nowadays.

Lutheran church of St Peter and Paul in St Petersburg. Photo by Alfred Lorens. Circa 1860 - 1879
Lutheran Church of St Peter and Paul in St Petersburg. Built in 1838. Photo by Alfred Lorens. Circa 1860 – 1879

According to the remaining descriptions, the inner decoration of the new church was luscious. The embellishment included paintings of Karl Brullov and Hans Holbein the Younger, and stained glass windows reproducing paintings of Albrecht Durer. There was a large pipe organ by Walker, a famous German pipe organ manufacturer. The organ was the real pride of the church.

Interior of Petrikirche at the beginning of the XXth century.
Interior of Petrikirche at the beginning of the 20th century.
Painting 'Crucifixion' by Karl Brullov was the centrepiece of the altar at Petrikirche.
Painting “Crucifixion” by Karl Brullov was the centrepiece of the interior of Petrikirche. You can easily recognize it in the black-and-white photo above.

Petrikirche in the 20th century — a pool!

And then came the disastrous 20th century with the October revolution, abdication of the last Russian Emperor and the fall of the Russian Empire. In 1937, Petrikirche was closed. Pastors of the church were arrested and shot.

Since then, the building as used as a warehouse and house for soldiers. The church was falling into decay more and more.

Unfortunately, after the Revolution of 1917, the Lutheran Church of St Peter and St Paul was looted. Fine paintings were stolen or given to museums. The pipe organ disappeared. The only fragment that survived is the painting “Crucifixion” by Karl Brullov. The “Crucifixion” was transferred to the Russian Museum of St Petersburg. Nowadays the painting is displayed there. Hans Holbein’s painting and stained glass windows are apparently a part of the Hermitage Museum collection.

But pillage wasn’t enough! Under the Soviet Union, they decided to transform the poor church into… a swimming pool! The pool basin was built right inside the church, in the main hall. It opened in 1963.

It was a sophisticated murder! The humid pool atmosphere was devastating. The church was slowly dying.

Swimming pool in Petrikirche in St. Petersburg
An old photo showing the interior of Petrikirche with a pool

Current Condition of Petrikirche in St Petersburg

The pool existed for decades. “Religion is opium for the people,” they said. “Sport is life”.

The city government returned the Petrikirche building to the Lutheran community only in 1993. During the reconstruction, the pool basin was hidden under the floor of the church hall. The church renewed worships and organ concerts.

I couldn’t understand how it was feasible (technically) to build a pool inside a church. And then to hide this pool! I knew that it was not possible to remove completely the thick concrete basin. When I first came to the church, I have not noticed anything special. All I saw was a light interior with white walls and no decorations. No signs of the pool either.

I was wandering in the photo exhibition on the ground floor when I suddenly saw a door with the inscription “Catacombs” on it. What can be more interesting for a city explorer than going down to catacombs? Nothing! And I came down the stairs…

Catacombs in Petrikirche, St. Petersburg Russia
An old mirror found in the catacombs of Petrikirche

The catacombs are the basement of Petrikirche. In 2007 the catacombs attracted the attention of American businessman and artist Matt Lamb. Later Matt Lamb decorated the walls of the basement with paintings of biblical stories.

Painter Adam Smidt decorated the walls of the chapels (see the main photo at the beginning of the post: people are taking off the crucifix from the belfry). He re-created the lugubrious church’s destiny. Thus, nowadays the catacombs look like an art centre.

Lutheran Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, St .Petersburg, Russia
American artist Matt Lamb painted the walls of the catacombs in Petrikirche

And the pool basin is there too! Blue tiles, sloped floor (the pool bottom), concrete shards… The upper border of the remains of the pool is higher than human size. There are drawings by contemporary artists on the blue-tile walls… Apparently, they are supposed to soften the strange feeling of standing in a crime place.

Former pool in Petrikirche
We can walk on the bottom of the former pool. The white ceiling on the picture is the new floor of the main hall of the church.

I tried to figure out who could swim in this pool. Was it a popular place? Did people avoid this bizarre sports centre? Or did they strongly believe it was fine to swim in a former church?

I have no answers to these questions. Though there are photos of the pool times, I keep getting the feeling that all those photos are staged.

Petrikirche, Lutheran Church of St. Peter and St. Paul in St. Petersburg, russia
The basin of the former pool is nowadays a place for art exhibitions

Thus, at present, Petrikirche is a mix of a church, an art centre and… a former pool. To sum up, this is what you can see there:

  • church. The church ( or rather the worship hall) occupies the upper level of the building. If you want to attend a religious service, they are held there. They also host pipe organ concerts. You can check schedules on the site of Petrikirche (the site is in Russian and German).
  • catacombs. Catacombs are the under-floor part of the church — the basement and the basin of the former pool. This is a museum that often houses art exhibitions. You can visit catacombs only within a guided tour.
  • historical exhibition. On the ground floor, there is an exhibition dedicated to the history of Petrikirche. You will see old photos, a piece of painted wall, and a small collection of old church utensils.
  • towers and bells. You can also climb to the towers of the church and admire a wonderful view of Nevsky Prospect. Guided tours to the towers take place after pipe organ concerts and cost 300 Rubles (~4USD). Check the tour schedule on the site of Petrikirche.
Exhibition dedicated to the history of the church
Exhibition dedicated to the history of the church
The main hall of Petrikircke in 2019
The main hall of Petrikircke in 2019

The address of Petrikirche: 22-24, Nevsky Prospect, St Petersburg.
Open every day.
The church often hosts music events, including pipe organ concerts.

Other Russian Churches With Similar Destiny

Unfortunately, the story of the ruining of Petrikirche isn’t unique. During the Soviet times, many churches were exploded, looted or used as warehouses. Even the wonderful Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood was a barn!

Here are some other examples:

— Annenkirche in St Petersburg. A Lutheran church which destiny in the XXth century was sorrowful too. It was a warehouse, a cinema and then… a rock club (!!!) Nowadays Annenkirche is given back to the Lutheran community and is slowly coming back to normal life.
Condition: under restoration. Open for visiting.

— Church of Our Lady the Merciful in St Petersburg. During Soviet times this Orthodox church was used as a training centre for naval rescue divers. There was a pool too.
Condition: no restoration. Closed for visiting.

— Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. Same cynic pool story. The cathedral was first consecrated in 1883. Demolished in 1931 during the Soviet Union era. Later an immense open-air swimming pool was constructed on this very spot. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, it was decided to demolish the swimming pool and rebuild the cathedral. Construction was finished by 2000.
Condition: restored. Open for visiting.

Have you included Petrikirche on your bucket list? Would you swim in the pool if it was still there?