The tiny church’s ancient caretaker appeared to only speak Russian and ignored me the entire time I was there. Until I tried to leave. She then turned voluble and gestured violently at the collection box. I meekly put my Euro coins in and fled.
This was the Alexander-Newski-Gedächtniskirche (Alexander Nevski Memorial Church), a 19th century Russian Orthodox church in Potsdam. With pink stucco, onion domes and semi-circular windows, it looked like it had been plucked out of Moscow and set atop a forested hill.
It is in fact, the oldest surviving example of early Byzantine Revival architecture.
Built to serve the small Russian community in the area, it was also a token of the friendship between Prussia and Russia.
The inside of the church had room for only 50 worshippers. But typical of Russian church tradition, ornamentation including icons and artwork covered – to my eye – every inch of space.
With taped sacred music playing in that enclosed space, I felt transported to a different era.
Until said compulsory donation moment.
In stark contrast, the enclave housing the community it was built to serve, was generously spread out.
Simply called the Russische Kolonie (Russian Colony), the founding of this preserve is quite unique.
According to Wikipedia, after one of the Napoleonic wars in 1812, Russian prisoners-of-war were interred in Potsdam. Sixty-two were inducted by Prussian King Friederich Wilhelm III as choristers for the First Prussian Regiment.
Then, a year later, Prussia and Russia became allies. These choristers continued serving the regiment and indeed, those who died were replaced by the Russian Tzar Alexander I.
It was for these Russian singers that the Prussian King decided to build a colony in Potsdam when the tzar died. He named it after the tzar in honour of their friendship.
Landscape architect Lenné drew up a design for 13 farmsteads modelled after the villages of Russian soldiers. The result was a hippodrome layout within which was a St Andrew’s cross in honour of one of Russia’s most important saints.
The wooden homes resembled Russian blockhouses, small isolated forts, with decorative gables and balconies, and adjoining barns.
In addition, Lenné planted hundreds of fruit trees in the colony as part of Friederich William III’s policies on agriculture, the trees serving both ornamental as well as economic functions.
Over time, as the singers and their families died out, the colony fell into disrepair. But even during the Cold War, efforts were made to restore the buildings and the gardens.
According to the official Potsdam government website, the state had been taking pains to source and plant 600 different fruit tree species. Some species go as far back as the 13th century, the most recent the end of the 19th century.
In 1999, the Russische Kolonie was added to the Unesco World Heritage Listing of the parks and palaces of Potsdam and Berlin. It now belonged to the Prussian cultural and historical landscape.
I followed signs to a Russian tea house to get out of the cold. Inside, it was cosy, cluttered and atmospheric, thanks partly to the Soviet pop songs playing through the speakers.
I stared at the menu, which had extensive alcohols, teas and food. After my experience with the church caretaker, I was wary of the unsmiling Russian waitress.
But even the German translations of the Russian items were beyond me. So I had to engage her.
Luckily, it went well. Together, we decided that I should warm up not only with samovar tea, but borscht too. She even cracked a smile when she served me.
Invigorated, I was happy to go on my way. ω