Christians will find their perfect place for sincere worship in St. Sophia Orthodox Cathedral in Harbin. St. Sophia Orthodox Cathedral is one of the most magnificent structures in Harbin. It was built in 1907 after the completion of the Trans-Siberian Railway in 1903, which connected Vladivostok to northeast China. The Russian No.4 Army Division arrived in this region just after Russia's loss to the Japanese in the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905).
Initial St. Sophia Orthodox Cathedral
The inspiration for the St. Sophia Cathedral in Harbin comes from the ornate Christ the Savior Cathedral in Borki (Kharkiv Oblast province, Ukraine), ca. 1900. The church is located on the corner of Toulin Street (Toulin jie) and Zhaolin Street (Zhaolin jie). It stands at 53.3 meters (175 ft) tall, occupies an area of 721 square meters (0.18 acres), and is the perfect example of Neo-Byzantine architecture.
The main structure is laid out like a cross with the main hall topped with a huge green tipped dome. Under the bright sun, the church and the square area it lies on looks quite like the Red Square in Moscow.
The establishment of the PRC in mainland China in 1949 by the victorious Communists ended all Christian missionary work, and treaties were signed between the Soviet and Chinese governments that provided for the turning over of Russian churches to Chinese control. The cathedral was thus closed from the period of the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution.
For decades it remained the invisible center of the city, surrounded by decorative material stalls, an auto body shop, a pen factory, and apartments for city government employees, until the Beijing government designated the cathedral a national cultural heritage site in 1996 as part of a nationwide campaign to protect historical sites. Although the cathedral's sturdy structure withstood its intended destruction during the Cultural Revolution, its empty hull became a warehouse for a nearby state-run department store, its windows were bricked up and saplings grew from the roof. Prefabricated concrete high-rises boxed the church in on all four sides, coming within yards of its walls, making the cathedral inaccessible and invisible from the street.
Along with its designation in 1996 as a national cultural heritage site (First class Preserved Building), a newspaper article about the "hidden" cathedral prompted donations from locals to restore the church. Local corporations, individual businesses as well as workers from nearby department stores donated money to restore the cathedral and renovate the square. A total of 12,000,000 yuan was eventually gathered and the cathedral regained its visibility in 1997, as the surrounding buildings were torn down.
New St. Sophia Orthodox Cathedral
A new "Harbin Architecture Square" conspicuously highlighted the cathedral with a huge new fountain at its entrance. The European-looking space was assigned a new meaning as the embodiment of culture and art and was re-presented to the public as the proud heritage of the city. In 1997, the cathedral was turned into the Municipal Architecture and Art Museum (Harbin Architectural Art Gallery), showcasing the multi-cultural architectural developments of Harbin throughout the ages.
The restoration was the culmination of the Harbin municipal government's attempt to turn the city's colonial era structures into tourist attractions by restoring and granting them landmark status. The restored structures are said to signify civilization and culture.
St. Sophia Orthodox Cathedral has witnessed lots of historical changes, which on the contrary add up to its culture deposits and make it a more significant place for visitors from home and abroad.