The majestic edifice of the Grand Choral Synagogue of Saint Petersburg, sometimes simply referred to as Bolshaya Sinagoga or Big Synagogue, is the third-largest Jewish temple in Europe, located at 2 Lermontovskii Prospekt, near the Mariinsky Palace.
Built by Viktor Aleksandrovich Shreter, a prominent Russian architect of German ethnicity, between 1880 and 1888 and consecrated in December 1893, it is a testament to the determination of the Jewish community of St. Petersburg, which faced many restrictions on land use. It represents an important era of Jewish history in Russia and continues to serve the Jewish population in the city till today. Designed in a fusion of Byzantine and Moorish styles, it is a registered landmark and an architectural monument of federal importance.
The inflow of the Jewish population in Russia began after the First Partition of Poland in 1772, when Russia extended its boundary to the west and by 1822, there were around 370 official Jewish residents in Saint Petersburg, the then capital of the Russian Empire, when the new community started to organise themselves. Much later, the permanent living status of the Jewish people anywhere in Russia was made legal by the liberal government of Alexander II, which consequently led to the growth of the Jewish community in St Petersburg.
But although by 1870, there were about ten Jewish houses of worship in Saint Petersburg, there was no synagogue in the city, in which the Jewish community as a whole could meet. Finally, at the instance of the wealthy Russian Jewish philanthropist and the first chairman of the St. Petersburg Jewish Community Joseph Günzburg and Samuel Polyakov, a Russian businessman, informally known as the railroad king, Tsar Alexander II granted permission to the Jews of St Petersburg on 1 September 1869 to build a synagogue in the city.
But the permission for the construction was subject to several conditions, which include, it could not be sited near any Christian churches or near the roads used by the tsar and its height should be restricted to 154 feet (47 m), instead of 213 feet (65 m), as proposed by the concerned architects.
Although bell towers and domes were allowed, because they also served as observation towers for fire watch and other safety purposes, it was also mentioned in the order that according to the civic standing of Jews in the country, the building of the first synagogue in the capital should be modest in appearance.
The plot of land for the synagogue, allocated near the Mariinsky Theatre, was bought in 1879 and the construction was carried out under the management of the Construction Committee headed by A. A. Kaufman. Initially, it was planned to construct the first synagogue in the city in the Moorish style of architecture with motley assorted Moorish and Byzantine motifs, partially modelled after the Neue Synagogue in Berlin. But eventually, at the suggestion of V V Stasov, a reputed Russian art critic and supervisor of the project, it became an excellent example of an extensive blend of neo-Byzantine and Moorish revival styles, decorated with Arabesque motifs. Construction of the edifice was completed in 1888, but the interior works continued for five more years. Ultimately, the door of the Grand Choral Synagogue of Saint Petersburg was opened with a silver key on 8 December 1893, when the seven Torah scrolls were brought in and the synagogue was consecrated.
During the First World War, the Jewish community of Saint Petersburg organized a 100-bed hospital for the wounded of all religions at the premises of the synagogue, but after the 1917 revolution and the subsequent Russian Civil War, many traditions of the synagogue were suppressed or banned by the Soviet authorities, when they dissolved the Saint Petersburg Jewish Community and imposed a restriction on all the bank accounts relating to the interest of the synagogue. Although the Synagogue was open right after the Revolution, it was closed on 17 January 1930, only to be reopened on the 1st day of June in the same year. But during its closure, most of its precious properties were moved from the premises of the Synagogue to the anti-religious museum, which was opened in the Isaac Cathedral. In 1941, there was also a plan to turn the synagogue into a movie theatre, but the plan was shelved due to the onset of World War II. During the 900 days of the Siege of Leningrad between 1941 and 1943, the Saint Petersburg Synagogue was severely bombed by the Nazis, when the yard of the Synagogue was all covered with the corpses of Jewish people, who were buried in a mass grave in the Jewish Cemetery. However, despite the catastrophic condition, the hospital on the premises of the synagogue remained in operation and the Jewish community managed to survive.
Based on a huge amount donated by the Safra family in 1999, the synagogue was reconstructed between 2000 and 2005, when extra facilities were added to the building for the benefit of its congregation, as well as for the visitors. However, as a pre-condition of the donation, the synagogue was renamed The Edmond J Safra Grand Choral Synagogue, although it is still popularly called Bolshaya Sinagoga by the community. Nevertheless, after the reconstruction, the Great Hall with the capacity to hold 1200 people, along with the women’s galleries on three sides, was opened on 26 June 2001 and a new mikvah, a bath used for the purpose of ritual washing or ablution, was inaugurated on 19 April 2005. Today, the Grand Choral Synagogue of Saint Petersburg, covering a huge area of more than 34,400 sq feet (3,200 sq m) and its 154 feet (47 m) high domed tower, has become a cultural centre of the Jews community of Petersburg, which hosts performances with a Jewish cantor and other musicians, performing traditional Jewish Chaaznut and Klezmer music in the summer. It also distributes free meals for 300 people daily, from its charity canteen. Apart from that, the complex of the synagogue also contains the Small Synagogue, containing the mikvah, a Jewish restaurant, Le’chaim and a souvenir shop named, Kosher.