Vladimir Smirnov/TASS

The Iviron Christian community of women formed in Samara in 1850, and received an official recognition from Emperor Alexander I in 1855. It was initially based at Mechetnaya (now Samarskaya) Ulitsa, but the shortage of water in the neighbourhood compelled the community to move closer to the Volga, where a wooden chapel and eight cells were built to accommodate 30 sisters. The community became a convent in 1860, which was named in honour of the Iviron Icon of the Virgin Mary. The icon was donated to the convent by a local merchant’s wife, Ekaterina Marikhina.  

Brick buildings and temples were built on cloister grounds a few years later. The nuns ran a few tailors’ shops on the premises. The legendary Banner of Samara, a gift from the people of Samara to Bulgarian popular militia, was sewn and embroidered at the Iviron Convent. Russia gave strong support to the people of the Balkans in their struggle against Ottoman oppression, which unfolded in the second half of the 19th century. The merchants and local community leaders of Samara, who contributed financially to the cause of Bulgaria’s liberation from the Ottoman yoke, decided to give the Bulgarian freedom fighters a banner as a token of their support. The sketch for the banner was made by a local artist, Nikolai Simakov. The banner was sewn together from three sheets of bunting coloured red, white and blue, with a gold-embroidered black cross in the middle. The Iviron Icon of the Virgin Mary is depicted at one side of the cross, and the images of the great enlighteners of the Slavs, the Equal-to-the-Apostles Saints Cyril and Methodius, at the other.  

Inscribed in gold embroidery on the banner were the words: “To the people of Bulgaria from the town of Samara. 1876” and “Glory to the people of Bulgaria. 1876.” The banner was crafted by the nuns of the Iviron Convent. A delegation from Samara handed it over to the fighters of Bulgarian popular militia in Ploiesti, Romania, in May 1877. The Banner of Samara is now on display at the National Museum of Military History in Bulgaria.  

Most of the convent buildings fell into decrepitude during the decades of Soviet rule. Restoration commenced in 1991. The cloister has been fully restored and is now open to the public. 

Inna Mendelson/Welcome2018.com

The foundation stone for this temple was laid down in 1841, and in 1847 the church was completed. Built in the classical style, the Church of the Ascension is a single-dome basilica with a belfry, capped by a thin spire. It was here that the Banner of Samara, tailored at the Iviron Convent, was consecrated in 1876. This banner came to symbolize the struggle of Bulgarian people for their freedom from Ottoman oppression.

The church was closed in 1930, and a folk arts and crafts club took over the premises. From 1941 on, the logistical division of the Volga military district used the temple as its storehouse. Restoration of the church building began in 1993. The dome and the belfry were restored later.   

Inna Mendelson/Welcome2018.com

The idea to build a Catholic church in Samara goes as far back as the 1860s. There was a Polish Catholic community in the city, mostly made up of exiled fambilies. The local Catholic congregation were finally permitted to have their own temple built in 1887. The first wooden church was erected in 1888. Construction began on a redbrick church in 1902, and finished four years later.

The project was commissioned to Thomas Bohdanowicz, who designed the temple in the neo-Gothic style, highly out of character for Russian architecture. The cathedral with its pointy towers thrust skyward seems to have been transplanted to Samara from somewhere in Europe by a miracle.   

The Catholic parish was closed during Soviet time. This temple would house, in succession, a children’s theatre, a cinema, an acting school, construction workers’ club, and local nature and history museum. The church was returned to the Catholic community in 1991. It is now open to the public.     

Inna Mendelson/Welcome2018.com

Another Gothic building looking a bit out of place in Samara is the St. George Evangelical Lutheran Church, the sombre outline of which can be seen at the intersection of Kuibysheva and Nekrasovskaya Ulitsa. Construction on this church, which was originally intended for the local Catholic congregation, began at the end of the 1850s. The money for the construction came from the local merchant Yegor Annaev, who was a Catholic. However, when the temple was almost finished, the Russian government had some trouble with Poland, which was then part of the Russian Empire. As Catholicism was firmly identified with Poland in those days, the temple was handed over to the Lutherans with the acquiescence of the sponsor, Annaev, and the Catholic community. There was no dearth of Lutherans in Samara, most of whom were German settlers.   

The St. George Evangelical Lutheran Church, consecrated in 1865, was badly damaged by a fire in 1875. It was then restored and two annexes were added. That is how the church has survived to this day. It was closed in 1930 and reopened for the Lutheran community in 1991. The church is open to the public. It hosts organ concerts and literary and musical evenings.