The West could learn a lot from Russia and China on how to win over Serbian hearts and minds.
Inside the cavernous concrete expanse of the Church of St Sava on Belgrade’s Vracar plateau, there is a shimmer of gold behind the huge metal scaffolding. This glimpse of imposing beauty, in contrast to the drabness of many of Belgrade’s contemporary projects, comes from the church’s new mosaic, depicting Jesus Christ surrounded by angels, the Virgin Mary and the apostles.
More than just a work of great craftsmanship, the mosaic, when it is unveiled later this month, will herald the beginning of the end of the construction of the Church of St Sava. This showy project was started in 1935 to celebrate Serbia’s national saint who founded the Serbian Orthodox Church in 1219, and whose remains were burnt in Belgrade by the Ottomans in 1595.
As well as honouring St Sava, the marble-clad mega-church, which can be seen from most of Belgrade, was from the start a somewhat outsized monument to the perseverance and ascendancy of the Serbian state, in the same way that the National Mall in Washington DC celebrates US power, or the Houses of Parliament seek to impress anyone coming to the heart of the former British Empire.
The pinnacle of contemporary church art in Serbia, the mosaic is a four-million-euro gift from the Russian state-owned gas company Gazprom Neft and was designed by Nikolai Mukhin, an artist best known for his work on the restored Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. It also one of the most effective acts in Russia’s continued bid to strengthen its soft power in Serbia.
As soon as the gift was announced – and in subsequent reporting – it was hailed by the press and Serbian church officials as yet another symbol of friendship and mutual support between the two Slavic (predominantly) Orthodox Christian nations. For those who have missed the news, there are already a couple of large information boards dotted around St Sava, emblazoned with intertwining Russian and Serbian flags, explaining in Serbian, Russian and English the importance, and provenance, of the gift.
The mosaic is the most recent in a long line of high-profile gifts to the Serbian capital by regional and global powers in their bid to win over Serbian hearts and minds, as well as, of course, business and strategic alliances.