Russian Chapel – a symbol of strengthening strategic partnership between the Republic of Slovenia and  EU as a whole and the Russian Federation

The Prime Minister of the Republic of Slovenia, Janez Janša, today attended for the second time as a patron of honour the commemoration at the Russian Chapel under Vršič Pass.

History of the Chapel

In early 1915, the small town of Kranjska Gora suddenly became strategically important due to its proximity to the Isonzo Front. To facilitate access from the town to the front, the Austro-Hungarian authorities ordered the construction of a military road across Vršič, a 1,611 m pass between the Sava and Soča valleys, to be built by Russian POWs.

The road was begun in May 1915, and was completed by the end of the year. To ensure an uninterrupted supply of materiel to the front lines, the pass was to be kept traversable year-round, and the POWs were made to clear the road of heavy snowfall. On 8 or 12 March 1916 (sources vary), an avalanche buried a POW work camp, killing approximately 300 prisoners and about 10 guards. Exact casualty figures were never determined, either for the victims of the avalanche of for those of the brutal overwork and appalling conditions.

The Russian camp was located roughly halfway up the slope of Vršic. Between 1916 and 1917, the remaining prisoners built a small wooden memorial chapel. The building is of typical Russian design, with two small towers on either side of the nave, and is surrounded by prisoners’ graves and a pyramid-shaped memorial marker to the immediate right of the chapel.

The site was renovated in 2005, at a cost of €90,000, and serves as both a war memorial and a symbolic link between Slovenia and Russia. The pass road was renamed Ruska cesta (‘Russian Road’) in July 2006.

The commemoration was organised jointly by the Slovenian-Russian Society and the Municipality of Kranjska Gora. Participants were welcomed by the Mayor of Kranjska Gora, and by the President of the Slovenian-Russian Society. On this occasion, the speech was delivered by the patron of honour, the Prime Minister of the Republic of Slovenia, Janez Janša. The participants were also addressed by the Deputy Chairman of the Russian Federation Council, Yuri Leonidovich Vorobyov.

In his opening address, Prime Minister Janša underlined that the Russian Chapel was a reminder of the cruel times of war and that soldiers of the Tsarist Russia had built this Chapel as a temple of hope and comfort in the hardest trials of life. “I remember the visit of Saša Slavinec and Dr Ljubo Širc to the Ministry of Defence which I then ran so 20 years ago. The presented to me the idea to resuscitate the energy that lies dormant in this symbolic place and to use it to invigorate the friendly cooperation between the Slovenian and the Russian people” he said and added that it had evolved into a genuine institution that has paved the way for friendly relations and mutual benefits in many areas.

Prime Minister Janša spoke about the pride and the tradition of presenting Slavic cultural heritage to the other European countries. “In the middle of the 16th century, Žiga Herbestein, a Hapsburg diplomat of Slovenian origin, described the conditions and the history of Russia in his work Rerum moscoviticarum commentarii (Notes from Moscow) to a broader European public. A good 450 years later Slovenia assumed the EU presidency as one of the first Slavic counties. This opportunity was also used to promote its rich Slavic cultural heritage and, simultaneously, to promote the EU’s relationship with Russia” the Prime Minister added.

The Prime Minister stressed the importance of Russia as one Slovenia’s major trading partners since the total volume of trade between the two countries exceeds EUR 1.1 billion. “Economic cooperation between the two countries is healthy and vigorous, which bodes well for expansion into other areas. We are particularly delighted at the volume of Russian investment in Slovenia and would like to see it grow further” the Prime Minister said and added that the recently adopted government measures would contribute to the improvement of Slovenia’s business environment.

In closing, the Prime Minister added that the Russian Chapel under Vršič Pass had gained an additional, symbolic meaning ever since Slovenia joined the EU and that was not only a token of friendly relations between the Slovenian and the Russian people, but that it also bore witness to the hard lesson of the past and called for a strategic partnership between the EU as a whole and the Russian Federation.