October 14, 2016

Five Wild Facts about St. Basil's Cathedral


Five Wild Facts about St. Basil's Cathedral
Pre-revolutionary postcard.
wikimedia.org

On October 14, 1991, St. Basil’s Cathedral was reopened for church services after six decades of being barred from hosting religious rites. In honor of the 25th anniversary of the Cathedral’s rebirth, here are five fun facts about the world’s most famous onion domes.

  1. The Cathedral was a public museum during the Soviet period. Although official Soviet doctrine replaced all religious practice with a sturdy Marxist atheism and many churches across Russia were demolished, St. Basil’s Cathedral lived on at the heart of Red Square in central Moscow. Its existence was threatened multiple times, especially in the early years of Soviet rule and under Stalin. One Soviet architect even went to the Gulag about it, telling the Kremlin point-blank that he wouldn’t demolish the historic building.  

 
  1. It has almost as many names as onion domes. For example:

  • The Cathedral of the Intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat (the official name, dedicating the site to the protection of Virgin Mary)
  • The Church of the Intercession (for short)
  • Pokrovsky Cathedral (in Russian, basically “Intercession Cathedral”)
  • Trinity Church (the original title from the consecration date on July 12, 1561)
  • Cathedral of St. Vasily the Blessed – or for most, St. Basil’s Cathedral (for St. Basil, a popular miracle worker who influenced Ivan IV. This is technically the name of the north-eastern annex, but is often used as the name for the structure as a whole).

In fact, the reason it has about as many names as domes is that the cathedral as a whole is made up of nine individual chapels. Not all of the names used to describe the entire building refer to individual chapels, but that’s certainly one source of confusion.

The Cathedral floorplan, 1930s. wikimedia.org
  1. It’s a church with a military background. Ivan IV (also known as “The Terrible”) commissioned the church to commemorate Russia's victory in Kazan’ and Astrakhan, one of the first major victories restoring Russian land from the Kazan Khanate (1552-1554). St. Basil, known as a “holy fool,” was perhaps the only person to stand up to Ivan the Terrible about the lives lost under his rule, and is rumored to be the one thing Ivan feared. And the building’s bloody background doesn’t end there. Popular legend has it that after the cathedral was completed, Ivan IV ordered for the architect to be blinded so he could never complete a work of comparable beauty. Exactly who that architect was and whether the story is true, however, remains a mystery.

Boris Godunov in front of the Cathedral. wikimedia.org
  1. The architecture is still kind of a mystery. How architects in the 16th century had figured out how to build such a complex, many-spired structure without design drawings was an enigma for centuries. But in 1954-1955 – notably, soon after Stalin’s death in 1953 and at the start of Khrushchev’s reforms – the historical landmark was restored, at which time the trick behind the architecture became clear. Restorers observed that the walls of the building had been outlined with thin timbers before all the ornamentation went up – a trick that basically gave a three-dimensional blueprint. Working from that image for what the completed structure would look like was a handy guide for the bricklayers.

The Cathedral at night. wikimedia.org

5. Those wild colors are more newfangled than you might think. That’s right: the cathedral used to be white and its domes were gold. Up until the late 19th century, the Kremlin was painted white, and the Cathedral matched. The red brick and multicolored decorations are a more recent addition, with the current paint scheme created in 1860.

The Cathedral, 1613. ru.wikipedia.org

 

You Might Also Like

Russia's Troubled Times
  • May 01, 2000

Russia's Troubled Times

Russia's turbulent Time of Trouble, period between the Rurik and Romanov Dynasties.
Like this post? Get a weekly email digest + member-only deals

Some of Our Books

At the Circus

At the Circus

This wonderful novella by Alexander Kuprin tells the story of the wrestler Arbuzov and his battle against a renowned American wrestler. Rich in detail and characterization, At the Circus brims with excitement and life. You can smell the sawdust in the big top, see the vivid and colorful characters, sense the tension build as Arbuzov readies to face off against the American.
Murder at the Dacha

Murder at the Dacha

Senior Lieutenant Pavel Matyushkin has a problem. Several, actually. Not the least of them is the fact that a powerful Soviet boss has been murdered, and Matyushkin's surly commander has given him an unreasonably short time frame to close the case.
The Moscow Eccentric

The Moscow Eccentric

Advance reviewers are calling this new translation "a coup" and "a remarkable achievement." This rediscovered gem of a novel by one of Russia's finest writers explores some of the thorniest issues of the early twentieth century.
Moscow and Muscovites

Moscow and Muscovites

Vladimir Gilyarovsky's classic portrait of the Russian capital is one of Russians’ most beloved books. Yet it has never before been translated into English. Until now! It is a spectactular verbal pastiche: conversation, from gutter gibberish to the drawing room; oratory, from illiterates to aristocrats; prose, from boilerplate to Tolstoy; poetry, from earthy humor to Pushkin. 
22 Russian Crosswords

22 Russian Crosswords

Test your knowledge of the Russian language, Russian history and society with these 22 challenging puzzles taken from the pages of Russian Life magazine. Most all the clues are in English, but you must fill in the answers in Russian. If you get stumped, of course all the puzzles have answers printed at the back of the book.
The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas

The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas

This exciting new trilogy by a Russian author – who has been compared to Orhan Pamuk and Umberto Eco – vividly recreates a lost world, yet its passions and characters are entirely relevant to the present day. Full of mystery, memorable characters, and non-stop adventure, The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas is a must read for lovers of historical fiction and international thrillers.  
Fearful Majesty

Fearful Majesty

This acclaimed biography of one of Russia’s most important and tyrannical rulers is not only a rich, readable biography, it is also surprisingly timely, revealing how many of the issues Russia faces today have their roots in Ivan’s reign.
Fish: A History of One Migration

Fish: A History of One Migration

This mesmerizing novel from one of Russia’s most important modern authors traces the life journey of a selfless Russian everywoman. In the wake of the Soviet breakup, inexorable forces drag Vera across the breadth of the Russian empire. Facing a relentless onslaught of human and social trials, she swims against the current of life, countering adversity and pain with compassion and hope, in many ways personifying Mother Russia’s torment and resilience amid the Soviet disintegration.
Driving Down Russia's Spine

Driving Down Russia's Spine

The story of the epic Spine of Russia trip, intertwining fascinating subject profiles with digressions into historical and cultural themes relevant to understanding modern Russia. 
Davai! The Russians and Their Vodka

Davai! The Russians and Their Vodka

In this comprehensive, quixotic and addictive book, Edwin Trommelen explores all facets of the Russian obsession with vodka. Peering chiefly through the lenses of history and literature, Trommelen offers up an appropriately complex, rich and bittersweet portrait, based on great respect for Russian culture.

About Us

Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.

Latest Posts

Our Contacts

Russian Life
73 Main Street, Suite 402
Montpelier VT 05602

802-223-4955