August 17, 2006

St. Basil the Blessed


St. Basil CathedralThe dramatic domes of Saint Basil the Blessed, which rise above Red Square, are the most familiar image most people from the West have of Moscow and Russia. Ivan IV, the Terrible (1530-1584), commissioned the building and dedicated St. Basil's to commemorate Russia's victory over the Tatars in Kazan, Kazan Khanate (1552-1554). At the time of the final victory over the Tatars, eight wooden churches had already been built. Each was named for the patron saint which was believed to have achieved the individual victories for Russia.

Wanting more permanent memorials, Ivan the Terrible had the wooden churches replaced by the stone and brick of St. Basil's eight domes.

St. Basil's is also known as Pokrovsky Cathedral or Pokrovsky Sobor. It was dedicated to the intercession of the Holy Mother and was originally called the Cathedral of the Intercession. Later, it became known as Cathedral of Vasily Blazhenny (St. Basil the Beatified). St. Basil, in this case, refers to Basil, idiot for Christ a popular prophet and miracle worker of the 1500s. He was buried in the cathedral's walls during the time of Tsar Fyodor I (1584 - 1598).

St. Basil's construction began in 1554 and was consecrated in 1560. It was designed by Russian architects Posnik and Barma (who may have been one person), but many believe that the original designer was Italian. Legend states that the Italian architect was blinded by the Tsar to prevent him for designing another structure of equal or great beauty again.

St. Basil's original construction involved a total of nine pillars or churches, replacing the former wooden churches, situated on a single foundation. A tenth pillar was added (1588) after the death of St. Basil and stands over his burial site. The center (ninth) and tallest pillar was dedicated to the Feast of the Intercession of Our Lady (celebrated on October 1). This was the day that the city of Kazan was taken. Each pillar is different in design and decoration. At the time, St. Basil's was the tallest building in Moscow. The cathedral was built of brick which was a fairly new construction material at the time. Wood and stone were more common. St. Basil's foundation was made of stone.

St. Basil's was designed to not have a well defined front or back. It is round and it was intended to be viewed from all sides. The observer can walk around the cathedral both on the outside as well as the inside. The structure is large and one would think the interior would be equally spacious. This is not the case. The inside is a maze of corridors with the tall pillars creating a cramped feeling. The tallest pillar rises 46 meters above the church's foundation. The interior of the Intercession of Our Lady church is 64 square meters.

After centuries of exposure to the elements, St. Basil's was restored in 1954-1955. During this process, the secret to the Russian architecture was revealed. How the architects had managed to build such a complex structure without benefit of design drawings had been a mystery. Restorers discovered that the walls of St. Basil had been outlined with thin timbers. This provided a three-dimensional image of what the completed structure would look like and a guide for the bricklayers.

St. Basil at night

Basil was known as an idiot or fool (yurodivi) for Christ. This is a distinction given to Christians who live outside the bounds of accepted social behavior. Anywhere else, these people would be locked up in mental facilities. Basil was a prophet who wore no clothing in both summer and winter. His survival in winter is one of the miracles credited to him. Holy fools are harmless and nonviolent. Everything they do and their personal presentation is intended to reflect the teachings of Christ. They are typically homeless and penniless.

Basil considered clothing to be nothing more than the trappings of society and an indication of ones position or lack thereof. God created man naked and equal, thus Basil simply went back to basics!

Uninhibited by the shackles of society, Basil could not be compromised and he soon became known for his prophecies and healing miracles. The most incredible aspect of Basil's life was his relationship with Tsar Ivan IV (the Terrible). Ivan was greatly feared. His opreichnina, a force of some 6,000 men, destroyed entire villages at the Tsar's command. The last thing anyone would intentionally do was challenge or contradict Ivan.

Basil was the exception. As the story goes, Basil gave Ivan a piece of uncooked meat during Lent. The Tsar, claiming to be a devout Orthodox Christian, refused the gift. Animal products of any kind were and are prohibited during the Orthodox Great Lent. Basil responded by asking the Tsar why he chose to follow the canon of Lent while he continued to spill the blood of Christians. Basil told Ivan that his murderous actions would doom him to hell if he did not repent.

Remarkably, Basil was the one person or thing that Ivan was scared of. Not only did the Tsar not have him beheaded, he sent him gifts instead and insured that no harm would ever come to the Holy Fool!

The oprichnina policed lands separated from Muscovy by Ivan and placed under his personal control. Oprichnina refers to the police, the lands themselves and the policies used to control them. The oprichnina was situated in north and central Muscovy and was formed by the execution or removal of boyars whose families had owned the various estates for generations. The police, or oprichniki, were recruited from the lower classes and foreigners. They rained terror and destruction upon the region, destroying the entire city of Novgorod in 1570. The actions of the oprichniki served to centralize the Muscovite state around the Tsar.

Basil was canonized not long after his death. Stories of his life are likely part legend and part truth. An old icon of St. Basil can be found in the cathedral. It shows the saint clad in only a loincloth and beard. He was quite popular during his lifetime and the faithful have prayed at the site of his grave ever since.

St. Basils and Red Square

Like this post? Get a weekly email digest + member-only deals

Some of Our Books

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.
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 Frogs Who Begged for a Tsar

The Frogs Who Begged for a Tsar

The fables of Ivan Krylov are rich fonts of Russian cultural wisdom and experience – reading and understanding them is vital to grasping the Russian worldview. This new edition of 62 of Krylov’s tales presents them side-by-side in English and Russian. The wonderfully lyrical translations by Lydia Razran Stone are accompanied by original, whimsical color illustrations by Katya Korobkina.
The Best of Russian Life

The Best of Russian Life

We culled through 15 years of Russian Life to select readers’ and editors’ favorite stories and biographies for inclusion in a special two-volume collection. Totalling over 1100 pages, these two volumes encompass some of the best writing we have published over the last two decades, and include the most timeless stories and biographies – those that can be read again and again.
93 Untranslatable Russian Words

93 Untranslatable Russian Words

Every language has concepts, ideas, words and idioms that are nearly impossible to translate into another language. This book looks at nearly 100 such Russian words and offers paths to their understanding and translation by way of examples from literature and everyday life. Difficult to translate words and concepts are introduced with dictionary definitions, then elucidated with citations from literature, speech and prose, helping the student of Russian comprehend the word/concept in context.
Woe From Wit (bilingual)

Woe From Wit (bilingual)

One of the most famous works of Russian literature, the four-act comedy in verse Woe from Wit skewers staid, nineteenth century Russian society, and it positively teems with “winged phrases” that are essential colloquialisms for students of Russian and Russian culture.
Marooned in Moscow

Marooned in Moscow

This gripping autobiography plays out against the backdrop of Russia's bloody Civil War, and was one of the first Western eyewitness accounts of life in post-revolutionary Russia. Marooned in Moscow provides a fascinating account of one woman's entry into war-torn Russia in early 1920, first-person impressions of many in the top Soviet leadership, and accounts of the author's increasingly dangerous work as a journalist and spy, to say nothing of her work on behalf of prisoners, her two arrests, and her eventual ten-month-long imprisonment, including in the infamous Lubyanka prison. It is a veritable encyclopedia of life in Russia in the early 1920s.
Jews in Service to the Tsar

Jews in Service to the Tsar

Benjamin Disraeli advised, “Read no history: nothing but biography, for that is life without theory.” With Jews in Service to the Tsar, Lev Berdnikov offers us 28 biographies spanning five centuries of Russian Jewish history, and each portrait opens a new window onto the history of Eastern Europe’s Jews, illuminating dark corners and challenging widely-held conceptions about the role of Jews in Russian history.
The Samovar Murders

The Samovar Murders

The murder of a poet is always more than a murder. When a famous writer is brutally stabbed on the campus of Moscow’s Lumumba University, the son of a recently deposed African president confesses, and the case assumes political implications that no one wants any part of.
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.

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
PO Box 567
Montpelier VT 05601-0567

802-223-4955