The one image I’ve always had of Russia is that of St Basil’s Cathedral. For some reason, when I think of Russia it’s what I think of. And so, in a way, I don’t think I truly felt like I was in Russia until I was standing before it.
The name of the cathedral is a little confusing. While we in the Western world think of it as St Basil’s, it’s got a multitude of names. Officially it’s called the Cathedral of the Intercession of the Virgin Mary on the Moat [Собор Покрова пресвятой Богородицы, что на Рву], but it’s also known as Pokrovsky Cathedral [Покровский собор]. It’s also called the Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed [Собор Василия Блаженного], which is what has been anglicised to St Basil’s. I’m going to refer to it as St Basil’s, as this is what most English speakers know it as.
St Basil’s was built by Ivan the Terrible to commemorate the capture of Kazan from the Mongol forces in 1552. Apparently that’s what you did when you won a battle – build a cathedral. I’m glad they did in this instance. It took eight years to build, and sparked many legends.
During the Soviet period of ‘state atheism’, the church was confiscated by the government. Apparently Stalin wanted to demolish it, because it got in the way of his giant parades. The architect who had refused to demolish the building was sent to a gulag, but eventually the idea of demolishing the cathedral was abandoned. Religious or not, I think most people would be glad of this – it’s an incredible building, and the architecture is unique. It’s now a heritage-listed building, which hopefully will ensure it’s there for years to come.
We visited St Basil’s twice – once on our first evening, after it had closed, and were only able to admire it from the outside. It’s bright, it’s colourful, and the onion-shaped domes are incredible. And, what I like to think was by design but more likely artful coincidence, the zebra-crossing right in front of the church only makes it look more awesome. I was so happy!
Our second visit to what is now a museum was after seeing the Kremlin. I was so pleased that photography was allowed inside, as the interior was beautiful. Eight separate chapels surround the central cathedral, each different and each with its own elaborate iconostasis. Different styles of frescoes decorate the interior, making exploring the cathedral fascinating as it keeps changing. Rather than being covered entirely with icons or scenes from the life of Jesus, many walls are covered in flowing vines and other floral motifs. It’s hard to explain. The layout is apparently very orderly, but it doesn’t feel so when inside. It’s exciting.
John wasn’t quite as overwhelmed by the cathedral as I was, but then I’m the one with a bit of a fascination with religious architecture and buildings. Even he could see that this one was a bit special though!