St. Basil's Cathedral
The cultural association and connotation of St. Basil’s Cathedral within Russian culture is a general concept of power, solidarity and continuity- but to whom exactly these concepts apply or who they include are questions with no straightforward answers or uncomplicated interpretations. The record of the battle of Kazan, the event which supposedly precipitated the Cathedral’s construction, is obscured by its folkloric quality in which Ivan the Terrible, the soldiers and even the Tatars are dramaticized and exaggerated. According to Andrei Yurganov, the “seizure of Kazan came to symbolize the growing power of Moscow, the vanquishing of the ‘infidels’ and the confirmation of Ivan IV’s righteousness.” As indicated by the ‘Intercession’ in the Cathedral’s original title, Ivan would have sought confirmation from the higher powers for the legitimacy of his rule, appropriating the ‘divine right’ concept of the monarchy to defend and protect his position. The Cathedral appeared as a public announcement of these symbolic intentions and would have instilled national pride in Russians as a representation of victory and power. As Yurganov notes however, the Cathedral appears more in popular association to be a commemoration of the ‘holy fool’ St. Basil than the epic, fairy-tale like battle of Kazan. St. Basil was known for many saintly predictions and acts, but was notably a respected critic of Ivan IV’s cruel practices. It is possible then that Russians find it more fitting to revere the Cathedral as the mausoleum of a popular, saintly critic than as the victory monument of a cruel monarch. Interestingly, hundreds of years after it was built, the Cathedral was saved from destruction by the self-sacrifice of Konstantin Baranovsky, the architect who had been ordered to prepare the Cathedral for demolition and who, according to some tales, defended the structure from Stalin by “barricading himself in the church with a machine gun.” Stalin was attempting to purge the Soviet Union of the remants of imperialism. Again, the heroization of Baranovsky indicates that the Cathedral is not associated with the power and continuity of government or political system, but the determination of the Russian people to find solidarity in cultural representations that outlast such fickle, sometimes oppressive institutions.
Regardless of popular interpretation, the urge to monumentalize the symbolic achievements of governmental entities did not dissappear when Russia became the secular Soviet Union. When divine authority could not be called upon to deify the achievements and personage of the ruler, such deification was sought through the majesty and authority of moderninity, technological and architectural achievement. The Palace of Soviets was to be such a monument in the tradition of structures like St. Basil’s Cathedral, symbolic of achievement and power. Time magazine declared in March 1934 that the structure was “Russia’s latest and greatest monument” which would be “the world’s largest and tallest building.” The Palace was a replacement for the monuments of antiquity, built on the ground once occupied by another monumental cathedral, the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, which was blown up to make room for the new structure. As William McDonaugh explains, “A cathedral is a representation of both our longings and intentions.” Especially as a manifestation of the human desire to worship and the need or purpose in appropriating God-like authority, cathedrals and cathedral-like structures fulfill this dual role. Truly, whether a cathedral or monument be that of a holy fool and a tsar or communist administration, it is intended to invite public worship of the persons, events and achievements it symbolizes.
The portrait of Ivan the Terrible in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral indicates the representations he would have intended for the structure, with himself as the primary focus of deification. The portrait, Tsar Ioann Vasilevich Groznyi, by Aleksandr Vasilevich Viskovatov was created in the 1800s, long after Tsar Ivan IV actually ruled, but commemorates the elevated status his monument, and subsequent personal monumentalization, conferred on him. He is pictured in his coronation garb, the splendor and majesty of the monarchy, as a large, dominant patriarch- occupying the entire foreground of the portrait. Behind him, bathed in heavenly rays, is Moscow with the towering onion domed spires of St. Basil’s, the site of his coronation and the permanent memorial to his achievements and righteousness.
- Carolyn McBride, November 2009
Ford, Peter. "St. Basil's Cathedral." Christian Science Monitor 91.169 (1999): 12.
McDonough, William. "Essay: A Centennial Sermon: Design, Ecology, Ethics, and the Making of Things." Perspecta 29 (1998): 78-85.
Yurganov, Andrei. "St. Basil's the Stuff of Legend." Russian Life 44.6 (2001): 34.
"Art: Soviet Palace." Time 19 March 1934: n. pag. Web. 6 Nov 2009. <http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,747172,00.html>.
"Tsar Ioann Vasilevich Groznyi." NYPL Digital Gallery. Web. 6 Nov 2009. <http://digitalgallery.nypl.org>.