By Clemente Lisi
MOSCOW – Soccer’s World Cup has placed a positive spotlight on Russia over the past few weeks. While the country remains inextricably linked with Vladimir Putin’s strongarm tactics against press freedom and allegations the Russian government meddled in the US elections in 2016, the World Cup has drawn visitors from all over the planet to the Russian capital.
With the eyes of the world on Russia, the country has tried to put on its best face. Indeed, one of the biggest symbols of this massive sporting event hasn’t been superstars like Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi. Rather, one of the biggest highlights has been a visit to St. Basil’s Cathedral.
The iconic Russian Orthodox house of worship has become the backdrop for this sporting event in recent weeks. Some of the world’s largest media organizations, like Fox and the BBC, have set up their TV studios in its shadow, just so St. Basil’s could be featured behind them during live coverage. In a sporting event dominated by some of the world’s best soccer stars, the Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed – the site commonly referred to as St. Basil’s – has been able to draw tens of thousands of tourists to Red Square.
“This is very beautiful. It gives me goosebumps,” said Maria Santos, 34, who was visiting the city from her native Brazil, as she pointed to the cathedral behind her. “Even as a Catholic, I look at this place as sacred. I consider it a holy site for all Christians.”
Visitors to the Red Square Metro Station will encounter many Soviet-era architecture and symbols including this relief of Vladimir Lenin near the entrance. Photo credit: Clemente Lisi.
Until 1917, more than 1,600 Orthodox churches existed in Moscow, but this changed after the Bolsheviks came to power. During the Soviet era, many were either torn down or repurposed. To this day, St. Basil’s Cathedral, now a museum, stands out from the rest of Moscow’s modern skyline for its series of colorful and ornate, onion-shaped domes that appear to be reaching for the heavens. Its six-year construction, on orders from Czar Ivan IV – famously known as Ivan the Terrible – was completed in 1561 and named Trinity Church at the time.
The cathedral’s original plan, to build a series of churches in one place, was scrapped. The cathedral, featuring eight chapels built around a central sanctuary, is famous for its multi-colored domes. Those vivid colors, adapted in stages from 1680 to 1848, have become a draw for visitors and selfie-takers alike from around the world. Legend has it that when Ivan the Terrible looked at the completed cathedral, he became overwhelmed by its beauty. So much so, that he ordered architect Postnik Yakovlev to never create anything so magnificent again by ordering that he be blinded. Historians consider this long-told account a myth because Yakovlev went on to design at least two more churches in his lifetime.
The Byzantine cathedral survived a massive fire in 1583 as well as a series of calamities that included dictators and two world wars. Located just feet from the Kremlin’s large walls, the cathedral has always garnered attention in good and bad ways. As part of the former Soviet Union’s communist regime to eradicate religious freedom by imposing state atheism, St. Basil’s Cathedral was confiscated from the Russian Orthodox authorities and secularized in 1929. The Bolsheviks had planned to demolish it in 1924 following Vladimir Lenin’s funeral, but the idea was ultimately scrapped by Joseph Stalin’s regime.