St. Basil's World Cup Crowds of soccer fans gather around St. Basil’s Cathedral in the days leading up to the World Cup final. Photo credit: Clemente Lisi

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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.”

A close-up view of St. Basil's multicolored domes. Photo credit: Clemente Lisi / The many colors that make up St. Basil's exterior as seen from the side facing the nearby banks of the Moscow River. Photo credit: Clemente Lisi

Oliver Jones, 48, from London, was in Moscow to cheer for England – but also said he had to take in a visit to Red Square to see St. Basil’s Cathedral.

“It’s iconic. You have to come here if you’re in Moscow,” Jones said. “It’s like not going to Westminster [Cathedral] if you’re visiting London. I had to come here. This place is the center of the universe at this moment.”

Russian officials, both secular and religious, hope guests won’t stop visiting once the World Cup comes to an end this Sunday. Since the end of the USSR in 1991, few Westerners have flocked to Russia as a tourist destination. Despite geopolitical tensions, Russian officials now hope that long after the soccer fans are gone, that future tourists will want to visit the city and its most-famous cathedral, which is operated and maintained by the country’s State Historical Museum. Having had a largely incident-free World Cup has certainly helped broadcast a positive image of the country to the world. For example, over 600 walking tours have been held at the cathedral and in and around Red Square since the World Cup kicked off on June 14, officials said.

At the same time, Orthodox priests have played a behind-the-scenes role at this World Cup. Blessing stadiums and other tournament-related facilities are just two of the religious gestures of this World Cup that many have not seen. On June 13, on the eve of the tournament’s start, Patriarch Kirill, who heads the church in Moscow and Russia, presided over a session of the Supreme Church Council of the Russian Orthodox Church, where he addressed the World Cup, according to their official website.

A Russian Orthodox priest performs a special blessing inside St. Basil’s Cathedralin Red Square, where services are only held a few times a year to coincide with special occasions. Photo credit: State Historical Museum

“We are gathering together on the eve of a major event for our country – the World Football Championship. Many people will come from various countries of the world, and, as it happened in the situations when major international events are held in our country, many will visit Orthodox churches,” he said. “For this reason, I would ask that we all should be ready to offer hospitality at the church platforms to those who will turn to us, who will ask questions and show interest in church life.”

He added: “In the first place, it is the duty of hospitality, but in addition it is our pastoral duty to answer questions from those to address them to us. I hope this major event will be a success and make a positive impact on the feelings of our people.”

Moscow is a city that can’t escape its religious as well as recent political past. It is most evident through its architecture, particularly from the grandiose Communist-era structures that were never torn down to its many churches that date back centuries. There are currently 320 Orthodox parishes in the city, by far the largest of any Christian denomination. By comparison, there are only three Roman Catholic churches and only a small Evangelical presence.

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.

The cathedral features eight chapels built around one central sanctuary. Photo credit: State Historical Museum / Colombia fans take photos near the entrance to Red Square. Photo credit: Clemente Lisi / Russian Orthodox priests bless the body and blood of Christ before sharing it with worshippers inside a recent service at St. Basil’s Cathedral. Photo credit: State Historical Museum

No longer the site of regular services, the cathedral does host special liturgies and classical music concertos. Nonetheless, St. Basil’s Cathedral remains a symbol of resilience for a nation where 41% of the population considers itself adherents of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, according to the country’s 2010 census figures. Overall, the same census reveals that some 70% of Russians consider themselves Christian. In recent years, many church leaders have also found an ally in Putin, who has embraced traditionalism and shunned gay rights.

The site, along with the Kremlin and Red Square, was named to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1990. The cathedral has also undergone a series of renovations, which were completed in September 2008 with the opening of the sanctuary of St. Alexander Svirsky. The church was also dragged into the simmering fake news controversy when in March 2017 Time magazine’s cover depicted St. Basil's Cathedral’s large domes — meant to represent the Kremlin’s influence on the Trump administration — physically overtaking the White House.

While the outside is famous, the inside is less so among visitors. The cathedral’s tallest dome – which stands 156-feet in height – creates the illusion of a grandiose building inside. Instead, the cathedral – adorned with religious icons, frescoes and relics – is cramped and features a series of narrow hallways and vaunted ceiling.

“I am not a religious person,” admitted John Kerr, 29, a fan who hails from London before snapping a selfie in front of it. “It doesn’t matter. This is beautiful. This is part of a people’s history. I really enjoyed seeing it. I’m glad I came to see it.”

While a crowd of 81,000 will attend the World Cup final this Sunday at Luzhniki Stadium, located two miles south of Red Square on the banks of the Moscow River, an estimated global TV audience of three billion is also expected to be watching. The France-Croatia match will crown a new world champion. However, one of the biggest winners of this summer’s tournament has certainly been St. Basil’s Cathedral’s ability to inspire so many visitors with its immense beauty.

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