Russia, Red Square and St. Basil’s Cathedral

St Basils Moscow

Like a lot of other people I suppose I used to believe that this was called Red Square because of the association with Communism but in fact the name has nothing to do with the link between the colour red and political philosophy or from the colour of the bricks of the buildings around it either.

Rather, the name came about because of the Russian word красная (krasnaya) which can mean either ‘red’ or ‘beautiful’. This word, using the meaning ‘beautiful’, was originally used to describe Saint Basil’s Cathedral and was subsequently applied to the nearby square, which incidentally isn’t even a square but rather more of an oblong!

Before moving on and just to finish this ‘red’ issue off, the association of red with communism is rooted in the general use of a red flag by European radicals and revolutionaries and was first of all used for this purpose by the Jacobins during the French Revolution. The obvious symbolism is that of blood and red flags and were used in medieval times to indicate that a castle, to the last man, would not surrender and later by pirates and others to indicate that when they won no one would be spared and blood would flow.  In the mid-nineteenth century the red flag was again raised to symbolise the 1848 revolutions in France and elsewhere in Europe and in 1871 the heirs to this French revolutionary tradition once more hoisted the flag at the Paris Commune.

Commune Red Flag

We had a couple of unsupervised spare hours now to amuse ourselves and with the sun beating down into the Square we decided that it was time to visit St. Basil’s Cathedral standing proudly in a riot of colour and shapes and resembling a penny confectionary tray in a child’s sweet shop and most accurately and delightfully described by the French diplomat and travel writer Marquis de Custine who wrote during his visit of 1839 that it combined “the scales of a golden fish, the enamelled skin of a serpent, the changeful hues of the lizard and the glossy rose and azure of the pigeon’s neck”.  It probably looked a bit different in 1839 but I like to think that I know what he meant.

The construction of the Cathedral was ordered by Ivan the Terrible to mark the 1552 capture of Kazan from Mongol forces. It was constructed by the builders Barma and Postnik Yakovlev and completed in 1560. There is a legend that upon completion, living up to his name and reputation, Ivan had them blinded so that they could not create anything to compare but I’ve heard that tale elsewhere about the Astronomical Clock in Prague and I didn’t believe that story either.

Religious and historical architects are unable to agree about the central idea behind the structure. Either the creators were paying homage to the churches of Jerusalem, or, by building eight churches around a central ninth (it is apparently normal to have five or thirteen domes in an Orthodox Church), they were representing the medieval symbol of the eight-pointed star but anyway what we see today would be unrecognisable to Barma and Postnik Yakovlev because the original building is buried deep within a labyrinth of later additions in the way of chapels, domes and covered galleries

For a time in the Soviet Union, there was talk of demolishing St. Basil’s – mainly because it hindered Stalin’s plans for massed parades on Red Square. It was only saved thanks to the courage of the architect Pyotr Baranovsky. When ordered to prepare the building for demolition, he categorically refused, and threatened to commit suicide on the steps of the cathedral.  The cathedral remained standing but Baranovsky’s theatrical conservation methods earned him five years in prison.

Red Square Parade

We paid the modest entry fee and followed the visitor route through the warren of tiny rooms with mosaics and religious artefacts on display and then climbed a spiral staircase in the centre of the building to a magnificent internal chapel with religious icons and symbols painted on towering columns that held up the roof and provided perfect acoustics for a choir to entertain and hopefully sell some CDs of Russian folk music.

There was a good view of Red Square from this elevated position and we walked around the gallery with its confusing collection or rooms leading off in random order and each with a tale to tell or a treasure to show off before reaching the exit and returning to the Square.

It was just after midday now so we returned to GUM (there is a good history at this web site link) and the restaurant No 57 CTOΛOBAЯ where we had lunch for a second time at the end of a gallery on the third floor and it amused me to think that we were sitting here in the historic heart of Moscow, the epicentre of Soviet era Russia, in a westernised shopping mall that represented everything that communism stood against: ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’, a laudable but ultimately unachievable state of Utopia that could naturally be delivered without shops.  Lenin closed the mall and Stalin converted it into State administrative offices.  They must be spinning in their graves – well, Stalin maybe but not Lenin of course because we had seen him barely two hours ago laid out in his mausoleum in his own personal ‘groundhog day’ nightmare and patiently waiting for a spinning opportunity!

Lunch finished we returned to the Square to meet with Galina at Resurrection Gate from where we were going n the next stage of the visit – into the Kremlin.




6 responses to “Russia, Red Square and St. Basil’s Cathedral

  1. Pingback: Russia, Red Square and St. Basil’s Cathedral | Have Bag, Will Travel

  2. I could gaze at that first photo all day long Andrew.

  3. Makes me want to visit and have a nose around

  4. I enjoy the posts about Russia. I want to know more about it because my dad loved Russia and was there as a volunteer in the imperial Russian Army in WWI from 1916 – 18, but left when the Bolsheviks were taking over.
    The original St. Basil’s Cathedral was white with nine golden domes. You might like to check my post

  5. Pingback: 97 – Spires Mandalas | Mandala of the Day

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