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Unimpressed by Basil the Blessed


Legend has it that when St. Basil’s Cathedral was completed in 1561, Ivan the Terrible had its architect, Postnik Yakovlev, blinded to prevent him from creating anything that could rival its beauty.

And since it stands today as Russia’s flagship monument, with its multicoloured onion domes being the country’s everlasting image, I vowed that it would be top of my list of things to see if I ever went to Moscow.

Well, I have visited the city twice now, but on both occasions the cathedral has left me with a lingering sense of disappointment.

The postcards and fridge magnets give it a majesty that just isn’t there when seen from up close. In fact, the domes’ patterns and colour schemes look garish, even tacky enough to warrant a comparison with something you’d find at DisneyLand Paris.

Perhaps Yakovlev was thinking four centuries ahead of his time.

But even so his creation does justice neither to its surroundings nor Russian Orthodox Churches, which are generally far more elegant with their white buildings and golden domes. The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour a few hundred metres down the embankment of the Moskva from Red Square is a prime example.

Like having a log flume next to the Houses of Parliament, St. Basil’s looks frivolous next to the Soviet grandeur of the Kremlin, the State History Museum and Lenin’s Tomb. It’s little surprise that video archives of Red Army parades through Red Square on Victory Day seem to cut the cathedral out.

On the inside, there was nothing particularly awe-inspiring either.

The best Orthodox cathedrals are blessed with beautiful, intricate wall paintings of Alexander Nevski and Peter the Great, together with biblical inscriptions in Old Church Slavonic. Their altars contain glistening religious icons and artefacts. Visitors are left entranced and tour them for hours, crossing themselves and lighting candles, with women respecting the Orthodox custom of wearing headscarves.

But the bland interior of St. Basil’s Cathedral, not in keeping with its striking onion domes, made for a tour which lasted less than half an hour. Having ambled about aimlessly wearing indifferent facial expressions, twiddling their thumbs and picking their noses, most of the tourists around me were back at the gift shop buying matryoshkas and Kremlin snowstorms much sooner than they had expected.

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