St Basil’s Cathedral history is somewhat clouded by myths and legends. One such example is the story that revolves around the blinding of its architects. Legend has it that Ivan the Terrible ordered the two designers to be removed of their sight after the project was finished so that they could never create something so beautiful in the future.
There isn’t much to back this St Basil’s Cathedral story up, and it’s interesting to note that many researches aren’t even clear on whether there were two architects or just one. The cultural heritage register of Russia gives credit to two architects, their names being Barma and Postnik Yakovlev, while numerous academics lean towards the idea that these names refer to one singular person.
Some definite facts about St Basil’s Cathedral do exist among all the myths and legends. Its construction was ordered by Ivan the Terrible, with the main purpose being to commemorate the capture of both Kazan and Astrakhan. There’s also the original building period, which falls between the years 1555 and 1561. At the time that original construction finished, the cathedral was the tallest building in Moscow.
Fire caused significant damage to St Basil’s Cathedral in the 1580s, as well as in the year 1737. These fires prompted refits and renovations. Thankfully, the famous cathedral was unaffected by the great Fire of Moscow in 1812, and in 1848, its onion-shaped domes got their bold colors. The structure lacked its bold mix of colors for some time. In fact, when it was built, it exhibited a predominantly white exterior to help it match the original white stone of the nearby Kremlin. The domes of St Basil’s were originally gold.
Various preservation agencies started to keep an eye on St Basil’s Cathedral starting in the late 1800s, and while restorations were eventually planned, they consistently stalled out because of financial concerns. Part of the reason why it was difficult to raise funds for restorations was the fact that the church lacked its own congregation at the time. By 1899, however, Emperor Nicholas II realized the importance of maintaining such a historical landmark. Subsequent renovations included the installation of a warm air heating system in 1908 and the fitting of a pumped water heating system that was put in place in 1913.
In relation to the history of Russia, the country experienced significant turmoil in the late 1800s, and this continued into the new century. The early 1900s saw the country moving closer and closer to an anti-theist approach, and by 1929, St Basil’s Cathedral was completely secularized. This helped to secure its move towards becoming a museum. It operates in conjunction with the State Historical Museum and is the property of the Russian Federation. In 1990, St Basil’s Cathedral became part of UNESCO’s larger Moscow Kremlin and Red Square World Heritage Site, and it has certainly gotten its fair share of visitors over the years.
A great way to get in touch with St Basil’s Cathedral history is to actually visit the famous landmark. St Basil’s is open to the public all days, except on Tuesdays and the occasional days when it is closed for repairs. The hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. As a side note, a variety of Russia tours highlight Red Square and Basil’s Cathedral, and these tours can provide wonderful insight into the history of the area in general.