But one look at this picture of Russia’s national symbol, St Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square, will go a long way to explaining my fascination. And this week the bizarrely beautiful beast of a building celebrates its 450th birthday.
St Basil’s history is almost as odd as its appearance. As the guardian put it “It was particularly hilarious during the cold war. There was Khrushchev or Brezhnev gazing on sternly from a Kremlin balcony at the synchronised marching and Soviet military hardware scrolling past below, but the whole deadly solemn communist pomp was undercut by that garish chunk of Disneyland architecture sitting in the corner, screaming “yoo hoo!” St Basil’s was like a clown’s nose on the face of the evil empire.” – And you can add that to my list of why I love it.
It’s no surprise then that Stalin wanted to destroy it. And despite succeeding with other Moscow churches, St Basil’s had the final laugh. Due in part to a conservation architect named Pyotr Baranovsky, who, according to the legend, sent Stalin a telegram saying he would rather kill himself than see it tumble. Luckily he didn’t pay with his life but he did get five years in the gulag for his troubles.
But the battle to destroy St Basil’s didn’t start with Stalin, the cathedral has also offended Napoleon’s architectural sensibilities a century earlier. Not only did he literally desecrate it by having stabled his horses in it, he then tried to dynamite it on his way out of Russia, but mother nature this time intervened and rain put out the fuses.
There is no doubt it is a peculiar creation, even without the outlandish colour scheme (it was originally white) and the mystery around it deepens when you discover little more than the name of it’s architect, Postnik Yakovlev, is known. Fingers crossed that hopefully one day I will get to investigate the country and it’s quirks for myself.