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Red Square and its Checkered History

April 2, 2009 at 10:13 am
By Kevin, Shane, Travis, and Mark

Moscow, currently covered in dirty snow, is not an aesthetically pleasing city. The real charm lies of Moscow lies below the surface, in its ever-shifting historical personae and its changing skyline of gilded onion domes. The city's layout, unlike that of St. Petersburg, has been defined more by a lack of a plan, and the whimsical caprices of its many rulers, than by any one guiding hand. Only recently has one man taken on the role of Moscow's curator. A man of eclectic tastes, Mayor Yuri Luzhkov has both restored many of Moscow's past wonders, (and created a number of garish new ones) and destroyed or “refurbished” others in the name of capitalism (or parking).

As we gazed around Red Square, we saw remnants of several stages of Russian history.  These presented themselves not only in the buildings surrounding the square, but also in the people within it.  Of course there were camera-laden sightseers (we among them), but also Orthodox Christians there for Sunday services and Communist Party faithful parading the Soviet flag.

Two of Moscow's famed sites impressed us especially: the Kazan Cathedral, which is a cathedral located on the Eastern side of Red Square, and the Lenin Mausoleum, which is exactly what it sounds like.

 Lenin Mausoleum

The communists’ destination was the Lenin Mausoleum, a blocky pyramid of red and black granite, which stands in stark contrast to the Kazan Cathedral across the square, but in its own right a place of worship.  Throughout its history, the tomb has been the subject of controversy, both during and after Soviet rule. The decision to embalm Lenin went against the wishes of his wife and Trotsky, but was hastily made as the body began to decay.   Following his death in 1953, Stalin, too, was buried in the mausoleum, but his body was removed several years later.  One story accredits this removal to a dream of a member of the Party elite, in which Lenin complained about his new neighbor.  Argument again erupted over the tomb during Yeltsin’s presidency—Yeltsin wished to remove the mausoleum from the square, but was unable to in the face of outcry from the still-strong Communist Party.

Kazan Cathedral 

The Kazan Cathedral has a roller-coaster history. Built in wood in 1632 to commemorate the Russian victory over the Poles in 1612, the cathedral shortly thereafter burned down and was rebuilt in stone (1636). From our vantage point on Red Square, it stands out – unlike nearly everything on Red Square, it's not just red – its green rooftops and white walls contrast nicely with the rest of the square. In comparison to the monumental Historical Museum, the Kremlin, and, of course, St. Basil's Cathedral, the Kazan Cathedral appears small, modest, and evokes a different era of Russian history.

In another sense it evokes stories of every era of Russian history; its role, forever important, has changed drastically over the years. In 1666, there was a schism in the Russian Orthodox Church as Nikon, the Patriarch under Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich, reformed, in what now seems like minute changes, the Church's rituals. Avvakum, an archpriest, led a group that refused the reforms and was persecuted for its “schismatic” beliefs. Avvakum spent a lot of time in the Kazan Cathedral and was eventually arrested here before being executed; his followers got off lightly, merely being exiled to Siberia for the next few centuries.

The party elite during Soviet times went on to make a very clear example of the cathedral, which they transformed into a cafeteria before demolishing it to make way for a public urinal. To us, this seemed a little bit excessive, but we were never party elite.

Thankfully, Luzhkov, Moscow's mayor, (and both its savior and destroyer), had a replica rebuilt in 1993.

We were so struck by the cathedral not for its external glory – it really is a rather modest structure – nor  for that internal mysticism that you feel in some cathedrals, but rather for its extraordinary significance in Russian history. And that's how we tend to feel all around Moscow, a city that needs to be studied to be effectively visited.

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