Russia marks 450 years of St. Basil's Cathedral

July 12, 2011 - 12:44 PM
Russia St. Basil's Cathedral

Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill, background, conducts a religious service at St. Basil's Cathedral outside the Kremlin on the Red Square in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, July 12, 2011. The cathedral is turning 450 years on Tuesday, and parts of its interior will open after a decade-long restoration. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

MOSCOW (AP) — He was naked, homeless and fiercely argumentative — and his name is immortalized in one of Russia's most remarkable buildings, St. Basil's Cathedral.

An exhibition detailing the lives of St. Basil and other religious zealots known as "holy fools" opened Tuesday as part of ceremonies marking the 450th anniversary of perhaps Moscow's most famous tourist attraction.

After years of restoration work that cost 390 million rubles ($14 million) — including the reinforcement of the walls and the pile of brightly colored onion domes and spires that crown the architectural fantasia — the iconic church looks lavish, and a striking contrast to the extreme asceticism that the holy fools practiced.

Although originally named the Cathedral of the Intercession of the Virgin by the Moat, most know it as St. Basil's, referring to Basil the Blessed, a Muscovite "holy fool" who was buried on the original site before the present building was erected.

The "holy fools" braved Russian winters by walking stark naked — or mortified their flesh by wearing heavy fetters or lice-infested sackclothes. They fasted and never slept indoors, uttered prophecies, performed healings and even walked on water, according to their hagiographies.

And they dared to speak the truth to the powerful, being virtually the only group that could openly criticize the Kremlin rulers and channel ordinary people's frustration.

"They manifested the people's will," Tatiana Saracheva, director of the museum at St. Basil's, told The Associated Press. "It was only the holy fools who could directly tell the royals about the troubles they inflicted on the Russian people."

St. Basil was a peasant's son nicknamed "the Naked Walker" and revered by Muscovites for healings and prophecies.

His nakedness, however, was "hardly shocking" to Russians who often bathed nude in saunas with their wives and children, says the exhibition's artistic director, Andrey Reyner.

St. Basil fearlessly lambasted the tyrannical policies of Ivan the Terrible — one of the Russia's most violent czars.

And the moody, pious czar, whose slaughters claimed tens of thousands of lives, feared the naked ascetic whom he considered "the seer of people's hearts and minds," according to a church chronicle.

When St. Basil got sick, the czar and his wife Anastasia visited him, and after the ascetic's death, Ivan personally carried his coffin to the grave right outside the Kremlin.

After winning several decisive victories over the Mongol rulers who once dominated medieval Russia, Ivan commissioned a massive cathedral that was erected over Basil's burial site.

Completed in 1561, the soaring structure with nine onion-shaped, multicolored domes fused the Russian traditions of wooden architecture with Byzantine and Islamic influences. Over the years, it was associated with St. Basil, at whose grave many miracles happened, according to church chronicles.

St. Basil's was constantly expanded and survived several attempts to destroy it.

Napoleon Bonaparte ordered the cathedral blown up during his army's hasty retreat from Moscow in 1812. But a heavy rain extinguished the burning fuses.

A century later, the building was severely shelled during the 1917 Bolshevik takeover of the Kremlin. It was patched up during the subsequent civil war and famine.

Early Communist leaders — who persecuted countless clerics of all faiths and destroyed tens of thousands of religious buildings — wanted the building dynamited as it blocked the way to military parades.

However, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin told his comrades "don't touch the cathedral, leave it alone," said Alexei Levykin, director of the State History Museum that includes St. Basil's.

Only the cathedral's conversion into a museum saved it from destruction, he said.

The exhibition dedicated to the "holy fools" includes rare icons and textiles that depicted their lives and were not available to the public in the Soviet era.

One of the exhibits is a set of fetters worn by St. Ivan, who succeeded St. Basil as Moscow's most revered "holy fool." St. Ivan was nicknamed "the Big Cap" for wearing an oblong felt hat that hid a metal helmet that was part of his fetters.

The exhibition is part of wide celebrations of St. Basil's anniversary that also included a service led by Moscow Patriarch Kirill and an upcoming conference of scholars.

The building attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists a year, who see it as a quintessential symbol of Russia.

"Just like Russia, it's been on the verge of collapse, got out of it, thrived and prospered and nearly collapsed again," Levykin said.