St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow's Red Square

Colorful onion domes atop St. Basil's Cathedral in Red Square, Moscow
Photo by Kapuk Dodds/Moment Open Collection/Getty Images

While St. Basil's Cathedral, is a can't-miss attraction in Moscow, it's interesting to know that, at certain points in history, the structure was slated for destruction. Learn more about this important landmark, now a state historical museum, and how you can visit.

St. Basil's Cathedral and the Kremlin

St. Basil's Cathedral, also known as the Cathedral of the Intercession, is located on Red Square, beside the Moscow Kremlin. Unlike some people think, St. Basil's Cathedral is not the Kremlin, nor does it reside within the Kremlin's walls.

St. Basil's Cathedral has come to represent Russia from the perspective of the West. It is Moscow's—and maybe even Russia's—most recognizable sight and one of its architectural treasures.

One Cathedral, Many Names

St. Basil's Cathedral was named for a local saint—"Basil the Fool," or as some call him, "Basil the Blessed." The name, Basil is the anglicization of the Russian name Vasily. The cathedral is also known as the Cathedral of the Intercession of the Virgin on the Moat, but it is most popularly and familiarly called "St. Basil's."

Ivan the Terrible's Legacy

The church was built from 1555–1561 on orders from Ivan the Terrible, the first tsar of all Russia, to celebrate the conquest of the Khanate of Kazan. It was the city's tallest building until the Ivan the Great Bell Tower was built in 1600.

Popular legend has it that Ivan the Terrible had the architect of St. Basil's eyes put out after the cathedral was completed so that the architect would not be able to build an equally beautiful structure anywhere else.

Saved from Destruction

It is almost a miracle that St. Basil's Cathedral is still standing today. Another legend tells of Napoleon, realizing he could not count St. Basil's Cathedral among his war spoils, wanted it destroyed. The fuses lit by his men were supposedly snuffed out by a sudden downpour. In addition, Stalin decided against tearing the cathedral down even though it would have opened up Red Square for the more convenient presentation of political power displays.

Hundreds of years have taken their toll on St. Basil's Cathedral, but restoration has taken place. Decorations on the interior have been replaced where they were damaged by age and neglect and the colorful exterior of the cathedral is also maintained with regular fresh coats of paint.

In 1990, St. Basil's was declared in a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, along with the entire Kremlin.

Visiting the Cathedral

When you are in Red Square, you can view the outside of the cathedral with its beautiful colorful domes. In front of the church, in the garden, you'll notice a bronze statue which honors Dmitry Pozharsky and Kuzma Minin, who organized a citizen's army that fought against the Polish invaders during the "Time of the Riots" between 1598 and 1613.

If the cathedral is open (sometimes it's closed for renovations or cleaning), it's possible to go in. The inside of the chapels, surprisingly small, is richly decorated and their windows offer unique views of the cathedral as well as of Red Square. The stone floors exhibit the wear marks of 500 years' worth of steps taken by the religiously devoted. The interconnected chapels, with their doors, nooks, artwork, and niches make the interior of St. Basil's seems like something out of fantasy.

St. Basil's Cathedral has varied opening hours that can be checked on this website. You can buy tickets at the cathedral or online. The cost is 700 rubles for citizens of other countries and 500 rubles for Russian citizens. Children up to 16 years receive free entry.

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