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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Restoration Fever Bypasses St. Basil's




It is still one of the world's great wonders, a riot of architectural panache and color that is 4 1/2 centuries old and still halts awed first-time viewers in their tracks.


But up close, St. Basil's Cathedral is downright dilapidated -- the Mir space station of churches. While cranes and repair crews in every direction signal the Moscow renaissance, Russia's most recognizable landmark stands comparatively ignored on Red Square amid the boom.


"Everyone loves us, everyone comes to us, but nobody needs us,'' laments St. Basil's chief curator, Lyubov Uspenskaya, whose pleas for public or private funds to fix the crumbling bricks and decrepit interior have fallen on deaf ears. "The state promises a lot, but what we actually receive is only a small percentage of that.''


Few would dispute that the cash-strapped Russian government should pay its pensioners, teachers and state workers first.


But authorities who manage to find or raise money for other renovation projects clearly view St. Basil's as a low priority, perhaps because no one stands to get credit or profit from a costly restoration of those famous pineapple and onion domes.


Asked about the prospects for a fix up, Culture Ministry spokeswoman Vera Lebedeva had a curt, no-nonsense reply: "Unfortunately, the government has no money [for St. Basil's], and has no plans to fully restore it this year.''


Despite surviving decades of atheist rule and the wrecking balls that bashed in countless churches under Stalin, the cathedral's bells have long been silent and priests no longer preside at what is now a government museum.


Under fading domes and scarred, crumbling bricks, the front entranceway, its white and red stripes faded almost beyond recognition, has the look of a bankrupt barbershop.


In the labyrinthine interior, where 10 small chapels lie under the cupolas, reconstruction work, which officials say has been constantly under way since 1923, is proceeding at a glacial pace.


Glittering icons and bright wall paintings have been restored in some chapels. But overall, the famous cathedral has the ambience of an old barn. The budget apparently doesn't cover the heating bill, so museum employees work bundled up against the winter chill.


The domes were last repainted when Moscow was host for the 1980 Summer Olympics. Officials say it's well past time for St. Basil's to have a true face-lift: Domes and gold-plating work need to be repainted, along with some frescoes and ornaments. The basement needs to be rebuilt; the runoff pipes and pavement should be redone.


St. Basil's neglect is in striking contrast to the nearby Christ the Savior Cathedral, a pet project of Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov.


Legions of workers have swarmed over that site for over two years, and city authorities and the Russian Orthodox Church aggressively solicited donations via billboards, subway ads and television commercials to help foot the reported $250 million tab.


"If not for the Christ the Savior Cathedral, we would have been getting money,'' Uspenskaya said.


Another problem, she noted with irony, is that St. Basil's is not collapsing, which is the quickest way to get attention and money.


"We hope that sometime we'll get what we need, maybe when the situation in the country becomes better,'' the curator said. "Perhaps there are more urgent things to do now.''