Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Coat of Paint Won't Fix St. Basil's

MTSt. Basil's restoration costs may rocket when the state of its foundations is known.
Experts say they expect restoration work on the 450-year-old St. Basil's Cathedral -- officially called the Cathedral of the Protection of Our Lady at the Moat -- to slide rapidly past the 100 million ruble mark ($3.17 million) as the extent of its disintegrating foundations comes to light.

Tatyana Nikitina, chief architect for the project, said there is evidence that the foundations are decompacting and subsiding unevenly. Nikitina also worked on the cathedral's last renovation in 1980, when the nation's most recognized landmark was spruced up in time for the Olympic Games.

"The price could soar, we still don't know what needs to be done -- whether a drainage system will need to be built," Nikitina said.

While architects and planners await the results of the survey, work of a comparatively cosmetic nature has been going on above ground since last year.

So far the central spire and southern tower have been restored and stand in bright contrast to the rest of the building. The cathedral, which was built between 1555 and 1561 by architects Barma and Posnik, is actually made up of nine individual churches.

Each church was built to commemorate a day of decisive battle in Ivan the Terrible's bloody campaign against the Kazan khanate.

Twenty-eight million rubles from the federal budget were spent last year, Nikitina said. Originally, the work was expected to cost about 85 million rubles.

"Unfortunately the 'business card' of Russia has always been overtaken by finances," Nikitina said. "Every time we look at the books for the 1950s and 60s, we find references along the lines of 'due to a lack of funds, we could only do this or we could only do that.'"

Help, however, may be at hand -- the project has attracted a number of sponsors. Igor Michichkin, deputy director of the State History Museum, who is responsible for major repairs and restoration, said construction firm Intekostroi has pledged 350,000 rubles ($11,100) toward repairing the dome of the Vasily the Blessed side-chapel, from which the cathedral took its popular name when it was appended in 1588 over the grave of a well-known holy fool.

Michichkin said targeted sponsorship is the most effective means of fleshing out shoestring budgets.

He gave the example of the Chernogolovsky vodka and wine distillery, which raised the $30,000 needed to lift a cross into place at the Novodevichy Monastery by helicopter in 2000. The 10 million to 12 million rubles pumped into the monastery each year wouldn't cover such luxuries, he said.

Work at St. Basil's is being performed by state unitary enterprise Resma, which has worked mostly on federal projects, including reconstruction work on the Kremlin walls and towers, said Svetlana Bryukhovetskaya, deputy director for production.

The plans for the restoration were drawn up by the central research and production restoration workshops under the Culture Ministry.

St. Basil's has a long history. Ivan commissioned Barma and Posnik to build the cathedral to commemorate his victory over the Tatars at Kazan. Legend has it that when the tsar saw the finished product, he had the architects blinded with a hot poker so they would never again create anything as beautiful.

The cathedral itself has survived far more dramatic threats than thinning foundations. A thwarted Napoleon is said to have planned to blow up the building and would have succeeded had it not been for a timely thunderstorm that helped put out the fuses.

In 1930 Lazar Kaganovich, who played a major role in the collectivization program, presented a scaled-down model of Red Square to Josef Stalin. His idea was to bulldoze the cathedral to allow for truly elaborate parades. To demonstrate, he gleefully whisked away a detachable model of St. Basil's.

Stalin is said to have gazed at the empty space for some time before turning to his eager associate. "Put it back, Lazar," he said.