Monday, 29 August 2011

Preview: Kremlin and Red Square

Like everyone, I've had the misfortune of knowing a few idiots in my time. Work especially seems to drag them out. For me, one particular idiot that springs to mind is a man with the slightly comical name of Mickey Mallett, whom I worked with for a month in 2007, while offshore in Equatorial Guinea. The stakes were high on an expensive exploration rig searching for gas in the Gulf of Guinea, and Mickey Mallett was the man supposed to be in charge of the test on the gas well. Never has a man been less in charge. In his sixties and surely with decades of experience, he spent his month in a perpetual state of confusion and panic. At one point, so clueless was he to operations, during a crucial part of the test he hid inside my lab unit stating expressly that he "had no idea what was going on" and that he was "scared the rig was going to have a blow-out" (i.e. a rig-destroying explosion). His behaviour onshore was no better than off, and his regular indiscretions involving prostitutes and other locals caused so much trouble, not to mention real danger to himself, that the oil company in charge, instead of just sacking him, eventually banned all personnel from being out after 11pm. His manner was like a congenial uncle crossed with a sex offender crossed with a gigantic human "wobbly-man" toy that rights itself when pushed over. He wasn't even entertaining company, and spent his conversation in malicious, petty and truly inane gossip about his own colleagues - when not talking about his latest African "girlfriend" and, with a wink, his poor unwitting wife at home, that is.

So imagine my surprise when I heard that this idiot not only had been given a sainthood by the Catholic Church, but also had a world famous cathedral built in his honour. No, it's ok, that of course didn't happen, but for anyone around in 16th Century Russia who happened to know a man called Basil that is exactly what did occur. Basil was a cobbler by profession but a true holy idiot by vocation. Not, in fairness, an idiot in the infuriatingly annoying Mickey Mallett way, but in the running around naked, knocking over stuff, making a general nuisance sense. And while Mickey was idiotic for prostitutes and gossip, Basil claimed for his own glory that he was "idiotic for Christ's sake." And the Russians loved this. Because, astonishingly, back in early Tsarist Russia, idiocy was seen as a common form of religious fervency, and the most sincere and dedicated of idiots were treated with reverence. They loved a good idiot. Oh yes, 16th Century Russia was a good time to behave like an absolute bloody imbecile.


St Basil's Cathedral was built between 1555 and 1561, just a few years after Basil the Blessed was buried on the site. In fact, only a small chapel added in 1588 was dedicated to St Basil, and the real name of the cathedral - which is actually technically a church, or more properly, nine separate churches, or wait, these days just a museum - is the less catchy "The Cathedral of the Intercession of the Virgin by the Moat". But let's not let truth get in the way, because the church we know as St Basil's Cathedral is the most recognised building in Russia, and the very symbol of the Moscow Kremlin... oh wait, St Basil's isn't actually in the Kremlin.

Despite being synonymous with the Kremlin and many people actually confusing it with the Kremlin itself, the onion-domed, brightly-coloured and architecturally unique St Basil's actually sits just outside the Kremlin, on Red Square. Just to further confuse matters, Red Square is neither named due to it being red-coloured or for any connection to Communism, but because the archaic Russian word for "beautiful" sounds very like the word for "red", and this word was originally used to describe St Basil's Cathedral before transferring itself to the square. Nonetheless, St Basil's it is as distinctly and identifiably Russian as Ivan the Terrible, or misery itself, which is appropriate as a good helping of both were involved in its construction. It was built in commemoration and no doubt a good deal of celebration, of the capture of the city of Kazan, thus ending centuries of war and oppression from the Mongol-originated Tatar state, with each individual church based around a tower representing one of the eight days involved in the decisive siege. Ivan the Terrible - a sadistic, warmongering, paranoid maniac, who in his finale destroyed his own line of succession by murdering his son who was in the act of protecting his pregnant and soon-to-miscarry wife from one of Ivan's rages - commissioned it, and the unknown architect must surely have had a big swinging pair of balls to build something so wildly original and unprecedented for such a dangerous erratic leader. That the myth exists that the architect was subsequently blinded to prevent him building anything so beautiful is just testament to the reverence St Basil's is held in - the same myth exists for the Taj Mahal and the Ananda Temple in Bagan, Burma, as well as various other buildings around the world.


As you might have guessed, although the Kremlin and Red Square is named as my actual Wonder, St Basil's Cathedral, mistaken by many to be the Kremlin, is very much the focus. Type in "Kremlin" into Google Images, and St Basil's Cathedral is the first, second and fourth image, and appears heavily throughout. But let's not let that take away from the Kremlin, which is a composite of centuries of architecture and history, and a magnificent historic centre of one of our planet's biggest nations.

And I don't think there's any inferiority complex - the highest point in St Basil's is about 60 metres and less than half an acre in size, the Kremlin takes up an area of 68 acres, is filled with cathedrals, churches, palaces and bell towers up to 81 metres high, and is surrounded by a 2.2 kilometre defensive stone wall punctuated by nineteen beefy guard towers. You won't be surprised to know that the word "kremlin" means "fortress" or "citadel". Almost all of Russia's history is there: 47 Russian tsars are buried and even more were crowned there, it has been burnt down in countless fires and destroyed in numerous wars but always rebuilt, and many centuries on after Prince Yuri Dolgorukiy built the original wooden fortress in 1156, the seat of Russia's government is still in the Kremlin. Napolean tried to blow it up - but couldn't - and Hitler wanted to tear it down too, but the Russian winter and Soviet troops thought otherwise, and the Germans only got as far as the Moscow suburbs.

Being a fortification filled with multiple structures, the Kremlin has changed and evolved greatly since its inception. Its early (mostly wooden) stage is now only represented by a small stone church from the 14th Century, swallowed up in the gargantuan Grand Kremlin Palace, a huge and unsubtle neoclassical beast built in the 19th Century as a puffed-up boast of greatness. Another 14th Century church made it as far as the 20th Century, but Stalin ordered its dismantling as it was in the way of a giant Soviet palace he never ended up building. However, the majority of the buildings in the Kremlin, including the walls and guard towers, are Italian Renaissance influenced, with Italian and other European architects employed from the 15th to 17th Centuries, although often given a nudge to try and squeeze in a bit of a Russian style too.

The Kremlin - whether or not its being mistaken for St Basil's Cathedral - is perhaps the most famous location in Russia, not to mention the most historic and as the existing seat of government, the most influential. The history and future of a nation are contained within here, and that's not a claim that can be made by any other Wonder. When I visit, the brilliantly unusual St Basil's will certainly be my focus, but the backdrop of the Kremlin give it a fascinating setting.

I'll be visiting the Kremlin and Red Square in April, and will give a fuller account of it and its history then, as well as my own views. Interestingly, Basil isn't the only idiot buried in St Basil's Cathedral: an idiot called John was also sainted and given a sanctuary there. I'm not sure if present-day Russians take fools gladly any more, but if either myself or Burness have been reduced to blithering idiots after months of travel in Asia we'll see if one of us can perhaps secure a small chapel.

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