In the center of Moscow, across the square from the Kremlin stands what is perhaps the most iconic and recognizable building in all of Russia. The iconic masterpiece of St Basil’s Cathedral with its famous domes is so famous that it is often mistaken for the Kremlin itself by outsiders.
The colorful domes are much more than ornamentation, however. The cathedral was built over a decade from 1555 in orders from the man who, perhaps more than anyone, was responsible for the creation of Russia: Ivan the Terrible.
The cathedral, designed to resemble a bonfire rising into the sky, is most distinctive for its nine colorful domes atop its multiple towers. These are more than just ornamentation however, as they celebrate the victories of Ivan the Terrible over the Tatars of Kazan in 1552, a conquest which carved out an enormous amount of territory and established Russia as a dominant power and himself as the first Tsar.
The central dome represents the final assault on Kazan and victory for Ivan, and it is surrounded by eight smaller domes, each of which has its own meaning. Here they are.
1. The West Dome
The West Dome represents the triumph of the Muscovite army under Ivan the Terrible. His expansion into the east was a direct challenge to the Kazan Khanate, seen as the old Mongol enemy of the Rus.
The Muscovites, or the people of Moscow, had been free from the Mongols for more than two centuries but this tower specifically commemorates their expansion and rise to a position of dominance which started under Ivan the Terrible’s grandfather, Ivan III.
The Muscovite conquest of Novgorod was the start of a sea change in the power structure of the Rus. Ivan III dismantled the Novogorod aristocracy and placed the Muscovites in a favored position. Their triumph continued into the reign of his grandson, and the defeat of the Tatar Khan.
2. The North West Dome
The north west tower and its dome are dedicated to Saint Gregory the Illuminator, founder of the Apostolic Church of Armenia. Technically, all eight of the surrounding domes are their own separate churches around the central tented church core.
This tower celebrates a key moment in the assault on Kazan: the taking of the Ars Tower of the Kazan Kremlin by Ivan’s forces on 30th September 1552, a key defensive and symbolic feature of the city.
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The capture of the tower after heavy fighting and heavy losses on both sides was a pivotal moment in the days-long battle. Two days later the Kazan Kremlin itself would fall and victory would be assured for Ivan the Terrible.
3. The North Dome
This final victory against Kazan, after two days of fighting, is commemorated by the north dome and its high column tower. The Kazan Kremlin was destroyed in the attack, only to be later rebuilt by Ivan the Terrible: today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
This tower is also dedicated to Saint Martyrs Cyprian and Justinia, two early Christian saints canonized for their martyrdom in 304 in Nicomedia. Cyprian had been converted by his wife Justinia to Christianity, but they both died to the purges of the Roman Emperor Diocletian.
The Kazan Kremlin this tower commemorates was considered an impregnable stronghold of the Kazan Tartars, the key to the city itself and nigh unwinnable in a direct assault. Ivan the Terrible used sappers to destroy a weak section of the city wall, and the tower today stands mute testament to the victory of the troops that poured through the breach to take the city.
4. The North East Dome
The north east dome, dedicated to the Three Patriarchs of Alexandria, commemorates a key moment just before the battle for Kazan: the defeat of the Tatar cavalry led by their charismatic leader Yepancha.
The Kazan Khanate relied heavily on their cavalry attacks to provide a skirmish screen ahead of the city, rough riders preventing an army from approaching the city proper with harrying attacks. However when faced with the approaching Muscovite army it would seem that Yepancha had no choice, and was forced to face battle with his inner cavalry, the last line of defence.
In the event Yepancha was roundly defeated and the road to Kazan was clear. Yepancha himself escaped and his cavalry would continue to be a problem for Ivan until the final defeat of the Tatars the following year.
5. The East Dome
The east dome is perhaps the most important of all. This tower was built on the site of the original Trinity Church which had historically stood on the site of St Basil’s Cathedral, built of white stone to match the 14th century appearance of the Kremlin .
Ivan the Terrible had originally built a small wooden church alongside this Trinity Church to commemorate his victory, but the project grew and soon there were seven wooden churches alongside, all representing aspects of his victory as the later Cathedral would.
Ivan’s decision in 1555 to build St Basil’s on this site was evidence of his new-found power and authority. By building the cathedral outside the walls of the Kremlin, he was making a statement: this is for the commoners, not the hereditary aristocracy.
6. The South East Dome
The south eastern dome is the second of two to celebrate the defeat of Yepancha on 30th August 1552. Alexander Gorbatyi-Shuisky, perhaps Ivan the Terrible’s finest general, was responsible for the victory, effectively gutting the defenses of the city.
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Although the city had fallen and Ivan had left 18,000 troops to garrison it, Tatar cavalry continued to roam the countryside harassing Muscovite troops and effectively trapping the soldiers within the walls. However Ivan would not tolerate this insubordination.
After weeks of fighting in the snow-covered forests surrounding the city, 10,000 men were killed and a further 6,000 Tatar resistance fighters were captured. 1,600 Tatar leaders were put to death for this uprising, Yepancha among them.
7. The South Dome
The South Dome with its red and white paint and the church under it holds a treasure won while the campaign was underway: the icon of Saint Nicholas from the Velikaya River. An icon is a common feature of the Russian Orthodox Church, a focal object of religious devotion.
This church, properly known as the Church of Velikoretsky Icon of St. Nicholas, houses the icon which was brought to the site in 1555 from Vyatka to Moscow, hence the name Velikoretsky which means “of big rivers” in Russian.
The icon depicts Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker, an early Christian bishop who was Greek and lived in Myra in modern day Turkey. Saint Nicholas was also possibly an attendee of the Council of Nicea, making him a highly important figure in the early formative Christian church.
8. The South West Dome
The last church commemorates Vasili III, Grand Prince of Moscow from 1505 to 1533 and Ivan the Terrible’s father. However the dedication of this last dome and its relevance to the conquest of Kazan is unclear.
It may be that the intent of this last dome was lost to time. It is known that it is dedicated to Saint Barlaam of Khutyn, an early hermit saint who rejected wealth for poverty and led by example.
Vasili is sometimes known as “the Adequate” for his failure to match the achievements of either his father Ivan III or his even greater son. As a foundation for Ivan the terrible’s achievements however his decades-long reign should certainly not be overlooked. Ivan the Terrible certainly thought him worth honoring in the very heart of Moscow.
Top Image: The domes of St Basil’s Cathedral each represent an aspect of Ivan the Terrible’s victory at Kazan. Source: Reidl / Adobe Stock.
By Joseph Green