August 13, 2005

St. Basil's terrible beauty

Let's say you were an architect who’d just finished a major work for a very important patron – a guy with a reputation for being “terribly” picky. You’re happy with your work, it seems the guy who hired you is pleased, and this is the 16th-century, when lucrative building gigs are hard to come by because most people live in huts. So, when the big cheese walks over and says, “Hey, Postnik, think you could build something else this beautiful?” you’d probably get all puffed up and reply, “Sure, chief! What do you have in mind?”

Poor Postnik. He gave the wrong answer. When the work in question is St. Basil’s Cathedral and the boss is Ivan the Terrible, the right answer is “No, sir! There can never be anything as beautiful as this in the world.” For his hubris, self-confidence and mastery, Postnik Yakovlev (Yakoviev), was blinded, lest he ever create any structure to rival the soaring elegance of Ivan’s church just outside the Kremlin Walls in Moscow’s Red Square. (Some historians attribute St. Basil’s to two architects, Yakovlev and Barma, allegedly also blinded by Ivan the Terrible, but others believe Barma was simply one of Yakovlev’s noms de plume.)

Today, Postnik’s wild-hued towers and onion domes figure as backdrop in thousands of wedding day photos. Moscow newlyweds typically have some time between their civil ceremony at a wedding palace and their reception, so the wedding party enjoys a whirlwind city tour with stops at picturesque or historical locations for photos – and toasts. “They have a few hours to kill,” said my guide, Yelena, “and they drink champagne, break glasses. You can imagine the state they’re in when they arrive at the party.”

With St. Basil’s riotous, gleaming domes gracing the rare blue Moscow sky, Dana and I watched as pockets of wedding guests dressed to the nines turned toward their respective nuptial couples and demanded connubial kisses by shouting, “Gorka! Gorka!” meaning “bitter.” “Our vodka is bitter, and we need you to kiss to make it sweet again.”