Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

A Q&A with Expert Dr. Pamela Kachurin

Q: Why is Russian religious architecture crowned with so many domes?

A: Like so many other things about Russia, the answer to this question has to do as much with politics as with spirituality. The number of domes on a church is often related to important dates in the life of the patron saints for whom it is named, as it is the case, for example, with St. Basil's eight onion-domed chapels, which are dedicated to saints whose celebration occurs on dates relating to Ivan the Terrible's successful military campaign against the Islamic Khanate of Kazan.

But the many-domed churches of Russia actually have their roots in Byzantine religious architecture, which used spherical domes to maximize the amount of natural light that entered the church and so to symbolize the vault of heaven. When Russia's ruling elites first adopted Christianity in 988 AD, their use of Byzantine religious architecture carried the additional burden of demonstrating the integration of the aspiring Northern "barbarians" into the "civilized" world represented by the eastern Christian Empire. By the 12th century, the Byzantine domes had evolved into what we now call the "onion" dome, with a bulbous bottom and a pointed top. The origins of this distinctive, and for many people, distinctively Russian shape are still unknown, but some scholars suggest the onion dome was a practical innovation to adapt buildings for the Russian climate, allowing snow to slide off the sides, rather than collect on top. 

Q: Can you elaborate on the contested 74 "lost" masterpieces on display at the Hermitage? 

A: For most of the Soviet period, the paintings taken by the Red Army at the end of World War II from the private homes of the German elite were never officially acknowledged or displayed. But in 1995, four years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, seventy-four of these works were finally shown in an exhibition entitled "Hidden Treasures Revealed." Breathtaking works such as Degas' "Place de la Concorde" and one of Van Gogh's last paintings "White House at Night" are now exhibited as part of the Hermitage Museum's permanent collection, as are works by Renoir, Monet, Gauguin and Matisse. However, much like the Soviets, the present-day Russian government has no plans to return the paintings to the German families who consider themselves the rightful heirs of these works, despite the robust economic and diplomatic ties between the Russian Federation and Germany. The Russian government has justified its decision by claiming that the paintings are but a small form of reparation for the Nazis' systematic destruction and widespread looting of Russian cultural treasures, such as those formerly housed in Russian Imperial palaces in and around St. Petersburg. 

Q: The Amber Room that Smithsonian travelers will see is a reconstruction of the original, which was given as a gift from the King of Prussia to Peter the Great in 1716 and then carried off in 1941. Can you shed contemporary light on the fate of the original, whose fate is surely as mysterious as that of Anastasia? 

A: Like the semi-precious stone for which it is named, the Amber Room is a prism that encapsulates and allows us to see in miniature the entire narrative of Russian-German relations from the 18th century to the present; and is ripe for fictionalized treatment and conspiracy theories, of which there are many. What we do know for sure is that during World War II, the original Amber Room was stolen by the Nazis and then partially reinstalled in a castle in Königsberg – a city that is now known as Kaliningrad and is officially part of the Russian Federation. Several historians have provided evidence that the Amber room was put back in crates before the end of the war and moved to an unknown location in Germany, where it was ostensibly destroyed. Other people believe that it was carried off in a German submarine, which was then torpedoed by the Soviets. Whatever the case may be, the spectacular recreation, now on view at Catherine's Palace, does include several small segments of the original Amber Room. 

Q: Many think of the Kremlin in terms of the Cold War era, but the complex has roots as far back as the second century B.C.E. Can you guide us through the waves of construction, demolition, and reconstruction that have marked the eras and the architecture of the Kremlin? 

A: For more than two thousand years, the site of the present-day Kremlin complex has offered its occupants a great hill-top view of the two rivers that converge on this strategically and economically vital spot in the Eurasian forest belt. Not surprisingly, it has also attracted the envious looks of its lowland neighbors, initially from nomadic peoples of the steppes just beyond the forest. This explains why the small wooden city that eventually came under the protection of the grand princes of Muscovy was repeatedly burned down. Even the devastation that followed the Mongol invasion of 1237, however, did not prevent its rulers from taking advantage of the benefits afforded by this prime piece of real estate. With the encouragement of the Orthodox Church, Prince Ivan "The Money-Bags" Kalita initiated the first major building boom inside the walls of the Kremlin by constructing three churches and a monastery between 1327 and 1333. The walls of the Kremlin, made of white stone, were put up later in the century in preparation for battles with the Mongols and Tatars, as well as rivals from other Russian principalities. From this point on, the Kremlin was the center of sacred and secular authority, each drawing its legitimacy from the other. 

The next wave of construction occurred between 1475 and 1600, when the self-styled Grand Princes of Moscow invited Italian architects to decorate their palatial residence in the latest, Renaissance style. Indeed, the two most important churches in the Kremlin have Italianate features on their facades, as do the Kremlin Towers that thrust upwards from its walls. The employment of Italian architects designing Renaissance buildings is linked to Muscovite identity at the time: as the Third Rome, head of Orthodoxy, and heir to the legacy of the Roman Empire. Ivan the Terrible, the first Russian prince to be formally crowned as Caesar (Tsar), participated in the building boom by having St. Basil's Cathedral built adjacent to the Kremlin itself. St. Basil is perhaps the best example of the combination of secular and religious authority in one building: it was built to commemorate the triumph of Russian forces over the Tatars of Kazan, the last stronghold of the Mongol Empire.

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Tsar Peter the Great moved the capitol of Russia to the recently founded city of St. Petersburg. Nevertheless, Kremlin churches remained the site of all Imperial coronations until the 20th century, and Neo-classical buildings were constructed on the Kremlin grounds to provide offices for government personnel.

In March 1918, a few short months after the Bolshevik Revolution that toppled the tsars, Lenin moved the capitol back to Moscow, and the Kremlin once again became the seat of political and spiritual authority. Lenin both lived and worked in the Kremlin and the major governing bodies of the "dictatorship of the proletariat" and international communist movement were housed within its walls. The Kremlin churches, no longer in active use, became museums, and they remain so today. Upon Lenin's death in January 1924, Soviet authorities decided to erect his mausoleum immediately outside the Kremlin Walls, on Red Square, thus transferring the sacred authority that once emanated from the Kremlin complex to the mausoleum, where Lenin's body was displayed in a glass sarcophagus, like a patron saint of the new, Soviet era.

The Kremlin today is in continual use as the government complex for the post-Soviet leadership of the Russian Federation. And much like their Imperial and Soviet predecessors, Russia's presidents use the Grand Kremlin Palace for receptions, high level meetings, and international diplomacy.