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Star Interview

Professor William Craft Brumfield – Architectural Historian Extraordinaire
Did you know that St Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square was built without the onion domes that we associate with almost all old Russian church architecture?
Text by Ian Mitchell

id you know that the domes you see today were the first such cupolas of which we have any documented records? Before then, the towers in Russian churches were topped with flat helmet-like domes. The most potent modern symbol of old Russia, which is reproduced in thousands of tourist brochures, is in fact a comparatively recent invention.

This is the sort of astonishing fact you learn if you spend an hour chatting with William Brumfield, professor of Slavic studies at Tulane University in New Orleans, who was recently in Moscow for an extended visit. After all, he is the world’s most widely-acknowledged expert on Russian architectural history.

Professor Brumfield comes from the deep South. He grew up in a world where the loss of built heritage – in his case plantation-based, antebellum mansions – was widely felt to be a tragedy which art had to suffer in the name of social and political progress. He admits to having been disturbed as a teenager by the fact that so much beauty was based on a system of what he calls “unmitigated evil”, namely slavery.

“I lived through the period when desegregation was on high boil,” he says. “I started reading Russian novels and discovered that here was another culture which has endured similar agonies. They asked the existential question: if our life is based on a fundamental injustice, how do we seek redemption? That is how I got into the literature. The language followed, and then the history.”

However, the architecture came by accident, when the young graduate student came to Russia for the first time, in 1970, to do literary research. As it seemed such an unusual opportunity, he thought he ought to take a few snaps.

“I bought a camera and a couple of rolls of slow Kodachrome film,” Professor Brumfield recalls. “When I got here, I was so astounded by what I saw that the film soon ran out. I bought some Russian film in Leningrad, which turned to purple in six months. But that was the start. I couldn’t get enough of it. In 1974 I went to Harvard as an assistant professor, and it was there that I learned about photography.”

The transformation of the Slavic generalist into the architectural historian was completed in 1983 when he published his first book about Russian architecture, Gold and Azure. Later on he produced Lost Russia for which he set off into the countryside in search of the crumbling mansions of the gentry, reminding him of his initial interest in the decaying heritage of the American South.

The academic world cold-shouldered him. Most of the western experts on Russian architecture were originally art historians, and they tended not to be interested in why buildings were as they were, preferring to concentrate on elucidating their aesthetic pedigree from a cosy academic perspective. Professor Brumfield’s ability to contextualise his subjects politically, and explain their construction practically, was helped by his command of the Russian language and his willingness to travel widely, even while being followed by the security organs at the height of late-Soviet paranoia in the early 1980s.

“For the art historians, this was an issue of culture and culture, as everyone knows, is confined to the main centers of European Russia,” Professor Brumfield says, shaking his head sadly.

“The Russian experts were just as bad, but in a different way,” he adds. “They would not be told about their own culture by anyone from abroad. I was not Russian and therefore not to be taken seriously. They were very parochial in a political sense, just as the western experts were parochial in an academic sense. My attitude is: a plague on both your houses! The fact is the public likes my books and buys them, which is all that matters.”

... Getting back to St. Basil’s, I asked as we sat together in a chaotically bookstrewn room in his publisher’s old-fashioned offices near metro station Aeroport. Where did the idea for all the crazily colourful cupolas come from?

“We do not know, but what we do know is that the church was not built like that. First, they were not cupolas in the modern sense of being onion domes – they were not flared as they are today. Secondly, they were not colorful. They were made of what was called white iron, a sort of tin metal. They were helmet-shaped. As far as the visual evidence is concerned, St. Basil’s is the first place we know of that has the flared domes. No-one knows why. Tatars will say it comes from a mosque that was destroyed in the storming of Kazan. For some people there seems to be an Islamic element to the flare. There is a fascinating theory that it represents the shape of the dome over the Holy Sepulchre in medieval Jerusalem. But we really don’t know.”

When were the helmet domes replaced by the cupolas we see today?

“After a fire in 1588. Boris Godunov, who was fascinated with idea of Jerusalem and wanted to rebuild the Kremlin as a recreation of the Holy City, was involved in putting up something like what you see today. The separate Church of St. Basil’s was added by him as well. Also, a lot of the other exterior color was introduced only when they roofed the terrace in the reign of Alexei Mikhailovich in the late seventeenth century. What you see today is very different from what Ivan the Terrible saw when the building was completed in 1561.”

Where did the inspiration for the mad, asymmetrical design came from?

“It may look like asymmetry but in fact there is a very compelling geometric logic to St. Basil’s,” Professor Brumfield says. “The overall impression you get is of variety, an ever-changing perspective as you walk round the building. But look at the plan and you will see that there are four towers, four self-sufficient churches, on four points of the compass, and four others on the diagonals, plus the main tower, which is not exactly in the middle but off-set slightly to the west. Each stands for something different. The symbolism is remarkable in its cohesion, yet you get this sense of an explosion of colour and form. In fact it is all grounded on a strong geometric logic. That is not the same thing as symmetry. But it’s not chaos either.”

Lastly, I asked if it was true, as is so often said, that Ivan the Terrible was so pleased with the building that he had the two architects blinded and their hands cut off so they could never again build anything to compete with his beautiful new cathedral.

“No, not at all. There is no evidence for that. It is purely a Westerner’s account and Westerners often like to ‘dramatize’ Russian history for their own purposes. It is true that blinding was an accepted form of punishment among the Russian elite in the fifteenth century. Two Tsars were blinded but were left to live. One actually came back to exact his vengeance. But a hundred years later, when St. Basil’s was designed, that had all stopped. The legend of the blinding seems to have come from a German traveller nearly a century after the alleged event. We are not even sure there were two architects.”

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