Two old and exotic churches, St. Basil’s in Moscow and Kizhi in the Russian north, survived the Soviet era and are invariably depicted in brochures and books to suggest the distinctiveness of Russian culture. Both feature the tent roofs and onion domes that dominated the skyline of medieval Russia. But each bears mute witness to a very different tradition: one, imperial centralism; the other, entrepreneurial regionalism. Both are embedded in Russia’s history; the conflict between them may well determine Russia’s destiny.
St. Basil’s, looming over Red Square, is an enduring symbol of theatrical autocracy; the Kizhi church, of frontier inventiveness. Authoritarian centralism has been growing recently under President Putin. But he also is fond of Kizhi and brought its new priest with him on his last trip to New York.
. . .
Tolerance was implicit in the northern tradition of dvoeveria: the simultaneous belief in both the old pagan spirits and the new Christian God. Medieval petroglyphs of the Kizhi region freely intermixed symbols of both. Peasants in the region were not enserfed. The northern region lost much of its independent power when Moscow sacked and subdued Novgorod.
. . .
Many more people have seen St. Basil’s on Red Square than Kizhi on an island in Lake Onega — and most see Russian history in terms of autocratic power in Moscow rather than creativity amid adversity in the regions. Kizhi is the supreme monument to this forgotten tradition that continued to unfold as the vast Russian domain spread north to the Arctic Ocean and across the Pacific to Alaska in the 17th and 18th centuries.
No one knows who was the architect of either monument. But Russian popular folklore suggests that the creator of St. Basil’s was forcefully either blinded or drowned to assure that it could never be duplicated. In contrast, the creator of Kizhi is said to have simply thrown his ax into the lake and lived on peacefully as a holy man in the northern forests.
During that time, Moscow autocrats looked out from the closed front porch of St. Basil’s to see the enemies of central power drawn and quartered publicly in Red Square. By contrast, the Kizhi church was wider and open to the sky — and where local people gathered to solve practical problems, facing a vista of lakes and forests.
Much of the renewed vitality in Russia today is coming from young people in the regions. Their hopes for a more participatory and accountable political and economic future depend on the kind of open community that created Kizhi — not the closed circles that cling to St. Basil’s.
For the full commentary, see: