Russia has always had an up and down history, and today is no different. As Moscow celebrates the 450th anniversary of St. Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square, Russians also mourn the loss of 128 people, including dozens of children, in the country’s worst boat accident since 1983. While following safety rules may not be the Russians’ strong suit, at least they are still fighting Nazis. Moscow District Military Court sentenced a group of Neo-Nazi gang members to life in prison for murdering 27 people in 18 months.
“The Cathedral of the Intercession of the Virgin by the Moat” is the official name of that massive mix of colorful bulbous spires at one end of Red Square, and after $14 million in restorations, Moscow is celebrating the cathedral’s 450th birthday.
Most know this architectural beauty as St. Basil’s Cathedral, named after an ascetic who walked around naked – even during Moscow’s painfully cold winters – criticizing Tsar Ivan IV (“The Terrible”) for his tyranny. St. Basil even got away with lambasting Ivan; the tsar didn’t have the “Naked Walker” tossed in prison because Ivan feared Basil as “the seer of people’s hearts and minds,” according to a church chronicle. Basil was respected by the Muscovites as a prophet who could heal people. Despite his bad temper, Ivan the Terrible did have an odd sense of piety.
Ivan had St. Basil’s Cathedral built to mark the capture of Kazan from Mongol forces in 1552. It was completed in 1561 and sits at the geometric center of the city. According to legend, the builders, Barma and Postnik Yakovlev, were asked by Ivan if they could ever build anything else as beautiful as that cathedral. When they affirmed that they indeed could, Ivan had their eyes put out to prevent them from even making the attempt. Historians declare this story to be mere folklore, but many Russians retell it as fact.
Over 450 years after its completion, despite the fact that thousands of other religious buildings in Russia were destroyed, despite wars and invasions, St. Basil’s Cathedral still stands. It came close to destruction on several occasions. Napoleon’s soldiers attempted to detonate it, but their fuses failed in the rainy weather. Stalin wanted to demolish the cathedral to make way for large parades through Red Square. Architect Pyotr Baranovsky went to prison for five years for his efforts to convince Stalin to halt the destruction.
Today the cathedral is a museum. There are no services held save for once each year in October on the Day of Intercession.
Despite the visible glory of St. Basil’s and the corresponding celebrations, Russians have cause for mourning. The Bulgaria, a Russian tour boat, sank into the Volga River three kilometers from shore on Sunday, killing 128 people, including a large number of children.
The blame for the tragedy has been placed on Russian laxity in maintaining its transportation infrastructure or following safety rules. The boat had a capacity for 140 people, but it carried 208, including 25 who weren’t registered. The 56-year-old boat had been checked on June 15th, but the deterioration was apparently not bad enough to put fear in the heart of the boat’s owner – despite the fact that the boat listed even while it was at dock, and one of its engines was broken. Dmitri A. Platonov, the captain of a river patrol boat, pointed out a large part of the problem. “[The owners] talk, they make deals with the inspectors, they look the other way at some things.”
It took just three minutes for the boat to sink, trapping well over a hundred people, including dozens of children tucked away in a playroom below deck. There are than 100 working boats in Russia of the same age or older.
“We have far too many old ships sailing our waters,” President Dmitri A. Medvedev said on Monday. He called the boats “tubs.”
To add to the tragedy, two cargo ships passed right by survivors floating in the water without stopping to help.
At least the Russians are still fighting the Nazis. Five Neo-Nazis who were involved in the murders of at least 27 people between 2007 and 2008 were given life sentences on Monday. Another seven members were given sentences of between 10 and 24 years.
Racially motivated murders have been common in recent years in Russia. There were a total of 110 people killed and 487 wounded in 2008, according to the human rights watchdog Sova. An influx of darker skinned migrant workers from central Asia has corresponded with increased violence against foreigners.
After the trial ended, a Habad synagogue in Moscow was bombed with Molotov cocktails; the attack is believed to have been perpetrated by a neo-Nazi group.
Russia remains an ever enigmatic part of the world. The attack on Christianity along with personal responsibility during the 20th century, followed by the fall of Communism and absence of a healthy stabilizing government has left the country struggling to get itself in order. St. Basil’s Cathedral may be beautiful on the outside, but it remains spiritually empty, save for the few souls who bring the Spirit in with them. Irresponsible boat owners have killed more people in one day than violent Neo-Nazi youths murdered in a year. Russia may still have international clout on the outside, but while Communism fell more than two decades ago, it still has a long way to go to heal its damaged heart.
• Russia marks 450 years of St. Basil’s Cathedral – AP
• St. Basil’s Cathedral – Moscow.info
• Russian Tubs Sail Waters Despite History of Failure – The New York Times
• Factbox: Doomed Russian Tourist Boat “Bulgaria – Reuters
• Russia: Neo-Nazi ‘Evil Killers’ Get Life Sentences – International Business Times
• Russian Neo-Nazis Get Life in Jail For 27 Murders – AP