Google's gift to Red Square's St. Basil Cathedral: a doodle

Moscow marks the 450-year anniversary of St. Basil's Cathedral, the iconic church built in Red Square to honor Ivan the Terrible's victory over Russia's former Tatar conquerors.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
St. Basil's Cathedral outside the Kremlin on the Red Square in Moscow, Russia, Friday, July 8. Russia will celebrate the 450th anniversary of St. Basil's Cathedral by opening an exhibition dedicated to the holy fool who gave his name to Moscow's onion-domed landmark. St. Basil, an eccentric religious fanatic, was one of the very few Muscovites who dared criticize tyrannical Czar Ivan the Terrible.

By general consensus, if not an absolutely proven fact, Moscow's iconic St. Basil's Cathedral (take a virtual tour), Red Square's famous architectural jewel with its nine swirling, candy cane like multicolored domes, turned 450 today.

And Google has marked the occasion with one of those increasingly noticed and prized little honors known as a doodle.

While the Google bump might help publicize the anniversary around the world, Russians were already geared up to celebrate the birthday of the unique church that's come to symbolize their country more than any other single image.

The long-planned festivities featured a Divine Liturgy by Orthodox Church head Patriarch Kirill and attendants dressed up as Ivan the Terrible's fearsome Streltsy. They went ahead Tuesday, despite being marred by national mourning over the growing death toll, now at 129, from the weekend sinking of the Volga cruise ship Bulgaria.

"The lineup of people outside was immense today. We granted free entrance to everyone, and it was obvious that the people were really happy to come here," says Tatiana Saracheva, director of the St. Basil's state museum. "The day was overshadowed by that tragic event, but we couldn't disappoint our visitors today.

"Our cathedral is like a visiting card for Red Square, Moscow, and Russia in general. It has special meaning for our people, and we hope it will keep giving joy for years to come," she adds.

In an interview with the official Russian News and Information Agency RIA Novosti, Ms. Saracheva explained that there is some confusion over when the construction was carried out, but the anniversary marks the day the church was consecrated in 1561.

It was originally built to honor Ivan the Terrible's victory over Russia's former Tatar conquerors with the capture of their stronghold of Kazan almost 10 years earlier.

Like so many things in Russia, the church has a long official name – The Cathedral of the Intercession of the Virgin by the Moat – which ordinary Russians quickly discarded and replaced with one they preferred.

"St. Basil's" is a homage to Vassily the Blessed, a 15th century "Holy Fool" beloved in Russian folklore for strolling naked in Moscow winters and speaking his mind to the Czar, who was said to be buried on the site.

Among the many legends surrounding the place is an unconfirmed rumor that Czar Ivan, pleased with the extraordinary creations, ordered the cathedral's two designers to be blinded so they could never build anything like it again.

Another apocryphal tale has it that Bolshevik leader Lazar Kaganovich, known as "the wolf of the Kremlin," wanted to tear down St. Basil's at the height of 1930's antireligious hysteria in the USSR, but he was stopped by dictator Joseph Stalin.

"When I feel bad I always come here, to the center of Red Square. I feel better, stronger, it really works," says Oleg Makushkin, a Moscow historian. "It's part of the texture of my life, it's closely connected with who I am, with my friends and even with people I have yet to meet. St. Basil's may be a monument to force, to Ivan's victory, but for me it is first and foremost a symbol of beauty."

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