Russia, which straddles the European and Chinese continents, is neither East nor West. Mughal control, czarist terror, European invasions, and communist tyranny have all ruled over the huge expanse of the land, forest, and desert. If you want to learn more about Russia’s past, it appears like it’s a never-ending trip. From the Byzantine Empire’s introduction of Orthodox Christianity to the era of Russian tsars to the iconic Russian buildings of various art groups, Russia’s unique history is a lot to take in. All you have to do is glance around to discover more about Russia’s rich cultural history. From onion dome rooftops to red-brick kremlins, Russian architecture conveys a thousand stories about the country’s past.
Russian architecture has a distinct style that has been recognized for many years. Several architectural features are unique to Russian architecture. Russian-style buildings conjure up an instinctive association with Byzantine architecture — the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow is a typical example.
In traditional Russian architecture, the use of wood is strongly emphasized. For some years in the 19th century, a lot of attention was paid to the very distinctive brickwork. Russians are also famous for their love for ornamentation. These unique shapes, floral, and mosaic decorations can mostly be seen on the inside of the buildings, although their exterior is just as astonishing. Another element that can often be seen in Russian buildings is the narrow and tall windows that usually have a geometrical shape. Arches are probably the most prominent architectural feature of Russian buildings. They are everywhere, from windows and doors up to ceilings. The so-called “terem” roofs are another characteristic of Russian architecture. Basically, a “terem” roof is a very unusual, triangle-like rooftop with a small angle between two segments of the roof. Aside from the ornamentation on the inside, Russians are famous for their love of ornamented facades. Decorations can be seen around doors, windows, columns, and sometimes around the perimeter of the whole building.
Russia’s architecture represents a wide range of cultural beliefs and it is a blend of Eastern Roman and Pagan influences. It started before the year 988. Early Eastern Orthodox churches were mostly made of wood, with a cell church being the most basic type. Many small domes were common in cathedrals, leading some art historians to speculate about how pagan Slavic temples would have looked. Russian architecture is divided into five main periods, each with a distinctive style represented by many buildings throughout the country.
Kievan Rus Christian Period
Lasting from 988 until 1230, this is the earliest period of Russian architecture. It comes from the medieval state of Kievan Rus which included parts of the territories of Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia we know today. The Kievan Rus style is mainly based on the Byzantine culture mixed with many innovations and architectural features. This style can be seen in Orthodox churches throughout Russia, especially in the city of Novgorod.
Churches were built mainly from white stone and they had small domes, thick walls, and narrow windows. The most remarkable buildings from this period are the Saint Sophia Cathedral in Veliky Novgorod, the Cathedral of the Nativity in Suzdal, the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Pskov, etc.
The Muscovite Period
For more than a half-century, even capitals were unable to afford new stone cathedrals due to the Mongols’ plundering of the land. However, Novgorod and Pskov escaped this, and a lot of medieval churches (dating from the 12th century and later) preserved and are still standing in these towns. The Muscovite period is subdivided into three periods: The Early Muscovite period (from 1230 to 1530), the Middle Muscovite period (from 1530 to 1630), and the Late Muscovite period (from 1630 to 1812). The churches from these periods typically have steep roofs and contain magnificent medieval frescoes and ornamentation.
Apart from churches, other structures that date from this period include towers (Ivan the Great Bell Tower), fortifications (the Moscow Kremlin), and palaces (the Palace of Facets).
In 1712, Peter I of Russia relocated the Russian capital from Moscow to St Petersburg, which he wanted to build in the Petrine Baroque style. A great example of this style is the Peter and Paul Cathedral, the oldest landmark in Saint Petersburg, with a beautiful gold-painted spire outside and a vivid iconostasis on the inside. However, during the reign of Anna and Elizabeth Petrovna, the more luxurious baroque style of Bartolomeo Rastrelli replaced the Petrine Baroque style. The most remarkable building that represents this architectural style is the Winter Palace, the official residence of Russian emperors for 185 years.
Later, in the 1830s, Nicholas I eased regulation in architecture, and early eclecticism was introduced. The most famous buildings that represent this style are the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and the Great Kremlin Palace.
Formalism was the most prominent revivalist work post-revolution, between 1917 and 1932. The Monument to the Third International, which comprised a tall spiral enclosing glass rooms, is an example of this. Although it was never built, it sparked a new phase of constructivist architecture in Russia, leading to the completion of the Shukhov Tower, which currently stretches 160 meters into the Moscow skyline. During this time, there was a push for city reconstruction on a large scale. The planning and implementation of cityscapes and the framework of urban planning were overhauled, resulting in changes like broader highways, larger public buildings, and a spike in the construction of public housing.
Lenin’s Mausoleum is the most famous building of this period. After the 1920s, cultural life influenced architecture in a lot of ways, and unions such as the Association of New Architects (“Asnova”) encouraged the melding of architecture and creative arts to create artistic and sculptural buildings.
The Postwar Soviet Union And Modern Russia
In postwar Russia, Stalinist architecture flourished, and there is a strong legacy of Stalinist architecture throughout the country to this day. There was also a considerable focus on restoring demolished structures as a result of World War II devastation at this time. This includes the construction of the “Seven Sisters,” a group of seven high-rise structures. Following Russia’s triumph in World War II, Stalin predicted that Moscow would experience a surge in tourism. Concerned that when people compared his city to other major cities, they would notice the lack of buildings. As a result, in 1947, he issued a decree ordering the construction of seven structures in the Stalinist style: Hotel Ukraina, The Moscow State University, Ministry of Foreign Affairs Building, Leningradskaya Hotel, and Kudrinskaya Square Building, the Kotelnicheskaya Embankment Apartments, and the Red Gates Administrative Building.
After the Soviet Union fell apart, there were no more imposed rules about the height of the buildings. Therefore, architecture grew at a high rate. This marked the beginning of modern Russian architecture (from 1970 until today). Modern methods of construction were introduced with a lot of skyscrapers and contemporary business centers.
Russia is now a beautiful combination of old-world elegance and bustling, modern cityscapes, making for a breathtaking experience in both summer and winter.
Let’s move to some of the most notable buildings in Russia. From grandiose churches and cathedrals to elegant theaters, Russia offers a variety of legendary landmarks that you’ll want to visit. If you are a fan of the unique Russian architecture, you’ll definitely enjoy the following list.
Named after Catherine I, this grandiose palace full of gold was given to her by her husband, Peter the Great. It’s located in St. Petersburg and it used to be the place of residence of the royal family in the summer. It is an example of the rococo style – exceptionally ornamental and luxurious, both on the inside and on the outside.
The reconstruction started in 1745 by four architects and ended in 1756. Bartolomeo Rastrelli, the chief architect, gave the palace its lasting design.
St. Basil’s Cathedral
St. Basil’s Cathedral is, without a doubt, the most famous Russian landmark. Located in Red Square, Moscow, this astonishing cathedral goes all the way back to 1555. To celebrate the defeat of the Mongol Empire, Ivan IV ordered the construction of this Orthodox cathedral. Looking at it, no one can remain indifferent to its colorful onion-shaped domes. Today, St. Basil’s Cathedral is mainly a museum housing more than 400 icons from the past.
Palace of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich
Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich’s wooden palace is located in Moscow’s Kolomenskoye Estate and it is the only replica, so to speak, among the numerous notable Russian structures. Alexei Mikhailovich authorized the construction of a timber palace in an area that had previously been a village in 1660. The tsar decided to make the finished palace his summer retreat because of its vastness and unique décor. This wooden castle looks like it comes from a fable, with a construction made without any fastening materials, nails, or hooks.
Bolshoi Theater is undoubtedly one of the most remarkable Russian landmarks. This historic theatre is one of Russia’s most well-known examples of Neoclassical architecture from the 20th century. Ballet and opera performances were held in this building. The theatre’s main structure has been rebuilt several times during its history and it remains one of the best theaters in the world.
The city of Saint Petersburg is known for its grandiose palaces. One of them is the famous Winter Palace, which used to be the royal residence of the Russian tsars and tsarinas. Empress Elizabeth The architect is the famous Bartolomeo Rastrelli, who built it between 1754 and 1762 for Empress Elisabeth. This green-white is considered to be built in a strictly European style, with a lot of arches, columns, statuary, pediments, and bays.
Cathedral of Christ the Savior
The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour is the world’s highest orthodox temple, with its massive copper domes dominating the Moscow skyline. The church is located near the Kremlin and close to the Moska river and it is a tourist destination that depicts the country’s religious and political past. With a stone façade and white marble dominating the structure, this church is an example of Russian Revival architecture.
Lenin’s Mausoleum, designed by Alexei Shchusev, has been recognized as a masterpiece of architectural simplicity. Originally, the body of Vladimir Lenin, the Soviet Union’s founder, was kept in a glass casket. It was constructed in wood, in 1930 this structure was rebuilt in red granite and black labradorite stone. Shchusev constructed a more permanent tomb in 1924, comprised of wooden cubes arranged in a step pyramid arrangement.
Moscow State University
The building of the Moscow State University was constructed between 1947 and 1953 and designed by Lev Rudnev. It is the tallest building of the famous “seven skyscrapers” in Moscow, built in the Stalinist style. The structure is 239 meters high and it consists of 36 levels.
Out of all the magnificent Russian palaces, this one sure looks like it came from a fairytale. According to the legend, Peter the Great visited France in 1717 and saw the majestic Palace of Versailles. He planned to enlarge his property at Peterhof, near St. Petersburg, as a direct response to this.
Inspired by Rome’s St. Peter’s Basilica and designed by the architect Andrei Voronikhin, the Kazan Cathedral is yet another Russian architectural masterpiece. Located on Nevsky Prospekt, St. Petersburg’s main roadway, this splendid stone cathedral is one of the most famous tourist hot spots in Russia.
When Russia was mocked around the world for its ugly, extravagant representations of Western architecture, Catherine the Great decided to introduce more dignified styles, so she established neoclassicism as the official court style. Palladio’s architecture, which was based on classical ancient Greek and Roman buildings, impacted what is now known as Tauride Palace or Taurida Palace. Like many of the neoclassical buildings, Prince Gregory’s palace was starkly neoclassical, with symmetrical rows of columns, a strong pediment, and a dome.
The Church of Transfiguration
One of the most fascinating facts about Kizhi Island’s Church of the Transfiguration is that it was built entirely without nails. It was constructed in 1714 and ornamented with 22 onion domes with a lot of aspen shingles. Many wooden churches, however, were destroyed by rot and fire over time. The lack of money has resulted in neglect and poorly performed restoration initiatives even in this Church.
Aside from the famous Bolshoi Theater, the Mariinsky Theater is another beautiful architectural masterpiece in Russia. Located in St. Petersburg, it opened in 1860, originally, as a wooden structure in the Neo-Byzantine style. Ten years later, Albert Cavos rebuilt it and made the grandiose U-shape auditorium in Italian style.
Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius
The Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius or the Sergiuslavra is the most famous Russian Orthodox spiritual center, located in the town of Sergiyev Posad. The architectural palette of this building contains all of the elements that represent its outstanding universal value. With its golden domes and narrow windows, this church is one of the most distinctive churches in Russia.
Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood
Built on the site of Tsar Alexander II’s assassination, this church has a rich and historic past that continues to this day. This structure is one-of-a-kind both inside and out. Every element was painstakingly and magnificently constructed, with colorful domes and unique ornamentation. The decor is exquisite, with gold accents and magnificent art covering the walls and ceilings in true Russian flair.