Russian Architecture Through the Ages

Russian architecture was not established during one particular era or according to a single pattern, but has mostly evolved through the ages. Styles and ideas as to what Russian architecture should be changed with the times and the new refreshing insights of the next generation of architects.

Medieval Russia was alive between the years 988 and 1230, and the state of Kievan Russia, was predecessor of the Russian Belarus and Ukraine. This included the architecture in Russia at that time. After the adoption of Christianity, the great churches were built in 988. The first examples of Kievan Russian style was influenced by Byzantine and early Orthodox churches were constructed from wood and featured small domes while bigger cathedrals had many small domes. Historians believe that this is the form that pagan Slavic temples would have taken. The Church of the Thithes, which is located in Kiev, is the first tenth century building that featured stone. The Saint Sophia Cathedral that was built between 1044 and 1052 in Novgorod featured thick walls, helmeted cupolas and narrow windows that was a strong influence on the construction of Russian churches. Unfortunately, not many of the Kievan Russian architecture survived over the years with the exception of the Golden Gate of Vladimir and the remains that were found in 1940, of Andrei Bogolyubsky’s Palace that date between the years of 1158 and 1165.

The early Muscovite period lasted between 1230 and 1530, that started with the looting of Russia by the Mongols, including Moscow and Tver. It is for this reason that ancient architecture survived in towns such as Novgorod and Pskov, as they were spared the Mongolian invasions. We are therefore able to turn to churches such as the Saviour-on-the-Ilyina Street that was constructed in 1374, in Novgorod, to study the architecture of this era. The church is carved in an extremely rough manner and is very steep roofed. Frescoes that are found within the church are beautiful examples of the medieval style. Churches found in Pskov are very small but feature magnificent corbel arches, exterior galleries, stunning bell towers and church porches. Muscovy masons introduced these features to Pskov. Fourteenth century Muscovy churches are extremely rare today and the dates are sometimes disputed. But by 1399, the Muscovite masons has solved many construction issues experienced by their ancestors, by mastering techniques from the pre-Mongolian builders. Moscovite architecture can be viewed at the St Andronik Monastary in Moscow that was built in 1427 and the Holy Trinity Lavra that is dated 1423. By the fifteenth century, Muscovy was in need of domed buildings and it was Ivan III that invited Italian architects from Venice and Florence to share their knowledge. Structures that feature the Italian Renaissance motives are the Dormition Catherdal and the Archangel Cathedral. The Italian architects also convinced the Muscovites to move away from constructing in limestone, that was expensive for one, and very heavy, and settle for bricks as a principle building material.

The years 1530 to 1630 marked the Muscovite period, in which the tented roof was introduced in to the brick building architecture. The first tent roofed church was built in 1531, the Ascension Church of Kolomenskoe. It is in Ivan the Terrible’s reign that tent roofed churches became very popular, and a good example of this is the Saint Basil’s Cathedral that was built in 1561. It is believed that during this time, the incorporation of onion domes began fazing out the traditional helmeted domes.

The Late Muscovite period between 1612 and 1712 saw the elaborate decoration of the exterior walls that was carried through to the 17th century. Tent roofed buildings were still favored during this time but saw the introduction of corbel arches that became a 17th century hallmark. The first baroque churches near Moscow were also built during this period and multi-domed cathedrals became more common. Baroque styled buildings gradually started replacing the traditional architecture that was found with Russia.

The years between 1712 to 1917, known as the Imperial Russian era, brought change to Russian architecture yet again. Peter I of Russia favored a more Dutch style of building that became Petrine Baroque. Empress Anna and Elizaveta Petrova were more taken by the Baroque style yet again. Catherine the Great was responsible for the development of the Russian Gothic Revival Style and Alexander I of Russia leaned more towards the Empire Style. Traditional Russian architecture made its way back in the nineteenth century and the Neo-Byzantine style with the construction of the Great Kremlin Palace in the years 1938 to 1849.

The Post Revolution between 1917 and 1932 saw the rise of the Soviet Power. Dramatic changes to the traditional Russian style was brought about through widened avenues and massive structures. The introduction of concrete began, and rhythmic patterns in the foundations. The Post War Soviet Union brought about the construction of the modern day high rise buildings, metro’s and extravagant designs. Traditional Russian architecture is only seen today, in the buildings of the past.


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