Russian History in Architecture

Close-up of colorful onion domes atop St. Basil's Cathedral in Red Square, Moscow
Tim Graham/Getty Images (cropped)

Stretching between Europe and China, Russia is neither East nor West. The vast expanse of field, forest, desert, and tundra has seen Mongol rule, czarist reigns of terror, European invasions, and Communist rule. The architecture that evolved in Russia reflects the ideas of many cultures. Yet, from onion domes to neo-gothic skyscrapers, a distinctively Russian style emerged.

Join us for a photo tour of important architecture in Russia and the Russian empire.

Viking Log Homes in Novgorod, Russia

Illustration of Viking Log Homes in Great Novgorod across the Volhov River, Novgrad, Russia
Culture Club/Getty Images (cropped)

First Century A.D.: In the walled city of Novgorod in what is now called Russia, the Vikings built rustic log homes.

In a land filled with trees, settlers will build a shelter from timber. Russia's early architecture was primarily wood. Because there were no saws and drills in ancient times, trees were cut with axes and buildings were constructed with rough-hewn logs. Homes built by the Vikings were rectangular with steep, chalet-style roofs.

During the first century AD, churches were also constructed of logs. Using chisels and knives, craftsmen created detailed carvings.

Wooden Churches on Kizhi Island

Simple wooden church may be oldest in Russia, with windmill on Kizhi Island
Robin Smith/Getty Images

14th Century: Complex wooden churches were built on the island of Kizhi. The Church of Resurrection of Lazarus, shown here, may be the oldest wooden church in Russia.

Russia's wooden churches often perched on hilltops, overlooking the forests and villages. Although the walls were crudely constructed of rough-hewn logs, similar to the early Viking log huts, the roofs were often complex. Onion shaped domes, symbolizing heaven in the Russian Orthodox tradition, were covered with wooden shingles. The onion domes reflected Byzantine design ideas and were strictly decorative. They were constructed of wood framing and served no structural function.

Located at the northern end of Lake Onega near St. Petersburg, the island of Kizhi (also spelled "Kishi" or "Kiszhi") is famous for its remarkable array of wooden churches. An early mention of the Kizhi settlements is found in chronicles from the 14th and 15th centuries. In 1960, Kizhi became home to an open-air museum for the preservation of Russia's wooden architecture. Restoration work was supervised by the Russian architect, Dr. A. Opolovnikov.

Church of the Transfiguration on Kizhi Island

Kizhi Russia wooden churches, Transfiguration (1714) and Intercession of the Mother of God (1764)
Wojtek Buss/Getty Images

The Church of the Transfiguration at Kizhi Island has 22 onion domes covered with hundreds of aspen shingles.

Russia's wooden churches began as simple, sacred spaces. The Church of Resurrection of Lazarus may be the oldest wooden church remaining in Russia. Many of these structures, however, were quickly ravished by rot and fire. Over the centuries, destroyed churches were replaced with larger and more elaborate buildings.

Built in 1714 during the reign of Peter the Great, the Church of the Transfiguration shown here has 22 soaring onion domes sheathed in hundreds of aspen shingles. No nails were used in the construction of the cathedral, and today many of the spruce logs are weakened by insects and rot. In addition, a shortage of funds has lead to neglect and poorly executed restoration efforts.

Wooden architecture at Kizhi Pogost is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Cathedral of Christ the Savior, Moscow

Reconstructed multi-domed Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Moscow
Vincenzo Lombardo via Getty Images

The English name translation is often Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Destroyed by Stalin in 1931, the Cathedral has been rebuilt and is now fully accessible by the Patriarshy Bridge, a pedestrian walkway across Moskva river.

Known to be the world's tallest Orthodox Church, this Christian sacred spot and tourist destination describes a nation's religious and political history.

Historic Events Surrounding the Cathedral

  • 1812: Emperor Alexander I plans to build a grand cathedral to commemorate the Russian Army expelling Napoleon's Army from Moscow
  • 1817: After a design by Russian architect Aleksandr Vitberg, cathedral construction begins but is quickly halted because of the site's unstable ground
  • 1832: Emperor Nicholas I approves a new building site and a new design by Russian architect Konstantin Ton
  • 1839 to 1879: Construction of the Russian Byzantine design, modeled in part on the Assumption Cathedral, the Cathedral of the Dormition
  • 1931: Intentionally destroyed by the Soviet government, with plans to build a palace for the people, "the largest building in the world," as a monument to the new socialist order. Construction was halted during WWII, and then in 1958, the largest open-air public swimming pool (Moskva Pol) was built instead.
  • 1994 to 2000: Dismantling of the swimming pool and reconstruction of the Cathedral.
  • 2004: A steel footbridge, the Patriarshy Bridge, is built to connect the church to downtown Moscow.

Moscow has emerged as a modern city of the 21st century. Rebuilding this Cathedral has been one of the projects that have transformed the city. The Cathedral project leaders included the Mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, and the architect M.M. Posokhin, just as they were involved with skyscraper projects such as Mercury City. The rich history of Russia is embodied in this architectural site. The influences of ancient Byzantine lands, warring armies, political regimes, and urban renewal are all present at the site of the of Christ the Savior.

St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow

Colorful onion domes atop St. Basil's Cathedral in Red Square, Moscow
Kapuk Dodds/Getty Images

1554 to 1560: Ivan the Terrible erected the exuberant St. Basil's Cathedral just outside the Kremlin gates in Moscow.

The reign of Ivan IV (the Terrible) brought a brief resurgence of interest in traditional Russian styles. To honor Russia's victory over the Tatars at Kazan, the legendary Ivan the Terrible erected the exuberant St. Basil's Cathedral just outside the Kremlin gates in Moscow. Completed in 1560, St. Basil's is a carnival of painted onion domes in the most expressive of Russo-Byzantine traditions. It is said that Ivan the Terrible had the architects blinded so that they could never again design a building so beautiful.

St. Basil's Cathedral is also known as the Cathedral of the Protection of the Mother of God.

After the reign of Ivan IV, architecture in Russia borrowed more and more from European rather than Eastern styles.

Smolny Cathedral in St. Petersburg

Ornate Rococo Smolny Cathedral, finally completed in 1835, in St. Petersburg, Russia
Jonathan Smith/Getty Images

1748 to 1764: Designed by the famous Italian architect, Rastrelli, the Rococo Smolny Cathedral is like a fancy cake.

European ideas reigned during the time of Peter the Great. His namesake city, St. Petersburg, was modeled after European ideas, and his successors continued the tradition by bringing architects from Europe to design palaces, cathedrals and other important buildings.

Designed by the famous Italian architect, Rastrelli, Smolny Cathedral celebrates the Rococo style. Rococo is a French Baroque fashion known for its light, white ornamentation and complex arrangements of curving forms. The blue-and-white Smolny Cathedral is like a confectioner's cake with arches, pediments, and columns. Only the onion-dome caps hint at Russian tradition.

The cathedral was to be the centerpiece of a convent designed for Empress Elisabeth, daughter of Peter the Great. Elisabeth had planned to become a nun, but she abandoned the idea once she was given a chance to rule. At the end of her reign, funding for the convent ran out. Construction stopped in 1764, and the cathedral was not completed until 1835.

Hermitage Winter Palace in St. Petersburg

ornate, horizontal-oriented palace facade with masonry plaza entrance
Leonid Bogdanov/Getty Images

1754 to 1762: The 16th-century architect Rastrelli created the most famous building of imperial St. Petersburg, the Hermitage Winter Palace.

With Baroque and Rococo flourishes usually reserved for furnishings, the noted 16th-century architect Rastrelli created what is most certainly the most famous building of imperial St. Petersburg: the Hermitage Winter Palace. Built between 1754 and 1762 for Empress Elisabeth (daughter of Peter the Great), the green-and-white palace is a lavish confection of arches, pediments, columns, pilasters, bays, balustrades, and statuary. Three stories high, the palace has 1,945 windows, 1,057 rooms, and 1,987 doors. Not an onion dome is to be found on this strictly European creation.

The Hermitage Winter Palace served as the winter residence for every ruler of Russia since Peter III. Peter's mistress, the Countess Vorontsova, also had rooms in the grand Baroque palace. When his wife Catherine the Great seized the throne, she took possession of her husband's quarters and redecorated. Catherine Palace became the Summer Palace.

Nicholas I lived in a comparatively modest apartment in the Palace while his wife Alexandra did further decorating, commissioning the elaborate Malachite Room. Alexandra's exuberant room later became the meeting place for Kerensky's Provisional Government.

In July 1917, the Provisional Government took up residence in the Hermitage Winter Palace, laying the foundation for the October Revolution. The Bolshevik government eventually transferred its capital to Moscow. Since that time, the Winter Palace has served as the renown Hermitage Museum.

Tavrichesky Palace in St. Petersburg

horizontal-orientation palace, yellowish facade, central columns with pediment and dome
De Agostini/W. Buss/Getty Images

1783 to 1789: Catherine the Great hired the noted Russian architect Ivan Egorovich Starov to design a palace using themes from ancient Greece and Rome.

Elsewhere in the world, Russia was mocked for crude, exuberant expressions of Western architecture. When she became Empress, Catherine the Great wanted to introduce more dignified styles. She had studied engravings of classical architecture and new European buildings, and she made neoclassicism the official court style.

When Grigory Potemkin-Tavricheski (Potyomkin-Tavrichesky) was named Prince of Tauride (Crimea), Catherine hired the noted Russian architect I. E. Starov to design a classical palace for her favored military officer and consort. The architecture of Palladio, based on classical ancient Greek and Roman buildings, was the style of the day and influenced what is often called Tauride Palace or Taurida Palace. Prince Grigory's palace was starkly neoclassical with symmetrical rows of columns, a pronounced pediment, and dome just like many of the neoclassical buildings found in Washington, DC.

Tavrichesky or Tavricheskiy Palace was completed in 1789 and reconstructed in the beginning of the twentieth century.

Lenin's Mausoleum in Moscow

red stone fortress-like structure integrated into a red wall surrounding a towered Kremlin
DEA / W. BUSS/Getty Images (cropped)

1924 to 1930: Designed by Alexei Shchusev, Lenin's Mausoleum is made of simple cubes in the form of a step pyramid.

Interest in the old styles was briefly reawakened during the 1800s, but with the 20th century came the Russian Revolution and a revolution in the visual arts. The avant-garde Constructivist movement celebrated the industrial age and the new socialist order. Stark, mechanistic buildings were constructed from mass-produced components.

Designed by Alexei Shchusev, Lenin's Mausoleum has been described as a masterpiece of architectural simplicity. The mausoleum was originally a wooden cube. The body of Vladimir Lenin, founder of the Soviet Union, was displayed inside a glass casket. In 1924, Shchusev built a more permanent mausoleum made of wooden cubes assembled into a step pyramid formation. In 1930, the wood was replaced with red granite (symbolizing Communism) and black labradorite (symbolizing mourning). The austere pyramid stands just outside the Kremlin wall.

The Vysotniye Zdaniye in Moscow

brightr white multi-storied complex of buildings behind a bridge over a river
Siegfried Layda/Getty Images

1950s: After the Soviet triumph over Nazi Germany, Stalin launched an ambitious plan to construct a series of Neo-Gothic skyscrapers, the Vysotniye Zdaniye.

During the reconstruction of Moscow in the 1930s, under the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin, many churches, bell towers, and cathedrals were destroyed. The Savior Cathedral was demolished to make way for the grandiose Palace of Soviets. This was to be the tallest building in the world, a towering 415-meter monument topped by a 100-meter statue of Lenin. It was part of Stalin's ambitious plan: the Vysotniye Zdaniye or High Buildings.

Eight skyscrapers were planned in the 1930s, and seven were built in the 1950s, forming a ring in the center of Moscow.

Bringing Moscow into the 20th century had to wait until after World War II and the Soviet triumph over Nazi Germany. Stalin re-launched the plan and architects were re-commissioned to design a series of Neo-Gothic skyscrapers similar to the abandoned Palace of Soviets. Often called "wedding cake" skyscrapers, the buildings were tiered to create a sense of upward movement. Each building was given a central tower and, at Stalin's request, a sparkling metalized glass spire. It was felt that the spire distinguished Stalin's buildings from the Empire State Building and other American skyscrapers. Also, these new Moscow buildings incorporated ideas from Gothic cathedrals and 17th-century Russian churches. Thus, the past and future were combined.

Often called the Seven Sisters, the Vysotniye Zdaniye are these buildings:

  • 1952: Kotelnicheskaya Naberezhnaya (also known as Kotelniki Apartments or the Kotelnicheskaya Embankment)
  • 1953: The Ministry of Foreign Affairs
  • 1953: The Moscow State University Tower
  • 1953 (renovated 2007): Leningradskaya Hotel
  • 1953: Red Gate Square
  • 1954: Kudrinskaya Square (also known as Kudrinskaya Ploshchad 1, Revolt Square, Vostaniya, and Uprising Square)
  • 1955 (renovated 1995 & 2010): The Hotel Ukraine (also known as the Radisson Royal Hotel)

And what happened to the Palace of Soviets? The construction site proved too wet for such an enormous structure, and the project was abandoned when Russia entered World War II. Stalin's successor, Nikita Khrushchev, turned the construction site into the world's largest public swimming pool. In 2000, the Cathedral of Christ the Savior was reconstructed.

Recent years brought another urban revival. Yury Luzhkov, mayor of Moscow from 1992 to 2010, launched a plan to build a second ring of Neo-Gothic skyscrapers just beyond the center of Moscow. As many as 60 new buildings were planned until Luzhkov was forced from office on corruption charges.

Siberian Wooden Houses

Two story wooden house with ornate wooden window trimming and colorful blue shutters
Bruno Morandi via Getty Images

The czars built their great palaces of stone, but common Russians lived in rustic, wooden structures.

Russia is a huge country. Its land mass encompasses two continents, Europe and Asia, with many natural resources. The largest area, Siberia, has an abundance of trees, so people built their houses of wood. The izba is what Americans would call a log cabin.

Artisans soon discovered that wood could be carved into intricate designs similar to what the wealthy did with stone. Similarly, jocular colors could brighten the long winter days in a rural community. So, mix together the colorful exterior found on St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow and the construction materials found on the Wooden Churches on Kizhi Island and you get the traditional wooden house found in many parts of Siberia.

Most of these houses were built by working class people before the Russian Revolution of 1917. The rise of Communism ended private property ownership in favor of a more communal type of living. Throughout the twentieth century, many of these houses became government properties, but were not well-maintained and fell into disrepair. The post-Communist question of today, then, is should these houses be restored and preserved?

As Russian people flock to cities and live in modern high-rises, what will become of the many wooden residences found in more remote areas like Siberia? Without government intervention, historic preservation of the Siberian wooden house becomes an economic decision. "Their fate is emblematic of the struggle across Russia to balance the preservation of architectural treasures with the demands for development," says Clifford J. Levy in The New York Times. "But people have begun to embrace them not only for their beauty, but also because they seem a link to Siberia's rustic past...."

Mercury City Tower in Moscow

Modern skyscrapers being built in Moscow, Russia
vladimir zakharov/Getty Images

Moscow is known to have fewer building regulations than other European cities, but that's not the only reason for the city's 21st-century building boom. Yuri Luzhkov, Mayor of Moscow from 1992 to 2010, had a vision for the Russian capital that has rebuilt the past (see the Cathedral of Christ the Savior) and modernized its architecture. Mercury City Tower's design is one of the first green building designs in the history of Russian architecture. It's golden brown glass facade makes it prominent in the Moscow city skyline.

About Mercury City Tower

  • Height: 1,112 feet (339 meters)—29 meters higher than The Shard
  • Floors: 75 (5 floors below ground)
  • Square Feet: 1.7 million
  • Built: 2006 - 2013
  • Architectural style: structural expressionism
  • Construction Material: concrete with glass curtain wall
  • Architects: Frank Williams & Partners Architects LLP (New York); M.M.Posokhin (Moscow)
  • Other Names: Mercury City Tower, Mercury Office Tower
  • Multiple Use: Office, Residential, Commercial
  • Official Website:

The Tower has "green architecture" mechanisms including the ability to collect melting water and provide natural lighting to 75% workspaces. Another green trend is to source locally, cutting down on transportation costs and energy consumption. Ten percent of the construction materials came from a 300-kilometer radius of the construction site.

"Though blessed with an abundance of natural energy resources, it is important to conserve energy in a country like Russia," said architect Michael Posokhin on green building. "I'm always trying to look for the special, unique feeling of each site, and incorporate it in my design."

The tower has "a strong vertical thrust similar to the one found in New York's Chrysler Building," said architect Frank Williams. "The new tower is sheathed in a light, warm silver glass that will act as a background for Moscow's new City Hall, which has a rich red glass roofscape. This new City Hall sits adjacent to MERCURY CITY TOWER."

Moscow has entered the 21st century.


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Craven, Jackie. "Russian History in Architecture." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Craven, Jackie. (2020, August 27). Russian History in Architecture. Retrieved from Craven, Jackie. "Russian History in Architecture." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 21, 2023).