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Earth is moving beneath cathedral in Moscow

MOSCOW — MOSCOW - Press reports hinted at alarming news: Deep, deep below Red Square, the soil under St. Basil's Cathedral was "decompacting."

Could this mean that Russia's most famous onion domes, the multicolored turbans in brick and stone, could one day tilt?

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After repeated telephoned entreaties, Lyubov S. Uspenskaya, curator of St. Basil's, agreed to answer questions - if with a somewhat Soviet mien.

Yes, she said, soil was mysteriously separating from the foundations that had served this sacred complex well since serfs laid the stones in the 1550s.

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Could it be from subway construction? Yes. How far below is the Moscow Metro? That is a state secret. Are there tunnels or underground chambers stretching from the walls of the Kremlin, only 50 yards away? That is a big state secret.

Would St. Basil's be affected by a plan to dig a 600-car underground garage nearby as part of the conversion of a 19th-century military edifice into a hotel, auction house and diamond-trading center? Uspenskaya said she had no documentation on that project.

The soil problem came to light as part of a four-year restoration project that has shrouded much of the cathedral in scaffolding and netting. The nets temporarily came down in May so St. Basil's could serve as a backdrop for Paul McCartney, when he sang for a crowd that included the self-proclaimed No. 1 Beatle fan in Russia - President Vladimir V. Putin.

After the concert, the netting went back up, and the restorers returned to their task of sprucing up Russia's most famous architectural collision of East and West.

Two winters ago, Moscow was taken aback by the first stage of the restoration of St. Basil's: the painting of the domes in swirls of greens, reds and whites. Ignoring the historical authenticity, many Muscovites reacted to the colors with variations of the word Disneyland.

Now, however, the public buzz is about the far more worrying matter of the foundation. Hope hangs on a German stabilizing product that could be injected into the soil, to compact it around the foundations.

To show that the interior is in fine shape, Uspenskaya embarked on a tour, bustling though narrow passageways, explaining exuberant floral frescoes, craning her neck to explain a red-brick pattern that spiraled into a whitewashed spire.

Near the tour's end, three visitors spied a long crack, snaking about two yards down a fresco. The unflappable curator said it was an old crack. Old cracks are good cracks.


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