Onion Domes

By Peter Halstead

All around the world today
The sky is shining gray,

Evergreens, so bland when bare,
Turned to churches in midair,

Every needle clumped and tossed
With sprays of diamond-coated frost

Like artificial Christmas trees
With their peanut brittle filigrees,

Cardboard clusters on each tip
Where silver chunks of icing drip

And light department store vitrines
With their Rimsky-Korsakov routines,

Where a city street goes Nordic
As toy soldiers whirl and click

In the windows of our youth,
More real in retrospect than truth,

Although, surrounded as we are
By the steeples of the tsar,

The dreaming memory accepts
These minarets of frozen steppes

As equal representatives
Of where Zhivago really lives,

The forest almost Byzantine,
Like matryoshkas made from pine,

Nestled deeply one on one,
Snowed into oblivion,

Potemkin villages that we stare
At from the ski lift chair,

Set up for us by architects
Whom the morning sun will ex,

But tonight the piled-up bulbs still flare
In the crystal winter air,

Fabergés where seasons freeze
And blink with icons in the trees.


As Orlando Figes points out in his brilliant Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia, “The Russians said that Peter [the Great] made his city in the sky and then lowered it, like a giant model, to the ground.” Peter built St. Petersburg on water, so that it has no foundations in the soil, but is an airy, Venetian Fabergé egg of a fantasy between sea and sky, as are snow-encrusted trees seen from a chairlift. Although Peter despised the traditional Byzantine onion domes of Moscow, they figure in our Western imaginations as symbols of those eternal Russian winters as much as Peter’s Rococo steeples. The domes are the height of the Tatar influence on Russia, in turn influenced by the Mongol invasion of Genghis Khan and its Moorish themes derived initially from the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The tents of the Mongol Khans were called Heavens, emphasizing the cosmic significance of the celestial dome, the sky. They were adopted by Alexander the Great, and the domed baldachin of Roman and Byzantine architecture came from the Heavens.
The onion domes themselves seem to imitate the way snow piles up on branches after a blizzard, where we spotted them, blasted into fat spires, the next morning from the Highline chairlift on Vail Mountain, a lift that cuts through a vast forest of 60-foot pines at a height of 40 feet, so that you see details of the woods you might not see on the ground. There is nothing so Russian as a world of trees dripping with heavy snow. My own personal anthology of summoned spirits includes Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, Biely’s St. Petersburg, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and Swan Lake ballets, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Festival Overture, Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila, Anton Rubinstein’s Kamennoi-Ostrow, almost anything by Rachmaninoff before he was exiled, Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago; the list goes on. Matryoshkas are interlocking wooden Russian painted dolls. Potemkin villages were cardboard cutouts of villages placed along the Dnieper river so Catherine the Great could have a picturesque journey, as snow obliges us with temporary follies as we pass on a ski lift. Peter the Great put his architects to death so that no one would be able to equal his monuments, as sun will put an end to the neo-Byzantine snow domes on the branches.