The history of Russian architecture is not only that of the evolution and adaptation of architectural forms of foreign origin on the soil of Greater Russia. A national base, a mentality and a sui generis imagination, transform and unite the different elements into a homogeneous whole. With a rare force of assimilation, Russian art absorbs elements that have come from outside and, at times, opposite in their characters, and transforms them into national substance. Two opposing sources, two very different and almost opposite forces, contributed to the creation of Russian architecture. One is the most refined and most evolved current, perhaps, of Mediterranean art: Byzantine art. The other is the Nordic current with its different types of wooden constructions, still little studied by art historians and very far from the inspiration that gave birth to the Mediterranean civilization. Its rare vestiges are to be found in northern Russia and Siberia. In a sense, the history of Russian architecture is none other than that of the collaboration or struggle of these two currents with the indigenous element; the one and the other element take over each other and make themselves felt in a particular way.
The first monumental works in southern Russia (in Kiev, Černigov, etc.) were created by the Greeks or at least influenced by their art, but, instead of slavish copies, Russian architecture produced something different. In southern Russia the Byzantine churches undergo several modifications: the columns, for example, are replaced by pillars; the central pillars are no longer joined by arches and the new materials used give a new look to the buildings (eg, the Cathedral of St. Sophia of Kiev built in 1037). In the Vladimir and Suzdal regions and, in the north, in Novgorod and Pskov, the Byzantine style, or more precisely the Byzantine basis of architecture, develops and is oriented differently: the traditions, the pre-Byzantine forms, the traces of which are could find in the vestiges and derivatives of ancient wooden architecture, exert their action; and at least the memory of it survives in the geometric decorations of the ancient monuments of the north and center which in the stone and brick have the appearance of carvings made on wood. At the beginning of the century XII two architectural types are distinguished in these regions: that of the center, and that of the North. In the first the primitive forms, strongly influenced by the Byzantine ones and later by the Western ones, end up by joining the Byzantine to the Romanesque in a style that can be seen forming in Černigov, and taking place in the churches of Vladimir, Suzdal ′, in Perjaslavl ′ Zalessky, in Yur′ev Pol′skij, in the church of the Assumption of the Virgin, in Nerl ′ (1165) and elsewhere; he was arrested for nearly two centuries by the invasion of the Tatars. In the northern style the penetration of the constructive elements of the ancient wooden buildings was much deeper and more sensitive (monuments of Novgorod, Pskov, etc.): the distant northern cities, sheltered from the Mongol invasions, were able to preserve the heritage of the style Russian Byzantine and develop its elements in an internal evolution, which ended with the creation of new forms. The simplification that architecture underwent there has often been noted. A new aesthetic conception presided over the implementation of the imported artistic elements: the architectural monuments aimed at the clarity, sharpness and simplicity of the plan, the distribution of masses and forms. The scheme is a cube with one or three protruding parts, semi-cylindrical in shape towards the east, corresponding to the altar, or altars, of the interior of the church, and four pillars supporting the dome. The importance given to the domes and their mass gives the churches a particular character and originality. The drum of the domes is devoid of the ornaments proper to the Byzantine drums, that is, of columns, which does not prevent the artists from accentuating this or that desired intention from an artistic point of view, with a geometric decoration, rare and sober, but more effective.. The large windows are replaced by narrow openings, due to the lack of glass and the severity of the cold. The tambour is higher than that of the Byzantine churches, and is round in shape, while the dome above it has a more pronounced oval, another consequence of the climatic conditions. The roofs lean in two opposite directions and cross;izba: in the middle stands the dome.
According to holidaysort, the simplicity of plan and form characterizes this northern architecture. The creation of spaces and elementary volumes of bare surfaces, covered by a plaster with barely visible grains; the elimination of any form that is not imposed by constructive necessity; balanced relationships between intentionally asymmetrical parts: this is the art that has dominated since the century. XIII to XV. At the beginning of the century XVI is above all the center that draws attention to itself. The northern constructions remain as if crystallized and seem unable to develop. Political importance shifted towards the center, the subjugation of the north, greatly influence the development of the arts. Only the skill of the Novgorod decorators stands to testify for a long time to come the artistic prosperity that the north had had. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries considerable activity is observed in central Russia in Vladimir and Suzdal ′ and then in Moscow. The buildings change their appearance, the dome becomes much flatter and is finally replaced by a “tent”, the base becomes octagonal by means of small arches arranged in several rows (church of Spas-Preobraženie in the village of Ostrovo, near Moscow); towards the middle of the century. XVI a particular system of projection characterizes these monuments. The surfaces are covered with adorned white stone or brick facings. The monumental masses yield to decorative details: the ornamental element takes precedence over the purely constructive problem. The sober elegance of this style by Suzdal ′ and Vladimir (see the Church of the Transfiguration in Perejaslavl ′ Zalesskij, from 1152, the Cathedral of the Dormition of Vladimir, from 1158, the Church of the Intercession of the Virgin on the Nerl River, from 1165, that of St. Demetrius in Vladimir, 1165; the cathedral of Suzdal ′, 1222; the church of San Giorgio in Yur′ev Pol′skij, 1230) is soon supplanted by the ever richer and heavier decoration, generally made of carved bricks that completely cover the surfaces of the churches in Moscow. This decorative style which is now encountered in Moscow, in Yaroslavl ′, in Rostov, in Romanovo-Borisoglebsk, in Kargopol ′, etc., and wherever it penetrates the political and artistic influence of the capital, is clearly opposed to the monumental simplicity of the ancient style of Novgorod and Pskov. Ornamental art in Moscow had an extraordinary development: all the forms that came from Occident left their traces there in different eras, starting with copies of Romanesque, Gothic or Renaissance or even oriental decoration, up to the late Baroque and the classical reaction. Foreign motifs crossed Ukraine and finally took root in the great Russian plain, amalgamating with the often geometric ornaments, which were of national tradition.