For most of its history, Russian architecture has been predominantly religious. Churches were for centuries the only buildings to be constructed of stone, and today they are almost the only buildings that remain from its ancient past. The basic elements of Russian church design emerged fairly early, around the eleventh century. The plan is generally that of a Greek cross (all four arms are equal), and the walls are high and relatively free of openings. Sharply-sloped roofs (tent roofs) and a multitude of domes cover the structure. The characteristic onion dome first appeared in Novgorod on the Cathedral of Sancta Sophia, in the eleventh century. On the interior, the primary feature is the iconostasis, an altar screen on which the church's icons are mounted in a hierarchical fashion.
The centers of medieval church architecture followed the shifting dominance of old Russia's cities--from Kiev to Novgorod and Pskov, and, from the end of the 15th century, Moscow. With the establishment of a unified Russian state under Ivan III, foreign architecture began to appear in Russia. The first instance of such foreign work is Moscow's great Assumption Cathedral, completed in 1479 by the Bolognese architect Aritotle Fioravanti. The cathedral is actually a remarkable synthesis of traditional Russian architectural styles, though its classical proportions mark it as a work of the Italian Renaissance. The Russian tradition experienced a brief period of renewed influence under Ivan IV (the Terrible), under whose reign the legendary Cathedral of St. Basil's was built. In general, however, the Tsars began to align themselves increasingly with European architectural styles. The great example of this shift was Peter the Great, who designed St. Petersburg in accordance with prevailing European design. His successors continued the pattern, hiring the Italian architect Rastrelli to produce the rococo Winter Palace and Smolny Cathedral. Under Catherine the Great, the rococo was set aside for neoclassicism, completing St. Petersburg's thoroughly European topography.
During the nineteenth century a fresh interest in traditional Russian forms arose. Like the associated movement in the visual arts, this revival of older styles participated in the creation of an avant-garde movement in the early twentieth century. For a brief period following the 1917 Revolution, the avant-garde Constructivist movement gained sufficient influence to design major buildings. Lenin's Mausoleum, designed in 1924 by Alexey Shchusev, is the most notable of the few remaining Constructivist buildings. By the late 1920s, the avant-garde found itself repudiated by Stalin's increasingly conservative state. Moving away from modernism, Stalinist-era architecture is best exemplified by the seven nearly indistinguishable "wedding-cake" skyscrapers that dominate the city's skyline.
In more recent years, the dissolution of the Soviet state and a renewed interest in traditional Russian culture have produced a new appreciation of more modest folk architecture. The few remaining examples of traditional wooden architecture, such as those on display in the outdoor architectural museum in Kostroma, are now among Russia's most treasured architectural monuments.