The Kremlin is one of the most important examples of Russian architecture and Europe’s largest fortress still in regular use. Apart from its towers and walls, the Kremlin is a gorgeous architectural ensemble: its walls conceal magnificent cathedrals and palaces of different epochs as well as the Armoury ChamberRussian: Oruzheynaya palata or Оружейная палата and the Diamond FundRussian: Almazny fond or Алмазный фонд, all of which extremely interesting museums. Today, the Kremlin is the main historical and cultural complex of the city and the official residence of the President of Russia.
In fact, the Moscow Kremlin is located on Borovitsky Hillone of the seven hills of Moscow, on the high left bank of the Moskva RiverRussian: Moskva-reka or Москва-река. Its present exterior is ancient however it is not original state. Seen in an aerial view, the Kremlin is an irregular triangle. It overlooks the Moskva River to the south, the Alexander GardenRussian: Aleksandrovskiy sad or Александровский сад to the north-west, and Red Square to the east. For years, the complex grew larger every time it was reconstructed until it reached its current size in the 15th century, during the reign of Ivan III the Greathe ended the dominance of the Golden Horde over the Rus'. Just imagin: the area of the first known fortress on this site was only 3 hectares, while currently the Kremlin area takes up over 27 hectares, its defensive wall being 2,235 metres long! Just to compare: the area of the Tower of London with its Liberties is only 7 hectares.
What is the Kremlin?
Generally, the word ‘kremlin’ denotes the fortified central part of a feudal city, the most secure area in military terms (ukromny, meaning ‘unexposed’). According to other theories, this word derives from the Greek cremnos (‘rock’). Kremlins used to serve as public buildings and homes for nobility. Most of the population lived in adjacent posadstrading and manufacturing quarters, and hid behind the thick kremlin walls in the presence of danger. Such fortresses were typically located on high ground, surrounded with defense walls, moats, and loophole towers with secret passages and hidden drinking water wells. All of the above is just as true for the country’s main Kremlin in Moscow. It has weathered a good deal over the six centuries of its history, yet it still delights us with its elegant and ornate look.
Archaeologists date the first settlements on the site to as early as the Bronze Age. Then, the Finno-Ugric peoples settled there to be later replaced by peoples of the Dyakovo culturean Iron Age culture which occupied a significant part of the Upper Volga, Valday and Oka River area. The land was occupied by the Slavic peoples of Vyatichia tribe of West Slavs or East Slavs who inhabited a part of the Oka basin in the 10th century, when two fortified structures were excavated on the site of the Kremlin. In addition to the fortifications and palisades, the Vyatichi used local gullies to make a moat.
The site of present-day central Moscow once belonged to the Kuchkos, a family of Suzdalone of the oldest Russian towns boyarsmembers of the highest rank of the feudal society in Russia. However, the genuine founder of Moscow is believed to be Prince (KniazRussian: князь) Yuri Dolgorukiyliterally ‘Yuri the Long-Armed’. As legend has it, Prince Dolgorukiy was once passing through the Kuchkos’ estate, and the boyar refused to bow before him, for which the Prince ordered him to be beheaded. Thus, the Kuchko boyars’ estates along the Moskva River passed into Yuri Dolgorukiy’s ownership. This is where he founded a town which was soon renamed as Moscow, after the river. Yuri Dolgorukiy’s far-sightedness should be given credit: the city developed rapidly, as the river was used for trade actively and two land trade routes met there.
When was the Kremlin built?
The first written reference to Moscow is dated the 4th April 1147, when a feast was held (probably on the site of the present Kremlin) to celebrate the alliance between Yuri Dolgorukiy and Sviatoslav, the Prince of Chernigovtoday a city on the Desna River to the north-north-east of Kiev. The very first, wooden kremlin was built in 1156. Ivan Kalita, a shrewd prince who ruled under the voke of the Golden Hordea Mongol and later Turkicized khanate established in the 13th century and originating as the northwestern sector of the Mongol Empire, was able to build a powerful fortress right under the Horde warriors’ nose. The Kremlin was given strong oak walls and towers in 1339.
Further development and expansion of the Kremlin was ordered by Prince Dmitry Donskoyhe was the first prince of Moscow to openly challenge Mongol authority in Russia. The wooden Kremlin was turned into a stone citadel in the 1360s. From then on, Moscow started to be described as belokamennaya, or ‘white-stone’, in records. Incidentally, the strengthening of the Kremlin occurred in good time because the city successfully withstood sieges by Algirdas, Grand Duke of Lithuania, as soon as in 1368 and 1370.
The Kremlin acquired new look, and the one we associate with it today, a century later, in 1485–1495. During the reign of Grand Prince Ivan III, commonly known as Ivan the Great, Muscovy was liberated from under the yoke of the Golden Horde, and large-scale construction was started by Ivan the Great in order to create a residence worthy of the Grand Prince of All Rus’. He invited Italian architects—Aristotele Fioravanti, Pietro Antonio Solari, and others—to ensure ultramodern fortifications. The involvment of these architects is why the Kremlin architecture style bears so much resemblance to the castles of Northern Italy. In addition, the top parts of the merlons of its crenellated walls, the so-called swallow tails. They became very popular in Russia and later were widely used in fortress building. Moreover, brick had never been used in construction before. Archaeologists have also found some stones remaining from the white-stone fortress of Prince Dmitry Donskoy in the Kremlin foundation. You can see them today if you walk along the Kremlin wall from the side of the Alexander Garden.
The historical factis that the Kremlin has not been rebuilt significantly after Ivan the Great; it’s only the exterior that has seen a few changes. One example is the tented roofs with which the towers were crowned in the 17th century. We are used to them today, and they make the Kremlin look more like a beautiful toy rather than an austere fortress. However, it was considered a truly impregnable fortress in the 15th–16th centuries and has never been taken by force. Moats were dug around the Kremlin with time and more ground fortifications were built (which Peter the Greatruled from 1682 until 1725 later supplemented with bastions). The Kremlin was only accessible by several suspension bridges, the entrance to which was guarded by barbicans. The KutafyaRussian: Кутафья barbican is the only one of them which has survived; it is used as the entrance to this architectural ensemble by visitors. Interestingly each of the twenty Kremlin towers is completely unique from all the others!
Cathedral SquareRussian: Sobornaya ploschad' or Соборная площадь is the heart of the Moscow Kremlin. The first wooden churches appeared on the site as early as the 13th century. Russian architects Krivtsov and Myshkin were commissioned to erect the large stone Cathedral of the DormitionRussian: Uspenskiy sobor or Успенский собор in 1471, during Ivan the Great’s rule. They began construction, but when the building was already vaulted, it collapsed. Ivan the Great invited Italian architect Aristotele Fioravanti to erect a new Cathedral of the Dormition. The mandatory requirement was that the Moscow cathedral should be modelled after the Dormition Cathedral in Vladimira city located on the Klyazma River, 200 kilometers to the east of Moscow. In 1475–1479, Fioravanti built the cathedral that we admire today. Despite its great resemblance to traditional Russian churches, the Cathedral of the Dormition has a totally different layout: its inner space is divided into twelve equal sections. The neighbouring Cathedral of the ArchangelRussian: Arkhangel’skiy sobor or Архангельский собор was constructed a bit later as a necropolis for the Grand Prince’s family. The Cathedral of the AnnunciationRussian: Blagoveshchenskiy sobor or Благовещенский собор, the family church of Moscow princes, and the Church of the Deposition of the RobeRussian: Tserkov’ Rizopolozheniya or Церковь Ризоположения, the home church of the Patriarch, were rebuilt in stone around the same time. The construction of the bell tower to be named after Ivan the Great also began. All of these cathedrals can be viewed today. Apart from seeing the ancient paintings and icons, you can also visit the permanent historical exhibitions they offer. The Ivan the Great Bell TowerRussian: Kolokol’nya Ivana Velikogo or Колокольня Ивана Великого has an observation desk open in summertime.
Besides the gorgeous Kremlin and Red Square, there are a lot of outstanding historical landmarks in Moscow. You should visit Novodevichy convent, Moscow cathedral of Annunciation and other unique sights. You can read about them on our website pages about Moscow history and Moscow Architecture.
The 17th–21st centuries
The Kremlin was occupied by Polish-Lithuanian invaders at the beginning of the 17th century. As Moscow was liberated by the People’s MilitiaPeople’s Volunteer Army, large-scale construction of secular buildings, for example, the wonderful fairytale-like Terem PalaceRussian: Teremnoy dvorets or Теремной дворец, commenced under the reign of the House of Romanovthe second dynasty to rule Russia, after the House of Rurik, reigning from 1613 until the February Revolution in1917. However, the beginning of the reign of Peter the Great radically changed the course of history. The Kremlin ceased to be royal residence: Peter moved to the village of PreobrazhenskoeRussian: Преображенское near Moscow and later started to build Saint Petersburg, the new capital.
Yet, the Kremlin was not totally neglected: following the fire of 1701, it was completely forbidden to construct wooden buildings inside the Kremlin, and the vacant space was used to build the Arsenala former armory built within the grounds of the Moscow Kremlin. Under Catherine the GreatEmpress of Russia from 1762 until 1796, two departments of the Senate were relocated to the Kremlin from Saint Petersburg, and architect Matvey Kazakov built the first classicist building in the Kremlin ensemble to accommodate them. It bears the same name—the Senate—and has been used as senior state officials’ workplace ever since.
The War of 1812war between the Russian Empire and Napoleonic France on the territory of Russia in 1812 is an important milestone in the history of the Kremlin. It affected the whole country, and the Kremlin began to be perceived a symbol of the country’s military glory. Napoleon gave orders to blow it up and unfortunately, despite the fact that not all the bombs exploded, the Kremlin was damaged so severely that it took twenty years to restore it.
As a result of its restoration, the fortress towers acquired their present appearance, the Moscow ManegeRussian: Moskovskiy Manezh or Московский Манеж was constructed nearby, and the Alexander Garden was arranged to catch the attention of Muscovites. The majestic Grand Kremlin PalaceRussian: Bol’shoy Kremlevskiy dvorets or Большой Кремлевский дворец was erected within the Kremlin area. In the late 19th century, the pageantry and historical importance of the Moscow fortress was emphasised by the construction of the Armoury and the State Historical MuseumRussian: Istoricheskiy muzey or Исторический музей.
In 1918, almost 200 years after Peter the Great moved the capital from Moscow to Saint Petersburg, the Kremlin recovered its status of the residence of the country’s leaders, now – the Soviet ones. The double-headed eagles on the towers were replaced with stars of gilded copper encrusted with Uralian gemstones, which were later replaced with stars made of ruby glass. Then a sad chapter in Kremlin’s history followed. The public access to the Kremlin was closed, and the cathedral bells fell silent. The most important monument of Russian architecture had never suffered such large-scale damage as it did in the Soviet times. Even the Great Patriotic War had not inflicted any significant losses on it, because its roofs and squares were camouflaged with sheets of plywood painted with streetscapes making the Kremlin inconspicuous to German bombers. Under the Soviet rule, monuments were toppled, icons were removed from the front gate, and the precious church plate was confiscated. The Grand Kremlin Palace was repurposed to hold party congresses, the Tsarina’s Golden ChamberRussian: Zolotaya Tsaritsyna palata or Золотая Царицына палата served as a kitchen, and the fabulous Palace of FacetsRussian: Granovitaya Palata or Грановитая палата became a public canteen. The Church of Saint CatherineRussian: Yekaterininskaya tserkov’ or Екатерининская церковь of the Ascension ConventVoznesenskiy monastyr’ or Вознесенский монастырь was converted into a gym, and the Chudov MonasteryRussian: Chudov monastyr’ or Чудов монастырь served as hospital. The Kremlin was partially reopened to the public as an open-air museum in 1955 only, and was at last inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1990.
Nowadays, despite all the tragic events in its history, the Kremlin is a magnificent example of architecture. It is one of the most visited tourist attractions, so be ready to wait in a long queue for tickets in summer and on weekends. Your patience, however, will be rewarded in spades by the view on the Cathedral Square and the panorama that can be seen from the walls of the Kremlin.© 2016-2018 moscovery.com