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Kremlin is a word that really has no English equivalent. Perhaps ‘castle’ or ‘citadel’ comes closest. but even the largest castle is dwarfed by a small kremlin. These words miss something grander, more essentially Russian, about kremlins.
Old Russian cities formed around their kremlins and walled monasteries; in medieval times the line that divided the church from the rich and powerful was indistinct at best, and kremlins girded both the secular and sacred.
In the countryside around these central structures the serfs tilled the land for the noblemen who dwelt within. Near the gates merchants, tradesmen, artisans and ladies of the night gathered to ply their goods and services. Inside the wall princes and priests plotted their intrigues and their wars. Novgorod, Moscow, Smolensk, Pskov and many other cities had kremlins. There is even a small kremlin in Tobolsk, deep in Siberia, 1500 miles east of Moscow.
Between the Carpathian Mountains to the southwest and the Urals to the northeast lies a vast expanse of gently rolling lands known as the Russian Plain, through which meander many long and mighty rivers. Because of the bland topography, these rivers criss-cross the plain in all directions. Their names are rife with history and romance: the Rhine, the Danube, the Dnieper and Dniester, the Volga, the Don. Owing to the relatively flat terrain, these waterways are easily navigable, with gentle currents and few shallows, shoals or rapids. In a pre-industrial world, they provided a watery network, connecting the Baltic, Mediterranean, Black and landlocked Caspian Seas, that facilitated the movement of goods, troops, and culture throughout Eastern Europe.
Control of this area endowed its owner with substantial strategic and economic advantage, but maintaining control was difficult. War-like peoples surrounded it on all sides. To the north were the Norse, renowned for their berserk ferocity. To the south was Byzantium, heir to the efficient Roman war machine. To the west were the barbarous Slavs, and to the east lay the Mongol horde. In the middle lay a loose-knit, polyglot cluster of kingdoms centered in Kiev, known as the lands of the Rus’.
Control of this politically roiling landscape required at least two things: An all-powerful commander of a formidable military force (eventually, the tsars), and a series of impregnable fortresses in which to consolidate control (the kremlins).
A succession of strongmen built fortifications at strategic points along river. The walls of these fortresses were initially made of wood, but were eventually replaced by stone, to become the kremlins we know today.
In the 9th century, the Kievan Rus’ built a citadel on the Dnieper to defend against aggression from the south. This kremlin gave rise to Kiev, which became the the first iteration of what would eventually become Russia. It stood until the Mongols sacked Kiev in 1240; very little remains. The Rus’ then moved their capital to Novgorod, where they constructed another oaken kremlin on the Volkhov River. Stone walls replaced the wooden ones there, beginning in 1302.
To the north, in Pleskow (now Pskov), which was allied with the Novgorod Rus’, a kremlin arose where the little Pskov River flows into the larger Velikaya near its mouth on Lake Peipus, the source of the River Neva. Here, in 1240, Alexander Nevsky of Novgorod turned back an invasion of Teutonic Knights in an epic battle on the ice, immortalized in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1938 film masterpiece. (Historians disagree on the reliability of the accounts of this event.) The site controls access by the landlocked lands of Rus’ to the Gulf of Finland, and thus the Baltic Sea. Peter the Great, who dreamed of building a navy and was wont to make his dreams come true, later made his capital near there to give Russia’s interior access to the ocean.
The Grand Principality of Moscow, soon to be Muscovy and then Russia, annexed Novgorod in 1478. This was part of “the gathering of the Rus’ lands by Grand Prince of Moscow Ivan the III, known as Ivan the Great. It was then that the history of modern Russia began, although the word “Russia’ was first used by his grandson Ivan IV, the ‘Terrible’.
At the site of today’s Moscow Kremlin a succession of walls went up and came down. Slavs built an oaken palisade in in the 11th century, known as the Moscow Grad. In the 14th century, a sturdy stronghold of white limestone replaced it.
Ivan III replaced the limestone, between 1485 and 1495, with the walls we know today. They are 5 to 19 meters high, 3.5 to 6.5 meters thick, built of stone faced with red brick. Along the top, for its entire perimeter, runs a walkway, 2 to 4.5 meters wide, for is full perimeter, flanked by a 2.5-meters-tall crenelated wall facing outwards, and topped in a swallow-tailed style. The walls contain interior passageways leading to lightless rooms where the tsars’ most dangerous prisoners lived in solitary confinement while they slowly went mad. Twenty defensive towers loom above the walkway, each with a different height and style. Four heavy gates pierce the wall, flanked by gate towers. These are now crowned by illuminated Soviet red stars, which replaced the gilded double-headed eagles of the Romanovs.
Within the 68 acre triangle enclosed by the Kremlin Wall lie many large buildings, both sacred and secular.
The oldest secular building is the Palace of Facets, constructed between 1487 and 1492 to serve the tsars for state ceremonies and official entertainments. Next oldest is the Terem Palace, first residence of the tsars. The Grand Kremlin Palace, commissioned by Tsar Nicholas I and built between 1837 and 1849 in a Baroque style, joins these structures together into one vast government complex.
The newest building inside the Kremlin is a Soviet-era glass and concrete monstrosity built in Khrushchev’s time as a home for the Congresses of the Communist Party. Because of its large 6000-seat capacity and superb acoustics, today it hosts popular concerts.
There are several churches within the Kremlin; in a more secular Russia, some of them now serve as museums. The oldest is the Bell Tower of Ivan the Great, which is contemporaneous with the present wall. The most important is the Cathedral of the Assumption, which before the 1917 revolution was a symbol of Russia’s claim of dominance in the Eastern Orthodox Church.
The Cathedral of the Annunciation was once reserved as a private place for princes and tsars to worship, and the Cathedral of the Archangel was the final resting place medieval Russian autocrats. The Cathedral of the Twelve Apostles contained the lavish Patriarch’s Palace, and the Church of the Deposition of the Robe was a private chapel for the Patriarchate.
The church most often associated with the Kremlin by Americans is the Cathedral of Basil the Great, with its colorful bouquet of onion domes. It actually lies outside the Kremlin. It was built from 1555-1561 on orders of Ivan IV, known as ‘the Formidible’ (more literal), or more commonly today, ‘the Terrible’, (which is a more apt description of the man). To commemorate his conquests of Kazan and Astrakahn, and to praise the glory of God, it was built in the shape of flames leaping skyward. It was consecrated in 1561 and secularized by the Soviets in 1928, today it is owned by the Russian Federation and serves as a museum.
Today the Kremlin is the capitol of the Russian Federation. Its hegemony, under the firm hand of Vladimir Putin, reaches across the vast expanse of Russia, and who knows how far beyond.
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