The word kremlin means “fortress in a city”. So it’s no surprise that the fortified complex in the heart of Moscow is the Moscow Kremlin, also the official residence of the President of the Russian Federation. Surrounded by red brick walls built by Italians in the late 15th century, this huge complex has five palaces, four cathedrals and several impressive administrative buildings amongst immaculate gardens.
After watching their somewhat ridiculously slow, yet exaggerated changing of the guards outside, we entered the Kremlin by crossing a long bridge, somewhat reminiscent of a drawbridge across a moat, and through the Trinity Tower.
Immediately you could see that this was still very much a functioning government complex, regardless of the tourists wandering about. Certain areas were off-limits and patrolled by some stern looking guards (never smiling, in that Russian sort of way).
Our first stop was the Armoury Chamber, filled with precious jewels and adornments that sparkled richly. Unfortunately we couldn’t take photos inside, which seemed to be the case with all the cathedrals here too.
Beside the imposing Grand Kremlin Palace is the multi-domed Annunciation Cathedral, the private church used by the Russian grand princes and tsars (emperors) for domestic or family ceremonies. Inside, the multi-tier iconostasis (central wall of religious icons/figures, elegantly framed in gold detailing) is one of the oldest surviving in Russia. Some icons were painted at the end of the 14th century.
Facing it is the Archangel Cathedral, with its four blue/grey and central golden domes. This was the burial church of Muscovite princes and the first tsars of Russia, dedicated to the archangel Michael and heavenly patron of the Russian Army. The royal necropolis here is the greatest one in Russia. Burials took place here between 1340 and 1730, with many sarcophagi under the floor including Ivan I through IV, Basil I through IV & Peter II.
Close by is the Assumption (or Dormition) Cathedral, with its five golden onion domes. This was the main cathedral of the tsars and burial place of important Muscovites. Over the centuries grand princes and tsars were wedded and crowned here. Ivan IV the Terrible even had his own praying throne built in 1551. In 1744, German princess Sophie von Anhalt-Zerbst embraced Orthodox religion here (to become Catherine II the Great), while in 1812, Alexander I kissed the holy relics and made a vow to repel Napoleon’s invading forces.
Towering above them all is the Ivan the Great Bell-Tower, with the Assumption Belfry. It is said to mark the exact centre of Moscow and resemble a burning candle. Completed in 1600, it was the tallest structure in the city until the Russian Revolution (since anything taller was forbidden).
Beside the tower on a pedestal is the Tsar Bell, the world’s largest bell.
Funny story goes like this:
- First Tsar Bell was cast in 1600, weighing 18 tonnes, and housed in the original wooden Ivan the Great Bell-Tower
- It crashed to the ground in a fire in the mid 17th century and broken to pieces
- Second Tsar Bell was cast in 1655, using remnants but on a larger scale, weighing 100 tonnes
- It was destroyed by fire in 1701
- Third Tsar Bell was commissioned by Empress Anna Ivanovna, niece of Peter the Great, to be 100 tonnes heavier and using the old pieces
- After French master craftsman declined to help (not taking it seriously), it took four years and two attempts later by a local foundry master, completed in 1735 and weighing 200 tonnes
- In 1737, a fire broke out threatening the temporary wooden support. So guards threw water on it, causing severe cracks and a huge 10 tonne piece to fall off
- Napoleon attempted to take it back to France as a trophy during his occupation of Moscow in 1812, but it was too heavy to transport
- It sat there in its casting pit until it was finally raised onto a stone pedestal in 1836 where it sits to this day
The remaining architecture around the vast grounds are impressive, right down to the intricate detailing on the arches and building facades. Although there were many tour groups, there was plenty of space to relax and enjoy the views.
Each cathedral and building was different, inside and out, yet felt like part of an intricate whole that connects the proud past with the ongoing present.
There really is so much history within these walls.
Visited 5th September 2014.