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The Kremlin

During the frigid depths of the Cold War, there was one place that held the world’s attention perhaps more than any other. If you were part of NATO, there was nowhere more intriguing, most perplexing than the very heart of the Soviet Union. 

Before we get started on the vast behemoth in Moscow, the word Kremlin actually means fortification in Russian and there are at least 30 ‘other’ Kremlins around the country. The earliest known examples would have been made of wood and erected along the borders but the process of replacing them with stone structures began in the 15th Century.

Perhaps two of the most famous are the kremlins in Zaraysk, built in 1531 and in Tula, built in 1520, both of which remain in excellent condition, albeit with careful restoration work over the years.  


Before we get started on the vast behemoth in Moscow, the word Kremlin actually means fortification in Russian and there are at least 30 ‘other’ Kremlins around the country. The earliest known examples would have been made of wood and erected along the borders but the process of replacing them with stone structures began in the 15th Century.

Perhaps two of the most famous are the kremlins in Zaraysk, built in 1531 and in Tula, built in 1520, both of which remain in excellent condition, albeit with careful restoration work over the years.   

Zaraysk Kremlin western wall: 12-sided "corner watchtower"
Zaraysk Kremlin western wall: 12-sided “corner watchtower”. By Максим Шанин, is licensed under CC-BY-SA


But you didn’t click on this video to hear about the Zaraysk and Tula Kremlins. By far the most famous Kremlin, so much so that most people assume that it’s a singular name, is of course the huge fortress in Central Moscow. 

The vast area covers 275,000 square metres (2,960,000 sq ft) – which is about twice the size of the Pentagon – and is housed within the fortress walls that stretch to a total of 2.2 kilometres metres (1.3 miles), and are between 5 to 19 metres (16 to 62 ft) high and up to 6.4 metres (21 ft thick) in some places. The now-iconic red is in fact quite a contemporary change, as up until the 19th Century, all the walls at the Kremlin were painted white.  

Inside this wall, which includes twenty defensive towers, lies 18 individual buildings, five palaces, four cathedrals, an arsenal that also acts as a museum with treasures estimated to be worth more than $1 billion, a bell tower and plenty of manicured garden area. Just outside the walls, lies the iconic Red Square with Lenin’s mausoleum, St Basil’s Basilica and a huge department store usually abbreviated to simply GUM (meaning Main Department Store in Russian).  

Early History    

The first fortress-like structure probably sprung up during the 11th Century when the East Slav people moved into the area but for a few centuries it was known as the ‘Grad of Moscow’. This early wooden Kremlin was gradually expanded throughout the 12th Century before being destroyed by the marauding Mongols in 1237 and entirely rebuilt in sturdy oak afterwards. 

The oak was eventually traded for white limestone in the 14th Century as the foundations of what we see today began to take shape. Much of the work done around this time focused on religious buildings, with the Cathedral of the Annunciation, the Chudov Monastery and the Ascension Convent all appearing in close succession – but only the cathedral remains today.    

The Renaissance Kremlin 

With Europe undergoing a profound cultural and architectural change, Grand Prince Ivan III felt that the Kremlin needed to be rebuilt in more of an elegant manner that still retained its fortress purpose. He hired Italian architects Petrus Antonius Solarius to design the new walls and their towers and Marco Ruffo to design a new palace. 

The walls as we see today were constructed between 1485 and 1495 while around this period the three cathedrals still standing in the Kremlin today, along with the Deposition Church, the Palace of Facets and the Ivan the Great Bell Tower were also constructed.

Once most major construction work was completed inside, a 30-meter (98.4ft) wide moat was added to separate the Kremlin from the rest of the city, while any construction in the immediate vicinity was prohibited by royal decree.  

Imperial Russia

Despite its splendour, the Kremlin was rarely used up until 1773 except for coronations. The Moscow Uprising of 1682, essentially a power feud that erupted after the death of Tsar Feodor III of Russia, saw some dark acts take place within the Kremlin Walls. 

After the ten-year-old Peter the Great (I assume he was just Peter back then) was installed as the new Tsar, a rival faction began stirring up trouble with the masses and within the army who were already unhappy with the superior offices. On 11th May 1682, rioters broke through and the Kremlin was quickly overwhelmed. A series of lynchings took place as vengeance was handed out to military leaders and the leading boyars, who were the highest rank of the feudal nobility. 

Six days later, the Kremlin was breached once again, with two of Tsar Peter’s uncles executed in his presence. Days of looting in and around Moscow followed with the result being a shared Tsarship between Peter and his older half brother Ivan, who came from the other side of the warring faction. The events, understandably, left a scar on the young Peter who developed a firm hatred of the Kremlin as a result which was no doubt more than just a small factor in his decision to move the capital to St Petersburg a few decades later.    

The Kremlin came back into fashion in the 18th Century when Catherine the Great hired Vasili Bazhenov to build her a new residence within the thick sturdy walls. This structure was never actually started due to a lack of funds, even after several buildings and even part of its walls had been demolished in preparation. 

In June 1812, French forces began streaming across Russia in Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion of the largest country on the planet. The story of the French staggering back into Europe amid a horrific Russian winter is commonly known, but what isn’t discussed as often is that the French army took the Kremlin on 2nd September 1812. And there they stayed for just over a month as the air turned colder and supplies quickly dwindled. Once the decision had been taken to march back the way they had come, Napoleon ordered that the Kremlin be completely destroyed. Between the 21st and 23rd October 1812, the French made a series of attempts, but because of either poor weather that affected the fuses and just plain incompetence, the damage was significantly less than the French leader had anticipated.

As the world crept into the 20th Century, there was another attack within the Kremlin walls as anger grew over living conditions and Russia’s disastrous performance during the war with Japan that ended in 1905. Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia, brother of Emperor Alexander III of Russia, a member of the State Council, a Lieutenant General and Commander of Moscow military district, formally resigned his positions, partly in protest at new measures being enacted by the Tsar but no doubt also to shoulder some of the blame publicly. 

On 17th February, his carriage was passing through the Nikolskaya Tower of the Kremlin when Ivan Kalyayev, a member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party’s combat detachment, standing near the gate threw a nitroglycerin bomb that had been concealed in newspaper directly into the lap of the unsuspecting Duke. The results were messy, with the body completely blown apart and left strewn across the snow that lay on the ground.   


What had been brewing for some time exploded into a full-scale revolution in March 1917 with the royal family meeting its untimely end when they were all gathered in Yekaterinburg and shot on the night of 16th July 1918. 

Under Soviet rule, some significant changes were made to the Kremlin, not least that it became the seat of the government once again in 1918. Vladimir Lenin used the Kremlin Senate as his residence, while his successor Joseph Stalin followed suit. One new building that appeared was Lenin’s Mausoleum, which was completed in its present form in August 1924 after a temporary structure had been built immediately after his death. And this is where his embalmed body has remained ever since, except for a stint during World War II when it was evacuated to Siberia over fears that Moscow would soon fall to the Germans. 

When Joseph Stalin died in 1953, initially, he too was embalmed and installed next to Lenin, but during the de-Stalinization period of the 1960s, his body was moved to the Kremlin Wall Necropolis, which flanks both sides of the mausoleum. The Soviet-era was also when the golden eagles on the towers were replaced by electric powered stars, known as the Kremlin stars, that are made of ruby glass and weigh just over a ton each.  

It was from within these walls that Soviet planning and strategy took place during the Cold War and it was here that on 26th December 1991, the red Soviet flag was slowly lowered for the final time, to be replaced by that of the Russian Federation. 

State Kremlin Palace

OK, so that’s the history of the Kremlin. Let’s take a closer look at some buildings that make up this hugely impressive area. The newest addition was built in 1961 at the behest of Nikita Khrushchev who felt that Communist party meetings deserved to be held in a more modern environment. Conscious not to dominate the skyline and obscure the famed towers, it was designed so that 16 metres (52.4 ft) of the building is underground. 

The result is, well, exactly the kind of thing you would expect to come out of the Soviet Union in the 1960s, block-shaped, severe, but still has some charm. The main hall inside can hold 6,000 people, but the building itself comes with 800 rooms and is also the home of the Kremlin Ballet Theatre and the second stage of the Bolshoi Theatre.      

Grand Kremlin Palace

The star of the show in this glittering lineup has to be the Grand Kremlin Palace which was built from 1837 to 1849. It is 124 metres (406 ft) long, 47 metres (154 ft) high and has a total space of 25,000 sq metres (269,000 ft) spread over its two floors (though it appears from the outside to have three floors.)

It comes with five reception halls, today used for official station functions and to sign international treaties and is the official residence of the President of Russia – though it’s rarely used in this way, probably because Vladamir Putin apparently owns a palace complex located on the Black Sea thought to have cost around $1.3 billion. And if you’re spending that kind of money, you might as well use it.   

The Grand Kremlin Palace also includes the Terem Palace, which was the main residence of the Russian Tzars in the 17th century, and that was extensively renovated during the 1990s, an effort that is estimated to have cost around $1 billion (nearly $2 billion today). 

The Cathedrals & Bell Tower

Cathedral square lies near the centre of the Kremlin and includes three cathedrals. The Cathedral of the Assumption, built between 1475 and 1479, was constructed using white stone in the Italianate-Byzantine style and is topped by five golden domes. 

The Cathedral of the Annunciation was completed in 1489 and rebuilt between 1562-64 after it was destroyed by fire and includes nine domes. The Cathedral of the Archangel Michael lies on the southeast side of the square and was constructed in 1508.

The Annunciation Cathedral in the Kremlin,
The Annunciation Cathedral in the Kremlin, Moscow, Russia (1484 – 89). It was built by masters from Pskov as a home church of the Great Moscow Princes and later of the Russian Tsars. By Andrew Griffith, is licensed under CC-BY

One of the most iconic buildings within the Kremlin is the Ivan the Great Bell Tower, built 1508 and is 81 metres (266 ft) tall, making it the highest structure in the area. It has 22 bells, 18 fairly small ones and four large bells, one of which is named the Uspenski Bell and weighs 65.5 tons. 

The Mysteries of the Kremlin

There are numerous tantalising mysteries about the Kremlin and it’s not hard to see why it’s garnered so much attention. One of the earliest rumours was that of the existence of an abandoned library underground that was constructed by Ivan the Terrible, though only a series of caved-in tunnels have so far been discovered. 

Staying underground, there has long been a rumour that the Kremlin is connected to a secret underground metro system that works parallel to the public Moscow Metro. Metro 2, if you believe the stories, includes four lines that connected the Kremlin with the Federal Security Service (FSB) headquarters, the government airport at Vnukovo-2, and a huge underground bunker at Ramenki, and which lies 50–200 meters (165–660 ft) below ground. 

Another line of thinking is that it is made up of a single line connecting various destinations and may have been an escape route and nuclear fallout shelter in the event of war with the U.S. 

Then there are the wonderfully intriguing tales of rooms being bugged, with false walls and secret safes used to hide incriminating documents on political enemies and many a secret passageway still thought to remain. It’s difficult to comprehend the political back and forth that must have gone on within these walls during the paranoid days of the Soviet Union, where the fate of millions was decided, many of which ended with death.   

The Heart of the Enemy  

If you were from the west during the Cold War, there was nowhere on the planet quite as fascinating and no doubt deeply unsettling as the Kremlin. There was a looming presence about the place that was often paired with the rousing ode to communism that was the State Anthem of the Soviet Union. Images of enormous missiles inching past the Kremlin during the many military parades only added to the sense of secrecy and aura that hung in the air during the days of the USSR.   

It may now be nearly thirty years since the Soviet flag fluttered in the wind above the Kremlin, but these buildings still retain their haunting, paranoid, beguiling charm that made the Soviet Union such a convenient enemy to the U.S. 

But the rise and fall of the Soviet Union is but a fraction of the story when we talk about the Kremlin. This fortress charts nearly a thousand years worth of history that has seen modern Russia emerge at the end of it. It has survived attacks, both internally and externally, and has also weathered some of the most dramatic social changes in modern history. 

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