For those of us who grew up during the “Cold War,” the word “Kremlin” has a particular connotation, not altogether warm and fuzzy. As far as I knew then, it was synonymous with the Soviet government, that cabal of mysterious leaders who, in Khrushchev’s words, would eventually “bury us.” Of course, had I bothered, I could have discovered much more about the truth of the Kremlin, although its image probably would not have changed much in my imagination.
The word itself is more of a generic description than an actual name, somewhat the equivalent of the English word “citadel,” and as such is used to describe similar sites in other Russian cities such as Yaroslavl and Smolensk. It is the one in Moscow to which it almost invariably refers, however, and it is that one that interests us now.
Recently I had the good fortune to visit Moscow and of course, could not have left without dedicating a good bit of time for a visit to the Kremlin. As I passed through the outer wall of the famous citadel, I couldn’t help but think that a few decades earlier I would have been immediately arrested and never seen again had I actually gotten this far. Times have changed, however, and the once forbidden Kremlin is now one of the city’s most popular tourist destinations. It’s not difficult at all to see why as soon as you pass through its mighty walls.
The first major attraction is found at the below street level entrance to the famous Kremlin Museum, and if not for the usually long line of visitors it could easily be missed and passed right by. What really draws the attention, however, is the collection of cathedrals crowning the aptly named Cathedral Hill. There are three magnificent cathedrals there and two more churches to complete the set. If I had done my homework as a kid, I would have known that these religious structures not only existed in but dominated the Kremlin. But alas, I hadn’t done it so I was truly surprised to see such an imposing spiritual component of the heart of what President Reagan had called the “evil empire.”
If you can withstand the magnetic attraction of these beautiful buildings, it would be good to step over to the Kremlin Museum first and take advantage of the culture and history lessons it offers. Splendid examples of the enormous wealth of past empire are housed in its several sections and include items that you will likely never see outside its walls, ranging from the fur lined crowns of Russia’s first Tsars to the beautiful Faberge jeweled eggs of its last. You will leave the Museum with a much better sense of and feel for the power and magnificence of Russia’s past empires and perhaps an insight into the psychology and character of today’s Russia.
After leaving the windowless galleries, stepping out into the fresh air to behold the architectural splendor of the Kremlin is a refreshing change. You’ll probably head immediately to the Archangel Michael Cathedral to enjoy the richly ornate interior. When I was there, a quintet of young Russian singers was performing excerpts from their current CD of traditional Orthodox spiritual songs. It was the perfect accompaniment to the visit, their wonderful voices reverberating throughout the holy space giving the visitor a unique sample of the spiritual music of the church. Of course, one of them was a typical Russian bass, the kind that seems to be unique to this country, and his rich, low tones vibrated right to my core. This kind of performance by musical groups is not unusual in Russia so you’re likely to encounter them in other cathedrals and churches throughout the Republic too. They are unabashedly promoting themselves and selling their CDs but in so doing are enriching everyone’s visit to these historic masterpieces of spiritual architecture.
Upon exiting this cathedral simply look up for a breath taking experience. You will see an array of golden onion domes, so unique to Russian orthodoxy, standing brightly against the sky. If there is anything that serves as a universally recognized icon of Russia, these domes must top the list. It’s not easy to resist gaping at them for several minutes, so go right ahead!
As you continue your tour of the Kremlin, you’ll pass the enormous Tsar Canon, an almost ridiculously ornate behemoth that was built on the command of Tsar Fyodor in 1586. It weighs nearly 38 metric tons and has a bore diameter of 890mm (35 inches)! It was intended to cast more than 800 kilos of stone shot on one firing so that stack of iron cannon balls you’ll see in front of it are misleading. The story has it that they were made in St. Petersburg and given to Moscow as one more joke in the friendly rivalry between the two cities – they’re too big to fit in the canon. The Tsar Canon was never fired, by the way.
Right next to this monstrous gun is the largest bell in the world: the Tsar Bell. This 300-ton ringer was ordered built by Empress Anna in 1734, but like the Tsar Canon, its report was never heard. During a great fire in the Kremlin, water was thrown over the foundry where the bell was being forged causing a huge piece to crack off of it. A more amusing tale is how Peter the Great slammed the bell with his fist, breaking off the huge chunk. Peter was indeed great in stature but this is somewhat unlikely!
Through your journey, you will likely notice the many towers placed along the Kremlin’s formidable wall. Several of these are architectural masterpieces in themselves, and all but two of the eighteen are named.
The official residence of the President of Russia is within the walls of the Kremlin and is called the “Senate,” since in Soviet days it did actually serve as the seat of the government. Its ornate interiors are well worth a visit if you can swing it. You may need an official pass from one of your highly placed pals to do so, however.
Perhaps the one building that stands out most for its contrasting design is the State Kremlin Palace, built in 1959-61. It was originally called the Palace of Congresses and was used as the meeting place for the many congresses of the various republics. You may recognize its interior from your memories of the many photos and news clips showing its meetings back in the sixties and seventies. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, it is mainly used as a theater and public building.
There is still much more to see and visit in the Kremlin than what I’ve mentioned here, but my own experience limits me to the above highlights. The history that is contained within its massive walls encompasses the history of Russian empires and peoples and cannot be missed if one is to have a fuller understanding of this country. Don’t miss it!