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Distance view of the Kremlin. Source: parsadanov / Adobe Stock.

The Moscow Kremlin – Iconic Fortress of Russia


The Moscow Kremlin (known also as the Kremlin) is arguably one of the most iconic monuments in the Russian capital of Moscow. The Kremlin is a fortified complex that dates to the 14 th century and served as Russia’s seat of power for much of its history since then. The Kremlin, however, was not only Russia’s political heart but also its religious center.

Many churches and cathedrals were built on the grounds of the Kremlin. Moreover, the Kremlin is also the seat of the Patriarch (known as Metropolitan during certain periods of Russia’s history) of Moscow, the spiritual head of the Russian Orthodox Church. Today, the Kremlin is also a popular tourist destination spot for those visiting the Russian capital.

The Kremlin as a Fortress

Originally, the word ‘kremlin’ simply referred to a citadel or fortress in any Russian town or city. Today, however, the Kremlin refers specifically to the one in Moscow, which is also the most famous example of a kremlin. Incidentally, the etymology of this word is disputed and it may be of Tatar, Greek, or Russian origin.

The Kremlin is situated at the very center of Moscow. To the south of this complex is the Moskva River, to its east, Saint Basil’s Cathedral and the Red Square, and to its west, the Alexander Gardens (one of the first urban public parks in Moscow).

Over the centuries, various structures were built (and destroyed) in the Kremlin, including palaces, churches, and various monuments. As a citadel, it is only natural that the Kremlin is surrounded by walls and defensive towers.

Although the Kremlin dates to the 14 th century, its history stretches back further into Moscow’s past. The earliest known reference to the city itself is found in the early Russian Chronicles. On the 4 th of April 1147, the Prince of Suzdal, Yury Vladimirovich Dolgoruky, is recorded to have thrown a banquet for the Prince of Novgorod-Seversky, one of his allies, in Moscow.

Later on, in 1156, Dolgoruky is reported to have built the town’s first fortified structure on the Borovitsky Hill, a piece of land between the Moskva River and one of its tributaries, the Neglinnaya River. This structure consisted of earthen ramparts topped by a wooden wall and blockhouses and is the predecessor of today’s Kremlin.

General view of the Borovitsky Hill where the Kremlin is located. (A.Savin / CC BY-SA 3.0)

General view of the Borovitsky Hill where the Kremlin is located. (A.Savin / CC BY-SA 3.0)

It may be mentioned that Dolgoruky’s fortification was not called a kremlin. Instead, it was known as a grad (which translates as ‘fortified settlement’).

During the invasion of Rus’ by the Mongols under Batu Khan, which lasted from 1236 to 1240, Moscow was sacked and burned the ground. The town was sacked again by the Mongols in 1293. Three years later, the grad was strengthened with a new earthen wall and an oak palisade.

The earliest instance of the Kremlin being called as such dates to 1331. It was also around that time that the first recorded stone structures in the Kremlin were built. This was due to a pivotal moment in Moscow’s history. In 1326, Saint Peter became the first metropolitan to reside in Moscow.

The Kremlin as the Center of the Church

Prior to Peter, Kiev was the center of the Russian Orthodox Church. When Peter took office, he moved his residence from Kiev, first to Vladimir, and then to Russia, upon the request of Ivan Kalita, the Grand Duke of Moscow. Peter prophesied that Moscow would emerge as the center of Russia, and that it would liberate the country from the Mongols.

Peter’s arrival in Moscow transformed the town into Russia’s spiritual center. It was necessary for this newly found status to be reflected and commemorated in appropriate monuments, i.e. churches. Therefore, Ivan began the building of the Cathedral of the Archangel, which was dedicated to the Archangel Michael.

This was where the rulers of Moscow, from Ivan Kalita to Ivan V, were buried. In addition, following Peter’s advice, the Cathedral of the Assumption (known also as the Cathedral of the Dormition), which was dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, was built. This cathedral would become Moscow’s main church and the place where all the tsars would be crowned.

The Cathedral of the Assumption one of the churches of the Kremlin. (Andrey Korchagin / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The Cathedral of the Assumption one of the churches of the Kremlin. (Andrey Korchagin / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

It has been hypothesized that both cathedrals were built on sites which were already occupied by churches, though these were wooden structures. Ivan’s cathedrals, on the other hand, were built of stone. Unfortunately, the original 14 th century structures have not survived till this day.

Fortifying the Kremlin and Russia

Between 1366 and 1368, the oaken wall of the Kremlin was replaced by one made of white limestone. This project was carried out by Dmitri II (known also as Dmitri Donskoi), the Grand Prince of Moscow, as he was preparing to challenge the authority of the Mongols. In addition to fortifying the Kremlin, Dmitri strengthened his position by subduing other Russian princes.

As for the Mongols, Dmitri kept them satisfied by paying them an annual tribute. When the Mongols were faced with internal conflicts, however, Dmitri seized the opportunity to rebel. He refused to continue paying tribute to them and encouraged the other Russian princes to join him.

In 1380, Dmitri defeated Mamai, the effective ruler of the White Horde (the western part of the Golden Horde), at the Battle of Kulikovo on the Don River (hence, Dmitri’s surname, ‘Donskoi’, meaning ‘of the Don’). This victory was short-lived, as two years later, Tokhtamysh, who overthrew Mamai and reunited the Golden Horde, captured Moscow, and sacked it. Dmitri pledged his loyalty to Tokhtamysh, continued paying the annual tribute to the Mongols, and had his positions restored.

Tokhtamysh in front of Kremlin before he sacked Moscow. (Shakko / Public Domain)

Tokhtamysh in front of Kremlin before he sacked Moscow. (Shakko / Public Domain)

Tokhtamysh’s reunification of the Golden Horde was brief. By the end of the 14th century, the Golden Horde had broken up into smaller khanates, which then declined rapidly. While the Mongols were suffering from fragmentation, the Russians were united under Ivan III (known also as Ivan the Great), the great-grandson of Dmitri II. In addition to the title of Grand Prince of Moscow that he held, Ivan adopted another one, Grand Prince of All Rus’, which demonstrated his dominion over the rest of Russia.

Moscow’s new imperial status was also announced through the reconstruction of the Kremlin. For this undertaking, Ivan invited skilled architects from Renaissance Italy, including Pietro Antonio Solari and Marco Ruffo to Moscow.

It was during Ivan’s reign that the Kremlin’s crenelated brick walls and towers (originally 18 but increased to 20 during the 17 th century) were built. Over the centuries, parts of the wall were demolished, damaged, and restored.

Nevertheless, some of the original 15 th century construction has survived to this day. Incidentally, the walls were painted red, the color of Communism and Revolution, under Stalin’s orders in 1947.

Kremlin and Red Square, Moscow (Russian Federation). (UNESCO / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Kremlin and Red Square, Moscow (Russian Federation). (UNESCO / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Cathedrals of the Kremlin

Apart from the walls and towers, a number of buildings were constructed by Ivan in the Kremlin. These include three cathedrals that are still standing today – the Cathedral of the Assumption (rebuilt from the earlier one between 1475 and 1479), the Cathedral of the Annunciation (completed in 1489), and the Cathedral of the Archangel (rebuilt from the earlier one between 1505 and 1508).

Other structures built during this period include the Church of the Deposition of the Robe, which served as the home church of the Metropolitans (and later, Patriarchs) of Moscow until the 17 th century, and the Palace of the Facets (known also as the Faceted Chamber), which served as a throne hall for state receptions. Moreover, Ivan the Great Bell Tower was constructed at this time.

Domes of Ivan the Great Bell Tower in the Kremlin. (Godot13 / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Domes of Ivan the Great Bell Tower in the Kremlin. (Godot13 / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Although the tower was built between 1505 and 1508, it only attained its current height a century later. It was Boris Godunov, the first non-Rurikid tsar, who increased the tower’s height, and topped it with a gilded dome. Standing at a height of 265.7 feet (81 meters) the Ivan the Great Bell-Tower was the tallest building in Muscovite Russia.

Other Additions that Enhance the Kremlin

When the reconstruction of the Kremlin was completed, efforts were made to separate the citadel form the rest of the city. For instance, no structure was allowed to be built within the immediate vicinity of the Kremlin. Additionally, a 98.5 foot (30 meter) wide moat was dug around the citadel, so as to separate it from the neighboring Kitay-gorod (known also as the Great Possad), the city’s walled merchant town.

View of part of the moat built around the Kremlin. (Ludvig14 / CC BY-SA 3.0)

View of part of the moat built around the Kremlin. (Ludvig14 / CC BY-SA 3.0)

New structures, however, were added within the walls of the Kremlin by successive Muscovite rulers. As an example, during the 17 th century, after the Romanovs came to power, the Armorial Gate, the Terem Palace, and the Amusement Palace were built. The first no longer exists, the second served as the residence of the tsars, while the third was constructed for Ilya Miloslavsky, the father-in-law of Alexei, the second tsar of the Romanov dynasty.

One of Alexei’s sons was Peter, known also as Peter the Great, who became sole ruler of Russia in 1696. Peter is best-known for his modernization of Russia, and one of the things he did to achieve this was to establish a port on the Baltic Sea, which allowed Russia to conduct trade with the West.

Thus, in 1703, during the Great Northern War, the city of St. Petersburg was established. Initially, the city existed only as a fortress (the Peter and Paul Fortress) in the swamps of an island (Zayachy Island) near the mouth of the Neva River. By 1713, however, Peter’s court had moved to St. Petersburg.

In the two centuries that followed, St. Petersburg served as Russia’s capital (although it shifted back to Moscow briefly during the reign of Peter II, the grandson of Peter the Great). Moscow only regained its status as Russia’s capital in 1917, when the Bolsheviks seized power.

As a consequence of Moscow’s loss of its status as the Russian capital, the Kremlin fell into neglect. Nevertheless, it still retained its symbolic importance, as the emperors of Russia continued to be crowned there. In addition, construction work was carried out at the Kremlin from time to time.

During the reign of the Great, for example, the Kremlin Senate was constructed. As another example, the Grand Kremlin Palace was constructed in the 19th century, during the reign of Nicholas I. While new buildings were added, old ones were removed as well during this period.

Kremlin Senate. ( / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Kremlin Senate. ( / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Grand Kremlin Palace, for instance, used to be the Winter Palace, a Baroque structure built during the 1750 according to the design of Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli, an Italian architect. The palace and the nearby Church of Saint John the Precursor were demolished for the construction of the Grand Kremlin Palace.

When the French were forced to retreat from Moscow, Napoleon ordered the whole Kremlin to be blown up. While a number of buildings were destroyed or damaged, the Kremlin was spared from complete destruction, as some of the fuses were damaged by rain.

Following the Russian Revolution in 1917, the monarchy was abolished. The Russian Empire came to an end and was replaced by Soviet Russia. In 1918, the Soviet government moved the capital from St. Petersburg (renamed as Petrograd) back to Moscow, thereby giving the Kremlin a new lease of life.

The Soviet leader Lenin chose the Kremlin Senate as his residence and his room has been preserved as a museum. His successor, Stalin, also had his personal rooms in the Kremlin. By this time, symbols of the old tsarist regime were removed from the Kremlin and replaced with Soviet ones.

For instance, the Russian imperial eagles on the towers were replaced with Soviet stars. The Kremlin became synonymous with the government of the Soviet Union and remained as such until its collapse in 1991.

Like their predecessors, the Soviets added a number of buildings to the Kremlin, though much fewer than them. These include the School for Red Commanders (known also as the Kremlin Presidium), and the Palace of Congresses.

The Kremlin has outlasted both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, as it continues to serve as the seat of government of the Russian state. In addition to being Russia’s administrative center, the Kremlin has also been turned into a tourist center. Some of the buildings in the Kremlin have been turned into museums.

The Kremlin Armoury, for instance, used to be the royal arsenal. Today, it houses a large collection of artifacts from Russia and abroad, including the Imperial Crown of Russia, the ivory throne of Ivan the Terrible, and weapons and armor from Persia.

Kremlin Armoury. ( / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Kremlin Armoury. ( / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Apart from that, church services are held in the Kremlin’s cathedrals once more. Lastly, the Kremlin was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1990.

Top image: Distance view of the Kremlin. Source: parsadanov / Adobe Stock.

By Wu Mingren


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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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