Vol. XII, No. 144, December 2013
A Visit to Kremlin and Red Square,
An Odyssey thru Russia’s Czarist Past
By M.P. PRABHAKARAN
Part of the Kremlin complex. The building with a flag fluttering atop is
the Grand Kremlin Palace. Built in 1830-1849 as the czar’s Moscow residence,
when the capital of Russia was St. Petersburg, it is now the official residence
of the President of the Russian Federation.
(The picture is reproduced by courtesy of Erich Poole/National Geographic.)
Communism collapsed in the Soviet Union, leading to the disintegration of the country into its constituent republics, in 1991. The outcomes of the collapse have been both positive and negative. One of the positive outcomes is that ordinary foreigners like me are now able to visit the Kremlin and Red Square without being shadowed by secret police.
The two historic sites in Moscow, the seat of governmental power from the days of the czars, were shrouded in secrecy when the communists controlled them. Thanks to the lifting of that secrecy in the wake of the collapse of communism, they have become two of the most coveted tourist destinations in the world. I had the pleasure of visiting them last month. The experience was awesome.
It began the moment I entered the main Kremlin gate. The word kremlin – spelled with lower case 'k' – evolved from the Russian word kreml, meaning a central fortress in a city. In medieval times, the capitals of Russian principalities were built around kremlins. A kremlin traditionally contained cathedrals, palaces for princes and bishops, governmental offices, and stores for ammunition. The Moscow Kremlin has kept up the tradition to this day, except that during the atheistic communists' rule, the cathedrals were used for purposes other than religious.
The history of the Moscow Kremlin dates from 1156. The original wooden walls were rebuilt in white stone, in the 14th century. They were again rebuilt, this time in red brick, in the late 15th century. It was done during the reign of Ivan III (1462-1505), also known as Ivan the Great. He commissioned Italian architects to do the job.
Of course, the crenellated brick walls, with 20 towers (19 of them with spires), that we see today are the repaired and renovated versions of what the Italians built. The Kremlin has many entrances. The main entrance is the one at the bottom of the Spasskaya (Savior) Tower, built in 1491 by Pietro Solario. The chimes of the clock on top of the tower are broadcast by radio as a time signal to the whole country. The star we see atop the spire of the tower was added after the communists occupied the Kremlin.
Moscow had become the seat of the Russian Orthodox Church as early as 1326. With the city spreading outside the walls of the then-kremlin, the complex within the walls became the base of the twin powers of state and religion. Ivan the Great added three magnificent cathedrals to the complex, which are among the main tourist attractions in the Kremlin. Cathedral Square (Sobornaya ploshchad in Russian) in the Kremlin is called so mainly because of these three cathedrals. A few more were added by different rulers, in different time periods.
The Cathedral of the Assumption
The oldest one is the Cathedral of the Assumption or the Cathedral of Dormition. Built in 1475-79, in the Italian-Byzantine style, it is considered one of the most majestic pieces of architecture in Cathedral Square. Some of Russia's prized icons were created especially for this cathedral. The Orthodox metropolitans and patriarchs of the 14th-to-18th-entury period were buried in it. It has also witnessed many coronations and royal weddings.
The second cathedral we visited was the Cathedral of the Annunciation. What we see today is not the original one. The one Ivan III built in 1484-89, was destroyed in a fire in 1547. It was rebuilt in 1562-64 by Ivan IV, famously known as Ivan the Terrible. Its chapels have golden roofs and domes. Among the beautiful icons inside the cathedral are those painted by Theophanes the Greek and his pupil Andrey Rublyov. The two are considered the greatest of all Russian icon painters.
The third place of worship commissioned by Ivan III was the Cathedral of the Archangel Michael. It was built in 1505-08. Ivan III did not live to see its completion. He died in 1505. The walls of the cathedral are adorned with portraits of Russian princes and an icon of St. Michael. Until 1712, all the princes and czars of Russia (except Boris Godunov) who died after its construction were buried in it. (In 1712, Peter the Great moved Russia’s capital to St. Petersburg. It was moved back to Moscow in 1922.) A special area in the Archangel Cathedral is dedicated to Ivan the Terrible’s son. It is said that the young prince, whom Ivan the Terrible had been grooming to be his successor, was killed in heated argument between the father and the son.
As we came out of the Archangel Cathedral, our attention was drawn to another Kremlin attraction: the 266-foot-tall Ivan the Great Bell Tower. Until the 19th century, no building in Moscow was allowed to be taller than this. Until then, it was also used as a watchtower. There are 21 bells in the tower and belfry, of which the 70-ton Assumption Bell, located in the central arch of the belfry, is the largest. It was always the first bell to ring on church holidays, a signal that would prompt all other churches in Moscow to follow suit. The custom came to an end in 1918, when communists took over the Kremlin. It was revived in 1992.
Displayed on the ground, next to the bell tower, are the Czar Bell and the Czar Cannon. The Czar Bell, cast in 1733-35 on orders from the czarina and weighing 202 tons, never rang. It was broken while being cast. Before the molten metal in the pit in which it was being cast cooled completely, water entered the pit while workers were trying to extinguish a nearby fire. It caused the bell to break. The 11-ton shard of metal that came off one side of the bell is also on display, near the broken bell.
The Czar Cannon, built at the end of the 16th century, looks more like a work of art than a weapon. We were told that it was fired at least once. But looking at the cannon balls lying in front of its barrel, one could tell that none of them could have come out of that barrel. They are too big for it. As a piece of art, however, the cannon is quite impressive.
Another impressive structure in Cathedral Square is the Cathedral of the Twelve Apostles and the Patriarch’s Palace. Unlike the other iconic structures of the period, this one was built not by any czar. It was built by Patriarch Nikon, in 1652-1658, as a challenge to the czar. He had a contentious relationship with Czar Alexis, who ruled Russia from 1645 to 1676. It is said Patriarch Nikon built the palace to outdo the czar’s Terem Palace (described below) in opulence.
The church, dedicated to the Twelve Apostles, was added to the palace as the patriarch's private chapel. However, modeled on the great 12th-century churches of Vladimir and Suzdal, it is as big a tourist draw as the other churches in Cathedral Square. Both the palace and the church were considerably damaged in the 1917 Bolshevik attack on the Kremlin, and closed in 1918. They were restored and reopened as a museum in the 1950s. The museum contains a number of icons salvaged from other cathedrals, as well as furniture and ecclesiastical costumes of the 17th century.
The Terem Palace
Two other buildings in Cathedral Square that catch visitors’ attention are the Palace of Facets, built in 1487-91, and the Terem Palace, built in 1635-36. The Palace of Facets is called so because of its exterior finish of faceted, white stone squares. Once used as a banquet and reception hall for the czars and their distinguished guests, it became part of the Grand Kremlin Palace, built as a royal residence in 1838-49. Its legendary Red Porch was destroyed in the 1930s, on orders from Stalin. It was reconstructed in the wake of the 1950s’ de-Stalinization in the country, mainly because it was called the Red Porch. As we know, the word red and the color red have an association with communism. (More about that association, later.)
The Terem Palace incorporates several older churches, including that of the Resurrection of Lazarus, dating from 1393. This uniquely Russian building was the royal residence of the czars. The original structure needed rebuilding twice – first, after it was nearly destroyed by fire and, later, when it was damaged by Napoleon’s troops. During Napoleon’s invasion, in 1812, his troops had destroyed or damaged many iconic structures in the Kremlin. When the Grand Kremlin Palace was built, the Terem Palace was incorporated in it.
The Grand Kremlin Palace, also known as the Great Kremlin Palace (the Russian name is Bolshoy Kremlyovskiy Dvorets), is a mammoth structure with 700 rooms. By the time it was completed, in 1849, the capital of Russia had moved to St. Petersburg. So the Moscow palace became the Moscow residence of the czars. It was also connected to the Armory Palace, which is now the Armory Museum. The museum has a large collection of the czars’ treasures.
The Grand Kremlin Palace is now the official residence of the President of the Russian Federation. Tourists, except those on state visits, are not allowed inside. From a distance, our Russian tour guide pointed to the area which the present president, Vladimir Putin, uses as his office. Unlike the czars of old, “the present czar doesn’t live here,” the guide said. The sarcasm was not lost on us.
During communist times the Grand Kremlin Palace was used for sessions of the Supreme Soviet of the U.S.S.R. The only additions the communists made to the Kremlin complex were the School for Red Commanders, built in 1932-34 and the Palace of Congresses, built in 1960-61. As works of art and architecture, they can’t hold a candle to the czarist-era buildings in the complex.
Tour of Red Square
After we finished the tour of the Kremlin, our guide brought us to the adjoining Red Square. Red Square has a rich history behind it. In the 16th century, when the czar cleared the area and allowed vendors, shopkeepers and other businessmen to occupy it, it was only a marketplace. In time it got transformed into a venue for important state ceremonies and celebrations. The coronation of some of the czars also took place there. The platform, used during czarist times for making important proclamations and sometimes conducting public executions, is still there. During the Cold War period, the May Day Parade in Red Square used to be an annual event at which the Soviet Union showed off its military might and the proclaimed superiority of communism over capitalism. The May Day Parade is still held there, but without the pomp and pageantry of Soviet days.
The day we were in Red Square, workers were seen dismantling the VIP podium and viewers’ gallery erected in connection with another annual event which had ended a few days earlier – the Military Festival held from September 1 to 9. Every winter, the square gets converted into a skating rink. It is an important revenue earner for the state. “But very expensive,” our guide hastened to add, “only the rich can afford it.”
After giving us a brief talk on the museums and other important places in the square worth visiting, our guide left us on our own. But she made it a point to mention that no tourist would come to Red Square and not visit St. Basil’s Cathedral. All of us in the group nodded in agreement. It is a marvelous piece of art and architecture from which Red Square is supposed to have got its name. The guide also strongly recommended visiting the State History Museum. If time permitted, she added, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to do some window-shopping at GUM, the largest department store in Moscow. GUM is acronym for the store’s Russian name, Glavnyi Universalnyi Magazin. I was disappointed to hear from the guide that Lenin’s Mausoleum, which was across the square from GUM, was closed that day. I decided to come back the next day, mainly because rumors were rife that Lenin’s embalmed body that lies in the mausoleum could any day be removed and buried somewhere else.
Significance of Red in Russian Culture
There is a tendency to associate the word red and Red Square with communism, as I have been doing all these years. The Russian name for Red Square is Krasnaya Ploshchad. The name was already in place long before the Bolshevik Revolution, long before the square came under communist control. The word krasnaya means either red or beautiful or sacred, the color red being associated with beauty and sacredness in Russian tradition. In olden days, Russian-Orthodox households used to have a krasni ugol, meaning red corner. It was the special place at which the families’ icons and religious accoutrements were kept.
Red Square means beautiful, or special, square. And what made it so, historians say, was the beauty and special appeal of St. Basil’s Cathedral on its premises. The cathedral was built by Ivan the Terrible, between 1555 and 1561, to celebrate his capture of the city of Kazan from Tatar Mongols. Because the capture occurred on the day of the Feast of the Intercession of the Virgin, it was also called Cathedral of the Intercession of the Virgin.
Famous for its nine onion-shaped domes, each with a chapel underneath adorned with beautiful icons, paintings and other artworks on the walls and on the inside of the dome, it is an architectural wonder. One of the chapels was built over the grave of St. Vasily (Basil) the Blessed, and hence the more popularly known name St. Basil’s Cathedral or, to be exact, the Cathedral of St. Basil the Blessed.
Ironically, the same cathedral, to which Red Square supposedly owes its name, was one of the places of worship closed on orders from the reddest of the Reds, to use the term in its political sense. The person I am referring to is Lenin. Stalin who succeeded him even thought of tearing it down. Fortunately for Russia and for art lovers around the world, it survived. It was reopened in the 1950s as a museum. Now the museum attracts more visitors than Lenin’s Mausoleum does. And this, in spite of the fact that admission to Lenin’s Mausoleum is free and, to visit St. Basil’s Cathedral, one has to pay 200 rubles (approximately seven U.S. dollars).
As we came out of St. Basil’s Cathedral, we heard from our guide that it was time to call it a day. As I boarded the bus that would take us to the point where we started the tour, I couldn’t help asking myself: “Would I have had this unforgettable experience if the communists were still in control of the Kremlin and Red Square?”
The answer is obvious. For me, the tour of the two places was an odyssey through Russia’s czarist past.
Caption to the picture, above right: St. Basil's Cathedral, in Moscow's Red Square, on the day the author visited it, in September 2013.
(Published on October 27, 2013)
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