The term kremlin (kreml') refers to the central citadel in many medieval Russian towns, usually located at a strategic spot along a river. Moscow's Kremlin is the seat and symbol of the Russian government. The present-day Kremlin in Moscow is a vast citadel with gilded onion-dome churches and government offices, surrounded by a massive wall with spiky towers and grand entrance gates. Perched on 125-foot-high Borovitsky Hill, next to the Moscow River, this medieval complex has been the center of Russian and Soviet power for more than 400 years.

The Kremlin is where Ivan the Terrible unleashed his reign terror, where Napoleon set up his headquarters, where Lenin established his dictatorship of the proletariat, where Stalin gave out commands for purges and Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Putin issued their reforms and orders.

Today the Kremlin is both a major tourist attraction and the home of the Russian government. Maintaining order are policemen and KGB agents who blow whistles and wave you down if you take one step outside of the area designated for tourists.

Lenin's Apartment is where Lenin lived and worked during his five years in the Kremlin was left exactly like it was on the day he died. Photographs of him as a child and as a old man after a stroke are lined up on a desk. Chipped plates in the cabinets and cheap Brentwood chairs are testimony the he did in fact live a very spartan existence. Lenin lived with his wife and unmarried sister and the three of them used make music together with Lenin on the piano and the women singing. In Lenin's library are over 8,000 books. Visitors are not allowed to visit the apartment but you can visit the Central Lenin Museum which contains his study and his car. Visitors to Lenin's apartment need an escort even to go to the bathroom. Why? The President office is nearby.

History of the Kremlin

Kremlin means fort. The first structure to stand here was a wooden stockade built in the 12th century by a group of Rus-Viking traders along the Moscow River. During the Mongol period in 13th and 14th century, fires swept through Moscow every 20 years or so. The only structure left from this period are a chapel and a crypt.

The Kremlin became the center of the Russian Orthodox Church when the church moved its headquarters from Vladamir to Moscow in the 1320s. A white limestone wall went up in the 1360s, roughly surrounding the area occupied by the Kremlin today.

Ivan the Terrible raised the huge fortress walls and brought in foreign architects to design the palaces and churches inside. Two of the three main cathedrals were designed by Italian architects between 1475 and 1510 based on domed churches in Vladamir. The project took 30 years to complete. By the time it was finished the entire city of Muscovy was contained within it walls.

The tsars that came after Ivan enlarged the Kremlin, as the Russian empire itself expanded to the Black Sea and across the Urals to the Pacific. The Kremlin fell into a state of decay after Peter the Great moved the Russian capital to St. Petersburg in 1712. Both Catherine the Great and Napoleon had plans to destroy it. The Kremlin was not brought back to life until the Bolsheviks returned the capital of Russia to Moscow 1918 and established their base there. In 1922, when the Soviet Union was created, it became the center of power of that entity. Stalin tore down the original entrance to Red Square and an 18th century chapel there so that tanks could drive into the square for parades.

Orientation at the Kremlin

The Kremlin walls form a northward-pointing triangle. Each wall is about 750 meter long and the area inside them is about 69 acres. On the south side of the walls is the Moscow River. On the east side is Red Square. On the west side is Alexandrovskii Gardens. The latter used to be occupied by a river, but the water was subverted into an underground pipe.

The Kremlin's massive castellated walls up to 20 feet thick. At each corner there is a circular tower and over each gate is a rectangular one. Between the towers on the outside of the wall is good sled run. Surrounding the building inside are fountains, pathways, and gardens filled gladiolus and roses.

Russian government officials enter through Borovitskaia Tower which is right next to the water pumping tower which is on the opposite side of the Kremlin from Red Square. Buildings open to the public inside the walls include the Arsenal and the Armory, both now museums; and golden domed Archangel, Annunciation and Assumption cathedrals. Among the buildings closed to the public are the Presidium, Council of Ministers, Place of Congresses and the Grand Kremlin Palace, which are all used by the Russian government.

Government Buildings Inside the Kremlin

Visitors walk through Kufafya Tower and then walk across a ramp over what used to be the Neglinnaya River and then pass through the Kremlin Walls under Trinity Gate Tower. To the right after you enter the walls is the 17th-century Poteshny Palace, also known as Palace of Amusements, where Joseph Stalin lived. To the left is the Arsenal, which is surrounded by 800 cannons captured from Napoleon’s army. The Secret Gardens purportedly hold the entrance way to a network of underground tunnels said to have been used by Napoleon when retreated from Moscow when he was welcomed to a city in flames.

State Kremlin Palace (near the visitor's entrance of the Kremlin) is a glass-and-concrete monstrosity built in the early 1960s for Communist Party Congresses. It houses a 6000-seat auditorium formally used for the party congresses and now used primarily as a concert hall. The Bolshoi Ballet and Opera company sometimes perform here. It is said to have excellent acoustics. In 1998, it hosted a Versace fashion show. Generally visitors are not allowed in unless they are attending a concert.

The Patriarch's Palace (next to the State Kremlin Palace) was built in mid-17th-century for the Patriarch Nikon, the reformer who caused the Great schism and led to the creation of the Old Believers. It now housed the Museum of 17th Century Russian Applied Art and Life, which contains icons, illuminated books, church vestments and other religious objects. It also incorporates five-domed Church of the Twelve Apostles.

Senate (next to the Armory) is the focal point of Russian power. The president and many important figures in the government have their offices here. The yellow Senate is a triangular 18th-century classical building. The primary working President's residence is the Senate building (also known as 1st building). The President has a large office there. Not surprisingly the area is off limits to tourists. The President also enjoys the use of a wooded estate outside Moscow.

Presidium Building used to house the offices of the Supreme Soviet which in theory used to govern the country while the Communist party ruled it. Next door is the green-domed Council of Ministers where the President has an office and the Politburo used to meet on Thursday.

Supreme Soviet (next to the Senate) is the Stalin-era building with a 1,500-seat hall where the Supreme Soviet used to meet. It contains a huge podium where the president spoke and desks for the representatives, each of which was equipped with a 16-channel sound system that is supposed to provide translations for the former republics (usually only the Russian one worked).

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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