Russia – The Kremlin

The word kremlin translates to fort and there are many historic kremlins in Russia. There is, however, only one The Kremlin and it is in the heart of Moscow. It’s beginnings date to the 1150’s when it was a wooden fort known as the “grad” of Moscow. At that time it housed the entire city within its walls. This fort was later destroyed by the Mongols and then rebuilt in the 1300’s when the word Kremlin first came into use. In the 1500’s under the rule of Ivan the Great the current stone walls were built. The fortress was enlarged at this time and Ivan imported master architects and stone masons from Italy to build the new city. It was during this period that most of the cathedrals and palaces were built.

Kremlin clock tower

Kremlin clock tower

The Kremlin is a vast compound, more than 27 hectares, and for centuries has been the seat of Russian political power, machinations and intrigue. The fortified stone wall surrounding it contains 18 watch towers, the tallest being the Spasskaya (Savior) tower with its 4 huge clock faces. These clocks are connected underground to the Institute of Astronomy and are the most accurate time pieces in the country. The Spasskaya tower was the entrance of the Tsars and also used for important dignitaries and religious processions. The 5 sided stars of the soviet era were added to the towers in 1937 by Stalin who molded his political career at the Kremlin. During the soviet years many churches and cathedrals were destroyed across the country. Today, within the Kremlin walls 4 Grand Cathedrals and 3 smaller churches remain.

The Cathedral of the Annunciation

The Cathedral of the Annunciation sits on the crest of Borovitsky Hill, the original of the 7 hills of Moscow. It was built in 1484 by Ivan the Great. It was closed in 1918 under the Bolsheviks and now operates as a museum.

The Cathedral of the Assumption

The Cathedral of the Assumption is the most important church in The Kremlin being the seat of the Russian Orthodox Church. It is here that the Patriarchs (highest clerical rank) and bishops were consecrated and it was here that Tsars were crowned.  The current building was erected in 1472 by Ivan the Great. During soviet times the church was closed and its treasures taken by the Bolsheviks. It reopened to the public in 1990.

The Cathedral of the Archangel

The Cathedral of the Archangel was also commissioned by Ivan the Great, but finished after his death. It has undergone expansion and renovation several times. It is notable as the burial chamber for 46 members of the Imperial family, including Ivan the Great and all the Tsars of the 14th to 17th centuries. This church was also closed during soviet times and since 1955 has operated as a museum.

The Cathedral of the Twelve Apostles in the Patriarch’s Palace

The Cathedral of the Twelve Apostles in the Patriarch’s Palace was built in the 17th century. As with the other Kremlin churches it was shuttered during Soviet times and now operates as the Museum of 17th Century Life and Applied Art.

Ivan the Great Bell Tower

In addition to the cathedrals there are a number of other significant buildings in the Kremlin. The tallest building in the Kremlin is the Ivan the Great Bell Tower at a height of 81 meters. The Bell Tower was commissioned by Grand Prince Vasily III in 1505 as a tribute to his recently deceased father Ivan the Great. It was situated next to the construction site of the new Cathedral of the Archangel which had been commissioned by Ivan as part of his grand plan to update the Kremlin. For 400 years the Bell Tower was the tallest building in Russia. There are 21 bells in the tower and belfry, the largest weighing 70 tons. The last Easter service in the Kremlin took place here in 1918 and then the church was closed. In the 1950’s restoration work was done and an exhibition hall was added which is still in use today.

Great Kremlin Palace behind Assumption Cathedral

The Great Kremlin Palace was built in 1849 by Emperor Nikolai. This 700 room palace became the Moscow residence of the Tsars. After the October Revolution, the Soviets used the building as The Seat of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. Today the building is a museum that juxtaposes Tsarist treasures with Soviet military might.

The Arsenal at the Kremlin

The Arsenal was commissioned by Peter the Great in 1702, but took many years before completion. In 1812 it was blown up by Napoleon’s troops (along with many other Kremlin buildings) and was not reconstructed until 1828. Today the building is used as a barracks and houses a large collection of military hardware.

The Tsar Cannon

The Tsar cannon sits in front of The Arsenal and is one of the largest cannons ever built. It is more than 5 meters long and weighs 39 tons. It has a calibre of 890 millimetres and each cannon ball weighs 1,000 kg. It has never been fired because of logistical problems. Mostly it serves as a symbol of Russian power.

The Tsar Bell

The Tsar Bell also sits outside The Arsenal and like the Tsar Cannon it has never been used. It is the largest bell ever cast and it weighs almost 202 tons. It stands more than 6 meters high and has a sad history. It was poured in 1735, but cracked during cooling and an 11 ton piece came loose. It was only in 1836 that it was finally dug up and placed on exhibit.

Senate Building, Kremlin

The Senate Building  was built in the late 1700’s. It is a triangular building with a central rotunda 27 meters high and 25 meters in diameter containing 24 windows. It currently serves as the official residence of the President of the Russian Federation. The current president Vladimir Putin has updated the complex by installing a helipad for his private use.

I know this has been a long post and I thank you for reading this far. Future posts will be much shorter. The Kremlin was really a lot to take in. I’ll leave you with one final photo. This is a 60′ statue of St. Vladimir the Great that overlooks the Kremlin. It was commissioned by Vladimir Putin and erected in 2016 to the consternation of many Muscovites. The photo was taken from a moving bus so the quality isn’t great, but our guides had a great deal to say about it. I can see why.

Statue of St. Vladimir, Moscow

©voyager, all rights reserved

April 12/18

This post has been edited to correct 2 errors. Thanks to Bruce who pointed out that it was Stalin and not Lenin who added the stars to the Kremlin wall in 1937. They are called Lenin’s stars, but Lenin himself died in 1924. Thanks also to Lumipuna who noticed an error in the date for the construction of the Ivan the Great Bell Tower. It was built in the early 1500’s, not the mid 1500’s as originally noted.


Link to previous post – Russia – Red Square



  1. Bruce says

    This is a great post with wonderful photos.
    Just one detail, where you say “The 5 sided stars of the soviet era were added to the towers in 1937 by Lenin …” I believe you meant Stalin, who ran things since Lenin’s death in 1924.

  2. voyager says

    Chigau and avalus thanks so much. I was worried it might be boring with all those dates.

    Bruce, you’re right. I thank you for pointing that out. I’ll fix that. And thanks for the kind words.

  3. lumipuna says

    Heh, I had this impression that Moscow’s development was pretty much neglected after St. Petersburg became the capital in the 1710s. Obviously, it’s not that straightforward.

    As for nitpicking, I think the monarch in “mid 1500s” would be Ivan the Great’s grandson Ivan the Terrible. He was the first one to officially call himself czar/emperor, although his grandfather was the first to occasionally use that title. Originally, the Russian monarchs were grand dukes or whatever the proper English term is.

    For some reason, in English, Russia is not considered an “empire” until Czar Peter the Great made it great again in Great Northern War. The period 1547-1721 is called “Czardom of Russia”, while 1721-1917 is “Russian Empire”.

  4. Nightjar says

    Thank you, voyager, that was a most interesting read. I particularly enjoyed the bits about the Tsar Cannon and the Tsar Bell and I have to ask, do you know if they were ever meant to be used (and only later was it realized that it was waaaay too much ambition) or did they build them only to show off knowing they would never be functional?

  5. voyager says

    Lumipuma -- Thanks. I don’t mind nitpicking. I usually learn something. You are right about the dates. The Bell Tower was commissioned by Grand Prince Vasily III in 1505 as a tribute to his recently deceased father Ivan the Great. It was situated next to the construction site of the new Cathedral of the Archangel which had been commissioned by Ivan as part of his grand plan to update the Kremlin. Prince Vasily’s son Ivan the Terrible was the ruler in the mid 1500’s. I will add this information to the post.

    Nightjar -- Both were meant to be used, isn’t that interesting. The cannon was most likely meant to shoot something called “grape-shot” which is just loose smaller artillery tied up in a sac. The cannon balls weren’t meant to be used. As for the bell, it was commissioned by Empress Anna Ioanova who wanted it cast in France, but they refused her saying it couldn’t be done. Instead it was given to a Russian firm who prepared for 2 years before the metal was poured. A fire struck during the cooling and that is when the bell cracked.

  6. Kreator says

    You know, the story of the bell reminds me of an animated movie from my country, Ico the Brave Horse. In the backstory, a selfish and greedy king decides to use all his ill-gotten gold to cast a gigantic bell in order to show off his wealth and power. The bell is completed and installed atop a tower, but its enormous weight causes the structure to become unstable. Disregarding the advice of his underlings, the arrogant king decides to toll the bell anyway, and as he does so the tower finally collapses, crushing him underneath his golden bell in an ironic twist of fate.
    What I find truly interesting about this, however, is that that film actually became popular in the Soviet Union, where it debuted at the Moscow International Film Festival.

  7. lumipuna says

    Apparently, the cannon balls are made of stone, since a steel ball of that caliber would weigh closer to 3,000 kg. I guess stone is a cheaper and easier material for giant props -- if you actually wanted to shoot 1,000 kg balls, you’d make a smaller cannon and use steel balls. Shooting 3,000 kg balls with that cannon might be impossible/highly unsafe, and just handling the balls would be extremely cumbersome.

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