Click on photos to enlarge.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Kremlin, Moscow

From the river, the Kremlin wall, now decorated with a forest of greenery,
at best, appears to be a retaining wall guarding a riverside highway. The
 architectural contrasts are jarring.
It would be something of an understatement to say that Moscow's Kremlin is impressive. It would also be an overstatement to say it's beautiful. Individually, the Kremlin has some churches and palaces that one might go so far as to mention their architectural beauty. However, there is one aspect of the Kremlin, so typically Russian, that robs it of any potential beauty. It's that damned brick wall around the sixty-eight acres perched on its knoll overlooking the Moscow River. There were times, during the city's thousand-year history when the wall--first made of wood, later white limestone, and now red brick--was absolutely necessary. However that hasn't been the case for over three-hundred years. It didn't keep Napoleon out in 1814, and most certainly wouldn't have stopped Hitler (if he'd made it that far); and today, would only pose a minor nuisance to any invading enemy besieging the place. Yet it persists, as much a part of the Russian psyche as onion domes and the gold leaf adorning their many palaces.

Grand Kremlin Palace, Andreevsky Hall. The Kremlin Palace, as do those in St. Petersburg, compare quite favorably with Versailles. Andreevsky Hall is kind of like Versailles' Hall of Mirrors...but without the mirrors. It doesn't need mirrors, just look at that floor. 
Inside the walled triangle of the Kremlin is a small city within a city, only open to the public within the last fifty year. Within, is an opulent environment that is eye-popping and jaw-dropping, in line with the Russian penchant for not knowing when enough is enough. Yes, it could be said to be beautiful, but only in the 18th-century context of the royal palace competition sparked by Louis XV's Versailles. Should the Russian's redecorate the whole place? Of course not. As I mentioned before, it's part of who they are as a people; and who are we to impose our aesthetic values upon an entire nation. It's designed specifically to impress visiting heads of state (not to mention tourists); and that it does magnificently.

Russian President Putin's quarters are either just behind Lenin's tomb (bottom-center)
or in the Kremlin Palace (sources differ).
Only in surveying a detailed, annotated map, such as that which I've enhanced (above), can one gain any sense of the scope and nature of this ancient Russian bastion. Though it's several hundred years older, in some ways the Kremlin has seen some events not unlike our own nation's capital. The Kremlin fell to Napoleon (briefly) in 1812. Washington, D.C. was invaded by the British during the War of 1812, though the Capitol and the Executive Mansion were not burned until 1814. When Napoleon retreated (disastrously) he left orders to blow up the Kremlin, and to some extent it was. Damage was extensive. Hitler, on the other hand, had in mind to obliterate the entire city of Moscow.

Moscow Kremlin, damage in the wake of Napoleon, A. Bakarev, 1812
I mentioned earlier that the Kremlin was like a city within a city. In fact, the very word "Kremlin" means "fortress within a city." It should be noted, therefore, that other ancient cities in Russia have their own kremlins. The Moscow Kremlin was went up about the time the city developed around 1090. At the time it was little more than a modest, wooden stockade. Until around 1313, the fortress was known as a "grad" (or fort). It was destroyed by the Mongols in 1237 and rebuilt in heavy oak in 1339, and thought to be impenetrable. It wasn't. Just twenty-six years later the Kremlin fell to raiders. The city was burned. The following year (1367) they began rebuilding, this time with white limestone hauled on sledges in the dead of winter from a quarry thirty miles from Moscow. This walls withstood two sieges during the Lithuanian–Muscovite War (1368–72). A few years later, the whole city was adorned with beautiful white-stone walls. Despite the new walls, the city fell to the Tatars in 1382, though the massive Kremlin fortification suffered no damage.

Moscow's Kremlin has had something of a tortured existence.

The Assumption Cathedral and the bell
tower of Ivan the Great.
Despite its useless, obtrusive walls, the Kremlin today rests in a park-like setting that is relatively recent. Landscaping the Kremlin was not near the top of Lenin's to-do lists when the Bolsheviks took over the former Tsarist fortress in 1918. Strangely enough, most the Kremlin we see today was not built by the Russians, but by Italian architects, engineers, and skilled builders between the years 1485 and 1495. I also find it quite strange that, for an atheistic country, there are so many churches within the Kremlin. I counted five, and that doesn't include St. Basil's Cathedral on Red Square just outside the walls. Of course, religious ceremonies are seldom held in any of them, but to the government's credit, they are now (since 1955) open for the public to admire the characteristic Russian tastes in ornament-ation and architectural ideals. The Ivan the Great Bell Tower (left) is the tallest structure within the Kremlin.

Largely the same view as the night scene (top) but from the air. The whole fortress
was once surrounded by a moat where now is the park and Red Square.
The throne of Peter the Great.
As in most other major Russian cities, the churches with the Kremlin function today as museums. And while the Communist government did its best to erase all vestiges of Imperial rule from their capitol complex, many tsarist relics have crept back, including the grand throne room (below) and the exquisitely ornate throne of Peter the Great (left). Despite the grandeur of the Kremlin Palace, Cathedral Square is the heart of the Kremlin. It is surrounded by six buildings, including three cathedrals. The Cathedral of the Dormition was completed in 1479 as the main church of Moscow where all the Tsars were crowned. The massive limestone facade, capped with its five golden cupolas was the design of the Italian architect, Aristotele Fioravanti. The gilded, three-domed Cathedral of the Annunciation was completed next in 1489. It was reconstructed to a nine-domed design a century later. On the south-east of the square is the much larger Cathedral of the Archangel Michael (1508), where almost all the Muscovite monarchs are interred.

The Kremlin Palace throne room.
Along with all the walls, towers, churches, palaces, and tsarist whims, it must be remembered that the Kremlin is first and foremost the governmental center of modern day Russia. It's where President Obama goes when he visits to meet with his Russia counterpart (below). When long motorcades became a problem tying up traffic on Moscow's broad avenues, President Putin had installed a heliport, much like that on the south lawn of the White House. The Palace of Congresses meets in a relatively new building within the Kremlin's ancient walls; the Russian President lives here when he's in town; and numerous government bureaucracies are headquartered just aft of Lenin's Red Square mausoleum. Yet it's also where you would go to see the biggest bell in the world and the largest canon ever cast (bottom), two tsarist whims that didn't turn out too well. The bell cracked during casting and the cannonballs, each weighing one ton, were too massive and heavy to make the gun practical. It was, however, fired at least once.

American President Barrack Obama meets with then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev
in his Kremlin office, July, 2009. It's not the throne room, but it's close.
The Tsar's Bell and his canon rest within the Kremlin as imperial curiosities.


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