Overrun by Mongols, rattled by earthquakes and beset by fires, the Kremlin’s fortunes have waxed and waned in tandem with those of Mother Russia. There are several kremlins (fortified city centres) across Russia, but Moscow’s is the definitive one. For much of its lifetime, the Moscow Kremlin was home to the Romanov dynasty – the tsars who ruled Russia for three centuries from 1613. In later years Moscow became their secondary base, after Peter the Great founded his new capital St Petersburg.
The Romanovs didn’t have the most auspicious start – upon
being told he was to inherit the throne, the young Tsar Mikhail reputedly burst
into tears and did his best to duck out of it. It ended on an even more sour
note, with the execution of Tsar Nicholas II and his family by Bolshevik forces
in 1918. Today, President Putin has his offices in the Kremlin’s Senate,
although he recently announced he would do most of his work at his out-of-town
dacha, after complaints about the traffic jams his motorcade was creating.
Arguably the Kremlin’s greatest adversary was Napoleon Bonaparte, who
contemptuously used the 15th-century Assumption Cathedral as a stable for his
horses after invading Moscow in 1812. Upon his subsequent retreat from the
capital, he spitefully ordered the entire Kremlin be destroyed with explosives.
Luckily, rain damaged the fuses, meaning that much of the complex was saved
from being blown apart.
The Kremlin Wall Necropolis is a resting place for the good, the bad and the
ugly of Soviet times – Yuri Gagarin, Joseph Stalin and the embalmed body of
Lenin, in a mausoleum all to himself. Following the Russian Revolution, it
briefly served as an all-purpose mass grave. Among those buried are the victims
of the Aerowagon – a bizarre train propelled by an aircraft engine that crashed
on its way to Moscow in 1921.
Originally intended to store weapons, the Armoury now serves as a museum
housing a stash of treasures from the days of the tsars. It’s home to a
collection of Fabergé eggs – lavish ornaments first commissioned by Tsar
Alexander III as Easter presents for his wife. Each egg has its own distinctive
theme and contains a small ‘surprise’ inside – the most famous is the
Trans-Siberian Railway egg, which includes a tiny wind-up train made of gold.
The play’s the thing
The 17th-century Poteshny Palace was home to the very first Russian theatre –
Tsar Aleksey Mikhailovich enjoyed watching comic plays here, attending church
services soon after to atone for his sinful chuckles. Later, the palace became
home to a markedly humourless leader, Joseph Stalin. Sightings of his ghost
stomping the Kremlin corridors are regularly reported today – allegedly
accompanied by a sharp drop in room temperature.
Saved by the bell
Definitive evidence of the Russian imperial appetite for bumper-sized objects,
the Tsar Bell weighs 202 tons, and as such is the largest bell in the world.
Never rung, it’s not had the happiest history – moulded from an earlier bell
that smashed during a fire, the current bell is in two pieces having cracked in
its foundry pit. Nonetheless, faithful Muscovites believe that the bell will be
rung for the first time on Judgment Day, upon its ascent to Heaven.