On the 400th anniversary of the Romanovs, Russia’s dynasty of tsars, explore the often grave and sometimes amusing history of Moscow’s fortified city centre.

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.

Napoleon Dynamite
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.

Grave matters
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.

Your Egg-celency
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.