Day one in Moscow!
Jordan and I had heard that the Red Square and/or the Kremlin might be closed over the weekend for an event, so we hurried down to the Kremlin to spend the day.
It snowed pretty much all day long, dusting the Alexander Gardens in a fine white layer. The Kremlin walls rose behind, the towers shooting into the sky. Moscow was founded a little before 1147 by a Slavic prince who’s ancestors came from modern-day Ukraine (it seems most Russians are Slavs originating from modern-day Eastern Europe). “Kremlin” is basically an ancient Russian word that means “fortress.” As the Slavs moved into modern-day Russia, pushing the natives, Finn-Ugric tribes, further east to the Ural mountain range, they built the fortress, or Kremlin. At first it was probably just earthen walls. After the Mongols (think Chenggis Khaan’s great-grandsons of the Golden Horde), the walls were rebuilt out of oak. In 1366-68 the wooden walls became limestone, and later in 1485-95 red brick resurfaced the walls. Although the Kremlin walls have seen far more exciting history since then, the walls at least retain their red brick appearance today.
Although guidebooks typically say that tickets for the Armoury is a bit complicated and time slots must be strictly followed, we had no problems. I assume it’s because it was winter and not many tourists were around.
Inside the Armoury, which we couldn’t take photos in, we saw Faberge eggs (famously given by Romanovs to one another on Easter), Ivan the III’s helmet from the 13th century, a famous double-seated throne for Peter the Great (at age 10) and his older, sickly brother (Ivan, age 16). Ridiculously ornate carriages filled one room, and we gaped at the empresses’ wedding gowns.
“Look at that waist! I can fit both hands around that!” Jordan pointed to a lovely silver-and-ivory gown with long sleeves, long train, and impossibly thin middle. “I could fit one hand around it!”
“Well, she looks petite,” I reasoned, trying to measure the woman’s shoulder with based on the size of the dress. I glanced down. “Ah, it’s Catherine the Great’s wedding dress. She was 16. A few years later she murdered her husband and had passionate love affairs while educating Russians about poetry and theater.” (There’s not a lot of proof that she actually had her husband assassinated, but it was a wild rumor at the time).
Once finished with the Armoury (which was definitely the highlight of the Kremlin complex for us), we strolled back outside and marveled at the Kremlin Palace building. Do the way were all the famous, fabulous churches.
The Dormition Cathedral, technically founded in 1326, wasn’t constructed until 1472. Russian architects weren’t that great at the time, and the domed cathedral collapsed. Italian architects came in and finished in in 1479. It was here that the first of the Romanov dynasty was crowned in 1613, and the last emperor, Nicholas II, in 1896.
Inside, amid the beautiful frescos and mosaics, lie metropolitans, heads of Russian Orthodoxy, and their relics.
Nestled right beside the Dormition Cathedral is a much smaller, more intimate affair: the Deposition of the Robe of the Holy Virgin chapel. All of these churches are now museums (thanks to Soviet Russia), and this one houses lovely ancient wooden sculptures and carvings. All saints and historical figures are depicted in traditional Russian dress and hats. This church was founded in 1451 as celebration of deliverance against the Tatar invasion of Moscow (ironically, perhaps, Russia later invaded their lands, and now Tatars are the largest ethnic minority in the Russian Federation).
The Archangel Cathedral, unfortunately, was closed. I’ve been told it’s the most spectacular of them all.
The Annunciation Cathedral, founded in 1484, was one of Moscow’s (and Russia’s) crowning achievements at the time. While the largest of the cathedrals in the square were used for official court ceremonies, this was used for family ceremonies.
Jordan didn’t see the “NO PHOTOS” sign and snapped a couple.
This iconostasis was painted in the 1560s. Almost all frescos and images are from the 1560s or earlier.
Ivan the Great Belltower is the tallest of structures in the Kremlin complex; unfortunately it’s been closed for the past few years and we couldn’t go inside. It has 22 bells, and I wished I’d been there to hear it go off!
Cast in bronze in 1586, the tsar cannon was built as a monument to Russian military, and “tsar” doesn’t refer to a specific monarch, but probably the size of the cannon. Jordan thought it was pretty cool.
Across the Senate Square sits a current government building–I think it’s their senate, but I’m not sure.
After thoroughly stomping around the Kremlin complex, we left out of the Spasskaya Gate. Built in 1491, it overlooks the Red Square. It was once the main entrance to the Kremlin, and anyone who walked through had to dismount and remove their hat. That ended in Soviet days.
And on the other side was the bustling Red Square, with St. Basil’s Cathedral at one end and the State Historical Museum at the other! The cobblestones sloped across the square, worn from hundreds of years of use. When it was first built, the Red Square was the marketplace for Moscow. Today it’s still a cultural and social center. In fact, when we walked out Christmas fair music hit us as people hurried to and fro, heading for the GUM department store.
I laughed and laughed, just so pleased to be surprised by a children’s Christmas fair set up in the Red Square. Inside the fence was a little ice skating rink, a stage for folk music, and a couple of little rides. On the other side of the square GUM glowed with Christmas lights and holiday bustle.
We strolled around the interior of GUM (Russian for Main Department Store) just oohing and awwing at all the Christmas decor.
Outside, at St. Basil’s, is a statue commemorating Minin and Pozharsky. Russia had been a collection of city-states, more or less, until Ivan the Great (also Ivan III) united all of the Rus under his rule, Moscow as the capital, in 1502 after driving the Golden Horde back east, across the Ural mountains. Unfortunately, after his descendant, Ivan IV (also known as Ivan the Terrible) died without heir, it sent Russia into it’s Time of Troubles with petty bickering among nobility. The Polish, never one to miss an opportunity, swooped in and seized Moscow and most of Russia. Prince Pozharsky (hailing from the city of Novgorod) and Kuzma Minin (a butcher) created an all-volunteer army to oust the Polish in 1612. Lauded as heroes, churches and statues were built in their honor.
The Kazan Cathedral, also on the Red Square, was consecrated in 1625 in honor of the prince and the butcher taking back Russia’s independence.
And in the middle of the square is Lenin’s mausoleum. As far as Soviet architecture goes, I thought it looked pretty nice. Many Russians today think it’s a bit weird to have an embalmed man inside a shrine in the Red Square. Lenin would think it pretty weird, too. He wanted to be buried next to his mother, not have a steady stream of tourists and patriotic Russians gawk at him every morning from 10 am to 2 pm. Stalin, not nearly as liked as his predecessor, is buried in the Kremlin wall with other Communist leaders.
The Moscow Historical Museum is a lovely piece of architecture with some great exhibits–provided you speak Russian or already know a lot about Russian history. We were kind of flying blind in there, but the building was amazing.
I particularly enjoyed the domed ceiling with all the Russian tsars and spouses painted on the ceiling. Pretty cool, right? Find Peter the Great–he’s the tall one wearing European clothes and a mustache.
We ended our long walking day by passing by the Bolshoi theater. I would’ve loved to get ballet tickets, but that was a bit out of our price range. Opened in 1825, it’s one of the most famous theaters in all of Europe. Ballet was created and perfected in the theater. Although Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and Swan Lake premiered in the Mariinsky theater of St. Petersburg, they quickly found homes here.
After over 10 miles of walking, our feet hurt and we decided to call it a day. After walking past a few more glistening Christmas decorations in the shopping district, we went back to our hostel, pulled off our snow boots, and crashed in bed.