On Your Own
What is this?
This is a full, detailed 2-hour written tour of the Kremlin's territory. You can do it alone or with a group of friends.
How do I use it?
You better buy a Russian SIM-card and read it online from this web-page on any of your mobile devices: phone or tablet. Simply read everything that's written there and follow pictures that show you where to go. You can scroll through some text or skip some points to speed it up somewhere along the way, it's up to you. But there can be some moments where the later information will refer to something written above.
What will I see?
This is the tour of the Kremlin's territory and not of any of its museums. The only ticket you need to buy for this tour is officially called in the ticket office as 'Architectural complex of Cathedral Square'. You'll see the tourist portion of the Kremlin territory, get to know all of the Kremlin's buildings and will even go inside 2 of its churches.
Where do I start?
The tour assumes that you've already bought your tickets and got inside. More information on what tickets can or should you buy in the Kremlin and how to do it you can find here and here.
You'll have to enter the Kremlin through its main entrance, which is a red brick bridge in the middle of Alexander's Garden. You can see the starting point on this picture:
Once you've passed the metal detectors, stop in the middle of that bridge and start reading.
The Kremlin is a 15th-century fortress that stands in the historic center of the city. Back when the city first appeared of maps this fortress was the entire city of Moscow. The earliest official recording of the name Moscow dates to 1147, which is today considered to be the year of the city's birthday. But the red walls that you see in front of you right now were built a bit later.
The original Kremlin was made entirely of wood, and after several attacks buy the Mongols and reconstructions nothing of it was left. Here's one of the early versions:
The oldest buildings on the territory today as well as the walls date to 15th century. In 1480 the country celebrated its liberation from the 200-year Mongolian oppression, and Moscow, as the new official capital of the united Russia, received a set of new Kremlin walls to commemorate the occasion. They were finished by 1495 and remain one of the oldest structures of the city today.
The walls were built with the help of Italian masons. In part, because by that time the Eastern Roman Empire had just collapsed under the pressure of the Ottomans, and Russia, as the biggest Eastern Orthodox country remaining, considered itself its main successor. And therefore Moscow was to assume the title of the 'Third Rome', as people often started to refer to it at the time. The Tsar Ivan III even took a daughter of the last Byzantine emperor to be his wife to further stress that connection. And are were obviously no better architects for the job than Italians if you're planning on calling something 'Rome', even non-officially.
Back then the fortress was better protected against a potential invasion having water surrounding it on all three sides. You're currently standing on the bridge because there used to be a river underneath it in place of this wonderful park called 'Alexander's Garden' today. The river is still there, but in a pipe below the ground.
The Kremlin at all times has been the place of high concentration of government offices: whether it's the residences of the Tsar and the Patriarch (head of the church) in the earliest days, some offices of the city administration back when the capital was moved to St. Petersburg, or the main working and occasionally living residence of the of the head of the Soviet Union after the revolution. Today it continues that tradition with the main working (not living) residence of the president still being in one of its building that we're going to see.
That's why the word 'Kremlin' over the centuries has converted into a synonym to the Russian government as a whole. Although originally, in old Russian the word simply meant 'fortress'. It was used to refer to many such fortresses across the country, dozens of which still stand. That's why the name of this one is usually used with the definite article 'the' to stress that the conversation is about the most important one of them. Here's the Kremlin of Vladimir today for comparison:
Since the Kremlin was the entire city at some point, originally, no one needed a ticket to go inside. Even when the city spread out, for centuries the fortress had remained yet another city neighborhood. Until 1918 that is, when it was completely shut by the communists for anyone but party members and used as their primary residence. It was partially reopened for public as a museum in 1955 after Stalin's death and continues functioning in the same way till this very day.
The Kremlin has 20 towers. The two of them that you see at the beginning and the end of this bridge are the shortest and the tallest: Kutafya (15m) and Trinity tower (60m) respectively.
Kutafya possibly comes from 'Kut', which was a special place in a house, behind the stove, where a man would hide his wife from evil eye in case of unexpected guests. The same way as the tower acted as the first line of defense 'hiding' the rest of the Kremlin behind it. We'll see more interesting towers later.
Now, let's enter the Kremlin and talk about the buildings inside.
Make sure you take some pictures along the way with the guards that, depending on the time of the year, could be standing on both sides of the entrance doors in special booths.
Ceremonial soldiers are not supposed to move throughout their 1-hour shifts. And one can easily read on their faces how they're 'definitely enjoying it' when someone's taking a selfie in front of them. If there aren't any soldiers, just take a picture standing in that booth yourself. It has the state emblem (Double-headed Eagle) in it.
Continue walking to this point:
The Kremlin doesn't really have any heavy traffic, but it will certainly remind you of its strict traffic rules if you try to violate them. You see, these roads here are for cars:
Try to avoid walking on them anywhere other than special crosswalks. Those no-nonsense people in uniforms in the middle of the road will use each and every opportunity to prove that they're playing existentially important role there and whistle the hell out of you. If you want to see how it works, don't test it yourself. Just stay next to the entrance for 5 minutes, and someone will do it for you. It just happens whether you warn people or not.
The last noble manors
As I mentioned, at first the Kremlin walls were also the city limits of Moscow. But even when the city started expanding beyond them, a lot of noble people for centuries continued living inside. Back then the Kremlin was just another city neighborhood just with better security and fancier people inside.
The last residents were pushed outside of the walls only in 18th century. And here we see the last remaining residential buildings on the territory.
Technically, it's all just one mansion. The main living quarters were in the central pink part, and the yellow wings were used by staff and for receiving guests. You can see the building's age by the size of its tiny windows (people didn't have glass back in the days) and by how deeply it's sunken into the ground.
It was built for the father-in-law of the Tsar Alexis I in the middle of 17th century, but quickly after this death turned into state property and was used by Alexis as his private comedy theater. They called it the Amusement Palace back then.
The whole complex together with many other buildings on the territory was used by communists as their residences. Many high-ranking party members were settled there in 1918, most of which brought over their families. 2100 people were officially registered as living in the Kremlin at that time.
In the pink building the second wife of Stalin one day committed suicide, when she realized who much of a caring husband he was.
Today it is used as government buildings, and it is one of the parts that no regular tourist normally goes to. The part of the building closer to the overground bridge allegedly has a special suite for the president. If he decides to stay overnight that is. Officially, he doesn't live in the Kremlin, he just comes to work here every now and then.
More older residential buildings like that were located in place of this big, grey, Soviet-looking building next to you called State Kremlin Palace.
State Kremlin Palace
This building wouldn't just win the competition for the most stereotypical communist building, but would also fit inside up to 6000 people if needed. Built in 1964 it was originally called the Palace of the Congresses, and was the place where all the subsequent party congresses had been organized up until the collapse of the Union, taking this role away from the Bolshoi Theater stage.
The story tells us that Khrushchev was inspired by all the huge party buildings he saw in China during his visit of 1962. Many of which were much bigger and imposing than anything back home. He though it was not appropriate for the first
socialist state in the world not to have the biggest government buildings. So he ordered something comparable to be erected asap right in the Kremlin.
A few residential buildings and the building of the Armory (the actual arms manufacture inside the Kremlin, after which today's museum is called) would be destroyed to free enough space for the project:
The building couldn't be too high, otherwise, it would've ruined the whole architectural harmony of the fortress. So half the building was dug into the ground to make it of reasonable size and yet to be able to accommodate a lot of people.
Here's a picture of those congresses inside in the Soviet days:
And this is what it turned into today, a concert hall:
Just across the road is another government building that you're not allowed to - the Arsenal. The arsenal was commissioned by Peter the Great and finished after his death in the 18th century. It's always been used to station the official Kremlin regiment.
Today around 200 soldiers are living and working there at any given moment. And you can even see their special military shows every Saturday at noon absolutely for free here, on Cathedral Square that we'll reach later.
The building significantly damaged by an explosion ordered by Napoleon before his retreat from the Kremlin. It looked
quite different originally, but was somewhat altered during the restoration that was needed:
In a rather ironic move the building was later decorated by cannons taken from Napoleon troops as war trophies. The big ones standing on plinths are Russian, the smaller, organized in rows are Napoleon ones.
Soldiers on both sides often developed almost personal bonds with their weapons throughout the war giving them names. According to inscriptions on them, all Russian ones are named with some grand sounding words like, 'Thunder' or 'Russian Might'. Many of the French ones are named after women like 'Redhead' or 'the nasty one'. Which, let's be honest, is exactly what you expect French cannons to be named as.
Continue walking towards this point (there's a building on the last picture that doesn't exist anymore. Don't let it distract you):
As the name suggests this building was originally built for the Senate. Specifically, the Moscow Senate, as the capital of the country was in Saint Petersburg at the time. It was commissioned by Catherine the Great and finished in the late 18th century.
According to the story, the architect attempted to build the biggest round dome that anyone had ever done in Russia until that point. And when the building was finished people starting doubting that the structure will last as the diameter of the biggest dome seemed too big to support it's own weight. The architect was forced to go and sit of the rooftop as the workers
were dismantling the temporary rafters underneath him and for a couple hours after that. And to everybody's surprise it successfully endured all that and keeps standing till this day without any major prop-up or replacement.
On that biggest dome today is the Presidential Standard (flag with the emblem). In several other countries raised standard shows that the president is currently inside the building. In this case, It's raised 24/7 and, instead, shows everyone the president's non-stop commitment to his duties.
The building has a very unusual shape of an equilateral triangle. There were several other buildings around at the time, and they had to use the limited Kremlin space as efficiently as possible. And the empty lot available was of this exact shape.
Ever since the communist revolution this Senate has constantly been the main working residence of the head of the state. And in the case of Lenin - even a living residence as well. Here's a picture of how Lenin's office/apartment used to look like:
Modern presidents today continue that tradition and it is inside this particular building that you would normally see Putin shaking hands with foreign leaders or delegates or discussing something with members of the government around this round table:
But again, this is only a working place. The living residence of the president as of today is a matter national security and is not a disclosed information, seriously.
This improvised cannon collection was added here in 2012, which you can say by the fact that it has some translated inscriptions there. Those are all Russian cannons. They were taken from around the Arsenal building and placed here for your closer inspection. And yes, you might take a look at the stats and even say that some of them are impressive. But it certainly won't be as impressive as something that comes next. Because the main purpose of this canon installment is to create a starker contrast with the main cannon of the Kremlin.
Follow to the next stop:
By the diameter of the bore it holds the world record till this day as the biggest cannon in the world. There are some wider ones, but those are classified as mortars. While this remains a cannon despite not having a big length/diameter ratio.
It was cast in 1586, and proudly calls itself Tsar Cannon. It might be called like that in honor of the Tsar that ordered it, and who's image we can see cast on the left side of the weapon, as well as because of its enormous size. But most likely because of both. The cannon itself weighs 40 tons, plus the 20-ton carriage.
Napoleon allegedly wanted to haul this thing back to Paris as a war trophy. But eventually, decided to leave it. Try to guess why.
The most shocking fact about it is that despite all that formidable size it's never really fired a shot. It was sort of prepared to fire it one time, and there are rumors that it could've done at least one test shot to prove that it works. But it's definitely never been used in real battles.
The weight not only of the cannon but of its cannonballs was somewhat impractical, and the weapon has been playing exclusively symbolic role for the Kremlin. Many people agree that even if it had been used in battles, it would've likely utilized other smaller projectiles loaded simultaneously and used shrapnel-style, and certainly not those cannonballs underneath it now.
Those were added to the cannon later purely as a decoration. They are known to be slightly bigger than the diameter of the cannon, so they wouldn't even fit. Might sound like a strange choice for an additional decoration, but on the other hand, how could the Kremlin miss an opportunity to show everyone that it always has some big steel balls.
And if it seems at any point that Russian willingness to produce the biggest but non-functional things would stop there, get ready to be surprised.
Move to the next stop:
Yep, juuust like the cannon. The biggest in the world, never used. In this case for a reason though. They say that after casting of the bell was finished in a special pit in the ground (at around the same place as you stand right now), it was then left in it for a while for the metal to properly solidify. Then one day the wooden support beams inside the pit caught fire, and local Kremlin workers started trying to put it down with cold water. The quick temperature shift made the bell crack and an entire 11,5 chunk to fall off even before it was properly raised from the casting pit.
It happened in 1735, and the authorities were apparently so upset about it, that no one really went out of his way to find some additional time or manpower to lift it out of there
afterwards. It was just left in the ground and turned into a rather bizarre tourist attraction, where people would observe it by leaning on the railing and and looking down.
Over 100 years will have passed until an opportune moment finally presented itself, and a French architect who had earlier built St. Isaac's (the biggest church in St. Petersburg) was given a task of lifting it to the ground. In 1836 the bell was placed on the exact pedestal you can see it on right now. And it is unlikely to be moved from there any time soon.
The bell is called Tsar in honor of the Tsarina Ann on the throne at the time. It was supposed to ring only on important occasions in ruler's life like marriage, birth of a kid or death. And by that point making such bells had already converted into somewhat a tradition. This one was the third to be made. Each next was bigger that the previous and each used metal from the previous bell. And it shouldn't have taken anyone by surprise that this one cracked because that was the fate of both of its predecessors as well.
Empress Ann was quite an interesting character as well. She was a niece of Peter the Great, and when she was a minor was forced by him into an arranged marriage with some young German count as part of Peters plan to extend Russia's international ties. Apparently, Ann was such a great and great-looking wife that 2 weeks after their marriage the count drunk himself to death, literally. Ann's rule was quite autocratic after she's got the throne, so it's not unlikely that this is how many people in the country felt under her brief 10-year leadership.
An unfinished image of the empress you can find on one side of the bell. On the other - her grandfather Alexis I.
They say rubbing the breakaway chunk brings you luck. No official confirmation on whether it works, but you can see by those shiny edges that a lot of people have tried to do it.
Those two weren't the only Russian things to be called Tsar. In 1961 the Soviet Union shocked the world by testing a big thermonuclear bomb on one of its northern islands. The bomb was so massive that the explosion it produced till this very day remains the biggest thermonuclear explosion ever conducted on the planet. Not surprisingly, the bomb was also called Tsar.
And when the time came for it to show what it's got, it finally broke that vicious sequence of never-working Tsar things with a bang, literally:
Proceed to the next stop: