The Defensive Towers

The earliest extant image of the Kremlin wall was from the years 1517-1526. The purpose of this entire structure was as a fortress, and in its earlier manifestations comprised a closed polygon, protected on all sides by stonewalls and seventeen towers. The Moskva River and the smaller Neglinnaya flow around the city on three sides except the east. Three towers (along with a gate) connected the Kremlin with the posad, or the town, located to the east. The gates found in all the towers gave the outside posad a means to conveniently communicate with the inner city and during any siege that the capital would attract. In addition, the four gates in the towers, specifically the Sobakina, served as an aqueduct from the river Neglinnaya which was particularly important during any siege, when the Kremlin accumulated a huge number of people. The water available for defenders was a considerable advantage, but this also made building difficult given the soggy soil.

The other towers, as well as both the angular part of the same river Neglinnaya were more rounded. Of these, the most striking was the Sobakina. This is due to its corner location and the fact that it had a very abundant source of fresh underground water. The south side of the Kremlin was vulnerable to attack by the Tatar hordes, which, given the likely frontal attack, used the Moskva River, utilized seven towers on its walls. The river was a serious, but not an insurmountable obstacle for the Tatar cavalry. In addition, the defenders would lose a powerful source of water if this was ever lost. So first of all, the need was to strengthen the central part of the wall.

The towers are astonishingly varied. The corner east tower was rectangular while the central tower was polygonal. The towers standing on either side of this were rectangular. Finally, adjacent to the western corner tower stood an angular tower and adjacent to the eastern corner tower, a rounded one.

The central tower was the most powerful of them. It allowed the defenders to conduct an independent defense with a large field of fire and gun support along the walls. Markedly protruding above the top of the tower was a parapet which indicated the presence of mounted weapons. This allowed for plunging fire, “Greek fire,” over the enemy trying to get to the foot of the tower. The main purpose of walls and towers was to meet the military requirements of a long and extremely concentrated siege (Nossov, 2006: 64).

The most critical places in the Kremlin walls were where the powerful towers were located, including angled ramparts and usually over concealed wells. “Travel” towers were the “Deaf” towers mentioned above. Large towers provide frontal and cross-lying forms of fire that were essential in anti-siege warfare. Between these Deaf towers were two smaller towers. All of these were located at the same distance from one another so that they could maintain their fire without worrying about hitting each other.

Only the western side of the wall had less powerful towers. However, this part of the city was protected by the river Neglinnaya at a very steep bank, meaning that it was the least likely arena for a siege. In general defense, the Kremlin was made of stone and metal (formerly wooden) grids that created a great degree of reliability on all sides.

The Kremlin, in essence, was laid out in the form of two continuous parallel walls connected to one another by less thick transverse walls. Individual cells within the fortress were filled with stone or sand, and this therefore presented a very strong facade. The extension of the perimeter walls might have been to ensure the effectiveness of the flank defense for archery. This also required more towers. However, no specific data on this issue has been preserved. Even the most powerful oak walls could not withstand fire, especially in the summer.

In 1487 the second corner tower, the Beklemishev, was built as one of the more powerful ones. This tower defended the weakest acute angle of the Kremlin walls, strengthened the defenses of the southern wall and covered the approaches to the eastern wall and the Spassky Gate. Thus, from the point of view of tactical importance, the construction of the tower immediately after the main one was necessary. The tower was designed for conducting frontal and flanking fire along both walls. In order to strengthen the latter, almost the entire perimeter of the circular base of the tower was taken out of the wall (Nossov, 2006: 21).

Technical difficulties in the construction of the tower, and in particular its foundation, for the above reasons were also significant, although less than in the main tower. Already in 1488, the Western corner tower of the southern wall, the Sviblova Tower, was completed. Underneath, the builders created a reliable cache for water. This tower protected the rear wall of the southern right flank, and gave good support at the point of confluence of the two rivers. The latter circumstance confirms the correctness of the construction of the tower in the third place. In 1490, the Moscow rulers built two towers: at the Borovitsky Gate and the Gate of Sts. Constantine and Helen, as well as the Commandant.

These works strictly observed the same reasonable sequence: the first strongholds were for the central parts of the wall, and then the walls in the weakest areas were reinforced. In general, the city did not have any natural barriers for the east side of the Kremlin. This was the point of the Tower of St. Nicholas against the river Neglinnaya. It was a marshy place so its construction was especially difficult, and it was finished only in 1493 (Merridal, 2013: 220).

Since the river Neglinnaya in its lower course changes direction, there is close to the wall a natural moat always filled with water. In 1495 the stone wall along the river Neglinnaya was strengthened since the marshy soil was constantly giving way. This approximation to the river complicated the task, making the preparatory work greater.

Then, complex hydraulic works were installed which turned the Kremlin into an island. In 1495 the Grand Duke ordered the demolition of the church and the courtyard in front of the Kremlin over the Moskva River. This was of great importance since it opened space for cannon fire from the south wall. In other words, structures from an earlier time became obsolete because military technology continued to create stronger cannons with greater blunt force.

The height of the walls was different in different places, but in general it ranged from 5 to 8 fathoms (1 fathom = 1.82 meters, and was the common unit of measurement at the time). The height of the teeth over the wall was seven feet, with a width of 1 and 1/3 fathoms, and in some places even 2 fathoms. The Spasskaya Tower was 13 and ½ fathoms in height. Due to changes in terrain and the general topography, the walls were of different heights and thickness. The exterior walls were crowned with two-horned teeth. In each of these teeth there was a hole for an archer or later, a rifleman. On the inner side wall a deaf parapet for transport was built (Nossov, 2006: 29).

All along the walls were niches with arches. To divert the course of water from the wall, there were gutters and drains throughout. The Water Tower, for example, had three floors and on the first floor there were holes for guns. The remaining floors were designed for rifle fire. It might be worth noting that at the ground floor of the towers, the level of ground surface inside the Kremlin was higher than outside. This was meant to protect the integrity of the Kremlin itself even if an enemy got in through a hole at the bottom of the tower. It would disallow the enemy to penetrate the fortress itself.

In the 15th century in the Kremlin, a large number of white stone and brick buildings were erected, among which were living quarters for the royal family and necessary staff. The vast majority of these structures were dismantled or rebuilt during the 16-17th centuries. The essential points of the Kremlin reconstruction work were undertaken by Grand Duke Ivan III. A strong government for the young Muscovite state now freed from the domination of the Golden Horde was also the beginning of the construction of a new monumental Kremlin, one that would express these new realities (Brumfeld, 2013: 2).

With the participation of Russian artists, they built new grand walls and towers of the Kremlin in accordance with the requirements of European fortification. At the site of the dilapidated Church of the Dormition from the time of Ivan Kalita, Aristotle Fioravanti built the five-domed Assumption Cathedral (1474-1479). In 1484, Pskov masters lay two temples, the grand house of the Annunciation Church (1484-1486) and the Church of the Deposition of the Robe (1484-1489) at the metropolitan court (Widdis, 2006: 96ff).

Ivan the Great’s Bell Tower.
Ivan the III’s Bell Tower is a three-tiered tower of elongated, decreasing octahedrons set one upon the other. Each of the octahedrons has a terrace and an open gallery in the arch spans in which a bell is placed. Above the bell itself is a three-tiered inscription made on a blue background with gilded letters written in the Slavonic language. The inscription can be read as the structure is twisted upwards. It reads: «By the Grace and Favor of the Holy Trinity the Great Sovereign Tsar and Grand Duke Boris Fedorovich of All Russia and his son Blessed Great sovereign prince and Grand Duke Fedor Borisovich of All Russia built and gilded this church in the second year of our reign 1600 (that is, in modern, Petrine years) (Merridal, 2013: 84).”

The wall thickness of the first tier was a massive five meters while the second is half that. In the process of restoration, the legend that the foundation of the bell tower supposedly permeated the entire thickness of Borovitsky Hill was proven false. But the old myth symbolizes the strength and solidity of this structure. Inside the pillars in the wall of the first tier is a stone staircase of 82 steps. In the second tier, it passes into a twisting path of 149 steps. In the third tier there is a metal staircase of 98 steps that continues up the inner wall of the dome.

In the galleries of each tier are bells with a grand total of twenty one. Each is ornately decorated with symbolic icons, animals or other aspects of Old Russia. In addition to the bell mentioned above, the others are 70 tons from the 19th century, 19 tons for another in the 17th century and a 13 tons bell cast in the 18th century (Akinsha, 2008: 71).

The height of the bell tower is 81 meters, and as the highest point in Moscow, served as the main watchtower of the Kremlin. In 1624, on the north side of the belfry the artist Bazhenov Ogurtsov built the so-called extension dedicated to St. Filaret which completes the white stone pyramids and tiled, hipped roof. The second and third floors were taken up by the patriarchal chapels. In 1812, retreating from Moscow, Napoleon’s troops tried to blow up the bell tower. The structure itself was intact, but the belfry and Filaret outbuilding were destroyed (Akinsha, 2008: 56).

On the third floor of the belfry is the Church of St. Nicholas. It is remarkable that under Ivan III, the entire edifice was built on the site of the Khan’s court. This marked the complete liberation of Moscow from foreign rule. The genre of “Ivan the Great” churches in ancient Rus was the archetype for many Churches of the “Moscow Style.” (Akinsha, 2008: 75-76)