The Earliest History of Kremlin

The initial settling of the Slavs in the Moscow region was from the 1st century. The Slavs have long lived under the protection of the natural fortifications of the river banks which strengthened not only every local village, but often every yard. Certainly, Moscow followed the older tradition of using river embankments and hills that were easily defended. The Gardariki (country, city) was what the Ancient Rus’ inhabitants of Scandinavia called every village, surrounded by an embankment, as this was the conceptual origin of the city. A place on a high promontory at the confluence of the Moskva River and the Neglinnaya was an excellent strategic point. It was further strategic since it was on the crossroads, that from the north to south and from the north-west to north-east.

In the building of a fortress on such terrain, the most ancient way of strengthening these natural barriers was with a rampart. Vladimir of Kiev, as well as early Suzdal, the Chronicle states that a settlement was placed around a mount, acting sort of like a redoubt, surrounded by a moat. The higher the fortresses, the cooler the temperature and the more difficult it was to reach. The earliest moats seemed to be based around the idea that no active form of mobile weapon could get through them, or at least not without a tremendous amount of effort and the sacrifice of men and time. In general, the earliest moats such as the one that soon became the Kremlin seem to be roughly 2.5-3 meters.

The area of the Moskva River was important to a number of major waterways in Russia. These include the Western Dvina, the Dnieper, the Volga — and all the waterways that serve as tributaries. Here converge the borders of several principalities: Smolensk, Chernigov, Murom, Ryazan, Rostov-Suzdal and Novgorod. Given this geography, the Kremlin could also be called one of the nodal points between northern and southern Russia. All this created opportunities for economic development and growth that have made Moscow’s success as the crucial heart of Russia.

The seeds of the future of the Kremlin were much like the ancient settlements, which were almost always located on the high hills at the confluence of two rivers; the two sides were protected by steep cliffs, and the third by a moat and rampart. By 1147 A.D., when Moscow was first mentioned in the Chronicles, she had already become a considerable community, and by that time it consisted of the continuously strengthening of fortifications beyond the mere earth mounds with a palisade on top. The size of the fortifications can be judged from the first location where now sits the Moscow Church of St. John the Baptist, which until 1847 was considered the oldest part of the city. It is situated roughly 100 yards from the Borovitsky Gate, and hence, since the church is usually built at the center of the village, the ancient Kremlin probably extended on both sides at 100- 120 yards at a minimum. During the construction of the Grand Kremlin Palace, workers found the remains of the shaft and the moat from the earliest fortresses. Thus, the entire castle then from end to end was about 250 yards (measurements and other estimates can be found in Nossov, 2006: 45ff).

The history of the Moscow Kremlin is closely intertwined with the most important events in the life of the Russian state. In the 12th century Moscow was a small settlement outpost and defended the way to the ancient city of Vladimir. The first wooden fortress-Kremlin was built in 1156 at the behest of Prince Yuri Dolgoruky. The choice of location was dictated by strategic considerations: the Kremlin sat on a high hill at the confluence of the Moskva River and the Neglinnaya River and it further had to defend the mouth of two navigable rivers, the Yauza and Vskhodni.

A significant role was reserved for the beauty of the place as the Kremlin hill was covered with dense boron, and before it stretched the picturesque meadows, cut by rivers that potentially could make Moscow one of the world’s most powerful cities.

The most ancient part of the Kremlin covered a small area of approximately 7-8 acres, but this did not include its wooden walls, moats or ramparts. The first significant Moscow Prince, Ivan I Kalita (1320-1340), received the title of Grand Duke and greatly expanded the Kremlin. Inside the new fortress, oak walls were the new symbol of strength, and he founded Cathedral Square, formed by three stone temples: the Assumption Cathedral (1327), the Church of St. John of the Ladder to the Bell Tower (1329) and the Archangel Cathedral (1333). During the reign of Ivan Kalita, a stone Church of the Savior was also built.

At the command of the equally famed Grand Prince Dmitri Donskoi, the oak walls of the city were replaced with white stone (1366-1368), and the Kremlin became the first stone fortress in Muscovy. The new fortifications featured six defensive towers and three round corner towers. During this period, the area of the Kremlin had increased to almost its modern dimensions.

In 1365, near the Spassky Gate, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan St. Alexius founded the Miracles Monastery, that is, the Chudov. During the same period, on the site of the modern Grand Kremlin Palace, he built a strong defensive tower. In 1393, commissioned by the widow of Dmitri Donskoi, the stone church of the Nativity of the Virgin was constructed inside the fortress itself. The remains of this palace temple are tangible evidence of the oldest fragments that are still extant of the stone building of the Kremlin. In 1407 that same widow of Dmitri Donskoi, tonsured under the name Euphrosyne, founded the women’s Ascension Monastery with the cathedral Church of the Ascension, located in the vicinity of the Chudov monastery, creating a union of them all.

The Chudov Monastery

The Spassky Gate in old Russia was really a religious place; this structure was considered holy in the truest sense of the word. Men were obliged, passing through this Gate, to remove their hats and to remain in silence. If head coverings for some reason were not removed, it would cost fifty prostrations. The Spassky Gate was also the meeting place of the Moscow princes and their representatives with foreign ambassadors. And, of course, no Kremlin procession could avoid passing through the Spassky Gate; even the kings before they were crowned also had to pass through it. In a real way, it was the gate that separated order from chaos, and civilization and reason from the passions of the dark forest.
The height of the Spassky Tower today equals almost 71 meters. Only in the first half of the 17th century did the Russian architect Bazhenov and Christopher Galloway (an English architect), add a two-tiered tower roof, executed in the Gothic style. The top of the tower was built in the form of a stone tent, which became of immense significance in Russian architecture.

The Spassky Tower

Around the same time as the Spassky Tower was built, the stone arch bridge, spanning the moat, was also put together. The bridge was used for merchants selling a variety of goods. In the mid-17th century, the tent-roof of the Spassky Tower was emblazoned with the double-headed eagle. As the eagle symbolized both the church and the autocracy, they were also installed on the Borovitskaya, Trinity and St. Nicholas towers as well. The reason was their great height and thus, these Eagles were supposed to be visible to most residents of Moscow (the Spassky Gate material can be found in Nossov, 2006: 45ff).

On the sides of the Spassky Gate were two chapels, one dedicated to the Lady of Smolensk and the Icon of the Savior. In the early 19th century, the wooden chapels were demolished and in their place erected new, stone versions of the same. After the 1812 war, the architect PA Gerasimov carried out restoration work on the Kremlin which was completed a year later. In 1862 the chapels were restored. Newly constructed parts of the complex and recent refurbishing were consecrated in October of the same year. The chapels came under the jurisdiction of the Pokrovsky Cathedral. In Russian, the concept of “cathedral” is a plural; it is the “Sobor,” or the ruling council of the church. That the words are interchangeable speaks volumes about the nature of the Russian church. The Bolsheviks destroyed both chapels in 1925.

In April of 1147 Prince Yuri Dolgoruky, returning from a campaign against Novgorod, invited to the victory banquet Sviatoslav, his ally. Princes often met on the high bank of the Moskva River, where the view created a sense of a powerful expanse. There is a legend that Yuri Dolgoruky saw the potential of this area and envisaged a powerful city to unite all Rus.

Nine years later, Prince Yuri Dolgoruky brought to Moscow master builders from Suzdal, Vladimir and Pskov and commanded his son Andrew to pour the foundation for a new fortress, since the old one was not only small, but old and dilapidated. At the time, the town was still small, but few denied its potential. Only one really began to act upon it and its product was the first Kremlin fortress.

On a promontory between the rivers, there was a 40 meter cliff (at the current Borovitsky Gate) with its sharp angles converging with log walls. The earthworks were strengthened with upright logs with a sharply trimmed top as a disincentive to climb onto it. The new fort, protected on both sides by cliffs rising from the rivers, was surrounded by a narrow but deep trench, like a moat.

The main buildings of the entire system were towers that were filled with earth and stones that were designed to withstand the shocks of battering rams. If the enemy managed to take over the outer wall, they then found themselves under fire from the towers. Each of them was, in itself, a fortress, placed at a distance from each other roughly at the flight of an arrow. Though the first Kremlin was small, its fortifications were suitable for popular refuge in times of war. This was needed as Moscow was part of the protection of the trade routes and settlements located around Borovitsky Hill (Kolmann, 1987: 33).
Borovitsky Hill, on which Moscow sits as the original settlement, is and was covered with a dense forest that provided a livelihood for some and wood for the city. Being situated on the confluence of the Moskva River at 15-20 yards and just at the edge of the Neglinnaya, Moscow had the advantage of a steep slope and nearly cliffs of great height.

In 1156, defenses were increased and improved under Prince Yuri. It stands to reason that even at this early date, Moscow was already seen as very strategic. However, the early Moscow fortress had several problems. The walls themselves, the materials and the topography of the area did not lend itself to integral structures. There was a tendency for the ground to shift, and because of this, the first Kremlin’s walls were constantly moving, growing father apart and losing integrity very rapidly. The constantly wet environment and spring rains made the wood rot easily, and repairing this damaged wood over time proved a brittle challenge. Chances are that the rectangle was the dominant “strong” shape, and the first Kremlin might well have been a wall formed by a continuous wall joining smaller log cabins outfitted for both storage and defense. The building of numerous towers added to the geographic struggle.

After the death of Yuri Dolgoruky, the Moscow chronicles mentioned it only occasionally. The Chronicles note that twenty one years after the construction of the Kremlin fortifications, the Horde of Polovtsian tribes rushed to the attack, torching much of the wooden palisade. However, it was not easy to take the new settlement, and therefore Ryazan Prince Gleb, leading the Polovtsian raid, began a campaign to destroy the city. Already, Moscow had become a threat.

Yet for all this, a reliable picture of the Kremlin could really only develop in confidence beginning at the end of the 16th century. Written sources of the 12th and 13th centuries are fairly laconic, but what can be pieced together in this era is that the wood was pine, heated and fitted, often with a protecting coating. The first church was John the Baptist. Other than that, the only other significant fact is that in1177 the Ryazan Prince Gleb burned the city that autumn.

After the death of Vsevolod, the wars among his heirs featured the first wars for the possession of Moscow. The white-stone Kremlin of the 14th and 15th centuries was the work of Moscow Prince Ivan Kalita and Metropolitan Peter, where the Assumption and Archangel Cathedrals, as well as the Church of St. John Climacus, were built as the first stone churches.

It is worth noting that the two hundred years between Ivan III and the end of the 15th century, little of the original architecture remained and most of the churches were rebuilt more than once. In 1272, a settlement on the Moskva embankments was created by Prince Daniel, the son of Alexander Nevsky. Over the palisade a few small churches were built, and some residential areas were constructed. In the rough but solid palace of Prince Daniel was found a small upper room and stand under them, forming barns and other means of storage. The new Kremlin was located near the council of the Prince, and the coastal marinas took advantage of its protection for local craft trades. A yearly fair was the first attempt to make the city a strategic asset (Merridal, 2013: 39-41).

In the troubled times of feudal fragmentation and foreign invasions, the rise of power around Moscow began to crystallize into a centralized Russian state. Moscow grew because there was no other principality that could be so profitable and convenient, now that the center of gravity was no longer in the southeast.

On the outskirts of the city was chaos; raids, fires, and deaths were common on the western border of Russia as there was the growing Lithuanian state to the west, as well as, in the south-eastern steppes, a cruel and savage horde. Moving too far north was neither fertile nor inviting; this was rough country, so most readily profit-seeking settlers were drawn to the Moskva River. Similar to the Vladimir-Suzdal region, any hostile neighboring principality was kept at bay by forests and swamps surrounding Moscow. The rich meadows provide cattle feed, rivers abounded in fish, forests gave excellent building material, and the furs were as plentiful as the Novgorod hinterland. As Kiev declined and the world became darker, Moscow became a tremendous alternative (Kollmann, 1987: 49).

When Ivan I Kalita took power, the Kremlin attracted the court of Metropolitan St. Peter, who in 1328 moved his residence from Vladimir to Moscow. Therefore, it was decided to demolish the old walls, fastened and strengthened with pine resin, and in 1339 to found the new Kremlin. Ivan Kalita gave his older palace to the Metropolitan, and for himself, a new wooden palace partly built according to the typical northern cities like Novgorod or Tver. Oak beams strengthened new palisades and walls, while the Kremlin expanded until it came close to the current Red Square. Now stationed in the fortress were no longer the minor servitors of the princely retinue, but as Ivan I strengthened his position, a large garrison of archers, gunners catapults, gunsmiths and other necessary military people (Nossov, 2006: 32).

In just five months, Ivan Kalita built Moscow’s oak walls and quickly built and strengthened a new city. Unfortunately, the Moscow curse of fire quickly turned into ashes. In the summer of 1365 a firestorm reached the crowded buildings of the Kremlin, and two hours later the disastrous fire leveled all to the ground, leaving only charred Kremlin walls.

Among the numerous fires in Moscow stood by its disastrous consequences occurred in 1343 but this blaze, called the “All Saints Fire” in 1365 was too massive to be ignored. After this disaster, the young Prince Dmitri Ivanovich (known as Donskoi) called his boyars and princes to a council about the means to fortify the city, because it was agreed that the wooden walls were increasingly useless. All summer and winter the population harvested the white stone around the village Myachkovo and by the spring of 1367 they collected from all Russia the masters of stonework. Similar to Suzdal architecture, Moscow was to be surrounded by a ring of white stone. However, the process was slow because it was unwise to merely tear down the oak walls. In other words, the new wall had to use the old until the new was finished. There could be no point of vulnerability. Moscow was still threatened by the princes of Tver seeking the throne of all Russia. To the west rose mighty Lithuania, mostly of Russian stock which itself took advantage of the warlike aspirations of Tver. The Horde remained a powerful enemy if provoked, so on all sides enemies were planning an attack that could come at any time (Kollmann, 1987: 138).

The white stone walls of the Kremlin demanded the employ of more than 2,000 builders, unheard of at the time. The stone walls of the Kremlin pushed out from the old oak walls by 35 meters or more in some places, so the fortress grew quickly with the work largely completed by the beginning of 1368. The city was surrounded by a deep moat and had iron gates. Its high walls were bristling with menacing stone battlements, which alternated the spaces between the planks for protection from arrows. Moscow was now a major contender (Kollmann, 1987: 49).

What has been found under the Kremlin generally justifies the common view that the Kremlin style and idea were imported from Vladimir or Suzdal. What can be reconstructed points to the white stone tradition of Suzdal. Since St. Peter arrived in Moscow from Vladimir in 1344, this makes perfect sense. Then, the next mention is in 1365 when the Chudov monastery was first erected and rebuilt in 1501 (Akinsha, 2008: 29).

Moscow represented, apparently, a bright and beautiful panorama of central and northern Russian architecture, with the Kremlin as the most sightly part. The Chronicler noted that Moscow was a “great city” with rich merchants, a great population and most importantly, respect.

The population of the suburbs, when under an attacking enemy, could hide behind the Kremlin walls, and were expected to take an active part in its defense. More than anything, it was anxiety and insecurity that hurried the process of stone construction. No sooner had the builders finished their work, when a messenger rushed to the Kremlin with the news that the Duke of Lithuania, Algirdas, had attacked a Russian border guard post. At the same time, Algirdas incited the Prince of Tver to attack, as both had feared the rise of Moscow. When the Lithuanian army, dressed in animal skins, approached the Kremlin, the city was ready for defensive operations. Bridges over the moats were raised; the gates were reinforced by tightly laid stones and logs, and over the towers gleaming ominously, the infantry was ready. The fortification of Moscow threatened the entire Rus’ system. Surrounding the Kremlin, Lithuanians looted nearby villages, but Prince Algirdas did not see this as productive. The siege was lifted only because the Teutons had become the new opponents of the Rus’ world of Lithuania, and Moscow had been spared for a time (Kollmann, 1987: 30).

Despite the victory of Russian troops in the famous Battle of Kulikovo in 1380, Khan Tokhtamysh decided to take revenge for this humiliation. With the complicity of the Ryazan Prince Oleg, this alliance put together a rapid strike force of great numbers. Muscovites were thus locked in a white-stone Kremlin, and all attempts to take it by storm ended in complete failure. For three days the Kremlin walls took clouds of arrows and attack after attack followed continuously, but the besieged kept off the Horde. Only deception served the Tatars as they did manage to capture the Kremlin. In Mongol captivity were some Nizhny Novgorod princes, and the Khan solemnly swore that no harm would be caused if these Slavs would, upon being allowed into the Kremlin, allow the Mongols in too. Moscow’s defenders confidently believed the Nizhny Novgorod nobles and opened the city gates to the chagrin of the inhabitants.

Many took refuge in the churches of stone as the Tartars fought their way into the city, but they found treasures everywhere, brought from less well fortified cities. In addition to the icons and vessels, they had kept a myriad of gold and silver in the treasury of the Grand Prince since the boyars and merchants were confident that Moscow was the city to keep these in. The Mongols helped themselves to this, but it also shows that Moscow was, so to speak, the “bank” of all Rus (Kollmann, 1987: 44).