Twelve Russian Kremlins

Source: PhotoXpress

Source: PhotoXpress

The Moscow Kremlin is easily recognized around the world as a symbol of Russia and the seat of its president. But few people outside Russia have heard about the other Russian fortresses that are also known as kremlins. The word “kremlin” in Russian means any medieval citadel in the center of an ancient Russian city. Such a fortress was, in fact, what used to promote a rural settlement to urban status. In the 18th and 19th centuries, these strongholds lost their strategic importance and were often torn down and used for construction materials. Most of the surviving fortresses have now been turned into museums, each with its own legend living on behind its walls.

Old Ladoga: the oldest citadel

Old Ladoga, located east of St Petersburg near Lake Ladoga, is Russia’s oldest city. It was first mentioned in 862, when Slavic tribes inhabiting northwestern Russia invited Rurik, a Viking chieftain, and his two younger brothers (traditionally called Varangians) to rule them in the capacity of what we now call crisis managers. The location of the fortress opened up lucrative opportunities. It was only nine miles from the Volkhov River, which was part of a major trade route from Scandinavia to Byzantium, providing a good base for Vikings who set up a 'customs clearance point' to levy extra cash from caravans of merchant ships sailing up and down the river.

Old Ladoga did not last long as the Rurikid’s capital; Rurik shortly moved to Novgorod. But Old Ladoga was not altogether forgotten. At the end of the ninth century, its first stone walls were built. This construction is associated with the name of Oleg of Novgorod (“Prophetic Oleg”) who according to legend was a brother-in-law of Rurik or one of his commanders. It was he who laid the foundations of Kievan Russia. Oleg led multiple military campaigns, conquered many tribes and even nailed his shield to the gates of the Byzantine capital, Constantinople.

Legend has it that soothsayers foretold Prince Oleg's death by his favorite warhorse. Oleg laughed at this prophecy, but then died after he was bitten by a snake that crept out of his horse’s skull. Even today this part of Russia is known for its abundance of snakes; local guides tell tourists to avoid certain places that are “still infested with descendants of the viper.” Another legend has it that both the horse and the snake were just mythological characteristics of Veles, a heathen deity worshipped by local tribes as the king of the dead.

Today, Old Ladoga is a small village, but part of the fortress has survived through its long history.

Novgorod the Great: the “Children’s” Kremlin

Novgorod the Great has one of the oldest stone citadels in Russia. It is even listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. Before the 14th century, it was called Detinets, or fortress, and accommodated the prince’s men-at-arms who were called “youngsters” or “children.”

Under the reign of Ivan IV (the Terrible), the city became embroiled in political discord. After receiving a tip-off that Novgorod was plotting to cut ties with Muscovy, Ivan IV sieged the mutinous city and subjected it to brutal devastation. According to legend, the carnage stopped only when a pigeon, having flown from across many seas, perched on the cross at the top of the St Sophia Cathedral and, observing the violence below, turned to stone. The legend apparently has its origins in the custom of crowning church crosses with iron pigeons in Byzantium, an empire that had a deep and lasting impact on young Muscovy Rus. Incidentally, Ivan IV's grandmother was Sophia Paleolog, who came from the last dynasty of Byzantine emperors.

Nizhny Novgorod: a women's stronghold

The stone citadel of Nizhny Novgorod has also been preserved. It was built in the 16th century and served as one of the key defense posts for the young Muscovy state, first against the declining but still formidable Golden Horde forged four centuries before by the invincible Genghis Khan, and later against the Khanate of Kazan. The fortress is reminiscent of a stone necklace spread over the slopes of the Chasovaya (Sentry) Hill. As one legend goes, in 1520, the Tatars planned to attack Nizhny Novgorod, but their plans were thwarted by a local woman who went outside the fortress with two buckets on a shoulder-yoke to fetch some water. Wielding this yoke, she clubbed to death 10 enemy scouts that happened to be near the walls reconnoitering the terrain before a massive assault. The Tatars listened to the survivors in awe: If women in this city were such fierce fighters, then what could they expect from its men? They thought better of their plans and retreated.

Later, however, either because the city ran out of robust shoulder-yokes or its girls became a bit more shaky in their boots, Nizhny Novgorod was more than once attacked both by the Golden Horde and Kazan armies.

In the early 17th century, Nizhny Novgorod turned into the bastion of resistance to Polish invasion. Out of its gates marched the volunteer army led by Kuzma Minin and Prince Pozharsky that drove out Polish troops and helped keep Muscovy on the map during the Time of Troubles.

Pskov: a sign from heaven


Pskov is the homeland of Princess Olga of Kiev, the mother of Svyatoslav I, a famous warrior prince who defeated the Khazar Empire, and the grandmother of Prince Vladimir, who converted Russia to Christianity. Princess Olga is also well known by scholars of Russian history as the first of Russia’s rulers to embrace Christianity even before the large-scale baptism of Rus, and she was canonized as the first Russian saint.

Olga initiated the construction of the Pskov kremlin. In the center of the fortress stands a church, which, according to legend, was commissioned by Olga after she saw three rays of light coming from the heavens and converging on a rocky promontory where two rivers joined their waters. After the divine vision, the princess gave orders to build the Trinity Church and the citadel.

Rostov: a treasure hunter’s dream

The Rostov kremlin is among the few fortresses built not for defense, but as a seat of the local Orthodox bishop (metropolitan). Its walls were designed to please the eye rather than to protect the inhabitants. This kremlin was a lucky one, for it was allowed to preserve a valuable piece of cultural heritage. After the Russian army had suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the Swedes in the Battle of Narva in 1700 and lost all its artillery, Peter the Great gave orders to take down iron bells in churches and monasteries, melt them down and recast them into cannons. Although even Moscow did not escape the bell-stripping campaign, Rostov was somehow bypassed.

Tula: southern stronghold and Moscow rival

Apart from giving the world its spice cakes and a unique brand of Russian firearms, the city of Tula has played a big role in Russia’s turbulent history. Tula is about the same age as Moscow—the oldest chronicles mention Tula just a year earlier than Moscow—and was a key outpost in southern Muscovy Russia. This place was the ultimate stopping point for successive waves of Tatar invasions and, during the Second World War, for Guderian’s tank armada. It also boasts one of the oldest fortresses in Russia, the Tula kremlin. In all likelihood, it was erected by Italian architects who came to Tula after completing the Moscow Kremlin. Historians say that the citadel was built by several crews, which would explain the apparent difference between its walls.

In the Time of Troubles after Ivan IV died, the Tula kremlin came very close to replacing the Moscow Kremlin as the tsar’s residence. Here, False Dmitry I, who claimed to be the surviving younger son of Ivan IV, took the oath of allegiance from Russian boyars and nobility. 

Kolomna: prison for a false tsarina

In its prime, the Kolomna kremlin was one of the biggest fortresses of the time, but in the 18th and early 19th centuries, the locals took most of it apart using the aging walls as a source of construction materials. Only the decree of Nicholas I helped preserve what remained of the fortress.

The Kolomna kremlin had 17 towers, one of which was named after Maryna Mniszech, the wife of False Dmitry I, who was reportedly incarcerated in that tower where she subsequently died. One of the legends, though, says that she did not die, but rather turned into a magpie and flew out the window. As a result, it was called Marina’s tower. There is one more legend, however, that links the name to a common nun who was accused of being a lesbian and put into the tower wall to protect other nuns from this morbid temptation.


Kazan: cherchez la femme

The Kazan kremlin is another Russian citadel on UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites. The place is a mouth-watering attraction for treasure hunters because it was the seat of Tatar Khans who collected tribute from Russian principalities. Archeologists have already found several troves of silver coins.

One of its key landmarks is the leaning Syuyumbike watchtower. As the legend goes, the dazzling beauty of the Tatar queen Syuyumbike won the heart of the most brutal ruler of Muscovy, Ivan the Terrible. The Russian tsar offered his hand to Syuyumbike, but the proud queen refused. Ivan IV was enraged and stormed Kazan with his army. Syuyumbike had nothing left to do but to accept or to feign acquiescence. For her wedding gift, she asked her relentless fiancé to build a tower in seven days, then she threw herself from its top during the wedding feast.


Tobolsk: Siberian exile

Tobolsk has the only stone fortress in Siberia. It contains a bell tower especially erected as a place of “exile” for the bell that sounded the alarm in the city of Uglich following the murder of Prince Dmitry, the real son of Ivan the Terrible. On orders from Prince Shuisky, the bell was subjected to a formal execution, the same that was applied to humans: its clapper (‘tongue’ in Russian) and canons (‘the ear of the bell' in Russian) were removed, and the bell itself was exiled to Siberia.

The Tobolsk kremlin is also associated with a recent notable episode: last year a picture of it sold for a staggering $1.7 million at a Christmas fair auction. The photograph was taken by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.


Astrakhan: leaning bell tower redressed

The Astrakhan fortress is where Ivan the Terrible took possession of the captured city of Astrakhan on the Caspian Sea coast. In the 19th century, the kremlin could boast having one of Russia’s leaning towers, Varvatsiev Bell Tower. Practical Astrakhan photographers even started printing its pictures with inscription “The leaning bell tower of the Astrakhan Cathedral.” Eventually, safety considerations prevailed over business prospects, and in 1910 the tower was torn down and replaced with a properly upright, albeit less elegant, structure.


Zaraysk: the smallest kremlin

The Zaraysk kremlin, located in the city of Zaraysk, 93 miles from Moscow, was one of the few strongholds that remained loyal to the Moscow throne in the Time of Troubles. It was the smallest stone citadel in Muscovy Russia. Today, Zaraysk is the only fully preserved kremlin in the Moscow Region. From Zaraysk, Prince Dmitry Pozharsky set out with his volunteer army in the first attempt to rescue Moscow from Polish occupation. Although the kremlin is modestly sized, there still remains an unexplored passage in one of the towers that is believed to be connected to a network of underground dungeons. In spite of many sieges, the city was captured only once for a very short time in the Time of Troubles. Perhaps the strength of the citadel lies in the yet-to-be-discovered catacombs.


The Kremlin

The best known Russian fortress is the red-brick Moscow Kremlin. Its most prominent feature is the Spasskaya Tower, which holds the iconic Kremlin clock. When the bell tower strikes 12, all of Russia clinks champagne glasses to usher in New Year’s. Today, the Kremlin is the residence of the Russian president. The Moscow Kremlin ensemble is a listed world heritage site.

Its dazzling, gilded domes are a treat to the eye but they also attract crows. In the last decades of the 20th century, the crows became such a nuisance that the Kremlin administration set up an ornithology service to control the population of the offending species. It keeps a special squad of four falcons that ruthlessly drive off the troublesome pigeons and crows trying to mar the golden coating on the church domes and Kremlin gardens.

Photos by Lori/Legion Media, RIA Novosti, PhotoXPress

All rights reserved by Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

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