The Kremlin and Red Square

Moscow's Red Square Corbis
Moscow's Red Square Corbis


With nearly a dozen palaces and churches, the Kremlin is a living repository of eight centuries of Russia's history and culture, not to mention an emblem of its power. The Kremlin walls -- running almost a mile and a half, standing as high as 62 feet, as thick as 21 feet in places -- include 20 towers and gates. Over the years the Kremlin has created a stronghold for the czars, a command center for the Communist party, and today a home for the Russian president.

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The Kremlin is a jewel box of palaces and cathedrals that reflect eight centuries of Russian life and history.
Topped by the Ivan the Great Bell Tower -- once the tallest building in Moscow --
the Kremlin is a jewelbox of palaces and cathedrals.
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In Russian, the word kreml means "citadel," and many Russian cities have kremlins of their own. The Moscow Kremlin began as a wooden fortification, built in 1156 by a prince who chose a strategic site where the Moskow and Neglinnaya rivers meet.

Many of the cathedrals and palaces -- those that seem the very essence of Russia, that create an enchanted fairy-tale atmosphere -- were begun three-and-a-half centuries later, when Ivan III brought in architects from Italy. These foreign designers mingled domestic Russian styles and imported Renaissance ideas to create the light, airy Cathedral of the Assumption, the Palace of Facets, and the Kremlin's distinctive brick walls and towers.

Facing the oldest square in Moscow, the Cathedral of the Assumption is the Kremlin's main church. Beneath its golden domes, czars were crowned. Frescoes cover walls that were gilded first to suggest the look of an illuminated manuscript. Priceless icons from as long ago as the 15th century gleam in the soft light. Ivan the Terrible's wooden throne of 1551 reposes in all its elaborately carved splendor. Chapels hold the tombs of every leader of the Russian church up to the Soviet era.

Near the cathedral rises the octagonal Ivan the Great Bell Tower, more than 265 feet high and at one time the tallest structure in Moscow. In the adjacent belfry hang 21 bells, the biggest of which always tolled three times to announce the death of the czar. On a granite base outside sits the 200-ton Czar Bell, the world's largest bell, although it has never been rung. A large chunk of it cracked off when a fire swept through the foundry and cold water was thrown upon the searing bronze bell.

The Armory is now a museum, displaying not only weapons from the Kremlin workshops but also the great treasures of Russia. The incalculable wealth gathered by princes and czars includes, of course, the famous Fabergé eggs, created by Gustav Fabergé and his son for the Romanov family. Lavishly decorated and bejeweled, the eggs contain surprises such as mechanical singing birds, blooming flowers, and even a tiny Trans-Siberian railroad train that, when wound up with a golden key, actually moves.

On Red Square stand onion-domed St. Basil's Cathedral (1560) and the Lenin Mausoleum, completed in 1930.
On vast Red Square stand St. Basil's Cathedral (1560), whose onion domes
seem to say "Russia," and the Lenin Mausoleum.

The Armory also exhibits carriages, clothing, and jewels, including Catherine the Great's gilded summer carriage, her elaborately embroidered coronation dress, and her scepter topped with the 190-carat Orlov diamond. The diamond was a gift from her lover, Count Orlov, and was originally taken from an idol's eye in an Indian temple.

Among the thrones -- made of carved ivory, decorated with precious stones and all manner of wonders -- is that of Peter the Great, which includes a secret compartment where his half-sister used to conceal herself and whisper advice on matters of state.

The Kremlin is itself a collection of sorts, embracing several palaces. The Terem Palace appears to have been wafted from a fairy tale, a wondrous fabrication with a red-and-white checkered roof and 11 golden onion domes. It was built during 1635 and 1636 for Czar Mikhail Romanov, whose royal bedchamber only he, his wife, and blind storytellers were allowed to enter. The Renaissance-style Palace of Facets, named for the stonework on its facade, boasts a vaulted hall once used as the throne room and banqueting chamber of the czars.

Both of these palaces were integrated into the gargantuan Great Kremlin Palace. Commissioned by Czar Nicholas I in 1837, it has 700 rooms and enormous ceremonial halls. The walls of St. George's Hall glow with the gold-inscribed names of men decorated by the military, while its six chandeliers blaze with 3,000 lightbulbs.

The hall hosts diplomatic receptions and solemn ceremonies, as in 1961 when cosmonaut Yury Gagarin received the Golden Star Hero Award here. In 1994, Queen Elizabeth II of Britain met with president Boris Yeltsin in another stunning chamber, tinted cream and gold, that once served as Catherine the Great's throne room.

If the Kremlin represents the private, hidden side of Russian power, Red Square, immediately east of the Kremlin, is its public face. Dating from the late 15th century, the square was built shortly after the completion of the Kremlin walls, and the two have been joined in the popular imagination ever since.

Krasnaya Ploshchad, as it is called in Russian, was originally separated from the Kremlin by a moat, which was ultimately paved over in 1812. It has seen more than its share of celebrations and riots, but today it might be most commonly remembered as the site of Soviet May Day and October Revolution Day parades, when the stone-faced Soviet leadership famously reviewed all their most-up-to-date military hardware. Russian history continues to weave variations, lacing and entwining the palaces, cathedrals, and golden domes of the Kremlin.

At the south end of the square sits the Cathedral of St. Basil the Blessed, built in the mid-16th century. Its colorful domes present a joyous contrast to the cold, gray Moscow winter. Lenin's Mausoleum, the purported final resting place for revolutionary Vladimir I. Lenin, sits adjacent to the Kremlin walls. The long lines of viewers waiting to take a peek at the former Soviet leader's remains have dissipated since the fall of the Soviet Union, but there are always some curious souls queued up at the entrance.

Here are links to dozens of other world-famous landmarks:

Abu Simbel, EgyptEiffel Tower, FranceThe Leaning Tower of Pisa, ItalyRoman and Georgian Bath, England
The Alhambra, SpainEllora Caves, IndiaMachu Picchu, PeruSt. Mark’s Basilica, Italy
Angkor Wat, CambodiaThe Forbidden City, ChinaMont-St.-Michel, FranceSt. Paul’s Cathedral, England
Arc de Triomphe, FranceThe Golden Pavilion, JapanNeuschwanstein Castle, GermanySt. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel, Italy
Borobudur, IndonesiaThe Great Buddha, JapanPalace of Versailles, FranceShwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar
Chartres Cathedral, FranceThe Great Wall of China, ChinaThe Pantheon, ItalyStonehenge, England
Christ the Redeemer Statue, BrazilGuggenheim Museum, Bilbao, SpainThe Parthenon and the Acropolis, GreeceSydney Opera House, Australia
CN Tower, CanadaHagia Sophia, TurkeyPetra, JordanThe Taj Mahal, India
The Colosseum, ItalyHouses of Parliament, EnglandPompeii, ItalyThe Temple at Karnak, Egypt
The Dome of the Rock, IsraelThe Kaaba and Al-Haram Mosque, Saudi ArabiaPotala Palace, ChinaThe Terra-cotta Army, China
Easter Island Statues, ChileKrak des Chevaliers, SyriaThe Pyramids of Giza and the Great Sphinx, Egypt
Edinburgh Castle, ScotlandThe Kremlin and Red Square, RussiaPyramids of the Sun and Moon at Teotihuacán, Mexico

To learn more about other landmarks and vacation destinations, see:


Jerry Camarillo Dunn, Jr., has worked with the National Geographic Society for more than 20 years, starting as a staff editor, writer, and columnist at Traveler magazine, then writing travel guides. His latest work is National Geographic Traveler: San Francisco. Dunn’s Smithsonian Guide to Historic America: The Rocky Mountain States has sold more than 100,000 copies. His travel pieces appear in newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune and The Boston Globe. Jerry Dunn's stories have won three Lowell Thomas Awards from the Society of American Travel Writers -- the highest honor in the field. He also wrote and hosted a pilot episode for a travel show produced by WGBH, Boston's public television station.