​​A Tour of Kremlin and Red Square;  a Crash Course in Moscow’s History

The Cathedral of St. Basil the Blessed in Moscow. This beautiful structure overlooking Red Square was built in 1554–60 by Ivan the Terrible to commemorate his victory over the Tatars of Kazan and Astrakhan. Legend has it that soon after the building was completed, the Russians blinded the Italian architect who designed it. They did it to prevent him from replicating this architectural wonder elsewhere. 

July 25, 2009—Saturday

​​​It was my first full day in Moscow. I was determined to utilize every minute of it. I inquired at the hotel’s information desk whether there was any guided tour that I could take to see Moscow.

“Yes, there is one leaving at ten a.m.,” the lady at the desk said. “It’s a small group. You will be going around on a minibus. The tour guide is very knowledgeable about Moscow's history. You will love it. Would you like to join?”

I said yes.

“Enjoy the tour,” the lady said and handed me the ticket.

Sitting next to me on the tour bus was a geologist from a Siberian town. She did tell me the name of the town, but I had never heard it before. She was also staying at Izmailovo Hotel, but in a different wing from mine. Like the other Siberian who guided me from the metro to the hotel the day before, she too came to Moscow to attend a job-related conference. She was pretty, elegantly dressed, and spoke English. She may have been in her late twenties or early thirties. The thought that I was going to be sitting next to her throughout the tour made me happy.

As soon as our tour guide came on the bus, she announced that the highlights of the tour would be visits to the Kremlin and Red Square. There is hardly any tour of Moscow that doesn’t include these two places. Both are parts of the same complex separated by one of the walls of the Kremlin. In 1990, the UNESCO added the complex to its list of the World Heritage Sites.

As the bus left the hotel, the guide started her commentary. She started it with a brief history of Moscow. The geologist from Siberia whispered to me that she had a chat with the guide earlier. She was a history teacher at a local school, doing this job on weekends to supplement her income.

“Moscow,” the guide said, “is the most populous European city today and the fifth-largest city in the world.” Its present population is about twelve million.

The name of the city and of the river that runs through it is Moskva in the Russian language. Historians have traced the origins of the word Moskva to the language used by some Finno-Ugric tribes that were the first to settle in the territory that we now call Moscow. The word has been variously translated. Two widely accepted translations are “marshy place” and “mossy plain.” It was on the marshy land at the confluence of the Neglina and Moscow Rivers that the city was founded in 1147.

The man credited with the founding was Yuri Dolgoruky (Yuri the Long-Armed), the Grand Duke of Kiev. A wooden fort that he built on the marshy land, together with a few wooden structures that came up inside and around it, constituted the Moscow Kremlin in its incipient stage. The word Kremlin is derived from the Russian word kreml, which means fortress or citadel.

Though the city that grew around the Kremlin was destroyed by the Tatars (a Turkic people) in 1208, it was rebuilt and rapidly expanded soon thereafter. Attack and destruction of the city by the Mongols occurred a few more times, but the residents repulsed the attacks and rebuilt their city every time.

In the late thirteenth century, it became the capital of the Grand Principality of Muscovy. The residents of Muscovy came to be called Muscovites. Since 1326, Moscow has also been the spiritual center of the Russian Orthodox Church. Until then, that status had been enjoyed by another Russian principality: Vladimir.

In the early nineteenth century, Moscow again needed rebuilding. Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Russia in 1812. By the time he and his Grande Armée reached Moscow, on September 14, the residents of the city had evacuated, but only after setting most of it on fire. The scorched-earth policy deliberately followed by the Russians left Napoleon and his troops with nothing to survive on. All supply lines had been destroyed. A humiliated Napoleon led his surviving troops out of Moscow on October 19. Muscovites started rebuilding it soon after their victory over the French.

With the Kremlin as its center, Moscow expanded outward in concentric rings, each ring representing a particular stage in the city’s development. One can get some idea of what the city was like at each stage of its development from some of the buildings that are still extant on the ring roads—the Boulevard Ring, the Garden Ring, the Moscow Ring Road, etc.—and the radial roads from the Kremlin that connect the ring roads.

Our hotel is situated on the periphery of the city, beyond the Moscow Ring Road. As we drove toward the Kremlin, we passed by mansions, most of which—the guide told us—were owned by Moscow’s new billionaires. The city now has the largest number of billionaires in any city anywhere in the world. They live in their luxury apartments in the city on weekdays and spend their weekends in their mansions in the suburbs or dachas in the countryside.

As we entered a ring road, or radial road, the guide told us its name. As we passed by certain types of buildings, she mentioned which period they represented. Pointing at the four- and five-story apartment buildings we were passing by, she said that they were built during the Khrushchev era. Nikita Khrushchev, as secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, was at the helm of power from 1953 to 1964. He built those apartments when Moscow was faced with an acute housing shortage, caused by the sudden influx of working-class people from the countryside. Most workers and low-paid white-collar employees were allowed to live in those apartments rent-free. Their children and grandchildren now own those apartments, thanks to the restructuring of the economy (perestroika) introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev in the mid-1980s.

Stalin’s “Seven Sisters”

We next entered the ring that represents the previous phase in the city’s development. It’s known as the Stalinist phase. Josef Stalin, the guide reminded us, was the dictator of the Soviet Union from 1928 to 1953. Pointing to the Hotel Ukraina on the other side of the Moscow River, she said that it was one of Stalin’s “Seven Sisters.” She also briefly narrated the story behind the “Seven Sisters.”

In 1947, Moscow celebrated the eight hundredth anniversary of its founding. To commemorate the event, Stalin ordered that eight skyscrapers—of the type that existed only in major cities of Europe and the United States at the time—be built in different parts of Moscow. Structures of thirty to thirty-fi ve stories were considered skyscrapers in those days. By building such structures, Stalin was trying to prove to the West that “We can”—which, by the way, was the architectural slogan he popularized around that time. Only seven skyscrapers were completed in his lifetime, hence the nickname “Seven Sisters.” The nickname was also an allusion to the monotony of their style—terraced or tiered—mockingly referred to as “wedding-cake” style.

While Stalin was trying to rival the West in building skyscrapers, millions of his countrymen were starving and living in cramped communal apartments. His justification was that he built them without spending a penny on labor: He used thousands of men and women languishing in the Gulag and German prisoners of war captured during World War II to do the job.

Though there was a serious housing shortage in Moscow at that time, only two of the "Seven Sisters" were used for residential purposes. Of the rest, two were turned into hotels (Hotel Ukraina and Hotel Leningradskaya); two were used as government offices, including the offices of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; and one became the main campus of the Moscow State University. The last one, built on the Sparrow Hills, is the most impressive of all. Pointing at it, the guide said that it was only one of the nearly one thousand buildings, spread all over the city, in which the Moscow State University functioned. She also gave us some interesting pieces of information about this prestigious university.

It was founded in 1755 by the famous Russian polymath Mikhail Lomonosov. Its original name was the Imperial Moscow University. In 1940, the name was changed to the Lomonosov Moscow State University, in honor of its founder. The university’s motto is: “Science is the clear learning of truth and enlightenment of the mind.”

The university now has 40,000 students (4,000 of them foreigners); 6,000 faculty members; and 5,000 researchers. Its library has nine million books—two million of them in foreign languages. The guide also named some of the MSU alumni who distinguished themselves in politics, science, and literature. A few of them were Nobel laureates.

In a few more minutes, we were in front of the Kremlin. It is enclosed by three walls that form an irregular triangle. The 2,205-meter-long walls, varying in height from five to nineteen meters, have twenty towers. They were built by Italian architects, commissioned by Ivan III, in the last decade of the fifteenth century. The reign of Ivan III—also known as Ivan the Great—lasted from 1462 to 1505.

Some of the towers have gates underneath. The only gate the public is allowed to use now is the one under the Kutafya Tower. As we went in, the guide said that the most beautiful of the Kremlin towers was the Spasskaya (Savior) Tower. There are many legends and miracles associated with that tower. That could be the reason why, the guide said, until a few years ago, all visitors to the Kremlin had used the gate underneath the Spasskaya Tower. Whatever the reason, the traffic through that gate became heavier and heavier. By 1999, it became so uncontrollable that the authorities ordered the gate closed. Talks are now going on to reopen it.

Indeed, the 71-meter-tall Spasskaya Tower, with a huge clock and belfry on top, and a ruby-red star shining above them, is beautiful. The tower was built in 1491 by the Italian architect Pietro Solario. The belfry and clock were added later. The red star was mounted in 1937 by Soviet authorities, replacing the replica of the double-headed Russian eagle that had been there until then. The clock chimes every quarter hour, and the chime is broadcast by radio to the entire nation, announcing the Moscow time. Russia, as a whole, has eleven time zones.

Cathedral Square

Once we passed through the Kutafya Tower gate, we were taken straight to the centrally located Cathedral Square. Pointing at the churches around, the guide told us that after the 1917 Bolshevik takeover of the country, they had ceased to be places of worship. They were reopened to the public in 1990, some as museums. The guide took us to three of them, saying that they were “superb examples of Russian church architecture at its height in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.”

The Cathedral of the Assumption—built in 1475–79 in the Italian-Byzantine style, with elegant arches and five golden domes—is the oldest. The coronation of the first Russian czar, Ivan IV (the Terrible), took place in this cathedral, in 1547. According to a popular Russian gossip, during World War II, when the invading Nazis reached Moscow in the winter of 1941, Stalin secretly ordered for a special service, praying for the country’s liberation, to be held in this church.

Another one-time place of worship, which is now a museum, is the Cathedral of the Annunciation. The original structure, built in 1484–89, was destroyed in a fire in 1547. It was rebuilt in 1562–64. It has a cluster of chapels with golden roofs and domes. Inside the cathedral are a number of early fifteenth-century icons created by “the greatest of all Russian icon painters,” Theophanes the Greek and Andrey Rublyov. The icons are a big tourist draw.

The third cathedral we visited, the one dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel, has a special place in Russia’s history. It contains the tombs of all the rulers—except one—of Muscovy and Russia, from the fourteenth century until Peter I came to power in 1682. In 1712, Peter I moved the country’s capital from Moscow to the newly built St. Petersburg. One of the greatest treasures of this place is the burial chamber of Ivan the Terrible. Being the first Russian ruler to take the title of czar, he wanted to make his burial chamber very special, and he oversaw its construction himself. The Cathedral of St. Michael the Archangel is also functioning as a museum now.

The Broken Czar Bell

Another great tourist attraction in the Kremlin is the Ivan the Great Bell Tower. When it was being built in 1508, this 81-meter-tall structure was also used as a watchtower. Until the nineteenth century, no building in Moscow was allowed to be taller than this. At the foot of the tower sits the 210-ton Czar Bell, cast in 1733–35. The bell never rang because it broke before it was hoisted. In 1737, a huge fire had swept through Moscow and engulfed the Kremlin. The water used to extinguish the fire fell on the Czar Bell that was still lying on the ground and broke it. The 11.5-ton broken piece is still lying near the rest of the bell.

Another item that sits near the Czar Bell is the Czar Cannon, cast in 1586. And next to the cannon are the Cathedral of the Twelve Apostles and the Patriarchal Palace. The cathedral was the patriarch’s private chapel. The cathedral-cum-palace was built in the mid-seventeenth century on the initiative of Patriarch Nikon. His tenure as head of the Russian Orthodox Church, from 1652 to 1658, was marked by frequent feuds with Czar Aleksei. The patriarch wanted his residence to rival that of the czar (the Terem Palace) in grandeur. The cathedral, like other places of worship in the Kremlin, was closed in 1918 in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution. The whole building is now part of the Great Kremlin Palace complex, which is not open to the public.

The Great Kremlin Palace was built in 1838–49 as a royal residence. The guide showed us from a distance a few other structures, already in existence since long before, that were made parts of the palace complex. The Terem Palace, which is one of these, was the offi- cial residence of the czar until the Bolshevik takeover of the country. Another one is the Palace of Facets. It is called so, the guide said, because of its “exterior finish of faceted white stone squares.” Built in 1487–91 by Italian architects, it was used by the czars as a banquet and reception hall. The Great Kremlin Palace also incorporates several old churches dating back to 1393.

It is connected to the Armory Palace, built in 1844–51, which now houses the Armory Museum. The museum has a large collection of the czars’ treasures. We saw only two buildings within the Kremlin that were built in the Soviet era: the School for Red Commanders (built in 1932–34) and the Palace of Congresses (built in 1960–61). Needless to say, it was the structures and monuments built by the czars and rulers before them that we found awe-inspiring.

Red Square

By the time we came out of the Kremlin and entered Red Square, it was 4:30 p.m. The guide gave us a brief history of the square. First, she cleared the misunderstanding that many people have (I am one of them) about the word "red" in Red Square. “It has nothing to do with communism or the Communist Party’s association with red color,” she said. “Nor does it have anything to do with the red color of most of the buildings around or of the Kremlin walls,” she added. Russians call the place Krasnaya Ploschad. Krasnaya is derived from krasnyi, which in Old Russian meant “beautiful.” In fact, in the beginning, Red Square was known as Trinity Square—after Trinity Cathedral that stood on its southern end. Only from the mid-seventeenth century did Russians begin to call it Krasnaya Ploschad, meaning “the beautiful square.” Krasnaya means red only in contemporary Russian.

In the beginning, again, Red Square was a shanty town of wooden huts that housed a bunch of peddlers, criminals, and drunks. It was cleaned up toward the end of the fif-teenth century, on orders from Ivan III. Since then, it “has been the scene of executions, demonstrations, riots, parades, and speeches,” the guide said.

Two annual parades were held in Red Square in Soviet times: the Labor Day Parade on May 1 and the Victory Day Parade on May 9. They were known for their pomp and pageantry. (It was on May 9, 1945, that Nazi Germany surrendered to the Soviet Union, thus ending World War II in the Western sector.) The Soviet authorities used the occasions to show off their military might to the rest of the world. The tradition stopped with the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991.

“Talks are under way to revive the annual parades,” the guide told us. Lately, the 800,000-square-foot area of Red Square has been used for rock and classical music concerts, fashion shows, and various festivals. Moscow ushered in the third millennium with a huge fireworks display and a street party in Red Square.

A few other structures that came up around the square over the centuries, since Ivan the Great cleaned it, added to its attraction and importance. The most beautiful of them is the Cathedral of St. Basil the Blessed. It was built in 1554–60 by Ivan the Terrible to commemorate his victory over the Tatars of Kazan and Astrakhan.

Legend has it that soon after the cathedral was completed, the Italian architect who designed it was blinded by the Russians. They did it to prevent the Italian from replicating this architectural wonder elsewhere.

Pointing to the white stone platform near the cathedral, the guide said that it was used in czarist days for proclaiming royal decrees and edicts to the masses. Once a year, the czar would also stand on the platform and give audience to his subjects.

The State Historical Museum, built in 1875–83, is on the opposite end of the square from St. Basil. The museum has millions of objects that focus on Russian history and culture. Adjacent to it, at a right angle, is the sprawling, arcaded building that houses the famous department store, GUM.

GUM is acronym for Glavnyi Universalnyi Magazin in Russian, meaning the main universal store. Built in 1889–93, it was State-owned in Soviet times. Those were the days when almost every consumer item, including bread, was in short supply. People, we were told, used to line up in front of GUM as soon as fresh supplies arrived. Sometimes the line would extend all the way to the end of Red Square. Since its privatization in 1993, GUM has been selling mainly high-priced fashion goods, most of them imported. Average Russians cannot afford them.

Facing GUM from the opposite side of the square is the Lenin Mausoleum, inside which his embalmed body still lies. I was disappointed to hear that the mausoleum was closed for the day. It is open from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. every day, except on holidays, Mondays, and Fridays.

We were now at the center of Red Square. “This brings us to the finale of the tour,” the guide said. “You are free to wander around during the remaining few minutes. The bus will leave at 5:30 p.m.”

Lenin Mausoleum

This meant that we had a little over thirty minutes to do whatever we felt like doing. “A visit to the Lenin Mausoleum was very much on my agenda when I planned my Moscow trip,” I told my Siberian fellow tourist. “I don’t know when I am going to be here next. Let me go and see as much of the mausoleum as I can from outside. Would you like to come?”

“Yes, let’s go,” she said.

The Lenin Mausoleum is small but attractive. Built in layers of red, gray, and black granite, on the side of the Kremlin Wall, it blends well with it. It was completed in 1930, replacing the wooden mausoleum that had already been built there after Lenin’s death in 1924. These days, it doesn’t attract as many tourists as it used to in Communist times. In fact, Russians are less interested in visiting it than foreigners. The following conversation I had with the lady from Siberia should give an idea of what the present generation of Russians thinks about Lenin—and other Communist leaders, dead or alive, for that matter.

Pointing to the closed mausoleum, she whispered to me that what was lying inside was not Lenin’s embalmed body, but his look-alike in wax. “His actual body was shipped away long ago and buried elsewhere,” she said, and followed it with a chuckle.

The chuckle made it clear that I was not supposed to take what she said seriously. I wouldn’t have, even without the chuckle. I had heard another story about what nearly happened to Lenin’s body. I told her that.

In 1991, then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin had suggested removing Lenin’s body from the mausoleum and burying it next to the tomb of his mother, Maria Alexandrovna Ulyanova, at the Volkov Cemetery in St. Petersburg. Yeltsin’s successor, Vladimir Putin, brushed aside the idea, arguing that it would be an insult to all those people who visited the mausoleum over the years, mainly to pay their respects to Lenin.

“I know Putin himself cares two hoots for Lenin and his legacy,” I added. I also followed it with a chuckle.

“You are right,” she said. “I mean the last part—that Putin doesn’t care much for Lenin.”

We were interrupted by our guide, who shouted from a distance: “It’s time to go. The bus will be leaving in two minutes.”

​(Published on April 11, 2017. This is a slightly edited version of Chapter 13 from the author's book, An Indian Goes Around the World – II: What I Learned from My Thirty-Day European Odyssey. The book can be ordered online at amazon.com, xlibris.com and Barnes and Noble.)

(Comments from readers are welcome. Send your comments to
[email protected])​

Back to Home Page