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Longer Latitude Journey behind the Ironic Curtain

Moscow: Inside the Kremlin Walls & a Taste of GUM

RUSSIAN FEDERATION | Wednesday, 16 September 2015 | Views [378]

Kremlin Cathedral 1

Kremlin Cathedral 1

To the immediate west of St Basil’s is the once impenetrable Kremlin, now somewhat demystified by the influx of modern, post-Soviet tourism. If you walk around the entire perimeter of the Kremlin walls you get a sense of how the structure of the fortification is both symmetrical in parts and asymmetrical in others. The pattern of defensive towers positioned strategically along the walls form the shape of an irregular triangle (strictly speaking the perimeter of the Kremlin is actually five-sided). You also get an unmistakable sense of how formidable the walls are (height and depth), something they needed to be given the successive waves of assaults on the Kremlin over the centuries (Polish, Swedish, French, Bolshevik, etc). The walls’ symmetry is most apparent on the southern flank of the wall running parallel to the Moskva River.

Big queues at the ticket box for both the Kremlin and the Armoury when we arrived at 10am. Even bigger queues lining up to go inside the entrance. The entrance to the outer grounds of the Kremlin is on the western side of the Kremlin, from the Alexander Garden. So after buying tickets for the Architectural Ensemble of the Cathedral Square (Rbl 500) we postponed our Kremlin visit to around 2pm (by which time the queues had diminished somewhat). Once inside the Kremlin we took in the cathedrals primarily. Much as we wanted to, we just didn’t have time to fit in the highly lauded Armoury.

I was a little surprised that so many churches situated within the erstwhile stronghold of Communist power survived for the 70-plus years the “Religion of Atheism” held sway in Russia, but perhaps the regime had other uses for these beacons of ecclesiastical Orthodoxy, or they judged that tearing them down was just too provocative an act as countless pious Russians still held them sacred. For whatever reason they survived – the Annunciation Cathedral, Archangel Cathedral, Church of the Deposition of the Robe, etc. – with their white facades, arches & towering gold and blue domes. They all ooze a showcase calibre of magnificence. The idiosyncratically named Deposition of the Robe is probably the pick of the church buildings if you count the superb cluster of tiny golden domes which strictly speaking are part of the abutting Terem Palace. Other highlights include the Annunciation’s dazzling copper gate with gold embellishment, and the Necropolis of Ivan the Terrible and the early Romanov tsars in Archangel.

 When I visited the Kremlin (August 2015), the Patriarch’s Palace (now a museum) was holding an informative exhibition on “the European Orders of Knighthood”. Included in the exhibition was an interesting video on the discovery of the long-lost Romanov crown jewels in London. After a good hour-and-a-half of cathedral-hopping we found welcome relief from the heat in the shade of the Kremlin Grand Garden, indulging ourselves in the Russian summer passion for morozhennoye (eating ice cream). After refreshments we moved on to the Tsar Bell, but first we had to contend with the over-officiousness of a characteristically large brim-capped policeman on traffic duty.

Tsar Kolokol is at the western end of Ivanovskaya Square. The bronze cast Tsar’s Bell is the world’s largest bell (6.14m high, 6.6m in circumference, over 200 tons in weight). Eavesdropping on a private tour talk a local guide was giving a Texas oil billionaire. I learned that owing to a fire the bell was never hung, let alone ever rung! Attempts to counteract the fire resulted in a large chunk of the bell breaking off and it was never reconnected. A short distance from the bell is the equally monumental Tsar Cannon, its impressiveness is symbolic only as it has never been fired in anger. At the other end of Ivanovskaya Square is Spassnaya tower, eastern exit of the Kremlin. If you exit here you will note that the gate is manned by extremely youthful-looking guards.

From the exit gate, back at St Basil’s, we walked across Red Square to experience the nearest thing Moscow has to Harrods – the famous GUM building. The giant RYM/GUM department store (formerly the State Department Store under Communism) offered air-conditioned respite from the summer sun and the crowds in Red Square (also a free WC). Good place to grab some lunch (2 large bistro-style eateries to choose from – inexpensive with excellent range of food choices) plus GUM has multiple ice cream outlets (more morozhennoye!) In GUM tourists can either shop to excess or simply roam its arcades and admire its 19th century Italian-designed elegant facade and hooped skylights. A nostalgic feature of the centre is a number of window displays showing aspects of Soviet life in the 30s, 40s and 50s (pastimes, old radios, household goods, etc). At the time we visited there was also a display of 1970s men’s and women’s fashions – such as the USSR’s 1976 version of the safari suit! Easily overlooked but part of the huge GUM complex is the toy section complete with resident store clowns to excite the imagination of the very young – this is situated behind the main building in Vetoshny Per. If you walk from here up to the end of the short Vetoshny Pereulok, turn left at Nikolskaya Ulita, this will take you back into Red Square. But only after you pass yet more of the traditionally costumed ‘noblewomen’ and Cossack warriors preening themselves for photo ops in the plaza.

Tags: city tour

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