Top 20 Kremlins and Fortresses
Kremlin, Russian kreml, formerly kremnik , central fortress in medieval Russian cities, usually located at a strategic point along a river and separated from the surrounding parts of the city by a wooden—later a stone or brick—wall with ramparts, a moat, towers, and battlements. Several capitals of principalities (e.g., Moscow, Pskov, Novgorod,Smolensk, Rostov, Suzdal, Yaroslavl, Vladimir, and Nizhny Novgorod) were built around old kremlins, which generally contained cathedrals, palaces for princes and bishops, governmental offices, and munitions stores.
Astrakhan’s historical center grew around the kremlin (built between 1562-89), whose foundations were laid back in the times of Ivan the Terrible. These days, the kremlin houses an ethnographic museum devoted to the culture and everyday life of the peoples of Astrakhan Region, as well numerous exhibitions in its Artillery Tower, Red Gate Tower, and Torture Tower. The Astrakhan kremlin is a UNESCO world heritage site.
Dominating the city skyline is the kremlin, UNESCO heritage and Kazan’s ancient fortress, built between 1554-62. There is a large mosque as well as a Russian Orthodox cathedral. Tatarstan became part of Russia during the reign of Ivan IV (the Terrible), whose forces put the city under siege in 1552. Next to the mosque, the Annunciation Cathedral is revered by Orthodox believers as the home of the icon of Our Lady of Kazan, one of the holiest in Russian Orthodoxy. / Zylant dragon, the symbol of the city, in front of Kazan kremlin. See 360 degree views of the Kremlin and city here.
The Kolomna kremlin (built in 1531) 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 Russian tsar Nicholas I Romanov 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.
Nizhni Novgorod Kremlin
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.
Smolensk Kremlin was built between 1595 and 1602, during the reign of Tsars Fyodor I Ioannovich and Boris Godunov. The length of the walls is about 6.5 kilometres, of which less than the half was preserved. The fortifications were built under supervision of the architect Fyodor Kon. The Smolensk Kremlin is classified as an architectural monument protected at the federal level, and also has a great historical significance, in particular, as the fortress protecting the Russian state from the west over centuries.
Smolensk historically had a great significance for the defence, and this is why Russian rulers paid considerable attention for its fortifications. In the spring of 1554, Tsar Ivan the Terrible ordered to build a new tall wooden fortress. After the development of artillery, it became clear that a wooden fortress is no more suiteble for the defence, and in the end of the 16th century it was decided to build a new stone fortress at the place of the old one. See more here.
Solovetsky Monastery Kremlin
The Cultural and Historic Ensemble of the Solovetsky Islands is a medieval Russian Orthodox monastic settlement in an inhospitable environment.
The Solovetsky Islands are an archipelago situated north of St. Petersburg. There are about 100 islands, inhabited by only 1400 people. Greater Solovetsky Island is the biggest, on which the famous medieval monastery and Kremlin is built. Its beginnings as a religious center date to the mid 15th century: in 1436 the monastery was founded.
The complex also includes a monastic village and a number of detached monasteries (on other islands too).
In 1920 Solovetsky Camp became the first Soviet concentration camp, on the grounds of a former monastery. People persecuted by the Soviet government were sent here, and it became a model for the gulag system that later spanned the country. Later it was turned into a naval base. Its monastery function was restored in 1990. See a 360 degree view of the monastery here.
Staraya Lagoda Kremlin
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.
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. Visit here to see 360 degree views inside Moscow Kremlin. For outside see here.
Tobolsk has the only stone fortress in Siberia. The stone walls and the towers of the kremlin were constructed between 1683—1799. 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 and canons were removed, and the bell itself was exiled to Siberia.
Pskov. Inside the kremlin there is an excavated settlement that was ruled by Prince Dovmont in the 13th century. At one time it was an impressive complex of defense constructions with walls, gates, churches and chambers. Today this is Pskov’s Pompeii: the foundations of two churches discovered by the archeologists can offer a lot of details about what life was like in during the time of Prince Dovmont. Inside the kremlin there is only one church, the Trinity Cathedral, constructed much later in a style typical for church architecture in the 18-19th centuries. Wooden walls of the kremlin were built in 8-10th centuries.
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 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. See 360 degree view of the Kremlin here.
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.
The Glory of Ryazan is the Ryazan Kremlin. It is the ancient historical heart of the city. Throughout the long history of its existence the Kremlin has been rebuilt many times and eventually it has been formed into an entire architectural complex. It comprises a number of outstanding monuments of Old Russian architecture and the classicism of the XV-XIX centuries.
In 1968 the architectural monuments of the Kremlin ensemble, repository collections and the archeological site of Old Ryazan became the basis for creation of the historical and architectural reserve museum. The Museum’s thematic collections (Old Russian art, archeology, ethnography) are extensive. They include decorative needlework items, unique Old Ryazan treasure troves of the pre-yoke period, folk clothes, and traditional industry items. See more about the Ryazan region here.
Veliky Novgorod 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. See a 360 degree view of the Kremlin here.
The historic fortress of Shlisselburg – also known as Oreshek by Russians and Noteborg by Swedes – occupies an island in Lake Ladoga at the head of the River Neva. This was once a vital strategic location in territory and trade disputes between Sweden and the medieval principality of Novgorod Velikiy.
The island was first fortified in 1323 by Prince Yuri of Moscow, and changed hands several times over the next four centuries, before being definitively captured by Peter the Great at the beginning of the Northern Wars of 1700-21. By the end of the war, Shlisselburg was deep in Russian territory. No longer of strategic significance, the fortress was turned into a prison for those who threatened Tsarist rule. Among the most famous inmates were Peter the Great’s half-sister Maria, the boy-Tsar Ivan VI, and members of the Decembrist Uprising and the Narodnaya Volya – “People’s Will” – terrorist organization responsible for the assassination of Tsar Alexander II. See more here.
The Suzdal Kremlin is the oldest part of the town, dating from the beginning of the 11th century. Like other Russian Kremlins, it was originally a fortress, religious and administrative center of nearby lands. On the Kremlin territory there is beautiful Cathedral of Nativity of the Virgin marked as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The current building is over 500 years old, with wonderful frescoes inside. The part of the basement is dated back to 12th century, prior to the Mongol-Tatar invasion. It still has the ancient double door gates (or the Golden gates) made in very intricate technique of fusing gold onto a black background of bronze. Opposite the Gates there is Krestovaya Palata (Cross Chamber) of the Archbishop’s Palace, housing the museum with exposition of old Russian paintings and display devoted to 1000 years of Suzdal’s history. See more information here.
Korela Fortress, at the town of Priozersk, was founded by the Karelians who named the place Käkisalmi. It was first mentioned in a Novgorodian chronicle of 1143 as Korela. Indeed, archeological digs have revealed a layer belonging to the 12th century. Swedish chronicles first reported of the settlement of Keksholm in 1294. Until the 16th century, the fortress belonged to the Novgorod Republic, followed by Muscovy. Novgorodians built the current stone bastions and towers in 1364 after a fire had destroyed the original wooden fortress in 1360.
During a Swedish-Novgorodian war in 1314, a small Karelian force conquered the fortress from the representatives of Novgorod. They invited Swedes to keep it against Novgorod. However, the Novgorodians managed to reconquer the fortress. The fortress was confirmed as belonging to Novgorod in the treaty of Nöteborg of 1323. See more here.
Ivangorod Fortress stands right on the border of Russia and Estonia, facing Estonian Narva fortress on the opposite bank of the river. It was intentionally built to overshadow the older Narva castle and, therefore, several times as big as Estonian castle. Ivangorod castle was badly damaged during World War II and restoration works started only quite recently. Most of the towers and the whole stretch of the wall have now been restored to their original glory. The museum inside the fortress is due to open by the end of 2015. As for now, you can climb most of the towers (just take a torch with you because there’s still no electricity) and peep to the Estonian side from Ivangorod fortress wall.
Peter and Paul Fortress
When Peter the Great re-claimed the lands along the Neva River in 1703, he decided to build a fort to protect the area from possible attack by the Swedish army and navy. The fortress was founded on a small island in the Neva delta on May 27, 1703 (May 16 according to the old calendar) and that day became the birthday of the city of St. Petersburg. The Swedes were defeated before the fortress was even completed. For that reason, from 1721 onwards the fortress housed part of the city’s garrison and rather notoriously served as a high security political jail. Among the first inmates was Peter’s own rebellious son Alexei. Later, the list of famous residents included Dostoyevsky, Gorkiy, Trotsky and Lenin’s older brother, Alexander. Parts of the former jail are now open to the public…see more here.