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Kremlin: A Fortress of Church & State

April 26, 2010 at 7:22 am
By Lily and Karl

Every ancient Russian city has a kremlin. The word kremlin quite literally means “fortress”, yet the Moscow Kremlin has become, over the course of history, much more than a means of protection. Now it serves as the center of the national government, a historical center, and of course a center of tourism. On Saturday, we passed through metal detectors, opened our bags for guards—the security is now a bit more modern—and entered the Kremlin through Troitskaya Tower. Our tour was conducted entirely in Russian, which made us feel pretty smart afterwards when we realized we understood everything that was said.

What struck us about the experience as a whole was how seamlessly the Kremlin complex mixes religion and politics, especially considering the fact that the Soviet regime housed itself there for decades. Without taking a step, it is possible to see an enormous theater and performance “palace” built by the Soviets, the palace where the president lives, and Uspenskii Cathedral. Walking just a bit further, past the stretch of elegant buildings, we came across the “Tsar Cannon” and “Tsar Bell”. Indeed, it would be hard to not come across these hefty artifacts; in both cases, the term “Tsar” is used to signify how enormous they are. The cannon, constructed in the late 16th century by Andrei Chokhov is so great in stature (17.5 feet long and 40 tons), that it has never been fired because any cannonball of such a size would be too big. The “Tsar Bell”, which broke in part when cold water was used to cool it down after a fire, weighs in at around 215 tons and stands over 20 feet tall. Both of these constructs are monuments to the power of tsardom, but ironically they are so large that they do not work (a bit like tsardom).

Right after learning about these monuments to the power of the state, we proceeded to Cathedral Square, where we spent time in each of the three cathedrals that surround it: Uspenskii, Blagoveshchenskii, and Archangelskii. The walls of each of these cathedrals, of course, are completely flooded with icons and symbolic (or direct) Christian meaning. The walls and columns are entirely covered. We learned that, traditionally, the design over the door depicts Judgement Day (in Russian, “The Frightening Judgement”), which reminds people exiting the cathedral what it is that motivates them to lead a good Christian life. We found it surprising that these churches were not destroyed when the Soviets held power in the Kremlin, since they had made general attempts to rid Russia of its religious heritage.

If the mix of church and state were not already obvious, we exited Archangelskii Cathedral and immediately saw a crowd of people gathered to watch the weekly military parade on Cathedral Square. Horses, soldiers, and weapons flashed before our eyes in splendorous choreography in front of churches, and a government complex where heads of state come to meet. From our American perspective, it was fascinating to see how a governmental building seems so at ease, set amongst the cathedrals, and how the cathedrals seem so natural as a backdrop to the soldiers. (Imagine the White House surrounded by churches.) Here, however, these cathedrals do not represent an actively religious government, but are simply accepted as part of the nation’s history.