The great Kremlins of Russia played an important military role in some of the most exposed regions of Europe. The plains of Western Russia are both extremely fertile and strategically endless, and unlike the rest of Europe almost impossible to defend under the traditional system of feudal castles. Instead Russia focused on the defense of heavily fortified cities, from which they could quickly reconquer lost territory. The most famous of course is the Moscow Kremlin, home to the Soviet and now Russian government and many of Moscow’s most important historic sites. Of the dozen or so other Kremlins surviving in the west are those of Novgorod and Smolensk. The Moscow Kremlin and the Novgorod Kremlin are both UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The vast plains of Russia have attracted settlers and conquerors since the early Middle Ages. The Slavic Rus tribes began expanding into the region that is now Western Russia during the 8th and 9th centuries. However, aside from the Kievan state, the development of larger cities and states was a slow process. Moreover, the region was constantly threated by Swedes from the north, Mongols from the east and the feudal kingdoms of Europe to the west.
During the 13th century, the Rus finally began to organize themselves under great leaders such as Alexander Nevsky, who rallied the beleaguered armies and began to drive out the foreign occupiers. By the year 1300 crushing blows had been inflicted on the invaders from Sweden and Europe, making the western frontiers of Russia more secure than they had ever been in in history. This led to the beginning of the construction of the Kremlins. In order to consolidate their power and begin preparing for the ultimate showdown with the Mongols, the rulers of Russia began erecting massive citadels, most notably in cities of Moscow and Novgorod.
Throughout the 14th century, the great Kremlin cities became rallying points for the Rus. Under the leadership of the Grand Dukes of Moscow, the Russians began to slowly drive out the Mongols, culminating in the great victory at the Battle of Kulikovo in 1380. This effectively marked the end of the Mongol occupation and the beginning of the Russian Empire.
The next two hundred years were a golden age for the Kremlins. Dozens sprang up in the cities of Western Russia, notably in Smolensk and Kiev. Other great Kremlins were erected further east, such as those of Astrakhan and Kazan. Except in the area around St. Petersburg where numerous castles and fortresses were built, the Kremlins became the mainstay of Russia’s defensive strategy well into the 20th century, when some were still saw action during World War II. About a dozen Kremlins remain relatively intact in Western Russia, perhaps the best of which are those of Moscow, Novgorod and Smolensk.
The Moscow Kremlin is the Kremlin, one of the oldest and largest citadels, and certainly the most historic, in Russia. A giant, red-brick triangular fortress along the shore of the Muscovy River, it was the seat of the Grand Dukes and the Czars before they relocated to St. Petersburg, and later the government of the Soviet Union. The fortification encloses a huge area filled with palaces, churches and government buildings. They also form the stately backdrop of the city’s annual May Day parades. The most distinctive features of the Kremlin walls are the magnificent round towers which mark the corners. It is open every day except Thursdays from 10:00am-5:00pm. Admission is R300. Web: www.kreml.ru (official website).
The Novgorod Kremlin, not to be confused with the Nizhny Novgorod Kremlin further east, is the oldest citadel in Russia, with fortifications that date back as early as the 11th century. Most of the Kremlin was rebuilt in the late 1400s after Novgorod was incorporated into the expanding Grand Duchy of Muscovy. The Novgorod Kremlin is very similar to that of Moscow, if a bit more worn-looking, with red-brick walls punctuated by enormous towers. Amidst the many churches and other historic buildings within the Kremlin is the Eternal Flame dedicated to the Russian soldiers who died during World War II. As of this writing no visitor information was available. Web: www.visitnovgorod.com/kremlin (official website).
The Smolensk Kremlin is one of the youngest major citadels of Western Russia, as it was not completed until around 1600. Due to its prime location along the major road from Central Europe to Moscow, few Kremlins have witnessed as much destruction as that of Smolensk. The fortress was ravaged many times in history, notably during the Napoleanic and Nazi invasions. Since World War II most of the fortifications have been rebuilt, and over a dozen towers restored. As of this writing no visitor information was available. Web: www.smolensk-travel.ru (official website).
Few other countries have so many surviving walled cities as Russia. There are a large number in Western Russia alone, notably the Kolomna Kremlin, the Pskov Kremlin, the Tula Kremlin and the spectacular Izborsk Kremlin. Further to the south and east are the Nizhny Novgorod Kremlin, Astrakhan Kremlin, the popular Kazan Kremlin, and the Tobolsk Kremlin, the only walled city in Siberia.