It’s been a while since I wrote a history post, largely because I tend to do the most research either before I start a new project or when I hit a brick wall midway through the first draft and discover I actually have no idea what happened during X or what people did when faced with Y or, as in this case, what the Moscow Kremlin looked like in February 1537.
You might write off that last as a no-brainer, and I certainly would not blame you if you did. After all, Wikipedia can tell you that the current fortress walls have been on the same site since Pietro Solari directed their construction in 1485–1495. The best-known cathedrals and at least one palace date from the same period. So what’s the problem?
Well, in brief, there have been a few changes in the centuries since Ivan the Terrible was a child. Moreover, to quote Catherine Merridale in her invaluable Red Fortress: History and Illusion in the Kremlin: “The buildings also did not stand unaltered, and they could be the most treacherous witnesses of all. If a wall was repainted, or a palace knocked down and rebuilt, it was as if its previous incarnation had never been” (6). Although there are written records—and the occasional spectacular map, like this one copied in 1663 but originally drawn circa 1604—the actual environment has undergone five centuries of fire, destruction, rebuilding, and refurbishing. Many documents perished in those fires; many buildings were torn down or incorporated into larger structures, like the women’s quarters built by Alevisio of Milan, which now form the first floor of the larger Terem Palace built in 1635–1636. (A terem, in medieval Russia, refers to the part of a house or estate used to seclude women from contact with men outside the family, thus safeguarding their honor [read: chastity] and, not coincidentally, ensuring that girls did not form romantic attachments that could interfere with their fathers’ political plans.)
Nor are these the only types of alteration. The deep red of the walls, familiar from so many photographs, is achieved by paint. The underlying brick is much paler, closer to peach, and at times in the past has been covered in white stucco. The gingerbread towers of the modern Kremlin are seventeenth-century add-ons; the original towers were designed to menace from the far side of a moat that once separated the citadel from what is today called Red Square (then still devoid of St. Basil’s). You can see the moat at the bottom of Blaeu’s map, which should really be to the right, as Red Square lies to the east of the Savior Tower.
Even the purpose of the city has changed. At one time, the Kremlin was the city, an area about a quarter the size of today’s fortress protected by log palisades. By the 1530s, only the royal family and the most prestigious noble clans maintained living quarters inside the walls, which also hosted a monastery and a convent as well as the metropolitan of Moscow, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church. Everyone else lived on the far side of today’s Red Square, in what became known (and is still known) as the Kitaigorod. In 1535, Grand Princess Elena of Russia, the mother of Ivan the Terrible and sometime heroine/sometime villain of my Legends series, ordered the construction of a second set of fortifications: a massive brick wall as thick as it was tall, so solid that it stood until Stalin went after it with dynamite four centuries later. Visitors to Moscow can still see its remnants today. The city expanded outward from there: two more sets of walls went up before the end of the seventeenth century, and the twenty-first-century city extends beyond those.
All this rebuilding and repainting makes life difficult for a novelist. What would my characters see when they enter the Kremlin? We can be reasonably certain that the bottom third of the Ivan the Great Bell Tower looked much the same then as now, although the iconic gilded cupola and the top two tiers did not appear until later. The Faceted Palace has survived, but the much larger collection of buildings where Ivan and his mother lived and governed has given way to the Terem Palace and the Great Kremlin Palace (built in 1837). The obviously eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and twentieth-century buildings can be eliminated, but what about the Tsaritsa’s Golden Chamber, which turns out to date from the 1550s (maybe) and has decorations matched to the 1590s, when Irina Godunova, sister to Boris Godunov and wife to Ivan the Terrible’s son Fyodor, ruled there? Was it part of an older structure that my characters might have encountered?
I checked the Russian chronicles to find out where Elena Glinskaya received the wives of Tatar khans and learned that the meetings took place “in the chambers near St. Lazarus’s.” But where was St. Lazarus’s? It’s not on any current map. It’s not on the 1604/63 map—except that it actually is, unmarked. According to “The Great Kremlin Palace in 1912,” the Church of St. Lazarus, built of wood in the fourteenth century, was “annexed to the south side of the Church of the Nativity of the Virgin.” In 1479 the walls of both churches collapsed, and in 1514 Alevisio rebuilt a single church dedicated to the Virgin’s Nativity on the first floor, with the former Church of St. Lazarus underneath. Further renovations took place in the late seventeenth century, as a result of which the Church of St. Lazarus was forgotten until the construction of the Great Kremlin Palace uncovered its fourteenth-century shell. Today the church exists entirely within the Great Kremlin Palace, which is closed to visitors because the Russian president lives there. But before the revolution, the Church of the Virgin’s Nativity was the private chapel of the grand princesses and tsaritsas and—which is the most telling and delightful detail—it backed directly onto the residence set aside for the royal women, which eventually became the Terem Palace.
In this attempt to reconstruct the Kremlin as it might have appeared in 1537, in addition to the sources I’ve already mentioned, I stumbled on one more that has proved invaluable. In 1910, S. P. Bartenev—who in 1912 wrote the guidebook reproduced on “The Great Kremlin Palace” website—drew an overlay map of the Moscow Kremlin. The buildings that appeared in his day, many of which were destroyed in the Soviet period, are shown in orange. But there are layers and layers of overlapping buildings in green. These mark the locations of former noble estates, Dmitry Donskoi’s terem, Ivan the Terrible’s bedchamber, the palace assigned to Zoë Paleologa, and much, much more. The notations are handwritten in Russian, which is why it helps to speak the language, but the file on Wikimedia Commons, reproduced here in a small version, is huge. A desperate novelist can blow it up to read the tiny print. Combine its evidence with the paper-doll-like renditions of Blaeu’s 1663 map (he never saw the Kremlin, but the original artist obviously did, because the buildings match what few descriptions we have as well as the structures that remain), and one can at least begin to imagine what Maria may have seen as she traveled veiled in her enclosed sleigh to Grand Princess Elena’s reception hall.
So this is how I spent a good half of my vacation. Much of it went into writing, but a good deal involved peering at Bartenev’s map, comparing it with Blaeu’s, searching for old photographs and descriptions, and reading as much Kremlin history as I could absorb from modern historians and from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century accounts. It’s been fun, and I learned a lot. Not least that you can’t always tell a book by its cover—or a fortress by its walls.
Images: Joan Blaeu, Kremlenagrad map, 1663, in the public domain because of its age; Spasskaia tower, Kremlin, © Milan Nykodym, Czech Republic, CC BY-SA 2.0; overlay map from S. P. Bartenev, Moskovskii Kreml’ v starinu i teper’ (The Moscow Kremlin in Olden Times and Now ), in the public domain because of its age—all via Wikimedia Commons.