Friday, October 20, 2017

Listening Ears

It’s a cliché to say that truth is stranger than fiction or, in the more down-home version, “you can’t make this stuff up.” Yet as a historian and a historical novelist, I find it endlessly amazing and delightful to realize just how true the cliché can be. Not only does history in general provide an endless series of dramatic plot points to enhance my books—women warriors, bandit chieftains, nomadic raiders, squabbling royals, fanatic monks, sorceresses, poisoners—but once in a while it throws up something I had not even imagined was possible.

Such was the discovery of sixteenth-century spy chambers during an archaeological investigation in Moscow. I saw the reference first on Pinterest, of all places, and set off at once in search of more information. Sure enough, to cut a long story short, in April 2017 a group of scholars working in the center of Moscow discovered hidden listening chambers masquerading as storerooms, probably for food, in the surviving remnants of Moscow’s second ring of walls. For various reasons, they concluded that the chambers must have been present as part of the original construction, which took place in the time period in which my Legends novels are set—1535–1539, to be precise—at the orders of Grand Princess Elena Glinskaya, the mother of the future Ivan the Terrible. Ivan came to the throne at the age of three, and his mother ruled on his behalf from 1533 to her death in 1538.

Now, you need to know a couple of things about these walls. The first ring surrounds the Moscow Kremlin; although the seventeenth-century tsars gussied up the towers with gingerbread turrets and the like, the basic structure was built for military defense, under the direction of Italian architects, in the late fifteenth century. It hasn’t changed much since except for regular repairs and the application of coats of stucco or paint to suit the aesthetic tastes of different time periods.

The second ring surrounded what was originally the trading quarter outside the Kremlin, an area now called the Kitaigorod. It extends out from today’s Red Square, then a moat and a marketplace, and it is the area where most of my characters live. By the 1530s, noble families were already moving out of the Kremlin in search of more space for their orchards and armories and what not, so they settled in the Kitaigorod, pushing the small merchants further out in a Muscovite version of gentrification.

By the time Elena and her advisers decided the city needed a second ring to protect it, artillery had become a major concern. So the Kitaigorod walls were built to withstand serious firepower. Designed by the Italian architect Pietro Annibale—who later fled to Livonia complaining that the grand princes and grand princess had refused him permission to leave the Russian lands, a not uncommon complaint from foreigners who came to offer their services—these walls stood for four hundred years. They’d be there today if Stalin hadn’t decided to blow them up with TNT to make room for some of the ugliest office buildings the world has ever produced. He allowed two small fragments to remain, and remain they do, impregnable as ever. Unless a future ruler comes along with more TNT, they’ll probably still be visible when the Last Trumpet sounds.

But even Stalin couldn’t destroy the foundations, and that’s where the archaeologists decided to dig. Whether their decision had to do with the current government’s reputed plans to rebuild the ancient wall, I don’t know. But I do know that they discovered vaulted chambers, hidden under the wall, that were acoustically designed in such a way that someone standing in the chamber could listen to what was going on outside without those under surveillance having any idea that they could be overheard.

The question is: what were they used for? The official explanation, as presented on the Internet, is that people defending the city could listen to attackers and deduce what they might do next. Really? I’m a military commander from, say, Poland, and I decide to launch an attack on Moscow. I travel the whole way there, dragging artillery and siege engines and horses, somehow defeating people left and right; I scale an embankment higher than my head; I stand at the base of a wall six meters high with guys on top raining arrows and cannonballs and tar and boiling oil down on my head—and then I stop for a little confab on what would be the best way to take the city?

I don’t think so. Even for defenders, it’s a questionable strategy. Surely they need to be manning the walls, not listening at keyholes, however cunningly designed.

With the help of my fellow Muscovite historians, I have developed an alternative explanation as to who the listeners may have been who haunted those chambers and why. But you’ll have to wait for Song of the Siren to find out what it is. In the meantime, feel free to leave a comment with your own ideas as to what may have been going on. Just remember, to quote another cliché, Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose—that is, “the more things change, the more they remain the same.”

Images: Elena Glinskaya, forensic facial reconstruction by S. Nikitin, 1999, © 2008 Shakko; portion of the Kitaigorod wall, Moscow, © Kmorozov, both CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons. (The sign attached to the wall advertises a sushi bar, café, and restaurant, thus underlining modern perceptions of the wall as just another part of the central Moscow commercial district.)


  1. LOL! Reminds me of my time in Moscow at MGU wwhere the radio - our big Brother - could never be switched off - while diplomats were told to 'speak clearly into the chandelier' the KGB's favourite listening bugs!

  2. Doesn't it, though? Or the tale told by the mother of a friend of mine, standing in a shop in Moscow where the clerk was giving her grief (surprise!), and snapping her fingers for the KGB man to come and straighten the young lady out. He did, too!


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