The Moscow Kremlin
From City Fortress to State Incarnate

The Moscow Kremlin - from city fortress to state incarnate

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At one time the Russian word "kremlin" referred to a fortress in any Russian city, not just the capital. Today the word denotes the Russian state and the Russian authorities rather than the fortress' walls, complete with their towers and crenellations. Indeed, throughout the Russian Empire's long history, the Moscow Kremlin became both a symbol of power and home to imperial relics. However, contrary to widespread opinion, the concept of "kremlin" merged with that of "the Russian authorities" only relatively recently - a process that was initiated not by Russians but by visiting foreigners.

Ancient Rus' took shape as a conglomerate of independent cities rather than as a centralized state under a single ruler. There were about 400 cities in Rus' before the Mongol invasion. Scandinavians even dubbed this country "Gardarika" or land of cities. It would be more precise to call it a land of fortress-cities because every Russian city has its fortifications - ramparts, crenellated walls (first wooden, later made of stone) and of course, their towers. Unfortified settlements were never called cities, no matter how big they might have been.

City fortresses were known by different names: citadel, detinets (a word still used in some Slavic languages) or town. The first recorded mention of the word "kremlin" or, to be precise, "kremnik" dates to 1317. Historians disagree about the word's origin. The prevailing view is that "kremlin" or "kremnik" developed from words for thick coniferous forests. The trunks of these mature, strong trees that grew on the edges of the forests were used to build fortresses. The logs were soaked in water until they petrified. Then they were called "kremnevka" or flint.

However, in ancient Rus' a kremlin was never considered a symbol of princely power, still less of centralized government. Princes lived outside urban fortifications and their power was manifest in courts or palaces. Old kremlins were more symbolic of cities' independence.

Princely power was substantially restricted by the "veche," or popular assembly, not only in Novgorod where the republican rule lasted until the end of the 15th century, but also in other Russian cities before the Mongol invasion. Veches were held in city kremlins and the destruction of fortress walls became symbolic of the city's subjugation to foreign invaders or suzerain.

The Mongol-Tatar invasion and the subsequent consolidation of the Moscow Principality changed the logic of the state's development by endorsing the imperial paradigm for centuries to come. This consisted of a whimsical combination of the Byzantine Empire's legacy, eastern despotism and lurking grass root discontent. Moscow was taking shape as the monocratic centre of the emergent Russian Empire and the Kremlin was the centre of Moscow.

By the 17th century the Kremlin had lost all defensive value - foreign military specialists wrote that it was ill-fitted for cannonade - but it had become the citadel of one-man rule.

The Russians did not impart any symbolism or mystical traits to the Moscow Kremlin. During the Napoleonic invasion, the Russian command left Moscow and its Kremlin in enemy hands in order to save their army. In general, neither in tsarist Russia nor in the Soviet Union was the term "Kremlin" used as a synonym for "the authorities" or "the state." This is a strictly Western invention. French author and traveler Astolphe-Louis-Leonor, Marquis de Custine was one of the first to identify the Moscow Kremlin not simply with the state but with the Russian state paradigm. Having visited Russia during the reign of Tsar Nicholas I, he wrote and published the book La Russie en 1839 (Russia in 1839). His critical and sometimes biased view of this country was nothing new - Europeans were accustomed to criticizing Russian statehood - but he was the first to give the Kremlin its special symbolism. "If that giant called the Russian Empire had a heart, I would say that the Kremlin is the heart of this monster," Marquis de Custine wrote.

The writer seemed unaware of the fact that at that time it was St. Petersburg rather than Moscow that was the capital of the Russian Empire and that the emperor's primary residence was St. Petersburg's Winter Palace, not the Moscow Kremlin. "The Kremlin is the ideal palace for a tyrant. The tsar lives in the Kremlin. The Kremlin is the tsar's home." Describing the Kremlin's intricate architecture that was so unusual to the European eye and that was neither Western nor Eastern, Marquis de Custine called it "the creation of a super-human being," a "dwelling of phantoms," and a "diabolic monument of architecture."

The era of the Russian Empire came to an end in the autumn of 1917 and was replaced with the relatively short-lived but both striking and tragic era of the U.S.S.R. The capital of this new Soviet state was shifted back to Moscow from Petrograd (as St. Petersburg was called from 1914 to 1924).

Since then the Kremlin has been the working residence of the head of state, as it is currently for President Dmitry Medvedev. Initially, Soviet leaders lived there but this practice came to an end several decades ago. The Supreme Soviet - the Soviet Union's parliament - sat in session there, whereas now the Russian parliament lies beyond the Kremlin walls.

World-famous churches and museums occupy most of the Moscow Kremlin's territory, notably the Diamond Fund with its treasures of Russian tsars. But let us return to its peculiar symbolism.

De facto, the Kremlin became the centre of the state in winter 1917-1918, but the word "Kremlin" was still not used to denote either "the authorities" or "the state." The Soviet leadership always tried to emphasize the collective nature of the decision-making process, which in any case was the prerogative of the Politburo, the Communist Party Central Committee, the Congress of People's Deputies or at least the elected general secretary, but never the Kremlin.

For the West, which used to criticize the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union came close to being the embodiment of absolute evil. The Kremlin became the main citadel of this "empire of evil" (a term first used by former U.S. President Ronald Reagan in the mid 1980s), the very incarnation of fear and prejudice.

It was the American press that spawned such expressions as "Kremlin designs" and "Kremlin decisions." Western authors wrote books with telling names like "The Kremlin conspiracy."

Needless to say, the Kremlin responded in kind. The capitalist empire had more symbolic centers - the White House was one such symbol of state power, Wall Street was the symbol of financial power, and the Pentagon stood for their opponents' military might.

After the Soviet Union's disintegration, numerous ideological taboos evaporated. Russian journalists willingly aped the style of their Western colleagues and also started using the words "Moscow" and "the Kremlin" to denote the state and the country's central government.

Source: RIA Novosti
15 November, 2010