Kremlin is a word of Russian origin that roughly translates to “castle” or “citadel”. Throughout Russia’s history, these central complexes served as fortresses within cities. At one time, as many as 400 kremlins existed throughout medieval Russia, but only about 20 of them remain fully intact to this day.
While there have been many kremlins over the years, it is important to know that when people say “the Kremlin”, they are almost always talking about the most famous of these citadels, the Moscow Kremlin.
What is the Kremlin in Moscow?
The Kremlin is a fortified complex in the heart of Moscow. It is bound by the Moskva River to the south, Saint Basil’s Cathedral and Red Square to the east, and the Alexander Garden to the west.
Moscow’s Kremlin is by far the best known of the kremlins. Within the Moscow Kremlin are five palaces, four cathedrals, and an enclosing wall. The Grand Kremlin Palace is also located within these boundaries, formerly serving as a Moscow residence for tsars. Today, the palace is the official residence of the President of the Russian Federation.
History of the Moscow Kremlin
Settlement of the land around present-day Moscow dates back to the 2nd century BC. In the 12th century, Slavic tribes in the region built the “grad of Moscow” (grad meaning “fortified structure”), with walls made of oak. These wooden walls were replaced with a citadel of white limestone during the 14th century, which formed the basic foundations of the current walls.
In the 15th century, Grand Prince Ivan III (aka “Ivan the Great”), renovated the Kremlin, inviting architects from Italy to build new walls and towers, and to design palaces and cathedrals within them.
The Kremlin would become the residence for Russian tsars until the rule Peter the Great. Wanting Russia to gain a seaport in order to better trade with Europe, Peter would use conscripted peasants to build a new capital city, Saint Petersburg, which he named after the apostle Saint Peter.
Saint Petersburg would serve as the capital of Russia until the Bolsheviks seized power in the early 20th century, moving the capital back to Moscow in 1918. The Kremlin would become the center of government and power in the new Soviet Union.
The Soviet Union would certainly leave its mark on the Kremlin. Many buildings would ultimately be destroyed after the Bolshevik uprising, and in 1947, Joseph Stalin would paint the Kremlin’s walls communist red. Today, however, this centuries-old fortress still retains much of tsarist past.
Other Uses of the Term
We know that the word kremlin means “citadel”. And we know The Kremlin typically refers to the Moscow Kremlin. However, when people talk about the Kremlin, they might also be using the word metonymically to refer to the government of Russia. This is very similar to how “White House” might be used to refer to the Executive Branch of the United States government.
So when you hear someone described as having “Kremlin ties” in the news, it means that the person in question has ties to the Russian government.
Hopefully this helps clarify some of the confusion around the Kremlin and how it relates to Russia. Today, the Kremlin remains one of the world’s most alluring and enigmatic tourist attractions.