Authors: Catherine Merridale
But church scribes wrote the history of Muscovy, so everything was made to point towards a blessed end, and the Kremlin buildings, however modest in their time, were retrospectively endowed with majesty. Ivan’s Dormition Cathedral was the most sacred of these, but the Chu-dov (Miracles) Monastery, whose first stones were laid in the reign of Ivan Kalita’s grandson, Dmitry Donskoi (ruled 1359–89), became another holy and auspicious place, and the metropolitan who founded it, Aleksii, later joined Peter in the pantheon of Moscow saints. In 1407, it was followed by the first stone church of a woman’s monastery, named for the Ascension, whose patron may have been Donskoi’s widow, Evdokiya.
Neither of the new religious houses was splendid at first, but ultimately both became magnificent, and so their stories have acquired a sort of vigorous inevitability. But this is a deliberate illusion, however tempting it may be to see all later Moscows in Ivan Kalita’s Kremlin. True, Metropolitan Aleksii continued Peter’s work of bracing Moscow against Tver, building relations with the khan, and fighting off regional threats to the city’s security. And unlike Peter’s, Aleksii’s partiality for Moscow was overt (he was Ivan Kalita’s godson), but even he did not preside over the sublime capital of much later myths.
Like its church buildings, the fourteenth-century Kremlin had a long way to go before it looked much like the centre of an empire. Kalita’s walls fell prey to fire and general decay; in 1365 the city burned disastrously once again. At Metropolitan Aleksii’s urging, Dmitry Donskoi and his boyars donated the funds to replace the wooden Kremlin walls with stone. In the winter of 1366–7, lines of sledges from the villages of Domodedovo, Syanovo and Podolsk converged upon the ice-bound fortress bearing piles of freshly quarried white limestone.
An army of peasant labourers followed them into the city, spitting and cursing as they worked to complete the entire structure in a single summer. This was an epic project, far more ambitious than Ivan Kalita’s stone church, and the investment paid off for some years.
Moscow withstood attacks from several quarters, and its prince, a war-hero as well as a successful politician, greatly increased its regional prestige.
But in August 1382, the Mongol leader, Tokhtamysh, led a punitive attack against Dmitry’s capital, and what happened next was not the stuff of patriotic icon-painting.
As Tokhtamysh approached, Dmitry fled, and so did Moscow’s metropolitan.
The Kremlin nonetheless withstood several days of siege, answering the Mongols’ arquebuses with stones, boiling water and arrows. Conceding that he could not batter his way into the fortress, Tokhtamysh sent a delegation to the city authorities. His messenger announced that the Mongols’ quarrel was with the prince alone, and since the prince was not at home he asked, no doubt with a disarming bow, if his lord might admire the Muscovites’ fine new walls from the inside. Proudly, and in some relief, Moscow opened its gates (there is a version of the tale that also mentions Mongol scaling-ladders). The city’s temporary ruler, Ostei, was the first person the Mongols slaughtered. Then the invaders sacked the Kremlin, splattering the new white stone with its defenders’ blood and torching any building that would burn.
It was a human and an economic tragedy, and it was followed by another eighty years of Russian civil war. If the Golden Horde had not been attacked from the east, by Tamerlane, or if luck had been with some of Moscow’s rivals or its enemies, the famous limestone Kremlin might have sunk into the same picturesque provincial ruin as its wooden namesake in Tver. Even the Black Death had a salutary role to play, for it ravaged the region several times, and in the process wiped out so many younger members of the royal line that there were fewer wasteful fratricidal property disputes.
All that uncertainty is missing from Ushakov’s founding scene. Peter and Ivan plant their tree, the Virgin extends her protective cloak, and Moscow rises from the gleaming rock, the heir of Kiev and Vladimir and of golden, transcendent Byzantium. The succession of rulers also runs unbroken, featuring generation after generation of saintly warriors and wise, divinely ordained Russian tsars. The fact that almost every element in the icon is fantasy is almost incidental. The myth itself, not the confused and murky truth, was to become the cornerstone of Kremlin politics.
The brick structure in Ushakov’s icon, the Kremlin that is still a shorthand for the state of Russia now, was built in the last two decades of the fifteenth century. ‘Once a building is up,’ writes the architectural historian Spiro Kostof, ‘it becomes a live presence.’
All but the blandest also have their personalities, and few have been as continuously distinctive, for five hundred years, as Moscow’s red fortress. Today, it looks so solid and coherent that it is difficult to imagine how the site could ever have been different. By the time that Dmitry Donskoi’s descendant, Ivan III (ruled 1462–1505), commissioned the present structure, however, there had already been a limestone citadel, a white fort, on the Kremlin hill for more than a century. The fact that any prince was prepared to undertake the risky and expensive tasks of demolition and rebuilding speaks volumes for Moscow’s development in the years that followed Don-skoi’s death. The fifteenth century saw the city almost constantly at war. Its princes’ armies were largely successful in the field, but as their stronghold’s wealth increased, the dangers that it faced grew ever more complex. When Ivan III ordered his builders to use brick, he was not merely indulging a whim. The decision was practical. Limestone was becoming obsolete, for as Russian troops were starting to discover, the soft rock shattered under cannon-fire.
The raising of Ivan III’s Kremlin was so closely linked to Moscow’s own consolidation that it became a chapter in many later Russian narratives of nationhood. The nineteenth-century historian Nikolai Karamzin spoke for many when he described the citadel as ‘the home of great historical memories’ and the cradle of an ‘autocratic power that was created not for the personal benefit of the autocrat himself, but for the people’s common good’.
Inspired by lyrical prose of that sort, it is tempting to imagine the tale as a classic opera. The music, probably composed by Borodin, would need to have an oriental theme, for the story is supposed to open in the final days of Mongol rule.
It is set in a palace in the old Kremlin, the year is 1471, and the curtain rises on an all-male court with scores of characters in gorgeous golden robes. They have gathered to discuss the tribute that their prince has long been forced to pay, and the high point (which was immortalized in several nineteenth-century paintings
) comes when Ivan III finally leaps from his throne, towering above the khan’s envoy. As the unfortunate messenger cringes at his feet, the prince (cue the lead Russian bass) declares that Moscow will no longer be the Mongols’ vassal. Ivan becomes a sovereign ruler, and a glorious chapter in the annals of Russia, a moment that the new Kremlin itself will soon immortalize, begins.
This Kremlin is a hymn to Russian genius, combining palaces and cathedrals of daring beauty with walls that will be proof against assault. It is unique, iconic, like a pure expression of the nation’s soul. But that mystique, although it has nurtured some of them for generations, owes a great deal to the imaginations of Russian nationalists. When Ivan III built his fortress, he was still a prince of the steppes and trade routes, and far from blazing some new cultural trail, his building itself followed European trends. In the age of the renaissance, magnificent buildings topped the list for any ruler seeking to make his mark in an expanding world. ‘The palace of a king should stand in the heart of a city,’ wrote the brilliant Genoese architect Leon Battista Alberti in 1452. ‘It should be easy of access, beautifully-adorned, and delicate and polite rather than proud or stately.’
Ivan III was never going to win a prize for delicacy, but he did know something about power. By the time the Kremlin’s first new layers of brick were being laid, he had expanded Moscow’s territory more than three-fold, incorporating some of Russia’s oldest cities, including Tver and Novgorod. But he still needed to get himself noticed, to join the international diplomatic game. He also needed to defend his winnings against a sea of rivals, including some alarmingly sophisticated ones.
Because the pride of Russia is at stake, facts such as these have often been obscured. In 1950, under Stalin’s ageing xenophobic eye, a Soviet academic called P. V. Sytin felt obliged to insist that the Kremlin’s ‘planning … followed purely Russian architectural principles’.
If that man could have travelled, a tour of northern Italy might well have prompted him to find a different phrase. He would have been surrounded by the inspirations for the Moscow Kremlin everywhere, from the swallow-tail battlements above Verona’s city gates to Milan’s Castello Sforzesco and, in the case of Bologna, the very bricks in the town walls. The history of the Kremlin in its era of rebirth involves a great deal more than noble princes and hard-working native craftsmen. It leads from Moscow to the Black Sea coast and onwards to Europe, it offers glimpses of a rough-edged court still half-embedded in the woods, and at its centre is a set of buildings: mortar, scaffolding and brick.
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The Muscovites did not defeat the Golden Horde in a decisive battle. The Mongol empire collapsed under the pressure of internal conflict. Sarai was sacked by Tamerlane in the 1390s, and though it was rebuilt, the city never really recovered. Ivan III’s father, Vasily II (ruled 1425–62), was the last prince in the Kremlin to hold his titles even theoretically by grace of the Horde. The empire of the grasslands fragmented in the 1420s, leaving at least four contenders for its legacy: the khanate of Sibir, the khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan on the Volga, and the khanate of the Crimea. The fifth heir, arguably, was the state of Moscow (also known as Muscovy) itself. Like any gaggle of legatees, these five successors spent years contesting their collective heritage. Ivan III’s most consistent ally was Mengli-Girey, the leader of the Crimean khanate, and with his help the prince (who sometimes used the word khan to describe himself
) extended Moscow’s influence along the Volga to Kazan. But the whole southern border was unstable. For decades to come, the frontier with the steppe was to be a constant drain on Moscow’s armies and its men.
Disunity and civil war were not Mongol monopolies, however. Moscow also came close to disintegration during Ivan’s childhood; the prince took part in his first battle in 1452, at the age of twelve. As usual, the issue was the succession. A civil war began in 1433, when Vasily II was challenged for the grand princely throne by members of his uncle’s family in a last-gasp revival of the tradition that brothers might inherit in the place of sons. The subsequent hostilities dragged on for fourteen years, and both sides resorted to extreme tactics, including kidnap, murder and the breaking of oaths. In a move reminiscent of Constantinople at its nastiest, Vasily II ordered the blinding of one of his rivals. Ten years later, during the brief ascendancy of the opposing side, a captive Vasily was brought to the Kremlin and forcibly blinded in revenge. The sightless prince was left alive, however, and managed to assemble a fresh military coalition to defeat his tormentors. By the spring of 1447 his victory – and the right to bequeath his lands and titles to his eldest son – was secure.
Moscow now claimed the Grand Principality of Vladimir in perpetuity, and from 1447 its prince also began to call himself the ‘Lord of all the Rus’. But the neighbours along his western borders – Lithuania, Poland and Livonia – were in a good position to challenge that ambition. Fifteenth-century Lithuania was the most obvious rival. Unlike its present-day successor, this grand duchy was one of the largest states in Europe, and as the Mongol grip had loosened, it had come to dominate the Dnieper lands, including Chernigov and Smolensk as well as the ancient capital of Kiev. In that respect, it was a real pretender to the Rus heritage, and it also enjoyed strong links with Catholic Europe, including dynastic connections to Cracow and Buda. After generations of stubborn paganism, its rulers now vacillated between Orthodoxy and Catholicism, alternately vying with Moscow for control of Russia’s metropolitan (whose seat, despite recent changes, was still officially meant to be Kiev) or courting the support of Rome. Cultured, wealthy and intellectually diverse, Lithuania was more open than Moscow, and almost every traveller who ended up in its capital, Vilno, found the place more congenial than its neighbour.
There was more than one potential future for the Russian people, in other words, and the possibilities did not all point to autocracy.
But Moscow was determined to secure its own trade routes and hinterland, and its expansion was prodigious. The scale of its growth as a regional power testifies to the skill and flexibility of three princes – Vasily II, Ivan III, and Ivan’s son, Vasily III – but it speaks volumes, too, about their ruthlessness. The Kremlin became the centre of a military regime. The old appanage system, where each prince ruled his own ancestral territory from a recognized seat, was reduced to a shadow. By using diplomacy, military pressure, and even marriage, Moscow’s princes absorbed the cities of the Oka, Klyazma and Upper Volga valleys one by one. The displaced clans from the provincial capitals were usually obliged to move to Moscow permanently, and soon the opportunity disappeared to make an independent fortune anywhere else. As a result, politics in the Kremlin grew tenser, circling ever more tightly around the grand prince himself.
Where Ivan Kalita’s fortress had been run by a company of buccaneers, this one was full of whispers and the muffled footfalls of conspiracy. Everything depended on personal contact.