Kremlin, Novodevichy and the Bolshoi

Friday, October 05, 2018
Moscow, Russian Federation
The Kremlin is closed on Thursdays, so it was by design that we skirted around the Kremlin walls when we visited Red Square on our first day in the capital.  Since we wanted to get there at opening time, it was our first destination for this morning. Entrance tickets to visit the public areas and churches are easily purchased from automatic kiosks, but there is a separate timed-entry ticket to visit the Armory (which in spite of its name does not only house weapons but also collections of works of art from Russia and Europe) and we had to join a queue that had formed well before opening time. 
Entrance to the Kremlin is through then Kutafya Tower (one of several towers along the wall). It was once a part of the Kremlin’s defenses. The word Kremlin means fortified city and a fortified stronghold has existed in this site since Moscow’s earliest years in the 12th century.
When the city became the capital of medieval Rus in the 1320s, the Kremlin served as the headquarters of the Russian Orthodox Church and the seat of the prince. There are at least 20 other Kremlins in Russia, the majority of which are old medieval cities. If you are following this chronologically you may remember the beautiful kremlin in Tobolsk that we had the good fortune to visit. (Also the kremlins in Kazan and Nizhny Novgorod Needless to say the one in Moscow is most well known. From here autocratic tsars, communist dictators and modern-day presidents have done their best - and worst - for Russia.
Surrounded by red-brick walls and tent-roof towers, the complex includes numerous palaces, cathedrals and government buildings. It also serves as the official workplace of the President, although the he does not live in the Kremlin.
We joined the disorganized throng waiting at the Kutafya gate to pass through security and as we made our way to the front, we were unceremoniously turned back. Evidently the payment receipt that V had collected from the kiosk proved he had paid, it was not acceptable in lieu physical tickets that he failed to collect. So we walk back to the ticketing center to buy tickets again. Some lucky person who used the kiosk after V must have found free tickets waiting for them!
The second time around we had no problems getting in and emerged on to a vast open square on the inside. Visitors to the Kremlin are expected to stay along marked paths that lead you to the highlights. Security is strict and straying would not look upon kindly. We walked pass the Kremlin State Palace, used as the Congressional Palace and concert hall. 
At 27 hectares, the Kremlin occupies a fairly large area. It was the ambition of Ivan the Great, the “Grand Prince of Moscow” in the 1400s to build a capital that would equal the fallen Constantinople in grandeur, power, achievements and architecture. In an effort to build the ‘Third Rome’ Ivan brought from Italy stonemasons and architects, who built new walls, great cathedrals and other structures. Most of the present-day buildings here date from this period. Although Peter the Great shifted the capital to St. Petersburg, the tsars still showed up here for coronations and other celebrations. The fortress was captured by Napoleon, who inflicted serious damage before making his retreat in 1812. But still the ancient symbol endured and it would never be breached again until the Bolsheviks stormed the place in Nov 1917. 
Across the cobblestone square was the Grand Kremlin Palace, which was formerly the tsar’s residence in Moscow. During the Soviet times, the Grand Kremlin Palace had "СССР" embedded in between its upper arches, but that has since been removed.
Visitors typically make a beeline for Sobornaya (Cathedral) Square, a plaza with four cathedrals right at the heart of the Kremlin. Constructed at different times, by master craftsmen of the age and under varying historical circumstances, these magnificent churches have background stories which are at least as interesting as the monuments themselves. Each of these churches played a vital role in the history of the Orthodox Church and of the Russian state itself. This plaza is the site of coronations and funeral processions for all of the Russians tsars and even today it is used in the ceremony for the inauguration of the President of Russia.
The Cathedral of the Assumption is the oldest church in the Kremlin. Its exterior is simple and austere, white limestone topped by 5 golden cupolas but it belies its importance. The seat of the Russian Orthodox Church was transferred here from Vladimir in 1326 making it the centre of the state of Muscovy, the most powerful of the Russian principalities. Russian emperors, tsars and Grand Dukes were crowned here. Patriarchs, metropolitans, and bishops were consecrated here. In an age when state power and religion were barely separable, it was also a centre of state ritual. Inside the cathedral, the Patriarch's Seat and the Throne of Monomakh - carved in 1551 for Ivan the Terrible - mark the physical presences of the two sides of this historic alliance. 
The Cathedral of the Annunciation is also a white structure topped by a set of gleaming golden domes. It is famous for its magnificent iconostasis, shielding the sacred part of the church from view. Icons by various artists from the 14th to 19th centuries make up the screen. It was originally built as the domestic church of the Grand Dukes and tsars and was connected (along with the Cathedral of the Archangel) by passages to the private quarters of the royal family. The cathedral was used to celebrate name-days, weddings, baptisms and so forth. The Cathedral of the Annunciation was badly damaged during the Revolution, when the Kremlin came under attack from artillery fire. In 1918, the cathedral was closed as a place of worship and now it operates officially as a museum.
The Cathedral of the Archangel is named for the Archangel Michael, a suitably war-like heavenly figure who was chosen as the patron saint of the rulers of Muscovy in the 14th century. It was erected between 1505 and 1508 - the culmination of a grandiose building project begun by Ivan the Great to reflect the growing power of the state, and provide a fitting resting place for Russian Royalty. While the exterior facade is decorated with details unusual in Russian architecture, enormous pillars divide the interior into three naves emphasizing the Russian origin of the building's structure. The interior of the cathedral is dark and atmospheric and with the exception of Boris Gudonov, contains the tombs (46 altogether) of all the rulers of Muscovy and Russia from the 14th century until Peter the Great moved the capital to St Petersburg.  The vaults of the Romanovs are located in the central part of the Cathedral. One of greatest 'treasures' of the cathedral is the burial vault of Ivan the Terrible. Ivan was the first to take the title of Tsar and therefore merited a special burial chamber, the construction of which he oversaw himself.  The Cathedral was closed after the October revolution, but has been open to the public as a museum since 1955.
Dwarfed behind the Cathedral of the Assumption is the Church of the Deposition of the Robe. The buildings of the Great Kremlin Palace complex include small domestic churches; especially colorful were the restored cupola of the Church of the Nativity. On one side of the Cathedral square is the Ivan the Great Bell Tower. It wasthe tallest building in all of Russia for almost 400 years and houses the 64-ton Resurrection bell.
In front of the bell tower stands Tsar cannon, a 5m long bronze cannon. Although it was originally intended as a powerful weapon in the Kremlin's defenses, it has never been used in any military action. Gigantic cannon balls have been arrayed in front, but they are purely decorative. Also nearby stands Tsar’s bell, the largest bell in the world. weighing almost 202 tons and standing more than 6 metres high and 6.6 meters across, it has beautiful relief work on the exterior.
Our timed-entry to the Armoury was only a few minutes away when we had to resort to some power walking to cover the 500m distance to the Armoury, Russia's oldest surviving museum which houses a sumptuous collection of Tsarist artifacts including jewels, clothing and weaponry. Stylistically similar to the Great Kremlin Palace itself, the building was purpose built in 1844 to house the treasures of the Tsars. We spent over an hour with the museum’s collection of cultural and domestic life of a different era - carriages, robes, jewelry, armoury - every piece had a story associated.  
A particularly valuable treasure is the legendary Crown of Monomakh, supposedly a gift to Prince Vladimir of Kiev, in the 11th century, from the Byzantine Emperor Constantine IX Monomachus, and thus a symbol of Russia's claim to the spiritual and imperial heritage of Byzantium. It was used in the coronation ceremony of all the Tsars until 1682. Other treasures include the renowned Easter Egg collection made by St. Petersburg jeweler Faberge, the coronation dresses of the 18th century empresses, the wedding gown of Catherine the Great, the joint coronation throne of boy tsars Peter the Great and his half-borther Ivan V, the enormous chain mail vest of Boris Gudunov, the sabres of Minin and Pozharsky and the sleigh in which Elizabeth rode from St. Petersburg to Moscow for her coronation (pulled by 23 horses at a time).
We exited the Kremlin from the Borovitskaya Tower gate that opens out to a small hill on which stands a towering statue of St. Vladimir the Great. The 10th Century prince was one of the rulers of the first eastern Slav proto-state, based in Kiev and is claimed by both Russia and Ukraine as a founding father. When Russian President Vladimir Putin has unveiled this statue in 2005, it caused a regional controversy and was regarded as a provocative gesture from Moscow.  We rounded the hill going north on Mokhavaya St. making our way back to the Biblioteka Lenina (Lenin Library) station on the Red Line.  
Our next destination was the Novodevichy Convent and Cemetery, that was founded in the 16th century to celebrate the taking of Smolensk from Lithuania. From early on, it was a place for women from noble families to retire, some more willingly than others. The convent and cemetery are a short walk from the Sportivnaya metro statin (itself a stone’s throw from the Luzhnini Stadium which recently played host to FIFA 2018). We managed to make time for a pizza lunch in a basement restaurant under the station, before we weaved through quiet residential streets and neighborhood parks to get there.
The centerpiece of the monastery, the Smolensk Cathedral  (a World Heritage site) was fully covered in scaffolding and is undergoing a multi-year renovation. We were aware of this closure, but still wanted to make the trip so we could visit the adjacent Novodevichy Cemetery, one of Moscow’s most prestigious final resting places.  We were unsure what to expect as we entered, and were immediately approached by a young man who directed us to purchase tickets and offered us a guided tour of the place. We were initially skeptical, (the information indicated that cemetery is free to visit) but after we were led to an official looking ticket booth, there was no point arguing. It appears that with the Convent closed to visitors, the guides (and the ticket sellers) have just shifted the operation to the cemetery so they can continue to earn a living.  
The guide struck out a path among the gravestones to show us the veritable who’s who of Russian politics, military and culture, all the while quizzing us on our knowledge of Russia’s high achievers. Have you heard of so-and-so the author (or artist/performer/inventor/scientist), he would challenge us at every turn and we believe we managed to impress him eventually. Among the several Russian cultural luminaries buried here are Rostropovich, Bulgakov, Chekhov, Gogol, Prokofiev and Stanislavsky. A recent notable addition to the cemetery is former President Boris Yeltsin who died in 2007. His tomb is marked with an enormous sculpture of a Russian flag. In a different section, explaining fresh flowers on the grave of Raisa Gorbacheva, the guide explained that Mikhail Gorbachev (who spends most of his time in Germany these days),  had visited his wife’s grave barely a week earlier. There is a open spot reserved fro him next to her!
In Soviet times, Novodevichy Cemetery was used for eminent people the authorities judged unsuitable for the Kremlin wall, most notably Nikita Khrushchev - his headstone features intertwined black and white blocks around his bust.  The tombstone of Stalin’s second wife is also here, but is covered by unbreakable glass to prevent vandalism.
We retraced our way back to Sportivnaya station, as we had a pre-planned appointment at Theater Square that evening. V had made advance booking for a performance of Verdi’s Un ballo in Maschera at the renowned Bolshoi Theater and we wanted to call early to pick up our “will-call” tickets ahead of the performance. On inquiring, we were told that the barcodes in the confirmation email was all that was needed to gain entry and we should come back just in time for the performance.
With some time on our hands, we embarked on the Tverskoy neighborhood walk that was covered in one of our guidebook. Starting from across the Hotel Metropol, we headed up Ulitsa Petrovka and into Kamergersky per, Moscow’s prime people watching spot. V had some fun posing with a bronze Sergei Prokofiev, and trying to look at musical sheets tucked under his arm without his permission. Rounding the bend at Tverskaya ul. we reversed direction on Stoleshnikov per, another quaint cobblestone street lined with fancy boutiques and cafes. Back on Ul. Petrovka, we walked north towards P.l Petrovskie Vorota, named for the gates that used to guard the city. We wandered into the courtyard of the Moscow Museum of Modern Art, which contains a collection of weird and oversized sculptures by controversial Georgian artist Zurab Tsereteli. We found the museum cafe offered Georgian cuisine with vegetarian options so decide to dine there. The nice waitress actually stayed a few extra minutes past her shift since she was the only English speaking person there and she wanted to ensure that she took care of our orders before she left. Dinner taken care of, we hurried back to the Bolshoi.
Since its opening in 1856, the Bolshoi Theater has offered a magical setting for both opera and ballet. The present pink and white edifice saw the premier of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake in 1877. The facade is famed for the bronze troika that is seemingly about to fly out off the front.
An evening at the Bolshoi still is considered the ultimate ‘special occasion’ in the capital and having just attended two ballet performances in the week prior, we were ready for the spectacle of a grand opera. With our day bags and coats safely deposited in the cloak room, we entered the six-tier auditorium that had an electric atmosphere evoking over 240 years of premier music and dance. The theater space is draped in rich red velour and all the gilded moulding glitter in the golden light.
As to the performance itself, there are three versions of the libretto for “Un ballo”, each set in a different city - Naples, Stockholm and (surprise, surprise! ) Boston. The Bolshoi performed the version set in Boston (with timeline shifted to the 1950s), and the choice of time location became the primary inspiration for the visual concept of the production.  So what we witnessed was a performance sung in Italian with Russian supertitles flashing above the stage about a Boston brahmin!
While this is a story with a murder plot, there is no blood or violence but the focus is on the psychological drama with the aesthetics of Alfred Hitchcock. Even the scenery and costumes were made in only three colors - black, white and gold. The singing was exemplary and we were happy to round off the night having witnessed a virtuoso performance in a world-class auditorium.
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2019-06-17