The following article originally appeared in Russian on the Russian travel site “My Planet.” It has been translated here by SRAS Home and Abroad Scholar Sophia Rehm. Note: The title of this article was originally “If Stars are Lit,” a reference to a line of the poem Listen! by Vladimir Mayakovsky. For more on the history of the Kremlin stars, see this article.
When the Bolsheviks were deciding, in the 1930s, what would replace the double-headed imperial eagles that had adorned the towers of the Kremlin since the 17th century, they considered simple flags, the Soviet Union’s coat of arms, a gilded hammer and sickle, and five-pointed stars. Stalin himself approved the sketch of the historic ornamentation of the Kremlin. The result was that in 1935, stars shining with gold and semi-precious stones from the Urals, and weighing about a ton each, were raised onto the towers of the Kremlin. Tall construction cranes did not yet exist, and engineers had to perform a complicated technical task: they installed platforms and cranes directly on top of the towers, dismantling the eagles and installing the five-pointed stars. However, the gold and semi-precious stones on the Kremlin stars soon grew dull, and in 1937 the cumbersome, faded, colossal stars were replaced with new ones, made of ruby glass and measuring between 9.8 feet and 12.3 feet from tip to tip. Ever since, the five stars on the Spasskaya, Nikolskaya, Troitskaya, Borovitskaya, and Vodovzvodnaya Towers have remained not only symbols of Moscow, but also the objects of concern for many specialists.
The main guardian of the Kremlin stars is the Federal Guard Service of the Russian Federation (FSO). Professor Sergey Devyatov, advisor to the director of the FSO and chair of 20th Century Russian History in Moscow State University’s History Department, talked about how the Kremlin stars are cared for:
We have staff specialists devoted to the Kremlin stars. When a star needs to be washed or a lamp needs to be changed, we generally bring in certified technicians. Getting up there is difficult – the technicians don’t use any special equipment; they simply mount the structure, climb the ladders, and get to the stars.
The stars are not cleaned yearly. As a rule, one star per year receives preventative maintenance. For instance, the star on the Borovitskaya Tower was washed in 2012, and the smallest star, on the Vodovzvodnaya Tower, was washed in 2011. This year, no washing is required. We don’t have a plan: we keep an eye on the condition of the Kremlin stars. Our primary focus is on the incandescent lamps. Inside the stars, powerful lamps of up to 5000 watts burn around the clock. Each lamp has two filaments: if one of them is not lit, the other automatically switches on. If one of the bulbs is in danger of failing, then of course we change it. But if one of the lamps inside a star goes out, the star’s luminous power is not affected. Another part of the work is inspecting the stars’ supports. Since the stars have enormous wind resistance, in order to avoid damage from a gust of wind they rotate with the wind on support structures. We also pay attention to the fans: the lamps are so powerful that the ruby glass and metal frames of the stars get extremely hot. Generally, over the course of six or seven years all the stars on the Kremlin receive maintenance: washing, cleaning, and bulb replacement. But the stars themselves are never taken down.
If something breaks, only the damaged segment is replaced, not the whole star. The only major repair was done in 1946, and for that the stars were taken down. During the war, the stars’ lights were kept off in order to hide the Kremlin as much as possible, and they were covered with canvas sheaths. Still, the stars suffered during the bombardment, mostly from debris. After the war, there was a comprehensive inspection and restoration. Ever since, people have worked continuously to monitor the stars.
While the White House was stormed during the constitutional crisis of 1993, a pane of one of the Kremlin stars was pierced by a bullet. There have also been natural disasters. Not long ago, for instance, a pane of ruby glass had to be replaced: it was struck by lightning, and partially melted. Another interesting moment was during the ice storm in Moscow, when specialists climbed up to the stars in an unplanned procedure to remove enormous icicles: they had grown 5 to 6.5 feet long.