The Tsar Cannon

Tour of the Moscow Kremlin, State Armoury, and the Cathedral of Christ the Savior

Published: August 26, 2019

As part of our SRAS cultural program, we were given the opportunity to take a tour of the Kremlin, a popular symbol of the Russian government. We met our guide outside of Red Square before walking along the Kremlin walls to the visitors’ entrance. She pointed out the swallowtail merlons bordering the wall, a design popular in 15th century Italian-style architecture, before we mounted the battlement. To travel behind the Kremlin walls, we crossed a bridge that used to span the Neglinnaya River but today acts as an archway covering part of the footpath.

Inside the Kremlin is an intriguing mix of old and new – from the 15th century walls to the 20th century block of modernism known as the State Kremlin Palace. Our guide informed us of the controversy over the palace’s design, which stands in such contrast to the more traditional styles surrounding it. The building, built under Khrushchev’s leadership primarily as a government meeting hall, has almost as many floors underground as it does above ground. Although many cried out against the building when it was built, it still stands today, where it is now used mainly to host concerts.

The State Kremlin Palace

A brief walk along a path lined with cannons from the state artillery collection brought us to what appeared to be the mother of all cannons. Indeed, the Tsar Cannon is the largest bombard by caliber ever manufactured and has never been used due to its vast size. Just around the corner lay a similarly large but unused item – the Tsar Bell. Commissioned during the time of Empress Anna, niece of Peter the Great, an almost life-size image of her adorns the bell’s surface.

Cathedral Square

We then traveled to Cathedral Square, which, as its name suggests, features a number of beautiful cathedrals. The overcast day did nothing to accentuate the gold domes that capped their many towers, but no amount of gloom could dim their impressive stature – so immense that photographing them from my vantage point proved a challenge. Each cathedral was adorned with more stunning iconography than the last, overwhelming to the point of monotony as we shuffled through the throngs of tourists.

Our next visit was to the State Armoury, a neoclassical building resplendent with the wealth of the tsars. We traipsed through room after room of riches, from icons, dishware, and diplomatic gifts to clothing, carriages, and thrones. What stood out to me the most was the two distinct – and sometimes warring – natures of Russian identity on display at the Armoury, East and West. The contrast was particularly obvious amongst the collections of clothing, weaponry, and thrones. The older pieces hearkened back to the time before the Western pivot of Peter the Great. While these remained just as ornately decorated as their modern counterparts, they were, on the whole, a lot less outlandish than those done in the styles of the West.

Cathedral of Christ the Savior

The Armoury marked our last stop within the Kremlin, so we traveled across the city center to the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Although the cathedral is the world’s largest Orthodox church, the current building is not the original. Christ the Saviour was demolished under the reign of Stalin and was only rebuilt in the late 1990s. Since then, the cathedral has gained fame as the site of Pussy Riot’s 2012 performance, which landed three members in jail for “hooliganism.”

Our guide let us explore the church on our own, as the church requires groups to be led by its own guides. Looking forward to lunch, we opted for a quick pass through the cathedral. Had I not been so hungry, I could have spent hours inside, as every surface held intricately-painted religious imagery intermixed with adornments heavily gilded with gold. Photographs were not allowed within the cathedral, reserving this spectacle to be seen first-hand.

The Kremlin in its entirety is a spot I recommend to all visiting Moscow, as four hours within its walls was not enough for our group to even scratch the surface of the wonders within.

About the author

Helen McHenry

Helen McHenry, at the time she wrote for this site, was a double major in international relations and Russian at the Ohio State University, with minors in Spanish and public policy. She studied with Russian as a Second Language with SRAS at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow in order to advance her proficiency in Russian and appreciation for Russian culture. She hoped to use the knowledge gained during her time abroad to advocate for foreign policy that strengthens relations between East and West in her future career.

Program attended: Challenge Grants

View all posts by: Helen McHenry