A Window Onto History

PHOTO by abadesign / Depositphotos
The Middle Ages, today: what can you see through the new viewing platforms inside the Moscow Kremlin?

Afisha.Daily visited the freshly-renovated Ivanovskaya Square inside the Moscow Kremlin and tried out its new attraction: viewing platforms set into the floor.

Until recently, the Kremlin was seen as a timeless stronghold in the turbulent sea of ever-changing Moscow, with the latter rapidly losing its historic buildings, becoming increasingly overgrown with controversial monuments, benches and ash groves, but also increasingly pedestrian-friendly.

However, last week even the Kremlin succumbed to the trend for renovation: Ivanovskaya Square now has two slightly-raised, granite platforms with glass screens. From afar they resemble the tomb-like first wave of urban improvement, as seen on Bolshaya Dmitrovka. But upon closer examination, these additions reveal a transparent top. These are archaeological windows, an established way of showing cultural layers, which is often used in western European cities where buildings were put up on top of older, existing structures, such as medieval houses in place of Roman forums.

Ivanovskaya Square is considered to be one of the oldest squares in Moscow: it was established in 1329 after the construction of the stone church of St. John Climacus, which includes the Bell Tower of Ivan the Great. The new church was located in the middle of the broad city square, thus splitting it into two, creating Ivanovskaya and Sobornaya (Cathedral) Squares. During the imperial age, the Kremlin grounds had many more buildings and were nowhere as spacious as they are now.

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In 1929, the soviet government tore down two monasteries, Chudov Monastery and the Ascension Convent which were inside the Kremlin walls. The move was motivhiated by pragmatism rather than anti-religious sentiment, as they were replaced by a military academy for Kremlin cadets. So in 1934 the 14th century monasteries were replaced by neoclassical Kremlin Presidium, catchily known as Building 14. It became the first Kremlin building erected under soviet rule.

The new building did not take up all the space that was freed up, so Ivanovskaya Square expanded; it also now had some amazing views over the Kremlin’s main landmarks, including the church of St. John Climacus and its bell tower.

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During the soviet era, Building 14 housed the Red Commanders' School (a military academy for Red Army leaders), then the Kremlin Theatre, and, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union it Yeltsin’s. 1993's incarnation of the 500 rouble bank note depicted this very building. Over the last few years, the Presidium has housed several branches of the Presidential Administration, as well as also hosting several presidential press conferences. Part of the building was under reconstruction from 2001, costing 8 billion roubles ($133 million). The project was hidden from the public eye under a fabric façade until in 2014, when President Putin decided to tear it down and rebuild the Chudov and Ascension monasteries.

In April of 2016, the Presidium was demolished and the office of the Russian Federation's first president was moved to its new home at the Boris Yeltsin Presidential Centre in Yekaterinburg. The only remaining clue to the existence of the soviet-made building is a small mound of earth. It's reminiscent of a giant flowerbed, which was a staple of Soviet landscape designers.

The excavation has proven to be fruitful. Specialists from the Institute of Archaeology at the Russian Academy of Sciences managed to discover the foundations and cellars of demolished buildings in good condition among a number of other finds, such as pottery pieces dated to the era of the Golden Horde, broken female jewelry, keys and book holders. Books were a luxury item in the middle ages and it appears that Kremlin monasteries had rich libraries. Archaeologists decided that these discoveries should not go to waste and proposed the creation of two museum windows on Ivanovskaya Square. Apparently this is the first time such a feature has been constructed in Russia.

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These tanks have preserved everything just like it was when it was discovered. Archaeologists did not move anything, leaving it just the way it was originally built and buried – the walls, remains of tombstones and other artefacts. The subterranean exhibits have lights and climate control systems to protect the ancient artefacts. Despite the generally strict rules of behaviour which are enforced on Kremlin property, walking on these platforms is allowed.

The first window offers a glimpse of the foundations and parts of basements of two churches and the dining room of the Chudov monastery, along with tombstones. The latter were found to be older than the monastery: apparently in the 14th century tombstones were often used to build churches.

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The second window showcases the brick foundation of a path from the palace to the monastery, dated from 1851-1855. Below it was wooden flooring and a cellar which were part of a 16th century estate, which gave way to the Nikolaevsky Palace 200 years later. If you have good eyesight and can read Old Church Slavonic, you can actually make out signs on some of the remaining tombstones. One tomb belongs to a member of the renowned Velyaminovy noble family; another to a monk, Serapione, and the third one belongs to one Pavel Rodionov, a “serf of Chudov monastery.” So he was a secular man, but assisted the monastery in day-to-day activities.

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The dig under the demolished Building 14 will continue. Some say that a new archaeological museum may open in its stead, displaying discovered artefacts, which can now be seen in Moscow Kremlin Museums. As for the president’s idea to rebuild the Chudov and Ascension monasteries, for now it’s still just an idea.