Eight-Hundred Years of Moscow

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

When Iurii Dolgorukii, Prince of the Suzdal branch of the Kievan ruling family, sat down to dinner with Sviastoslav Olgovich, Prince of Seversk, on April 4, 1147, little could he imagine that eight hundred years hence, millions of citizens of the capital of Russia and the Soviet Union would celebrate the event. Iurii and his distant cousin were members of minor branches of the dynasty. They met in military council on this nameless bluff overlooking the Moski River, surrounded by mire and impassable roads, but perfectly situated for defense. Dolgorukii’s modest hunting lodge suited troubled times. Kievan Rus’ was in its death throes, torn apart by its quarreling princes. This spot was far from the center of the struggle. Establishing there a fortified town, or Kremlin, Dolgorukii and his heirs would be able to consolidate their power slowly while other families withered in internecine struggles. The course of the following centuries would see that power extend from Poland to the Pacific Ocean; and the mud of the Kremlin would eventually be graced by some of the world’s most beautiful churches.

By 1947 the Kremlin stood at the center of a great modern city, rebuilt by Stalin during the 1930s, which had survived German invasion and now stood proud as center of the Soviet state. Its value was as much symbolic as it was geographic. Both a mythic refuge against foreign incursion and symbolic center of a vast empire, Moscow and its Kremlin embodied the power of the centralized Russian state. When Stalin ordered a great monument to Dolgorukii placed in the center of the city, he was honoring the tradition of the strong state, the same he honored in the person of Ivan the Terrible, and the same tradition he himself continued. The Muscovite state, though very much a medieval entity, had an important role to play as the Cold War broke out in 1947, one with internal and external ramifications. The Kremlin summoned Russians to defend their homeland against foreign aggression; when the Orthodox patriarch celebrated the five-hundredth anniversary of the autocephalous Russian church from the Kremlin that year, he lashed out against hostile foreigners. Internally, the Kremlin asserted the centrality of Russians in the Soviet state. The Great Russian People toasted by Stalin in his famous 1945 speech, who were first among equals in the Soviet land, found their center in Moscow, which found its center in the Kremlin. In the center of that complex, on the spot first occupied by Iurii Dolgorukii, stood Iosif Stalin.

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