Under the capital's streets: a guide to ancient Moscow


Moscow, unlike St Petersburg, is an unplanned city that has grown organically over the centuries, and where new developments can still mean the destruction of older buildings of historical interest. A few traces remain, however, from medieval times and even prehistory. Alexander Mozhayev has been investigating them.

Alexander Mozhayev
14 December 2012

Officially, Moscow was founded 855 years ago, but there is known to have been a much earlier settlement there. Visible traces of ancient occupation, however, are remarkably rare. Even 16th century buildings are uncommon, and there are only a few isolated examples of any earlier structures. It’s not even a question of the medieval city having been built mostly of wood – Muscovites have never been known for a reverent attitude to their architectural heritage. But this only makes the search for traces of the distant past in today’s megapolis all the more interesting.

The last 25 years have been a very fertile period for Moscow’s archeologists. In the Soviet period, any excavations were largely ad hoc and an adjunct to other works, but since the end of the 1980s archeologists have been able to carry out more systematic digs and have uncovered a lot of new and sometimes surprising information about the city’s ancient history.


1960: excavations for the foundations of the Palace of Congresses. On this site stood the first wooden fortress in mid-12th century, and in the 17th century the women’s quarters of the Royal Palace. Archaeologists managed to establish only a few small digs: the main historic area was flattened. 

Of course, in this context the word ‘ancient’ doesn’t have quite the same connotations as it would on the shores of the Mediterranean. It can refer even to buildings of the 17th century; despite the very evident influence of European (Byzantine, then Romanesque, then Renaissance and Mannerist) architecture, the Modern period really only began in the 18th century. But if you look carefully, you can sometimes also find artifacts from genuinely ancient times.

The earliest settlement

Excavations periodically turn up traces of distant prehistory - mammoth bones on Ostozhenka Street, Moscow’s ‘Golden Mile’; a Mesolithic settlement in front of the Bolshoi Theatre; Bronze Age stone axe-heads near the Kremlin’s Spassky Gate. But the most spectacular witness to the capital’s ancient history is to be found not in a museum, but on public view, on the edge of Kolomensky Park. In order to see it, you have to go to Kolomenskoye, the former royal estate in the south east of modern Moscow. It is best known for its exceptional tent-shaped Church of the Ascension, popularly known as the ‘White Column’, but we are interested in the Golosov Ravine, a little to the west. In earlier times it was known as Volosov or Velesov Ravine, after Volos, or Veles, one of the major gods in the Slavic pagan pantheon. Hidden among the trees on its western slope is the so-called Devichy (‘Virgin’) Stone, which is associated with a variety of superstitions.  It is unusual even from a geological point of view: the surface of the five tonne rock, whose shape is reminiscent of a tortoise, appears to be covered in giant bubbles, like a boiling liquid. It also has a small artificial circular hollow in it; the rainwater that collects there is believed by many to have healing qualities. Ethnographers consider that this hollow has its origins in an ancient ritual where a stake was rotated backwards and forwards in it at high speed with the help of two loops of twine, in order to create a sacred ‘living fire’. The marks left on the stone can probably be considered the oldest visible evidence of Moscow’s prehistory.

'The Vyatich left low burial mounds scattered around the outskirts of modern Moscow (more than 70 have been identified): you can find them both in the yards of remote new housing developments and along the avenues of Tsaritsyno Park.'

A few hundred metres further along the Moscow River is the Dyakovo settlement that has given its name to a whole Iron Age culture (excavations have been going on here for a century and a half). This was a large, well fortified settlement of Finno-Ugric people, known for their devotion to sacred stones.


Seven-vaned temple rings and glass beads, traditional adornments found in the Vyatich burial mound (picture from the internet)

They arrived in this area at the beginning of the 1st Millennium BCE, and were replaced by Vyatich Slavs towards the end of the 1st Millennium CE, at which point the history of what is now called Moscow really begins. The Moscow River Vyatich were a rather mysterious tribe who came to the forests here to hide from the Princes of Kievan Rus and avoid forced conversion to Christianity. They left low burial mounds scattered around the outskirts of modern Moscow (more than 70 have been identified). You can find them both in the yards of remote new housing developments and along the avenues of Tsaritsyno Park, another former royal estate.

The beginnings of the city

The Kievan Princes more than once tried to subdue the area along the Moscow River by force, but the Vyatich did not live in large settlements and hid in the forest, and the Kievan armies could not win a guerrilla war. So Prince Yury Dolgoruky (‘the Long-Armed’), the legendary founder of Moscow, decided to make peace with them. In the Alexandrovsky Gardens, just outside the Kremlin, you can still see an unplanted space on a hillock, on the top of which (the present site of the State Armoury) stood the first royal palace, where in 1147 Yury gave the ‘great feast’ that according to the old chronicles marked the official birth of Moscow. It’s appropriate to think that the history of our city began with a monumental booze-up.

It was probably as a result of negotiations with the local Vyatich that a wooden keep was built to house the troops that controlled the strategic ford over the Neglinnaya River at the junction of the trade routes, where visitors now enter the Kremlin over the Troitsky Bridge. The troops were big eaters, and left their mark in the shape of a road paved with the jawbones of cattle, an excavated fragment of which can be seen on the lawn between the Tsar-Cannon and the Ivan the Great bell tower. The keep itself stood on the present site of the Palace of Congresses, built in 1961 on the orders of the then Communist Party General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev – a tragic date for the archaeological history of Moscow, since the main reason for building the Palace was to get up the noses of the Chinese, who had just constructed the world’s largest hall for their workers’ assemblies. Work on the palace progressed at a rate of knots, and the builders had no time for historical sentiment: in the gigantic pit excavated for the building’s foundations the archaeologists could dig only a few small trenches. Fortunately the outer area of the original citadel lay outside the construction area and awaits its hour. Archaeologists say that an almost imperceptible depression in the road behind the Troitsky gate marks the course of its earth rampart.

'The first royal palace stood in what is now the Alexandrovsky Gardens. There, in 1147, Yury gave the ‘great feast’ that according to the old chronicles marked the official birth of Moscow. It’s appropriate to think that the history of our city began with a monumental booze-up.'

Half a century after its foundation, a proper town stood on the hill, occupying about two thirds of the present area of the Kremlin. An intriguing detail: archeologists examining the 12th century ground level under the floor of the Archangel Cathedral found only tree roots, so for some reason that area was not built on at that time. Lower down, however, they found Iron Age pottery dating from the Dyakovo Culture of the 1st Millennium BCE, and conjectured that this area was possibly a sacred grove marking the site of an ancient pagan shrine which was still venerated in Moscow’s early Christian period.


Drawing by the Russian classical scholar Ivan Bilibin (early 20th century) showing the retinue of the Volga Warrior, one of the characters of the ancient Kievan cycle. It could well serve as an illustration to the first crossing of the Neglinka River by the retinue of Yury Dolgorukiy, who had come from Kiev straight to Moscow with approximately the same kind of entourage.

This bold hypothesis is indirectly confirmed by the fact that the cathedral, built on the site of the grove at a point when the Grand Princes of Vladimir had firmly established their rule in the city, was dedicated to the Archangel Michael. St Michael was the patron saint of their dynasty, and the cathedral, a symbol of their power, was also intended to house their tombs. In other words, its erection on this precise site was meant to show the freedom loving Vyatich that the princes were here to stay.

Invasion by the Golden Horde

Things seemed to be settling down, but then at the beginning of 1238 Moscow was burned down by the invading Mongol-Tatar hordes under Batu Khan. This is one of the most tragic episodes in Russian history: the combined forces of several Mongol hordes swept along Russia’s frozen rivers and in the course of one winter annihilated most of the towns and half the inhabitants of the country. Moscow held out for five days against the Horde’s catapults and battering rams – a real feat of valour. But the Mongols knew their stuff: in the words of the chronicle, ‘the people were killed, from the oldest to babes in arms, and the town and its churches were given over to the flames.’           

But the town survived, and 90 years after its destruction stone churches began to appear. Having a stone cathedral was a matter of great importance at the time. A PR coup, you could say. The Prince of the time, Ivan Kalita – literally, ‘Moneybags’ – had such pretensions that he built four churches simultaneously, small but richly decorated for the period. None of them survives today, but they provided the basic framework for the growth of Moscow as we know it. Even the Ivan the Great bell tower, which marks the notional exact centre of Moscow, was conceived then, although in a different place. Its octagonal prototype was given the name of the Church of St. Ivan of the Ladder-under-the Bell, and stood on the axis between the Archangel and Dormition cathedrals – its foundations were discovered in 1910.

'Having a stone cathedral was a matter of great importance at the time. A PR coup, you could say. The Prince of the time, Ivan Kalita – literally, ‘Moneybags’ – had such pretensions that he built four simultaneously.'

At around the same time, in 1325, the Metropolitan Throne was transferred to Moscow, from the older city of Vladimir, in recognition of the city’s new status as capital of the area, which became known as the Grand Duchy of Moscow, or simply Muscovy. And in 1366, under the rule of the famous Prince Dmitry Donskoy, Moscow acquired its first city walls and became one of the best protected cities in Russia.


The crypts of the Church of the Birth of the Mother of God erected by Princess Evdokia of Moscow to commemorate the battle of Kulikovo at the end of the 14th century. This photograph and the last picture with the plan are taken from the article by G. Evdokimova and D. Yakovlev, which first appeared in 2009. The plan shows how strongly the wooden church has become embedded in the walls of the 15th – 19th century palace understorey.

The walls around the Kremlin today are built of brick, but that first enceinte had somewhat winding walls of white limestone – they were not designed to withstand cannon fire. Its gates were also probably not cut straight through the wall, but set obliquely in a double wall to form a corridor where enemy forces who penetrated the first line of defence could be trapped. Donskoy’s fortress has also disappeared, although not completely: archeologists believe that its lower part, about two metres high, lies under the southern Kremlin wall, but, given the sensitivity of the site, no full scale excavations have as yet been carried out there.

The new walls, solid as they were, failed however to save Moscow from yet another terrible attack. In August 1382, two years after the Muscovites defeated the Mongol-Tatar armies at the battle of Kulikovo, the horde, under the leadership of Mamai, came to settle the score. The new fortress had never yet been tested in battle, so Prince Dmitry set off to Kostroma to collect reinforcements, with a strict order to the townsfolk not to open the gates under any circumstances. The Tatars, however, after an unsuccessful attempt at storming the gates, decided to try another tactic. They raised a white flag and approached the Spassky Gate, explaining that they did not want to fight with Moscow, for which they had the greatest respect, and simply wanted to look at its wonderful sights and accept generous tribute from its rulers. The credulous Muscovites opened the gates, and when their prince returned with reinforcements a few days later he found his city empty. Depending on which source you consult, 10,000-24,000 people were massacred, and the rest taken prisoner... 

Medieval corners of the Kremlin

The oldest structure still standing in Moscow may have witnessed this catastrophe. It dates back to the second half of the 14th century and is to be found on Cathedral Square in the Kremlin. To see it, you need to buy a ticket for the archeological exhibition in the crypt of the Cathedral of the Annunciation. This nine-domed church was rebuilt many times and acquired its present appearance in the second half of the 16th century, but it preserves a vaulted hall which was once the treasure house of Dmitry Donskoy’s palace. The hall’s brickwork is irregular and archaic looking – after the Mongol-Tatar devastation many skills, including those of building, had to be relearned.


The Moscow Kremlin in the time of Ivan Kalita; view of Borovitsky Gates (A. Vasnetsov, 1921)

But the craftsmen gradually reacquired their expertise, developing a new architectural school as they went, as can be seen from the second surviving 14th century church, constructed in 1393, a little later than the Annunciation Cathedral. The Church of the Birth of the Virgin Mary is hidden away inside the palace complex of the Kremlin; above it stands a 17th century church, and it is surrounded by other later additions.

'Moscow is flaunting its own architectural style, gradually preparing for its role as capital of all Russia. The long years under the Tatar yoke are past, and the city enters a new era of national renaissance, the age of Andrey Rublev.'

Unfortunately it is part of the restricted area of the Kremlin and even archeologists have little access to it (the first academic article about it appeared only in 2011).


Reconstruction of an ancient relief and fortifications of the late 14th century fortress. The gates and the corridors protecting them can be seen, as can the bed of the Neglinka River, which today runs underground. The red line is the supposed line of the first stone walls. Plan by I. Kondratiev and T. Panova.

The church, which  now stands to only half its original height, belonged to the women’s  half of the palace, and was a fort and a treasury at the same time – as well as a separate visible strong room in a corner there was also a concealed secret chamber under the floor of the Prince’s wife’s stone balcony. But the architecture of the church is already refined, with well-cut stonework, carved doorways and simple but elegant, even playful, decoration in its window apertures. Moscow is flaunting its own architectural style, gradually preparing for its role as capital of all Russia. The long years under the Tatar yoke are past, and the city enters a new era of national renaissance, the age of Andrey Rublev.

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