The Cannon And The Bell: The Tsars of Moscow Kremlin

Oct 14, 2016 0 comments

Cannons and bells have always had a special relationship. They are made from the same metals and often in the same factory. Throughout history, bells have been melted to make cannons during times of war, and cannons have been melted to make bells during times of peace. It is not surprising, hence, that the biggest specimens of both share the same grounds of the Moscow Kremlin, lying less than a hundred meters from each other.

The Tsar Cannon

The Tsar Cannon is a 40-ton behemoth with a caliber of 890 mm, considered to be largest in the world. It was built in 1586, by master bronze craftsman Andrei Chekov at the behest of Tsar Theodore I, the son of Ivan the Terrible. Unfortunately, the cannon was too large to have any practical purpose as firing a solid cannonball from its barrel would have caused it to wreck. For a long time, it was thought that the canon was never used but late 20th century analysis revealed that it had been fired at least once, possibly a grapeshot rather than a cannonball.


Photo credit: Jorge Láscar/Flickr

Perhaps, the Tsar Cannon was built mostly as a show of power rather than actual military use. In those days, Russian cannon masters had a reputation as among the world’s best. They devised models of weapons that had no parallel in the West. Russian gunsmiths were the first to add grooves to the interior walls of barrels, long before spiraled rifling appeared in the 19th century. Oblong shells, fixed front and rear sights, and breech loading systems are all innovations by Russian cannon masters. The Russian army also maintained one of the largest artillery arsenals in Europe.

The cannon originally stood in Red Square for more than a century, before it was moved to the Kremlin. Today, it stands mounted on a gun carriage and, for added effect, several large cannon balls are placed under its muzzle.


Photo credit: e_chaya/Flickr


Photo credit: Dennis Jarvis/Flickr

The Tsar Bell

Not far from the largest cannon, stands another world’s largest —the Tsar Bell. It is 6 meters tall and 6.6 meters across, and weighs almost 202 tons. Its surface is decorated with relief images of baroque angels, patron saints, and nearly life-size images of Empress Anna and Tsar Alexey. Like the Tsar Cannon, the Tsar Bell was never used. Its construction was marked by a series of misfortunes that caused it to either break or burn every time an attempt was made to cast.

The original bell was small compared to the one that stands on Moscow Kremlin today, but was still massive at 18,000 kg. The bell crashed to the ground in a fire and broke to pieces. The second Tsar Bell, cast using the remnants of the former bell, was much larger at 100,000 kilograms. This bell too was destroyed in a fire before it was completed. The third incarnation of the bell was even grander, and weighed twice as much as the former.

To build a bell of such unprecedented size, a large pit was dug very near where the bell currently stands. After two years of casting, the bell was complete and was cooling when yet another fire broke out. Fearing the flames would damage the bell, guards threw cold water over it causing the hot metal to crack and a huge slab weighing more than 10 tons broke off. The bell fell back into the casting pit where it remained for almost a century. It was finally raised in 1836 and was placed on a pedestal.


Photo credit: Leon Yaakov/Flickr


Photo credit: Jorge Láscar/Flickr


Photo credit: Martha de Jong-Lantink/Flickr


Photo credit: Alan/Flickr


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