The eastern segment of the Kremlin wall, and Red Square behind it, emerged on its present site in the 15th century, during the reign of Ivan III; the wall and the square were separated with a wide defensive moat filled with water diverted from the Neglinnaya River. The moat was lined with a secondary fortress wall, and spanned by three bridges connecting the Kremlin to the posad. From 1707–1708 Peter the Great, expecting a Swedish incursion deep into the Russian mainland, restored the moat around the Kremlin, cleared Red Square and built earthen fortifications around Nikolskaya and Spasskaya towers. From 1776–1787 Matvey Kazakov built the Kremlin Senate that today provides a backdrop for the present-day Necropolis.
Throughout the 18th century the unused, neglected fortifications deteriorated and were not properly repaired until the 1801 coronation of Alexander I. In one season the moat with bridges and adjacent buildings was replaced with a clean span of paved square. More reconstruction followed in the 19th century. The stretch of Kremlin wall south from Senate Tower was badly damaged in 1812 by the explosion at the Kremlin Arsenal set off by the retreating French troops. Nikolskaya tower lost its gothic crown which was erected in 1807–1808; Arsenalnaya tower developed deep cracks, leading to Joseph Bove proposing in 1813 the outright demolition of the towers to prevent its imminent collapse. Eventually, the main structures of the towers were deemed sound enough to be left in place, and were topped with new tented roofs designed by Bove. Peter's bastions were razed (creating space for nearby Alexander Garden and Theatre Square), The Kremlin wall facing Red Square was rebuilt shallower than before, and acquired its present shape in the 1820s.
In July 1917, hundreds of soldiers of the Russian Northern Front were arrested for mutiny and desertion and locked up in Daugavpils (then Dvinsk) fortress. Later, 869 Dvinsk inmates were transported to Moscow. Here, the jailed soldiers launched a hunger strike; public support to them threatened to develop in citywide riot. On September 22, 593 inmates were released; the rest were left behind bars until the October Revolution. The released soldiers, collectively called Dvintsy, stayed in the city as a cohesive unit, based in Zamoskvorechye District and openly hostile to the ruling Provisional Government. Immediately after the October Revolution in Saint Petersburg, Dvintsy became the strike force of the Bolsheviks in Moscow. Late at night of October 27–28 a detachment of around two hundred men marching north to Tverskaya Street confronted the loyalist forces near the State Historical Museum on the Red Square. In the fighting 70 of the Dvintsy, including their company commander Sapunov, were killed at the barricades.
On the following day the loyalists, led by Colonel Konstantin Ryabtsev, succeeded in taking over the Kremlin. They gunned down the surrendered Red soldiers at the Kremlin Arsenal wall. More were killed as the Bolsheviks stormed the Kremlin, finally taking control on the night of November 2–3. Street fighting settled down after having claimed nearly a thousand lives, and on November 4 the new Bolshevik administration decreed their dead would be buried at Red Square next to the Kremlin Wall, where indeed most of them were killed.
Voices reached us across the immense place, and the sound of picks and shovels. We crossed over. Mountains of dirt and rock were piled high near the base of the wall. Climbing these we looked down into two massive pits, ten or fifteen feet deep and fifty yards long, where hundreds of soldiers and workers were digging in the light of huge fires. A young student spoke to us in German. “The Brotherhood Grave,” he explained.
– John Reed, Ten Days that Shook the World.
A total of 238 dead were buried in the mass graves between Senate and Nikolskaya towers in a public funeral on November 10 (John Reed incorrectly mentions 500); two more victims were buried on November 14 and 17. The youngest, Pavel Andreyev, was 14 years old. Of 240 pro-revolution martyrs of the October–November fighting only 20, including 12 of the Dvintsy, are identified in the official listing of the Moscow Heritage Commission. As of March, 2009, three Moscow streets remain named after these individual victims, as well as Dvintsev Street named after the Dvintsy force.
The loyalists secured a permit to publicly bury their dead on November 13. This funeral started at the old Moscow State University building near Kremlin; thirty-seven dead were interred at the Vsekhsvyatskoye cemetery (now demolished) in then suburban Sokol District.
Mass and individual burials in the ground under the Kremlin wall continued until the funeral of Pyotr Voykov in June 1927. In the first years of the Soviet regime, the honor of being buried on Red Square was extended to ordinary soldiers, victims of the Civil War, and Moscow militia men killed in clashes with anti-Bolsheviks (March–April 1918). In January 1918, the Red Guards buried the victims of a terrorist bombing in Dorogomilovo. In the same January White Guards fired on a pro-Bolshevik street rally; the eight victims were also buried under the Kremlin wall.
The largest single burial occurred in 1919. On September 25, anarchists led by former socialist revolutionary Donat Cherepanov, set off an explosion in a Communist Party school building in Leontyevsky Lane when Moscow party chief Vladimir Zagorsky was speaking to students. Twelve people, including Zagorsky, were killed and buried in a mass grave on Red Square. Another unusual incident was a railway crash of July 24, 1921. The aerowagon, an experimental high-speed railcar fitted with an aero engine and propeller traction, was not yet tested properly. On the day of the crash it successfully delivered a group of Soviet and foreign communists led by Fyodor Sergeyev to the Tula collieries; on the return route to Moscow the aerowagon derailed at high speed, killing 6 of the 22 people on board, including its inventor Valerian Abakovsky. This was the last mass burial in the ground of Red Square.
Yakov Sverdlov, who died in 1919 allegedly from the Spanish flu, was buried in an individual grave near the Senate tower. Later it became the first of twelve individual graves of top-ranking Soviet leaders (see Individual tombs section). Sverdlov was followed by John Reed, Inessa Armand, Viktor Nogin and other notable Bolsheviks and their foreign allies. Interment in the Kremlin wall, apart from its location next to the seat of government, was also seen as a statement of atheism while burial in the ground at a traditional cemetery next to a church was deemed inappropriate for a Bolshevik. For the same reason, cremation, then prohibited by Russian Orthodox Church, was preferred to burial in a coffin and favored by Lenin and Trotsky – though Lenin expressed the wish to be buried next to his mother in St. Petersburg. The new government sponsored construction of crematoria since 1919, but the first burial of cremated remains in a niche in the wall did not take place until 1925.
Vladimir Lenin died of a stroke on January 21, 1924. While the body lay in state in the Pillar Hall of the House of the Unions, the Politburo discussed ways to preserve it, initially for forty days, despite objections from his widow and siblings. Joseph Stalin gave instruction to install a vault for Lenin's embalmed remains inside the Kremlin wall, and on January 27 Lenin's casket was deposited in a temporary wooden vault built in one day. The first proper Mausoleum was built of wood in March–July 1924 and was officially opened on August 1 (foreign visitors were allowed inside on August 3). The contest to design and build a new, permanent, Mausoleum was declared in April 1926; construction to Alexey Shchusev's design began in July 1929 and was complete in sixteen months. The Mausoleum has since functioned as a government reviewing stand during public parades. Lenin's body remains in the Mausoleum to date (January 2017), excluding the period of evacuation to Tyumen in 1941–1945.
Two days after the death of Joseph Stalin the Politburo decreed placing his remains on display in the Mausoleum; it officially reopened in November 1953 with Lenin and Stalin side-by-side. Another plan decreed in March 1953, construction of the Pantheon to where the bodies of Lenin and Stalin would be eventually relocated, did not take off. Eight years later, removal of Stalin's body from the Mausoleum was unanimously sanctioned by the 22nd Congress of the Communist Party. On October 31, 1961, the Mausoleum was quickly covered with plywood. Red Square itself was routinely closed in preparation to November 7 parade. Stalin's remains were quickly re-interred in a deep grave, lined with concrete blocks, behind the Mausoleum; the ceremony was attended only by the state commission led by Nikolay Shvernik. Harold Skilling, who attended the Mausoleum in November of the same year, noted that "everyone was so curious to see the new grave of Stalin... Unlike others, his [grave] was not yet graced by a bust and was marked only by a tablet with the name I.V.Stalin and dates of birth and death". The existing tomb of Stalin carved by Nikolai Tomsky was installed in June 1970.
The glass sarcophagus of Lenin's tomb was twice vandalized by visitors, in 1959 and 1969, leading to installation of a bulletproof glass shell. It was bombed twice, in 1963, when the terrorist was the sole victim, and in 1973, when an explosion killed the terrorist and two bystanders.
The first person to be cremated and interred in an urn in the Kremlin wall, 45-year-old former People's Commissar of Finance Miron Vladimirov, died in Italy in March 1925. The procedure dealing with human remains ashes in an urn was still unfamiliar at the time, and Vladimirov's urn was carried to his grave in an ordinary coffin. Between 1925 and the opening of the Donskoye Cemetery crematorium in October 1927, interments in the wall and burials in the ground coexisted together; the former was preferred for foreign dignitaries of the Comintern (Jenő Landler, Bill Haywood, Arthur MacManus, Charles Ruthenberg) while the latter was granted only to top Party executives (Mikhail Frunze, Felix Dzerzhinsky, Nariman Narimanov and Pyotr Voykov).
Initially, the bodies of the deceased were laid in state in the Kremlin's halls, but with tightening of security in the late 1920s the official farewell station was relocated to the House of the Unions' "Pillar Hall" on Okhotny Ryad (where Lenin lay in state in 1924) and remained there until the end of the Soviet state. Burials initially took place to the north from the Senate tower, switching to the south side in 1934 and returning to the north side in 1977 (with a few exceptions). Interments in the wall were strictly individual; spouses and children of those interred in the wall had to be buried elsewhere. There were only three instances of group burials: the three-man crew of Osoaviakhim-1 high-altitude balloon in 1934, the crew of an MiG-15UTI crash in 1968 (Gagarin and Seryogin), and the three-man crew of the Soyuz 11 spacecraft in 1971. In total, the wall accommodates the graves of 107 men and 8 women. No remains interred in the wall were ever removed from it, including the deceased who were posthumously accused of "fascist conspiracy" (Sergei Kamenev) or political repressions (Andrey Vyshinsky).
Under Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev, the honor of interment in the Kremlin wall was awarded posthumously by the Politburo. When members of the Politburo were not available immediately, Mikhail Suslov had the first call. Brezhnev overruled Suslov's decision at least once, voting to bury Semyon Budenny in an individual grave. There were also at least two known cases when groups of professionals pressed the government to extend special honors to their deceased colleagues:In June 1962, following the death of Army General Andrey Khrulyov, a group of marshals pressed the Politburo to bury Khrulyov in the Kremlin wall. Normally, generals of his rank were not entitled to this honor; Khrushchev was known to dislike Khrulyov and suggested burying him at the Novodevichy Cemetery. The military prevailed, and Khrulyov was buried on Red Square.
In January 1970 the official decision to bury Pavel Belyayev at the Novodevichy Cemetery, already made public through newspapers, was confronted by fellow cosmonauts Valentina Tereshkova, Alexey Leonov and Vladimir Shatalov who insisted that Belyaev deserves a place in the Kremlin wall like Yuri Gagarin. According to Nikolai Kamanin's diaries, the cosmonauts, Shatalov in particular, pressed the issue despite knowing that the decision was made by Brezhnev and Alexei Kosygin and that the funeral commission would not dare to challenge it. Belyaev was buried as planned at the Novodevichy. According to an alternative version of events, the choice of Novodevichy was decided by his widow's will before the official decision was published.
On April 26, 1967, Cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov was given a state funeral in Moscow, and his ashes were interred in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis at Red Square. Komarov was posthumously awarded the Order of Lenin, once more, and also the order of Hero of the Soviet Union. Komarov died as a result of the crash of his Space Capsule, Soyuz 1 – its parachutes failed and Komarov was killed when the capsule impacted the earth at aerodynamic terminal velocity.
The last person to be buried in the Kremlin wall, in December 1984, was Minister of Defence Dmitriy Ustinov.
The row of individual tombs behind the Mausoleum began to acquire its present shape after the end of World War II. Sergei Merkurov created the first five tombs, for the recently deceased Mikhail Kalinin and Andrey Zhdanov, as well as for Yakov Sverdlov, Mikhail Frunze and Felix Dzerzhinsky who perished decades earlier. Grey granite stands that separate Red Square from the wall were built in the same period. In 1947 Merkurov proposed rebuilding the Mausoleum into a sort of "Pergamon Altar" that would become a foreground to a statue of Stalin placed atop Senatskaya tower. Dmitry Chechulin, Vera Mukhina and others spoke against the proposal and it was soon dropped.
There are, in total, twelve individual tombs; all, including the four burials of the 1980s, are shaped similar to the canonical Merkurov's model. All twelve are considered to have died of natural causes, although some, such as Frunze had unusual circumstances associated with their death. Konstantin Chernenko, who died in March 1985, became the last person to be buried on Red Square. Former head of state Andrei Gromyko, who died in July 1989, was offered burial in the Necropolis near his predecessors but was eventually buried at the Novodevichy cemetery at the request of his family.
The Kremlin wall and the stands erected in the 1940s were traditionally separated with a line of blue spruce (Picea pungens), a tree not occurring naturally in Russia. In August–September 2007 the aging trees, with few exceptions, were cut down and replaced with young trees. Federal Protective Service spokesman explained that the previous generation of spruce, planted in the 1970s, was suffering from dryness of urban landscape; 28 old but sound trees were handpicked for replanting inside the Kremlin. New trees were selected from the nurseries of Altai Mountains, Russian Far East and "some foreign countries". FPS spokesman also mentioned that in Nikita Khrushchev's period there were plans to plant a fruit garden around the Mausoleum, but the proposal was rejected in fear of fruit flies.
Public discussion on closing the Mausoleum emerged shortly after the breakup of the Soviet Union, with opinions ranging from simply burying Lenin in Saint Petersburg as he had requested, to taking the mummy on a commercial world tour. After the climax of the 1993 Russian constitutional crisis president Boris Yeltsin removed the honor guard from the Mausoleum (former Post no.1, see Kremlin Regiment) and voiced his long-term opinion that Lenin should be buried in the ground. The decision was supported by the Public Committee of Democratic Organisations. By 1995 Yeltsin "moved to the nationalist center" and, like the previous state leaders, used the Mausoleum as a government stand; however, in 1997 he reiterated the claim to bury Lenin. Proposals to remove the Necropolis from Red Square at all met far more public opposition and did not take off either.
Contemporary public opinion on preserving the remains of Lenin in their present embalmed state is split, leaning towards burying him. According to most recent (end of 2008) poll by VCIOM, 66% of the respondents voted for a funeral in a traditional cemetery, including 28% of those who believe that the funeral should be postponed until the communist generation passes away. 25% of the respondents voted to preserve the body in the Mausoleum. In October 2005, 51% of respondents voted for a funeral and 40% for preservation.