Red Square remains, as it has been for centuries, the heart and soul of Russia. Few places in the world bear the weight of history to the extent that Moscow’s central square does. From the 16th Century St. Basil’s Cathedral – one of the most famous pieces of architecture in the world – to the constructivist pyramid of Lenin’s Mausoleum, Red Square is rich in symbols of Russia’s turbulent and intriguing past.
Red Square began life as a slum, a shanty town of wooden huts clustered beneath the Kremlin walls that housed a collection of peddlers, criminals and drunks whose status left them outside the official boundaries of the medieval city. It was cleared on the orders of Ivan III at the end of the 1400’s, but remained the province of the mob, the site of public executions, and rabble rousing, until much later.
The square’s name has nothing to do with communism or with the color of many of its buildings. In fact it derives from the word ‘krasnyi’, which once meant ‘beautiful’, and has only come to mean ‘red’ in contemporary Russian. The name became official in the middle of the 17th century – previously it had been Trinity Square, due to the Trinity Cathedral, the predecessor of St. Basil’s. Popularly, it was also known as ‘Fire Square’, reflecting the number of times medieval Moscow burned. During the Mongol and Tartar invasions, it was the site of fierce fighting, and right up until the end of the 17th century cannon stood ready to defend the square.
Red Square came into its own in the 20th Century, when it was most famous as the site of official military parades demonstrating to the world the might of the Soviet armed forces. Two of these will be remembered forever. The first was the parade of 7 November 1941, when columns of young cadets marched through the square and straight on to the frontline, which by that point was less than 50km from Moscow. The second was the victory parade on 24 June 1945, when two hundred Nazi standards were thrown in front of the mausoleum and trampled by mounted Soviet commanders in celebration. The year 2000 saw the return of troops to Red Square, with a parade to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of World War Two.
Since Perestroika, however, the emphasis has moved away from official pomp, and Red Square has been used increasingly for rock concerts, big classical music performances and a whole range of large-scale events from fashion shows to festivals of circus art. Moscow met the millennium here with a huge firework display and street party.
Today it’s hard to think of a place that is more beloved of Muscovites and visitors to the city. The varied beauty of the architecture and the magical atmosphere belie the square’s often brutal and bloody history, but the combination makes Red Square a truly fascinating place that you’ll want to come back to again and again.
The Kazan Cathedral
This small but charming Cathedral was built in the 17th century on the north side of the square near the Resurrection Gate. It was built to commemorate the repulsion of Polish invaders, and in honor of the Virgin of Kazan icon. One of the most revered icons in Moscow, it has been connected more than once with the struggle to protect Russia from her enemies. In 1812, during the Napoleonic wars, a prayer service was conducted before the icon to plead for the safety of the country, and it was even attended by the great Russian commander, Field Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov.
The building is a cube topped with a cluster of domes and encircled by a gallery. In the north-west corner there is a bell-tower, and in the north-east the chapel of Averkiy Ierapolskiy. The Cathedral was restored between 1925 and 1933 by the great architect-restorer Pyotr Baranovsky. However, this did not stop the Soviet authorities from taking the decision in 1936 to have the Cathedral demolished.
Fortunately, thanks to Baranovsky, blueprints of the building survived, and in 1989 one of his former students, Oleg Zhurin, took charge of the project to rebuild the Cathedral. This was the first church to be rebuilt in post-communist Moscow. On 4 November 1990, Patriarch Aleksei II laid the first stone of the new building, and three years later the Cathedral was back in all its former glory.
The Kremlin Wall
Under communism, Red Square also came to serve as a cemetery. Immediately after the Bolsheviks took control of Moscow in 1917, two identical tombs were built beneath the Kremlin wall to hold the remains of 240 casualties of the October Revolution. The Russian Orthodox Church was against the plan, but it made no difference. Red Square became a necropolis. It became a tradition to bury Soviet heroes by the Kremlin walls. The Post Office and Telegraph Commissar V. Podbelskiy was one of the first, along with Inessa Armand and American journalist John Reid. Space beneath the walls soon ran out, and from 1925 VIPs were buried within the wall itself. More than 100 people are now interred there, including Charles Rutenberg, the first General Secretary of the US Communist Party, Maksim Gorky,Yuri Gagarin, and a host of marshals and ministers.
The first granite bust was put here in 1919 after the death of one of the Revolution’s main leaders, Iakov Sverdlov. He was soon to be followed by Frunz, Dzerzhinsky, Kalinin, Zhdanov etc. After sharing the Mausoleum with Lenin for a few yeas, Stalin’s body was moved to this area as well. The last man to be buried beneath the blue spruces was Yuri Chernenko, General Secretary for less than a year, who became the twelfth of the “Party Apostles” here.
The Lenin Mausoleum
For the burial of the Father of the Revolution, something special had to be arranged. Immediately after his death in 1924, a wooden mausoleum was erected on the square. In 1929, architect Aleksei Shchusev was commissioned to design a more lasting home for the body. The result, unveiled a year later, is a squat but attractive pyramid in layers of red, grey and black granite that harmonizes remarkably well with the Kremlin buildings behind it, despite its clear Constructivist influences. In the 1930’s, granite platforms were added around the sides of the mausoleum, providing a point for government officials to inspect parades, a sight that became famous throughout the world in the Soviet Era.
While the mausoleum is comparatively small from the outside, it has hidden depths. There are two underground floors to the structure, which used to house a rest area for VIPs and the Kremlin guards, and the laboratory that was once used to supervise the ongoing embalming process. Sadly, though apparently no longer used, they aren’t open to the public.
Despite the attention of a team of scientists – and leaving aside rumors that he was long ago replaced by a wax model – Lenin is not the freshest-looking of corpses. Gone are the days when eager citizens queued round block to catch a quick glimpse of the great leader. However, if you do wish to see the body, the process is far from simple. First you have to leave bags and cameras – no filming inside – in the Kutayfa tower cloakrooms. Then you join the queue that runs along the Kremlin wall. Visitors are kept moving, so you only get to spend a few minutes inside the mausoleum before you’re hurried out by the guards. The funerary chamber is very dark and, on sunny days, the sudden contrast can be bewildering. Nonetheless, this is still something of a morbid necessity for visitors to Moscow. After years of rumor and controversy as to the fate of Lenin’s body, the mausoleum was reopened in April 2005, and it looks to stay that way for the foreseeable future.
The Statue of Minin and Pozharsky
This famous statue commemorates Prince Dmitry Pozharsky and the butcher Kuzma Minin, the leaders of the militia that repelled the Polish invasion of 1612, at the height of the Time of Troubles. Designed by the architect I. Martos, it was erected in 1818 and became Russia’s first monumental sculpture. One of the bas-reliefs shows the people of Novogorod bringing their sons to be armed – Minin famously forced the city to provide funds and fighting men by holding their womenfolk hostage. The other shows the Poles fleeing from the Kremlin, pursued by Russian troops. The pediment is inscribed with the words: “To Citizen Minin and Prince Pozharsky, from a grateful Russia”.
The statue once stood in the centre of Red Square, with the figure of Minin pointing towards the Kremlin. However, it was moved in 1930, after the construction of Lenin’s mausoleum – rumour has it that Minin’s rabble-rousing gesture appeared rather ambiguous in relation to the positioning of the great leader’s tomb. In fact, the reason for moving the statue was more simple than that – its location interfered with Stalin’s plans for massed military parades.
Directly opposite the Mausoleum, on the eastern side of the square, lies the building which houses Russia’s most famous shopping mall – the State Department Store, GUM. Since the fall of communism, several other shopping centers and hypermarkets have sprung up to rival it in prestige, but GUM retains its status as a consumer Mecca for visitors to Moscow. In the Soviet Union, the top floor was home to Section 100, a secret clothing store only open to the highest echelons of the party. Nowadays the rows of exclusive boutiques are accessible to anyone with a platinum card. That said, the building itself is glorious, and there are still a few more interesting relics of a bygone era on the higher floors that make it well worth exploring.
The site has been used for trading throughout history. By 1520 there was already a large stone arcade standing here. Fire destroyed the old Upper Trading Rows, as they became known, and the current building was completed in 1893. A joint project between architect Aleksander Pomerantsev and engineer Vladimir Shukov, its steel framework and glass roof were, at the time, on the cutting edge of technology, and give GUM a certain resemblance to a large European station. It has an area to match and, at the end of the 19th Century, it was the largest shopping center in Europe. Before the 1917 Revolution it contained a staggering 1,200 stores.
In 1928, GUM was closed by Stalin, who decided to use the building as the headquarters for officials working on the first Five Year Plan. GUM was reopened in 1953, and became one of the most popular sites for the legendary Soviet queues, which could at times extend all the way across Red Square. After privatization in the early 90s, it rapidly became the address of choice for top-end Western retailers. Journalists and travel writers often comment on the sharp contrast between prices in GUM and poverty in Russia – as if the majority of New Yorkers get their clothes from Saks, or the average Londoner could afford to do their grocery shopping in Harrods. Even if you don’t intend to buy anything, a tour of Red Square should always include a quick stroll down the aisles of GUM.
The Lobnoe mesto
The circular stone platform which stands before St. Basil’s was constructed in 1598, on the site where a wooden dais had previously stood. The platform and its predecessor were used for proclamations to the crowds gathered on Red Square and not, as is often claimed, for public executions. The most famous of these – the quartering of Cossack rebel Stepan Razin, Ivan the Terrible’s gruesomely inventive torture of hostile boyars, and Peter the Great’s mass execution of the Stresltsy Kremlin guard, all took place nearby.
From here the orders of the Grand Princes were announced by criers. It was also here that Ivan the Terrible, with quite a flare for drama, performed public penitence and several times declared his abdication. It was also traditional for heirs to the throne to be presented to the people here on their fourteenth birthdays. On religious holidays, a lectern was placed on the Lobnoe Mesto, turning St. Basil’s into the altar of a vast open-air cathedral comprising the whole of Red Square.