Stepping onto Red Square never ceases to inspire. For starters, the vast rectangular stretch of cobblestones, surrounded by architectural marvels, is an imposing sight. In fact, in old Russian krasny was the word for ‘beautiful’, and the square lives up to the original meaning of its name. Furthermore, it evokes an incredible sense of awe to stroll across a place where so much of Russian history unfolded.
The square’s history
Red Square used to be a market square adjoining the merchants’ area in Kitay Gorod. It has always been a place where occupants of the Kremlin chose to congregate, celebrate and castigate for all the people to see. Back in the day, Red Square was the top spot for high-profile executions such as those of the Cossack rebel Stepan Razin in 1671 and the Streltsy (Peter the Great’s mutinous palace guard) in 1698.
The first gateway, built in 1680, was destroyed because Stalin thought it an impediment to the parades and demonstrations held in Red Square. The present-day exact replica was built in 1995. Through the gateway is the bright Chapel of the Iverian Virgin, originally built in the late 18th century to house the icon of the same name.
Soviet rulers chose Red Square for their military parades, perhaps most poignantly on 7 November 1941, when tanks rolled straight off to the frontline outside Moscow; and during the Cold War, when lines of ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missile) rumbled across the square to remind the West of Soviet military might. On Victory Day in 2008, tanks rolled across Red Square for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Nowadays Red Square is closed to traffic, which means the space is filled with tourists, bridal parties and businesspeople snapping photos and marvelling at their surroundings. The square empties out at night, but this is also when it is at its most atmospheric. The Kremlin towers and St Basil’s domes, illuminated by floodlights and set against the night sky, create a spectacular panorama (even better in person than on a postcard).
Red Square is also home to the world’s most famous mummy: that of Vladimir Ilych Lenin, founder of the Soviet Union. When he died of a massive stroke on 22 January 1924 (aged 53), a long line of mourners patiently gathered in the depths of winter for weeks to glimpse the body as it lay in state. Inspired by the spectacle, Stalin proposed that the father of Soviet communism should continue to serve the cause as a holy relic. So the decision was made to preserve Lenin’s corpse for perpetuity, against the vehement protests of his widow, as well as Lenin’s own expressed desire to be buried next to his mother in St Petersburg. Other communist leaders such as Josef Stalin are buried at the Kremlin Wall.
St Basil’s Cathedral
At the southern end of Red Square, framed by the massive facades of the Kremlin and GUM, stands the icon of Russia: St Basil’s Cathedral. This crazy confusion of colours, patterns and shapes is the culmination of a style that is unique to Russian architecture. Before St Basil’s, this style of tent roofs and onion domes had been used to design wooden churches.
In 1552 Ivan the Terrible captured the Tatar stronghold of Kazan on the feast of Intercession. He commissioned this landmark church, officially the Intercession Cathedral, to commemorate the victory. From 1555 to 1561 architects Postnik and Barma created this masterpiece that would become the ultimate postcard-perfect symbol of Russia.
The cathedral’s apparent anarchy of shapes hides a comprehensible plan of nine main chapels: the tall, tent-roofed one in the centre; four big, octagonal-towered ones, topped with the four biggest domes; and four smaller ones in between. Legend has it that Ivan had the architects blinded so they could never build anything comparable to this iconic building. This is a myth, however, as records show that they were employed a quarter of a century later (and four years after Ivan’s death) to add an additional chapel to the structure.
The misnomer St Basil’s actually refers only to this extra northeastern chapel. It was built over the grave of the barefoot holy fool Vasily (Basil) the Blessed, who predicted Ivan’s damnation. Vasily, who died while Kazan was under siege, was buried beside the church which St Basil’s Cathedral soon replaced. He was later canonised.
This article was first published in July 2010 and last updated in April 2015.