Moscow’s Red Square: Beautiful in Red

Moscow’s Red Square: Beautiful in Red

Depending on how you translate it from Russian, Moscow’s Red Square ­– “Krasnaya Ploshchad– is either red, or beautiful. To many, it’s definitely both.

Rolling Out the Red CarpetKrasnaya’s dual ancient meanings of “beautiful” and “red” aptly describe this historic brick square where Russian czars, Soviet leaders, and Soviet parades displayed military might and Communist cults of personality. Who was in and who was out of the lineup of leaders watching the spectacle from atop Lenin’s Mausoleum was once the stuff of Cold War speculation.

Red Square first served as a 16th century marketplace, then a gathering place for ceremonies, coronations, parades, and even executions. During Soviet times, Red Square was the site of military parades and displays of war machinery, vivid reminders of the 1917 Great October Socialist Revolution, and the beginning of 70 years of Soviet rule. Today it’s often the first place visitors see in Moscow, drawn to those multicolored onion domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral, constructed during the reign of Ivan the Terrible.

Bright colors and details were added to St. Basil's Cathedral over a 200-year period Photo credit: Helen Holter

Bright colors and details were added to St. Basil’s Cathedral over a 200-year period
Photo credit: Helen Holter

This place is immense: about the length and width of an American football field, with Moscow’s main streets originating and branching out from it. Both Red Square and the Kremlin are treasured UNESCO-listed sites, with the adjacent Kremlin once the seat of Russian Orthodox power; today it is the seat of Russia’s political power.

GUM Department Store (right) and the State Historical Museum (red brick) line immense Red Square <br>Photo credit: Jonathan Irish

GUM Department Store (right) and the State Historical Museum (red brick) line immense Red Square
Photo credit: Jonathan Irish

What to See
  • St. Basil’s Cathedral (Собор Василия Блаженного): This iconic, larger-than-life onion-domed cathedral was built by a larger-than-life Russian ruler: Ivan the Terrible, commemorating his 1552 military victory over the Tatars in Kazan. A persistent legend is that Ivan the Terrible blinded the cathedral’s chief architect so he never again would build anything as beautiful as St. Basil’s, with its nine chapels and riotous colors and domes. If you’re lucky you might hear ancient holy songs sung a capella, echoing off walls inside the towers.
    • Tip: Check out Lobnoye Mesto, a 16th-century platform in front of St. Basil’s where Ivan the Terrible once issued his decrees, and where religious ceremonies once took place. It comes from the Russian word “lob” for “forehead.”
St. Basil's Cathedral has survived hundreds of seasons in Moscow's Red Square Photo credit: Jonathan Irish

St. Basil’s Cathedral has survived hundreds of seasons in Moscow’s Red Square
Photo credit: Jonathan Irish

(click on photo for larger version)


  • Spasskaya/Savior Tower (Спасская башня): Built in 1491, this tower is best known for its star-topped clock and “Kremlin chimes,” which keep Moscow time. The gate below the tower was once the official entrance to the Kremlin, where Politburo officials and Soviet leaders passed through.
    • Tip: Don’t leave Red Square without listening to the “Kremlin chimes,” in full on the hour, in part on the quarter-hour.
In 1937, a ruby-red star replaced Spasskaya Tower's Russian imperial symbol – a double-headed eagle <br>Photo credit: Jonathan Irish

In 1937, a ruby-red star replaced Spasskaya Tower’s Russian imperial symbol – a double-headed eagle
Photo credit: Jonathan Irish

  • Kremlin Walls, Churches & Buildings: This includes the Kremlin cathedrals – Assumption, Annunciation, Archangel and Dormition; the Kremlin Wall Necropolis where more than 100 socialist heroes and Russian notables are buried; the Czar Bell and Czar Cannon; and several palaces. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and Eternal Flame are sober reminders of Soviet wars and losses. (For some buildings you need to purchase a ticket to enter.) 
    • Tip: Search for names of the famous dead in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis; the last one buried was short-lived Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko in 1985.
On Kremlin grounds: Orthodox crosses and onion domes mingle with Russia's national flag of white, blue and red<br />Photo credit: Helen Holter

On Kremlin grounds: Orthodox crosses and onion domes mingle with Russia’s national flag of white, blue and red
Photo credit: Helen Holter

(click on photo for larger version)


  • Lenin’s Mausoleum (Мавзоле́й Ле́нина): Walk two floors down into the darkened tomb past the embalmed body of Communist icon and Soviet leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. The Bolshevik Revolution leader died in 1924; his body has been on display for more than 90 years. Some say it’s time to bury Lenin, but the symbolism of such a move has kept officials from taking action.
    • Tip: No photos are allowed. Be forewarned – you won’t have much time to view Lenin in his sealed sarcophagus, and you are expected to be respectful.
The black mausoleum housing Lenin's embalmed body is still an attraction in Moscow's Red Square <br>Photo credit: Douglas Grimes

The black mausoleum housing Lenin’s embalmed body is still an attraction in Moscow’s Red Square
Photo credit: Douglas Grimes

  • Kazan Cathedral (Казанский собор): This pink-and-white gold-domed structure near Resurrection Gate is a replica of the 1636 Russian Orthodox Church destroyed by Stalin during Soviet times. Reconstructed, reconsecrated, and re-opened in 1993, Kazan’s bell tower peals ancient melodies, an audible souvenir from one of Moscow’s most important and historic cathedrals.
    • Tip: Pause just inside the church in the tiny Iberian Chapel, where royalty once prayed. As in most churches, no photos are allowed inside.
Stalin demolished the original Kazan Cathedral, ostensibly impeding the flow of military parades in Red Square <br>Photo credit: Helen Holter

Stalin demolished the original Kazan Cathedral, ostensibly because it impeded the flow of military parades in Red Square
Photo credit: Helen Holter

  • GUM State Department Store (Государственный универсальный магазин): This is not your mother’s GUM, the one from Soviet days. It was Russia’s first enclosed shopping mall with galleries, arcades and bridges – and long lines, Soviet style. Today GUM (pronounced “goom”) is privately owned with several hundred stores, many selling high-end luxury clothing, cosmetics and jewelry. Stop by Stolovaya 57(Cafeteria 57) for a trip back into Soviet times: this replica of a 1950s proletarian cafeteria serves up Russian comfort food like beef stroganoff and solyanka along with delicious pastries and espresso.
    • Tip: For more Soviet nostalgia, head to Section 100 on the top floor where there once was a secret clothing store for Communist Party elites. Then head downstairs to decadent Gastronome No. 1, with its alluring bakery, chocolates, and wines.
GUM's elongated shopping galleries once contained 1,200 stores before the 1917 Russian Revolution <br>Photo credit: Helen Holter

GUM’s elongated shopping galleries contained 1,200 stores before the 1917 Russian Revolution
Photo credit: Helen Holter

(click on photo for larger version)


  • Kremlin Armory Museum (Оружейная палата): Once producing and storing weapons, this prestigious 200-year-old museum today displays treasures of the Kremlin, among them Fabergé Imperial eggs, Russian icons and artwork, crown jewels, Catherine the Great’s ball gowns, equestrian saddlery, and even staggeringly oversized royal carriages, Cinderella-style. (You need a ticket to get into the Armory.) 
    • Tip: Leave plenty of time to visit the Armory; it can get crowded – especially at the Fabergé Imperial egg display – but it is worth the wait.
One of many gilded, ornate royal carriages on display at the Kremlin Armory in Moscow <br>Photo credit: Mark Stephenson

One of many gilded, ornate royal carriages on display at the Kremlin Armory in Moscow
Photo credit: Mark Stephenson

  • State Historical Museum (Государственный исторический музей): This 1881 red brick building is located opposite St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square, tracing Russian history from earliest times to the present. The museum’s vast collection – more than four million pieces – includes Novgorod birch bark scrolls, Russian ceramics, Scythian gold finds, and manuscripts dating back 1,000 years, along with nearly two million coins – Russia’s largest coin collection.
    • Tip: If you don’t have a tour guide, rent an audioguide or use a travel book; much of the museum’s information is in Russian.
The vast State Historical Museum is opposite St. Basil's Cathedral in Red Square Photo credit: Kelly Tissier

The vast State Historical Museum is opposite St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square
Photo credit: Kelly Tissier

 

Travel to Russia with MIRMany of MIR’s tours to Russia include a memorable visit to Moscow’s famed Red Square, where you can sense Russian and Soviet history in every step you take. You can also book a hand-crafted, custom private journey based on your interests and timeline. MIR’s knowledgable guides offer unique perspectives and insider information that only an on-the-ground local would know, making your journey utterly unique and unforgettable.

(Top photo: Red Square is the heart of Moscow, the symbol of Russia. Photo credit: Kelly Tissier)

PUBLISHED: February 25, 2015

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