- Red Square is a major architectural ensemble including 15th-to-20th-century buildings of various styles, monuments and even a necropolis.
- The word ‘red’ in the Square’s name means ‘beautiful’.
- The State Historical Museum (19th c.) displays a rich collection of archeological findings, icons and decorative and applied art objects.
- Historical Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan and St. Basil’s Cathedral: the latter also operates as a museum hosting a collection of icons (16th to 17th centuries).
- GUM, a huge shopping mall (19th c.) in the eclectic style where, among other things, you can find ice cream with ‘that very’ flavor.
- Lenin’s Mausoleum (1920s) and memorial graves of outstanding Soviet leaders such as Stalin, Budenny, Zhukov, Brezhnev and so on.
Red Square is the heart of Moscow and the main square of Russia. One cannot visit Moscow without seeing Red Square. Its monuments embody Moscow’s centuries-old history in all of its manifestations. Few squares in the world combine churches, defensive walls and towers, museums, a cemetery with a mausoleum, and a huge department store in a single space. Buildings of different styles and centuries—from the 15th to the 20th—coexist in a single composition, forming a unified architectural ensemble, so beautiful in its diversity.
Red Square still remains in the thick of the country’s life, hosting festivals, concerts, and street parties and turning into an ice-skating rink in winter. Annual parades are held in the square on May 9 to commemorate the victory in the Great Patriotic War of 1941–1945. Not only tourists but Muscovites as well come here to enjoy a stroll, as the square hasn’t turned into a frozen open air museum but keeps up with the pace of the modern megalopolis.
It took some time for any empty space to form beside the Kremlin walls. The late 15th century witnessed the construction of the stone Kremlin walls and merchants’ rows from the eastern side of them. A big fire of 1493 destroyed the small wooden shops, and the place remained burnt and empty, which is why common people called it simply PozharRussian: Пожар, meaning ‘burnt’. Three streets—NikolskayaRussian: Никольская, VarvarkaRussian: Варварка, and IlyinkaRussian: Ильинка—led through Pozhar to the Kremlin gates. In the 16th century, the Cathedral of Intercession on the MoatRussian: sobor Pokrova na Rvu or собор Покрова на Рву, commonly known as St. Basil’s CathedralRussian: khram Vasiliya Blazhennogo or храм Василия Блаженного, was built on the northern side by the river, and trading rows made of stone started to emerge here at the end of the century. The Spasskaya TowerRussian: Spasskaya bashnya or Спасская башня was later built over the gate, and the entire area around the tower and the cathedral was named Krasnaya PloshchadRussian: Красная площадь, meaning ‘beautiful square’ (which is why the contemporary translation of the name into English as ‘Red Square’ is actually wrong). The territory of Red Square gradually extended southwards to reach its modern boundaries eventually.
Besides the gorgeous Kremlin and Red Square, there are a lot of outstanding historical landmarks in Moscow. You should visit Novodevichy convent, Moscow cathedral of Annunciation and other unique sights. You can read about them on our website pages about Moscow Historical Places, “World religions in Moscow” and “History and Architecture”.
Resurrection Gate and Moscow State Historical Museum
The best starting point for exploring the history of Red Square is Manezhnaya SquareRussian: Manezhnaya ploshchad’ or Манежная площадь, from where you can enter Red Square through the ResurrectionVoskresenskie, or IberianIverskie Gate. The gate was constructed in the 16th century and was originally called the LionRussian: Lvinye or Львиные Gate for being located next to the ditch where Tsar Ivan the Terribleruled from 1533 to 1584’s lions were kept. Two ornate towers were placed above the passage in the 17th century. Traditionally, the Iberian Gate was the main gate of Moscow, leading from Tverskaya StreetRussian: ulitsa Tverskaya or улица Тверская, the city’s main artery, to Red Square. The gate was solemnly entered by victorious troops and foreign ambassadors. The Iberian IverskayaChapel was built in 1781 to enshrine the Icon of the Iviron TheotokosRussian: ikona Iverskoy Bogomateri or икона Иверской Богоматери, one of the most revered shrines in Russia. People have been asking it for success in all kinds of efforts, as well as for protection and auspices.
The State Historical MuseumRussian: Gosudarstvennyi Istoricheskiy muzey or Государственный Исторический музей is located to the right of the gate. It was built in the 1870s–1880s by architect Vladimir Sherwood in an unusual pseudo-Russian style to match the look of the Kremlin and the St. Basil’s Cathedral. The museum building is large and ornate, with spires and turrets echoing the outlines of the Kremlin towers. The museum sets the northern boundary of the square.
The permanent exhibition gives a vivid overview of the history of Russia since the most ancient times. It displays archaeological finds, utensils, as well as icons, paintings, arts and crafts. The interior design of the exhibition halls deserves special attention, representing an excellent museum space arrangement solution.
Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan
The Cathedral of Our Lady of KazanRussian: Sobor Kazanskoy ikony Bozhiey Materi or Собор Казанской иконы Божией Матери is located to the left of the museum. Although its recently reconstructed appearance raises certain questions among architectural historians, the Kazan CathedralRussian: Sobor Kazanskoy Ikony Bozhey Materi or Собор Казанской Иконы Божией Матери is a symbolic monument for Moscow. It was built in the 17th century and financed from the private funds of Tsar Feodor I (Fyodor Mikhailovich), the first tsar of the Romanov dynastyrulers of Russia from 1613 until the Russian Revolution of 1917, to commemorate the liberation of Moscow from Polish invaders. The event took place on November 4, which is the feast day of the Kazan Icon of the Mother of GodRussian: Kazanskaya ikona Bogomateri or Казанская икона Богоматери. Today, the National Unity Day is celebrated on this date. The Kazan Cathedral has an appearance typical of its time: it is a pillarless (with no supports inside) single-domed church featuring a set of recurring decorative elements such as kokoshnikssemicircular or keel-like exterior decorative elements in traditional Russian architecture, panels, and window surrounds.
GUM DEPARTMENT STORE
Next to the Kazan Cathedral, you will see the GUMRussian: ГУМ, which is an abbreviation for Gosudarstvenny Universalny MagazinRussian: Государственный Универсальный Магазин, meaning State Department Store. Red Square has long been known as a trading place: trade was carried on in stone shops, commonly referred to as the “trading rows”, ever since the times of Ivan the Terrible. Architect Joseph (Osip) Bovean Italian-Russian neoclassical architect redeveloped the square in the first half of the 19th century, after the 1812 Fire of Moscowduring the war between the Russian Empire and Napoleonic France on the territory of Russia in 1812: the moat near the Kremlin wall was refilled with sand, the ramparts were eliminated, and a large Classicist building with trading rows was built to replace the numerous shops.
Bove’s building dilapidated and required serious reconstruction by the end of the 19th century. New trading rows designed by Alexander Pomerantsev in the eclectic style were constructed in the 1880s. Pomerantsev created sort of a few fancy streets with small shops arranged in three levels and covered with a glass roof resting on a curved steel framework (designed by engineer Vladimir Shukhov, renowned for designing the famous Shukhov Radio Towera broadcasting tower built in the period 1920–1922 in Moscow). Thus, the resulting space was perceived as naturally functional, well-lit, and ornate.
Today’s GUM is a huge shopping centre, largely offering expensive premium-segment items. However, if you have a proper look around, you can find an eatery that serves reasonably priced meals as well as some interesting shops with rather moderate prices. Muscovites often drop into the GUM to get an ice cream – the local old-timers claim that the famous wafer cups still have ‘that very’ taste of the much-loved Soviet-time treat.
After 1812, Red Square acquired not only the Trading Rows but also the bronze statue of Kuzma Minin and Dmitry Pozharskythey gathered an all-Russian volunteer army and expelled the forces of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from Moscow made by Ivan Martos. It now stands in front of the St. Basil’s Cathedral, but originally it was located on the central axis of the old trading rows. Russia experienced patriotic uplift after the victory in the Patriotic War of 1812 and the liberation of Moscow from the French. Curiously, the victory over Poland had taken place in 1612, exactly 200 years before the French were driven out of Moscow. Ivan Martos created an image of two heroes, leaders of the People’s MilitiaVolunteer Army Kuzma Minin and Prince Dmitry Pozharsky. Despite the difference in their social background, they are depicted as equal political actors united by a common impulse in the face of great danger. Minin is pointing forward, calling Pozharsky along with all the Russians to fight for the right cause. When the monument stood in its original location, Minin was extending his hand towards the dome of the Senate rising above the Kremlin wall. There was symbolism as well as a compositional intent in it: the monument served as a visual link between the trading rows and the building of the Senate, emphasising the compositional axis of the square. However, as the square was rearranged in 1931, the monument was transferred to neighbour the St. Basil’s Cathedral. This transfer is informally explained by the ambiguous associations that arose during the first decade of the Soviet era: Kuzma Minin, while calling for a fight against invaders, was pointing right at the Lenin’s MausoleumRussian: Mavzoley V.I. Lenina or Мавзолей В.И. Ленина.
KREMLIN WALL AND SPASSKAYA TOWER
A necropolis with tombs of Soviet statesmen is located beside the Kremlin wall in front of the GUM department store. Stalin, Budyonny, Voroshilov, Zhukov, and Brezhnev, among others, are buried here. The necropolis is centered on both sides of Lenin’s Mausoleum built in the 1920s to Alexey Shchusevan acclaimed Russian and Soviet architect’s design. The architect did not follow the techniques of Vladimir Sherwood and Alexander Pomerantsev: the style of historicism was alien to him. Despite its totally modern shape, the building of the Mausoleum blended well into the ensemble of the square. Located on the GUM–Senate TowerRussian: Senatskaya bashnya or Сенатская башня axis, it falls in line with this composition, complementing rather than destroying it.
The Spasskaya Tower is one of the most prominent and iconic buildings in Red Square. Having acquired its present appearance in the 17th century, it dominates the local skyline and connects the square with the Kremlin. The Spasskie Gate of the Kremlin has been traditionally considered a sacred, Tsar’s gate, and everyone who passed through it had to take their hats off in former times. Legend has it that Napoleon didn’t do so in 1812, but a sudden gust of wind swept his bicorne off to the ground. The chime of the clock bells on Spasskaya Tower is familiar to all Russians, marking the beginning of every new year. A 16th-century fresco depicting Christ the Saviour with St. Sergius of Radonezha spiritual leader and monastic reformer of medieval Russia and Varlaam Khutynskylived in the 12th century and founded a monastery of the Transfiguration, which had been plastered over, was discovered on the tower wall not so long ago, in 2010. Now, an Orthodox icon and a five-pointed star, which replaced the two-headed eagle, the coat of arms of tsarist Russia, in the 1930s (and can also be seen as a work of art and a symbol of its time), coexist paradoxically on the same tower.
ST. BASIL’S CATHEDRAL
The perspective of Red Square is completed by the Cathedral of the Intercession of the Holy Mother of God on the Moat, or St. Basil’s Cathedral. This remarkable 16th-century architectural monument has become a symbol of Moscow and the focal point of the square. It captures viewers’ attention, shapes the space around, and serves as a wonderful backdrop for parades and concerts. The cathedral was created to commemorate the capture of Kazanthe capital and largest city of the Republic of Tatarstan in Russia by Ivan the Terrible’s troops, an important military victory of medieval Russia.
It is noteworthy that the cathedral is made up of nine separate churches set on one base and arranged into a single composition—this is how Russian architect Barma Postnik, the project author, solved the challenging problem of designing a cathedral with nine side altars. The churches were sanctified in honour of festivals and saints whose feast and natal days are concurrent with the milestone dates of the military campaign against Kazan.
The cathedral functions as a museum today, though regular services are held at the Church of Basil the Blessed. While visiting the cathedral, special attention should be paid to the beautiful icons of the 16–17th centuries kept in its churches as well as the wall paintings in the gallery. Lobnoye MestoRussian: Лобное место can be seen near the cathedral. Contrary to the popular belief, it wasn’t designed for public executions. Instead, it was a platform used for delivering public speeches and reading out tsars’ edicts.
Thus, as we can see, Red Square is home to monuments that tell about the great victories in Russia’s history. St. Basil’s Cathedral reminds us of the Siege of Kazan, the Kazan Cathedral—of the liberation from the Poles, and the memorial to Minin and Pozharsky—of the War of 1812. The necropolis beside the Kremlin wall illustrates Russia’s revolutionary past and the Great Patriotic War of 1941–1945. The original protective function of the Kremlin is indicated by the teeth on its wall; the cathedrals and icons remind us that it used to be the royal residence; and the stars on the towers take us back to the Soviet epoch. The GUM symbolises the trading past of the square, Lobnoye Mesto brings the political past to mind, and the Historical Museum illustrates the history of Russia since the earliest times. Red Square is a melting pot of religion and politics, festivals and mourning, the past and the present of Moscow.© 2016-2022 moscovery.com