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Red Square: The Spectacular Story of Russia‘s Iconic Heart


For nearly a millennium, Moscow‘s Red Square has stood as a grand stage upon which so much of Russian history has unfolded. More than just an open plaza, Red Square is a revered landmark, a symbolic heart of the nation, and a lasting monument to Russia‘s enduring strength and spirit.

From its medieval origins as a trading center and place of public proclamations to its modern incarnation as an awe-inspiring destination drawing millions of annual visitors, Red Square has evolved alongside the city of Moscow and the nation itself. Here, among the imposing might of the Kremlin walls and the swirling domes of St. Basil‘s Cathedral, the dramatic arc of Russian history comes alive.

The Foundations of an Icon: Red Square in the Medieval Era

The story of Red Square reaches back to the 12th century, when the fertile junction of the Moskva and Neglinnaya Rivers first drew Slavic settlers to the area. By 1147, when Prince Yuri Dolgorukiy hosted a lavish feast and declared Moscow a town, a crude wooden Kremlin had appeared on the nearby Borovitsky Hill.[^1]

As the town grew into a prosperous trading hub, the open area outside the Kremlin‘s eastern wall served as a bustling market square. Known then simply as Pozhar or "burnt-out place," a reference to the clearing of wooden shacks and stalls, this unmarked expanse would become the site of Red Square.[^2]

The ascent of Prince Ivan I, known as Kalita ("Moneybags") in the early 14th century marked a turning point in Moscow‘s fortunes. Ivan shrewdly maneuvered to establish the city as the seat of the Russian Orthodox Church and a center of princely power.[^3] The transferral of the metropolitan bishop from Vladimir to Moscow in 1326 sealed the city‘s spiritual prominence.^4

Building a Bastion: The Rise of the Kremlin

Under Ivan the Great (r. 1462-1505), the crude wooden Kremlin was transformed into a mighty citadel. Determined to assert Moscow‘s supremacy, Ivan commissioned Italian architects to design a magnificent new ensemble of fortified walls, towers, and cathedrals.[^5]

Beginning in 1475, skilled Italian builders including Ridolfo Fioravanti, Pietro Antonio Solari, and Aloisio da Milano raised imposing walls of red brick, punctuated by 18 defensive towers.^6 The walls, completed by 1516, stretched 2,235 meters in a crenelated perimeter up to 19 meters high and 6.5 meters thick.[^7] A 30-meter-wide moat added to the aura of impregnability.

Within these walls arose majestic houses of worship symbolizing Moscow‘s claim to spiritual authority. The Cathedral of the Dormition, erected by Fioravanti from 1475-1479, became the coronation and burial site of tsars.[^8] The Cathedral of the Annunciation and Cathedral of the Archangel followed soon after, their gleaming golden domes a statement of growing wealth and power.

By the end of Ivan‘s reign, the Kremlin had grown into a magnificent bastion encompassing an area of 27.5 hectares.[^9] More than a mere fortress, it was now the resplendent seat of the Russian Orthodox Church and an unmistakable declaration of Moscow‘s political ascendancy. The adjacent Red Square had also grown in size and importance, a civic heart for the city.

St. Basil‘s: A Swirling Symphony of Russian Soul

No single structure captivates the imagination quite like the Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed, popularly known as St. Basil‘s. This riotous burst of color and fantasy, perched at the southern end of Red Square, is an enduring emblem of Russia itself.

The cathedral was commissioned by Tsar Ivan IV ("The Terrible") in 1555 to celebrate the capture of the Mongol stronghold of Kazan.[^10] Over the next six years, architects Barma and Postnik Yakovlev oversaw the construction of a masterpiece blending elements of Russian wooden church architecture with stone construction techniques.^11

The result was a staggering composite of nine individual chapels, each crowned with a unique onion dome and linked by an internal maze of galleries and passages.[^12] The central Church of the Intercession soars to a height of 57 meters.[^13]

While the exterior dazzles with swirling patterns and a kaleidoscope of colors, the interior is equally breathtaking. The chapels are adorned with ornate iconostases, frescoes, and oil paintings, immersing visitors in an otherworldly aura of sanctity.

Over the centuries, St. Basil‘s has undergone cycles of damage, disrepair, and restoration. After a 1595 fire, the formerly white stone walls were replaced with the vivid colors seen today.[^14] Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, who saw the cathedral as an obstacle to his military ambitions, allegedly contemplated demolishing it.[^15] Mercifully, the cathedral endured to enchant generations.

Marches and Memorials: Red Square in the 20th Century

As Russia entered the turbulent 20th century, Red Square took on new layers of political and ideological significance. The square became a stage for grand military parades and demonstrations of Soviet might.

One of the most iconic parades occurred on November 7, 1941, as Nazi German forces approached the outskirts of Moscow. As a raw show of defiance, columns of Soviet soldiers marched solemnly through Red Square before heading directly to the front lines a mere 30 miles away.[^16] This parade, observed by a skeletal Politburo atop Lenin‘s Mausoleum, became a defining symbol of Soviet resolve.

Red Square later hosted a cathartic victory parade on June 24, 1945. Before the assembled Soviet leadership and a jubilant crowd, two hundred German military standards were thrown on the ground before Lenin‘s tomb and trampled by mounted Soviet commanders – a visceral act of triumph and revenge.[^17]

In the heart of Red Square, the mausoleum of Vladimir Lenin serves as another potent 20th-century symbol. In the days following Lenin‘s death in January 1924, an estimated 100,000 mourners braved frigid temperatures to view his body in a temporary wooden tomb.[^18]

Recognizing the power of Lenin‘s cult of personality, Soviet authorities set out to preserve him for eternity. A team of scientists, headed by anatomist Vladimir Vorobiev and biochemist Boris Zbarsky, devised an embalming process involving a secret chemical cocktail.[^19] By 1930, a permanent mausoleum of red granite and black labradorite had been erected, where Lenin (and, for a time, Joseph Stalin) could be viewed in a dimly-lit, temperature-controlled chamber.

In 1953, the death of Stalin marked a major turning point in Soviet politics and the physical landscape of Red Square. As part of Nikita Khrushchev‘s de-Stalinization campaign, Stalin‘s body was removed from the mausoleum in 1961 and interred in a more modest grave behind it.[^20]

The Timeless Heart of Russia

Today, Red Square endures as a complex tapestry woven from centuries of Russian history, culture, and identity. More than 12 million tourists flock to Red Square each year to marvel at its imposing architecture and soak in its aura of grandeur and legend.[^21]

But Red Square is more than a mere tourist destination – it remains a living, breathing heart of Moscow life. Muscovites gather here to celebrate, to mourn, to witness military parades and festive concerts. The square pulses with an energy simultaneously ancient and eternally new.

In 1990, Red Square was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognizing its "inestimable value" to humankind.[^22] Yet its true value is not in bricks and mortar, but in the countless stories, triumphs, and tragedies it has witnessed.

To stand in Red Square is to feel the weight of history and the enduring Russian spirit. It is to be humbled before the swirling domes of St. Basil‘s, to ponder the fortitude that built the mighty Kremlin walls, to contemplate a century of Soviet utopian visions and disillusions. Most of all, it is to marvel at the resilience of the Russian soul, which has endured a thousand years of storm and strife.

As long as the heart of Moscow beats on, Red Square will remain an eternal symbol of Russia itself – a timeless monument to a nation‘s pain and pride, suffering and triumph, past and possibility. Here, in this spectacular and sacred space, Russia‘s dramatic destiny continues to unfold.

[^1]: Colton, Timothy J. Moscow: Governing the Socialist Metropolis. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1998, p. 12.
[^2]: Batalov, Andrei L., and Nadezhda I. Komashko. The Architectural Ensemble of the Moscow Kremlin. Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1991, p. 7.
[^3]: Hosking, Geoffrey A. Russia: People and Empire, 1552-1917. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997, p. 39.

[^5]: Brumfield, William C. A History of Russian Architecture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, p. 93.

[^7]: "Kremlin Walls and Towers." Kremlin Museums. Accessed March 27, 2023.
[^8]: Brumfield, p. 95.
[^9]: Batalov and Komashko, p. 12.
[^10]: Brumfield, p. 122.

[^12]: Ibid, p. 123.
[^13]: "St Basil‘s Cathedral." GUM. Accessed March 27, 2023.
[^14]: Brumfield, p. 126.
[^15]: Figes, Orlando. Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2014, p. 268.
[^16]: Braithwaite, Rodric. Moscow 1941: A City and Its People at War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006, p. 218.
[^17]: Merridale, Catherine. Ivan‘s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006, p. 313.
[^18]: Tumarkin, Nina. Lenin Lives!: The Lenin Cult in Soviet Russia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997, p. 179.
[^19]: Ibid, p. 181.
[^20]: Taubman, William. Khrushchev: The Man and His Era. New York: W.W. Norton, 2003, p. 567.
[^21]: "Red Square, Moscow." NASA Earth Observatory. Accessed March 27, 2023.
[^22]: "Kremlin and Red Square, Moscow." UNESCO World Heritage Centre. Accessed March 27, 2023.