Red Square

The soul of Moscow


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Red Square, Moscow 103132, Russie

GPS: 55.754262676656, 37.621098297529

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Red Square (Красная площадь) is a monumental symbol of central Moscow and a must-see on any visit to the Russian capital. Its construction dates back to the end of the 15th century on the site of former wooden walls and fortifications from the 11th century. It was built during the reign of Ivan III of Russia, known as Ivan the Great, one of the most powerful monarchs in Eastern Europe. This ruler was responsible for the unification and centralisation of Muscovy (or Grand Principality of Moscow). The construction of Red Square coincided with the completion of the Kremlin walls, which had been destroyed by a series of fires that devastated Moscow in the Middle Ages.

Undeniably associated with the country’s history, power and military might, this vast square has a rectangular shape. It was originally designed as a food market and was occasionally used as a training ground by the Moscow army. Later, Red Square became the site of the Tsar’s coronations, political forums, religious festivals, Napoleonic sieges during the French invasion of Russia, military battles, public executions and even the burial of prominent Russians. Witness to a multitude of historical events, it was after the October Revolution in 1917 that this place was reserved for popular demonstrations such as the impressive military parade of the Red Army every year on 9 May (commemorating the Victory Day of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1945 over Nazi Germany).

In addition to its impressive proportions (400 by 150 metres), Red Square is surrounded by remarkable heritage assets such as the State Historical Museum (a reference on Russian history) or the Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed (Saint Basil’s Cathedral) with its nine multicoloured domes. The latter was built in the second half of the 16th century to celebrate the victory of Russia’s first tsar Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible) in 1552 over the castle of Kazan khans, which was the capital of the Tatars. Flanked by the imposing and fortified complex of the Kremlin, Red Square is home to the tombs of former Soviet leaders on its western side, including Lenin’s Mausoleum (founder of the Soviet Union in the 20th century). Other monuments around the huge esplanade include museums, art galleries, palaces, gardens, religious sites and luxurious shops. They are highlighted by special events in winter (Christmas market, giant ice rink…) and summer (book fair, concerts…). With its magical and fascinating atmosphere, this Moscow place is today the political, historical, cultural and religious heart of the world’s largest country.

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  • The architectural styles of different historical periods in Russia; the gigantism of this urban square; the many monuments that embody the greatness of the country
  • The Kremlin (head office of the Russian government and one of the most imposing political sites in the world, built from the 12th century onwards) and the Spasskaya Tower (70 metres high); the Grand Kremlin Palace (former residence of the Tsars); the Patriarch’s Palace (collections of earthenware from the 17th century); the Armoury Chamber (galleries of artefacts, jewellery and weapons dating back to the 12th century)
  • The Orthodox Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed (an architectural and artistic jewel of the 16th century); the campanile, chapels, frescoes and basements of Saint Basil’s Cathedral; the Cathedral of the Annunciation (the iconostasis from the end of the 14th century is a marvel) and the Ivan the Great Bell Tower; the Cathedral of the Dormition (built in 1475 by the Italian architect Aristotile Fioravanti); the Kazan Cathedral (foundations dating from the 17th century); the Cathedral of the Archangel (hosting the necropolis of the Grand Princes of Moscow and the first Tsars of Russia)
  • The State Historical Museum (a red brick building from the end of the 19th century); the collections of Moscow Kremlin Museums (weapons, crockery, horse-drawn carriages, coronation artefacts, etc.); the State Kremlin Palace (a major entertainment venue and former place of the communist party); the Palace of the Facets (last remains of the royal palace built by Tsar Ivan III); the Terem Palace (official residence of the President of Russia)
  • The Resurrection Gate (or Iberian Gate) and the walls of Kitay-gorod (business area); the circular stone platform of Lobnoe Mesto; Alexander Gardens (a public park adjoining the Kremlin), Taynitsky Garden (inside the walls of the Kremlin) and Zaryadye Park (along the left bank of the Moskva River)
  • The GUM luxury shopping mall (the largest and oldest in Russia); the Old Merchant Court (old merchant district also called Moscow Gostiny Dvor)
  • The night illumination of Red Square, giving it an amusement park feel; the four red stars on top of the Kremlin buildings shining at night
  • The absence of car traffic on Red Square, which is reserved for pedestrians; the performances of the Kremlin Regiment and the synchronized parades of the military cavalry
  • The Christmas market, the New Year celebration and the gigantic ice rink in winter; the book fair and music concerts in summer; the Moscow Victory Day Parade on May 9th
  • Before the 17th century, Red Square meant “beautiful square”. The historical origin of the name of Moscow’s most famous square is therefore not related to the ochre colour of its buildings or to the communist regime of the past. Rather, it comes from a translation error. In old Russian, krasny could be translated as “beautiful” (in the sense of greatness or eminence) and “red” at the same time.
  • Saint Basil’s Cathedral is a perfect symbol of Moscow and traditional Russian architecture. According to art historian Emmanuel Ducamp (a specialist in Russian architecture and decorative arts), the identity of the architect(s) remains an enigma (it could be the Russians Postnik Yakovlev and/or Ivan Barma). One legend says that the first tsar of Russia Ivan IV, also known as Ivan the Terrible, had them gouge out their eyes to prevent them from building an equivalent monument elsewhere. Another hypothesis says that an Italian architect may have been in charge of the cathedral’s construction. Indeed, many of the Kremlin’s buildings (towers, cathedrals, walls…) were erected under the direction of Italian architects from the Renaissance period.
  • The Cathedral of the Dormition is the largest in the Kremlin and the first stone church in Moscow. It has hosted many coronations and wedding ceremonies of the Tsars of the Russian Empire.
  • In 1812, Moscow and Red Square underwent a siege by Napoleonic troops during the French invasion of Russia (this significant episode in the country’s history is called “Patriotic war” in Russian). With his great army of over 600,000 soldiers, Emperor Napoleon I had the ambition to become the master of the world. He seized the city of Moscow, which had been abandoned earlier by the Russian army and its inhabitants, who had taken care to bring with them as much food and provisions as possible while setting fire to most of the city’s buildings. Napoleon stayed in the Kremlin and then was forced to leave the place to fight new battles against the troops of Tsar Alexander I. Finally, it was the arrival of the extreme cold weather that precipitated Napoleon’s defeat during his long retreat. Famine, disease, lack of suitable equipment, desertions and the isolation of the various French army corps led to Napoleon’s downfall in the face of the Russian Imperial Army headed by Mikhail Kutuzov, the commander-in-chief during the Patriotic war of 1812.
  • It was in 1918 that Moscow regained its status as the capital of Russia by decision of Lenin at the expense of the city of Saint Petersburg. With more than 12 million inhabitants, Moscow has a total of 130 urban squares, the most famous of which is Red Square, one of the largest in the world (53,000 km²). A bronze plaque marks the Kilometre zero on this square, which is the reference point for calculating road distances within the country.
  • The basement of Red Square is full of underground passages. One of them is said to house the legendary library of Ivan the Terrible. It is said to contain ancient works of immense value from the library of Constantinople, which were sheltered during the Muslim invasion of 1453. During the first half of the 20th century, the Soviet archaeologist and historian Ignatiy Stelletsky conducted an intensive but unsuccessful search for it.
  • Lenin’s mausoleum is located at the foot of the Kremlin’s walls. This impressive tomb is imagined as a saint’s relic for the veneration of the first Soviet president (who, together with Leon Trotsky, was one of the main leaders of the October Revolution in 1917). The embalmed mummy of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin is carefully displayed in a glass sarcophagus inside a pyramid-shaped building made of granite and porphyry (magmatic rock). The mausoleum, which can be visited, is decorated with marble, crystal, bronze and Ural jasper. Lenin’s body, which appears to be intact despite the 100 years since his death in 1924, is maintained by an official body of scientists and researchers (Institute of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants of Moscow). A special product is said to be administered to the remains once a week in addition to a major annual conservation operation to protect the mummy from any source of degradation. Other voices speculate that the mausoleum is actually inhabited by a wax mannequin. During his lifetime, Lenin had asked to be buried. The presentation of his remains to the public was therefore only meant to be temporary. However, the question of burying his body has been raised regularly for a long time without any decision being taken at the highest levels of the Russian state.
  • Other Russian personalities are buried in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis, located just behind Lenin’s mausoleum. It was here that the embalmed body of Joseph Stalin was moved in great secrecy by Nikita Khrushchev in 1961 as part of the de-Stalinization of the country (his mummy rested for 8 years alongside that of his predecessor in power, Lenin). Despite this symbolic operation and the recognition of the crimes committed by this statesman in the USSR, Stalin remains the most popular figure in Russian history according to the specialist Emmanuel Ducamp. He inherited several nicknames depending on how he was judged, including “Father of Nations” and “The Red Tyrant” (Stalin was responsible for the creation of forced labour camps called gulags).
  • A metro station is said to have been built in Stalin’s time under the Kremlin buildings to evacuate its leaders in case of an external attack. One of the tunnels leads directly to the Izmailovo stadium, 15 kilometres from the Kremlin, under which a bunker was built.
  • GUM can be translated as “Main Universal Store” in Russian (Glavny Ouniversalny Magazin). This exclusive and prestigious shopping mall was the world largest department store when it opened to the public in 1893. Its architecture is worthy of a real palace. After the October Revolution in 1917, it was nationalised by the Soviet government to house the headquarters of the People’s Commissariat of Food Industry (raw materials, goods and food stocks were confiscated and requisitioned by the authorities). The shops were converted into housing and offices for the benefit of Communist Party executives. In 1930, Stalin closed the GUM and planned to destroy it in order to enlarge the area of Red Square (it was in this place that the body of his wife, who had committed suicide in 1932, was displayed). After the death of the Soviet leader in 1953, the GUM building was completely renovated and restored to its former commercial function.
  • The first military parade on Red Square was held on 7 November 1941, just after Russia entered the conflict of the Second World War. It was intended to boost the morale of Soviet troops as the Nazi armies approached Moscow. The Russian soldiers participating in the parade were sent directly to the eastern front line after the military show.
  • During the Second World War, Stalin decided to camouflage the Kremlin to protect it from Nazi bombing. This incredible and audacious ruse allowed the buildings to be spared from the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) raids thanks to the installation of tarpaulins, fake painted houses and inflatable tents using the trompe-l’oeil technique (no bombs exploded inside the fortress).
  • The Kremlin palaces were closed to the public under Stalin, modernised by Nikita Khrushchev and renovated by Boris Yeltsin. Transformed into museums, they now welcome 3 million visitors per year.
  • Various species of birds of prey (eagle and Eurasian eagle-owl) are specially trained by falconers based in the Kremlin fortress. They are responsible for hunting birds considered harmful to the preservation of the buildings, such as crows (a crow’s nest is said to generate a thousand individuals). These birds of prey are trained to act only within the walls of the Kremlin.
  • Work carried out in 2016 on a former administrative building due to be demolished revealed the presence of 6,000 ancient objects (jewellery, weapons, swords, fishermen’s hooks, wine bottles from France, remains of 14th century wooden houses…).
  • Red Square is the ideal starting point for visiting the Russian capital, the museums and historical monuments that border it. It is easily accessible by metro from Borovitskaya and Biblioteka Imeni Lenina metro stations.
  • Allow at least a full day if your itinerary includes a visit to the interior of the Kremlin, whose walls are over 2 kilometres long (closed on Thursdays), the collections of the State Historical Museum and the Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed.
  • A walk after dark on the Red Square offers another experience in a symphony of lights.
  • The collections of the State Historical Museum are housed in several locations in Moscow: the main building on Red Square, a neighbouring building (the seat of the former Moscow City Hall), in the Novodevichy Convent and in Saint Basil’s Cathedral.

Where to eat

  • Stolovaya 57
    (typical cafeteria)
  • Peshi
    (fish specialities)
  • Restaurant Metropol Hall
    (Sunday brunch)

Where to go

  • Gorky Park
    (relaxation area)
  • Tretyakov Gallery
    (phenomenal art gallery)
  • Bolshoi Theatre
    (great theatre)

Where to stay

  • Hostel GoodMood
    (cheap hostel)
  • Aquamarine Hotel
    (quiet and well-located)
  • The Carlton, Moscow
    (in central Moscow)

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