Red Square: The Story of Russia’s Most Iconic Landmark

Alice Roberts

5 mins

30 Oct 2019

Red Square is undoubtedly one of Moscow’s – and Russia’s – most iconic landmarks. Although it began its life as a shanty town of wooden huts, it was cleared in the 1400s by Ivan III, allowing it to blossom into a rich visual narrative of Russian history. It houses the Kremlin complex, St Basil’s Cathedral and Lenin’s mausoleum.

Although its name is often thought to derive from the blood that flowed during periods of unrest, or to reflect the colours of the communist regime, it is actually of linguistic origin. In the Russian language, ‘red’ and ‘beautiful’ derived from the word krasny, thus it is known as ‘Beautiful Square’ to the Russian people.

A Palm Sunday procession in the 17th century, leaving Saint Basil’s for the Kremlin.

In the 20th century, Red Square became a famous site of official military parades. At one parade, on 7 November 1941, columns of young cadets marched through the square and straight onto the front line, which was only about 30 miles away.

At another parade, the victory parade on 24 June 1945, 200 Nazi standards were thrown on the ground and trampled by mounted Soviet commanders.

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The Kremlin

Since 1147, the Kremlin has always been a place of importance as the first stones were laid for the hunting lodge of Prince Juri of Suzdal.

Perched on the Borovitskiy Hill, at the confluence of the Moscow and Neglinnay Rivers, it would soon grow to become a vast complex of Russian political and religious power and is now used as the seat of the Russian Parliament. An old Moscow proverb says

‘Over the city, there is only the Kremlin, and over the Kremlin, there is only God’.

A bird’s eye view of the Kremlin. Image source: Kremlin.ru / CC BY 4.0.

In the 15th century, an enormous fortified wall was built to cut the Kremlin off from the rest of the city. It measures 7 metres thick, 19 metres high, and over one mile long.

It enclosed some of Russia’s most important symbols of piety: the Cathedral of the Dormition (1479), the Church of the Virgin’s Robes (1486) and the Cathedral of the Annunciation (1489). Together, they create a skyline of white turrets and gilded domes – although red stars were added in 1917 when the communists gained power.

The Palace of Facets, the oldest secular structure, was built in 1491 for Ivan III, who imported Italian architects to create a Renaissance masterpiece. The tall bell tower known as ‘Ivan the Terrible’ was added in 1508, and the St Michael Archangel Cathedral was built in 1509.

The Great Kremlin Palace, viewed from across the Movska River. Image source: NVO / CC BY-SA 3.0.

The Great Kremlin Palace was built between 1839 and 1850, in just 11 years. Nicholas I ordered its construction to emphasise the strength of his autocratic regime, and to act as the Tsar’s Moscow residence.

Its five sumptuous reception halls, the Georgievsky, Vladimisky, Aleksandrovsky, Andreyevsky and Ekaterininsky, each represent the orders of the Russian Empire, The Orders of St George, Vladimir, Alexander, Andrew and Catherine.

The Hall of the Order of St. George in the Great Kremlin Palace. Image source: Kremlin.ru / CC BY 4.0.

St Basil’s Cathedral

In 1552, a battle against the Mongols had raged for eight terrible days. It was only when Ivan the Terrible’s army forced the Mongolian troops back inside the city walls that a bloody siege could finish off the fighting. To mark this triumph, St Basil’s was built, officially known as the Cathedral of St Vasily the Blessed.

The Cathedral is topped with nine onion domes, staggered at various heights. They are decorated with mesmerising patterns which were recoloured between 1680 and 1848, when icon and mural art became popular and bright colours were favoured.

Its design seems to stem from the vernacular wooden churches of the Russian North, whilst revealing a confluence with Byzantine styles. The interior and brickwork also betray Italian influence.

An early 20th century postcard of St Basil’s.

Lenin’s mausoleum

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, also known as Lenin, served as the head of government of Soviet Russia from 1917 until 1924, when he died from a hemorrhagic stroke. A wooden tomb was erected in Red Square to accommodate the 100,000 mourners who visited in the following six weeks.

During this time, freezing temperatures preserved him almost perfectly. It inspired the Soviet officials not to bury the body, but preserve it forever. The cult of Lenin had started.

Mourners queuing to see Lenin’s frozen body in March 1925, then housed in a wooden mausoleum. Image source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-01169 / CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Once the body had defrosted, time was ticking for the embalming to be completed. Two chemists, without any certainty about the success of their technique, injected a cocktail of chemicals to prevent the body drying up.

All the internal organs were removed, leaving only skeleton and muscle which is now re-embalmed every 18 months by the ‘Lenin Lab’. The brain was taken to the Neurology Centre at the Russian Academy of Sciences, where it was studied to try and explain Lenin’s genius.

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However, Lenin’s corpse had already reached early stages of decomposition – dark spots formed on the skin and the eyes had sunk into their sockets. Before the embalming could take place, scientists carefully whitened the skin with acetic acid and ethyl alcohol.

Under the pressure of the Soviet government, they spent months of sleepless nights trying to preserve the body. Their final method remains a mystery. But whatever it was, it worked.

Lenin’s mausoleum. Image source: Staron / CC BY-SA 3.0.

An imposing mausoleum of marble, porphyry, granite and labradorite was constructed as a permanent memorial on Red Square. A guard of honour was placed outside, a position known as ‘Number One Sentry’.

The body was laid out dressed in a modest black suit, lying on a bed of red silk inside a glass sarcophagus. Lenin’s eyes are closed, his hair is combed and his moustache neatly trimmed.

During the Second World War, Lenin’s body was temporarily evacuated to Siberia in October 1941, when it became apparent Moscow was vulnerable to the approaching German army. When it returned, it was joined in 1953 by the embalmed body of Stalin.

Lenin speaking on 1 May 1920.

This reunion was short-lived. In 1961 Stalin’s body was removed during Khrushchev’s Thaw, the period of de-Stalinization. He was buried outside the Kremlin Wall, beside many other Russian leaders of the past century.

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Today, Lenin’s mausoleum is free to visit, and the body is treated with great respect. Visitors are given strict instructions regarding their behaviour, such as, ‘You must not laugh or smile’.

Taking photographs is strictly forbidden, and cameras are checked before and after visitors enter the building, to check these rules have been followed. Men are not able to wear hats, and hands must be kept out of pockets.

Featured Image: Alvesgaspar / CC BY-SA 3.0.