Red Square

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Red Square, like the Moscow Kremlin on which it borders, is one of the best known locales of modern world culture. Associated with military parades, aggressive rhetoric, and the Lenin mausoleum, Red Square came to symbolize Soviet power from 1918 until the demise of the Soviet Union. The term "red" in fact derives not from political sources but from a former meaning of the Russian word krasnaia : "beautiful."

From the earliest days of Moscow's existence in the twelfth century, some form of trading area probably existed to the east of the fortified center (kremlin) of the settlement. By the second half of the fourteenth century, evidence suggests that there was a more clearly defined area devoted to trade and located near the main, east towers of the Kremlin, whose log walls were at that time being rebuilt in limestone by Prince Dmitry Ivanovich. This space was enlarged for defensive purposes by the decree of Ivan III after the great fire of 1493, which destroyed many ramshackle trading booths.

The sixteenth century witnessed dramatic changes in the form and meaning of Red Square. Between 1508 and 1516, Basil III ordered that a large moat be dug along the east wall of the Kremlin, which had been rebuilt of strong brick under the supervision of Italian engineers. The highest sections of the wall faced Red Square, which had no natural defensive barrier, whereas the Moscow and Neglinnaia Rivers flowed along the other two sides of the Kremlin triangle. Between 1535 and 1538, the construction of brick walls around the larger trading district of Kitai gorod (Chinatown, lying to the east of the Kremlin) gave Red Square its own defensive system, and the moat was soon drained. Within a few years of the conquest of Kazan by Ivan IV in 1552, work began on the most renowned of Moscow's architectural monuments, the Cathedral of the Intercession on the Moat, popularly called Saint Basil's (15551561). With the consecration of this complex structure, Red Square gained a focal point that has remained to this day.

The first ruler to attempt to bring order into the chaotic trading zone of Red Square was Boris Godunov, who in 1595 ordered the construction of brick trading rows on the east side of the square. These rows, designated Upper, Middle, and Lower, faced the east wall of the Kremlin and descended almost to the bank of the Moscow River. Tsar Boris also commanded the rebuilding of Lobnoe mesto, the site from which state proclamations were read. First mentioned in 1547, this wooden platform was rebuilt as a circular limestone form with a low parapet. From the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, the area near Lobnoe mesto became notorious as a place of state executions.

The deliverance of Moscow from the Time of Troubles (15981613, an interregnum that included the occupation of the city by Polish forces) in the early seventeenth century was commemorated by the construction of the Church of the Kazan Mother of God (consecrated in 1636, razed in 1936, rebuilt in 19901993). In the same period, Red Square was repaved with flat logs, and during the reign of Alexei Mikhailovich, its north boundary was given a more imposing form with the construction of the brick Resurrection Gate (1680; razed in 1931 and rebuilt between 1994 and 1996). By the latter part of the eighteenth century, Catherine the Great embarked on another campaign to rid the square of wooden structures. As part of this process, the trading rows were expanded and Lobnoe mesto was shifted eastward to its present position.

In 1804 the square was repaved with cobblestones, but not until the rebuilding of Moscow after the 1812 fire was the dry moat filled and planted with trees. With the surge in Moscow's economic and cultural significance in the latter half of the nineteenth century, Red Square underwent a fundamental change that included the building of the Historical Museum (18741883) and the expansion of the Upper and Middle Trading Rows (18881893 and 18891891, respectively).

After the shift of the Soviet capital to Moscow in 1918, Red Square became the site of the country's major demonstrations and its cobblestones were replaced with flat, granite paving blocks. The Lenin Mausoleum, first built of wood (1924) and then in its current form (1930), became the most visible symbol of the regime. On November 7, 1941, ranks of soldiers marched past the mausoleum tribune directly to the front during the deciding phase of the Battle of Moscow. During the postwar period the world's attention continued to be riveted by the Red Square parades, but perhaps the most startling event occurred on May 28, 1987, when Mathias Rust, a teen-aged German pilot, landed a small plane in the center of Red Square. The repercussions of this act, which Rust proclaimed a gesture of peace, extended not only to the Defense Ministry but to the entire Soviet governing apparatus.

In the post-Soviet area, Red Square continued to be a place of public demonstrations and tours. Although debates have continued about the role of certain features, such as the Lenin Mausoleum, Red Square seems to be one of the few areas of Moscow that will retain its present form into the twenty-first century.

See also: architecture; cathedral of st. basil; kremlin; moscow


Brumfield, William Craft. (1993). A History of Russian Architecture. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Murrell, Kathleen Berton. (1990). Moscow: An Architectural History. New York: St. Martin's Press.

William Craft Brumfield