Sep/Oct 2018 Current Moscow Time: 16:56:35
18 September 2018

  The world’s biggest country, in a magazine. Since 1956.

Red Square

Author: Alexander Mozhayev
Translation: Alexei Bayer
Illustrations/Images by Igor Sobolev

Jan/Feb 2015
Page 28   ( 9 pages)

Summary: Originally known as “Pozhar,” then “Torg,” Red Square is a repository of Russian historical memory, the altar of the motherland and, in general, the center of the Russian universe. But how did it all come together?


Everyone born in Moscow knows that Red Square is a repository of Russian historical memory, the altar of the motherland and, in general, the center of the universe. Its architecture has served as the backdrop for many a historical drama, ranging from the tragic to the comedic, from the uplifting to the depressing.

Yet sometimes it seems that, over the years, the image of Russia’s main square has blurred, and that for most observers it has become just a postcard: beautiful and beloved, but stripped of its erstwhile grandeur. This change is reflected in the recent uses to which Red Square has been put: as a concert venue, a skating rink, and an advertising billboard. It has reached the point where the idea of removing the revered Soviet necropolis – eternal resting place of Vladimir Lenin – is being seriously debated, since it gets in the way of various holiday celebrations. This is a good time to explore the hidden meanings and symbols that abound throughout Red Square and its architectural monuments, and to consider what kind of treatment it deserves.

The first recorded name for the site on which Red Square stands is Pozhar (Fire). In the thirteenth century, a settlement sprung up on level ground separated from the Kremlin by a small ravine. Whenever enemies approached the city, it was set ablaze to prevent hostile forces from using its houses and fences as cover.

As the two other sides of the site were protected by rivers, this more vulnerable side was the site of frequent battles. Even before the settlement was established, beginning in 1177, a series of competing principalities, including Ryazan and Tver, fought local forces here, as did Tatars and Lithuanians somewhat later.

In 1382, at Spassky Gate, a heroic deed was performed by the first Muscovite commoner to be mentioned in recorded history: the aptly named “Adam” felled a Horde prince with a well-aimed shot.

In short, what is now Red Square started out as a field of Russian military glory – something that is now completely forgotten.

In the fifteenth century, a market took root on the eastern end of the present square. Italian builders completed the present Kremlin walls in 1492, but the very next year a fire that started in the Kremlin jumped the wall and burned down the settlement. After that, the Grand Prince decreed a building-free zone extending 109 sazhens (250 meters) from the Kremlin. But that still didn’t make Pozhar a square.

In 1508, a giant, 36-meter-wide moat began to be constructed along the walls. It occupied nearly half of the present area of the square and was delineated by a low, crenelated wall. In the early nineteenth century the moat was filled in, but if you look closely, you can still see it: the paving stones on the western side of the square sag slightly, as they were laid over land that had been recently filled in, whereas near the Spassky and Nikolsky Gates the pavement is slightly elevated, betraying the ancient bridges that once spanned the moat.

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