From its earliest days, Red Square has had a political function. It began life as a shantytown, a cramped space where people excluded from the walled medieval city of the Kremlin could camp, beg, and trade. But at the end of the fifteenth century, the czar decided to clear the space of its inhabitants and set up a parade ground. Prominent public buildings rose up around the vast, empty space: the spectacular St. Basil’s Cathedral, the Kazan Cathedral, the town hall. They were meant to impress and they did. The square became known as “Krasnaya,” from an old word for “beautiful,” which soon became conflated with its homonym, “red.”
In the centuries that followed, Red Square became the place where the czars would make their wishes known to the people, whether through pageantry, rhetoric, or violence. Soldiers held drills there. At other times, the space was taken over by unruly mobs. In 1606, angry boyars stormed the Kremlin and murdered the “False Dmitri,” a pretender to the throne who had come to power backed by Polish nobles. Angered by rumors that Czar Dmitri was letting Catholics and Lutherans pray in Orthodox churches, they hauled his body out into Red Square so that the people could see he was dead. The boyars probably threw the pretender’s corpse onto Lobnoye Mesto, “the Place of Skulls”—a raised platform in the center of the square that eventually acquired its own significance. Other czars announced their decrees from this same tribune, or presented their heirs when they came of age. Sometimes the relics of saints were placed on top of the platform so that people could come and be healed. Tradition holds that executions took place there, too.
After Peter the Great moved the Russian capital to St. Petersburg, Red Square lost some of its symbolic significance. In the nineteenth century, the old buildings around it grew shabby. The Kremlin itself fell into disrepair. But after the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks moved the capital back to Moscow: They preferred the massive, walled Kremlin to Peter the Great’s Italianate palaces. Both pageantry and violence returned along with them. The Bolsheviks let the onion domes of St. Basil’s remain, though they destroyed several other churches, both on the square and in the Kremlin fortress. They added their own architecture: Lenin’s tomb, a modernist pyramid, was constructed next to the Kremlin. They also gave Red Square a new function: a ceremonial burial ground. Stalin was placed beside Lenin, after he died, then later moved to the Kremlin wall. A small statue of him was erected adjacent to the plaque; from time to time, someone leaves fresh flowers beside it. Buried alongside him there are other Soviet officials—Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko—as well as Soviet heroes.
In the manner of the old czars, the Bolsheviks began to use the square as a place of political theater, a stage upon which to play out symbolic events such as the anniversaries of the revolution or the funerals of great leaders. There were many, many Soviet military parades on Red Square, and in later years these involved not just rank after rank of soldiers but tanks, armored cars, even missiles. Bombers and fighter jets flew above the parades; the Kremlin elite gathered on the tribune alongside. Outsiders watched carefully at every annual celebration of the Russian Revolution to see who was standing next to whom, in order to guess at who was up and who was down. None of those later parades matched the horror and grandeur of the parade staged on the anniversary of the Russian Revolution in November 1941. The Wehrmacht was under fifty kilometers away, on the outskirts of Moscow. Hundreds of thousands of Soviet soldiers had already lost their lives. Stalin spoketo the gathered men, some of whom had been pulled from the front. “The enemy is not so strong as some frightened little intellectuals picture him. The devil is not so terrible as he is painted,” he declared, before rising to his peroration: “Death to the German invaders! Long live our glorious motherland, her liberty and her independence! Under the banner of Lenin, forward to victory!”
In Red Square the past is always present. In 2008, when the president of Russia decided that he wanted to evoke the glories of the Soviet Union, the rhythmic click of soldiers’ boots and the rumble of tanks were once again heard on Red Square: At a parade held to commemorate the end of World War II, soldiers once again carried flags with the hammer and sickle.
Red Square’s churches have been rebuilt, repainted, restored: With their delicate onion domes and elaborate turrets, they are finally fit to be admired as well. These days, they are occasionally the backdrop for concert stands, posters, and displays. Like big public spaces in other cities, the great,ancient squares of Moscow is now a site for pop concerts and music festivals. Tourists, once a rarity in both cities, crowd both squares. Kiosks sell postcards, souvenirs, and bric-a-brac around the periphery.
Yet no public space can escape its history. But apart from the tourists, the square never feels truly inhabited, no amount of spring cleaning an wash away the blood spilt on the square, no amount of propaganda can make the place seem truly alive. The ghosts of czars and Soviets past still linger in the square, just as their ideals linger on in Russian politics and policy. On most ordinary day, the square is often empty: There is no reason to loiter in the empty, intimidating public space.
PUBLIS SCALE: B-
Red Square shares much of the same faults as Tiananmen Square – intentionally so. The square is, and has always been, about political power and control – control of the square manifested in control of the country. Despite the attempts to make it a happy tourist destination, it never has the feel of a beloved, well-loved public space, because it was never built for that purpose.
Where it differs from Tiananmen Square is that it doesn’t try to hide its history. The square draws its power, prestige and emptiness from its reliance on its rather gory history preventing any would be political demonstrators from gathering, or for the Russian people feeling too comfortable.