Red Square

This famous public square, parade ground and – in the old days of the tsars – place of public execution lies cheek-by-jowl with the Kremlin. Its name dates back many centuries, and relates to the fact that 'red' in Russian (krasnaya) also meant 'beautiful'.

The most eye-catching building is the Cathedral of St Basil, a fabulous confection of onion domes and candy-sugar twists, built in 1555–61; the interior, which contains a museum, gives a fascinating insight into its complex structure. Legend has it that Ivan the Terrible wanted the architect, Postnik Yakovlev, to be unable to create another building so beautiful, and so had him blinded.

Equally famous is the Mausoleum of Lenin (1870–1924), the red pyramidal building, built 1929–30, where his embalmed body (or what purports to be it) lies in silent gloom, gazed upon by lines of visitors. Soviet leaders would gather on the roof to watch the parade of weaponry on May Day and 7 November (Anniversary of the October Revolution) – and to be watched for any signals of potential changes in the leadership. Behind the Mausoleum lies the mass graves of Bolsheviks who died in the 1917 Revolution, and the graves of other Soviet celebrities, including Lenin's wife Nadya, and his lover Inessa Armand, most of the Soviet leaders (except Khrushchev, who had been disgraced), the writer Maxim Gorky, and Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space.

The State Department Store, GUM (pronounced 'goom') flanks the north-eastern side of the square; originally built in 1890–93 in palatial, Russo-Italianate style, its three elegant arcades were home to some 1200 shops before it became the State Department Store under Soviet rule. It has now returned to its original format, with dozens of shops, many of them representatives of international chains.

Kazan Cathedral, next to GUM, was built originally in 1636, but destroyed exactly 300 years later by the Soviet government to make room for military parades; it was faithfully rebuilt in 1990–93. Similarly the 16th-century Resurrection Gate and Iverskaya Chapel, in the north-west corner of the square, were destroyed by the Soviets and rebuilt in the 1990s. They share the northern side of the square with the National Historical Museum; purpose-built as a museum in 1874–81, it traces Russian history from prehistory on, and includes the gold treasures of the Scythians.

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