This page is a complete written tour of Red Square and the Mausoleum of Lenin that’s going to take about 2 hours of your time and show you all the most important sights at the square itself and in its vicinity. The tour is a mix of the city’s and country’s history and a closer look at some of the buildings and monuments along the way. Things are put into perspective when needed and explained as much ‘from the start’ as possible. So no previous knowledge of Russian history is required.
You can read it alone or with a group of friends, in plain daylight or in the darkest midnight, with stops along the way or without. You’re completely in control of the pace and conditions of your adventure here.
The most perfect way would be to read it from the screen of your smartphone or tablet while being connected to the internet as there might be (or at least might be in the future) links to other pages with more detailed explanations and stories about some of the sights. As well as you’d be able to click on some of the images listed in the article to see there bigger and higher resolution versions (if available).
How to use it
The tour will have several stops along the way where you’ll have to look around and read about the most important sights around each one. Every building and monument will feature a picture next to its description, so it’ll be easy to find. And all the stops will be shown on the map of the overall route below, as well as there will be some pictures of how and where to go every time you’ll have to change your position.
To start this tour, find the Four Seasons hotel on any available map (next to Okhotnyy Ryad station of the red line of the metro). Get to its main entrance, turn your back to it, and find this big dome with a statue on top in front of you:
And get close to it. This is where we start.
This Google Earth picture shows us the whole route of this tour with all the stops along the way marked with green dots:
We start slightly outside of Red Square, which will be our central focus today, with a quick overview of the history of the city and its central district. Not everything on this tour will be connected to some grand main through story. Although architects throughout centuries have definitely tried, at times, to create certain districts and streets united by the same central idea or concept, those ideas clearly changed significantly from century to century. Making the city center today look more like a cocktail of all of them. Buildings on the same street or square can not just be from different centuries but can represent completely opposite styles and ideologies. We’ll see parts of tsarist, imperial, communist and modern Russia - this is not a tour about any one of them in particular but rather about all the important sights we see on our way to and on Red Square itself.
The tour starts from this particular side of the Red Square simply because its main entrance is here; and coming here to visit it on your own, you would naturally take this side to enter. And also, because other neighborhoods around it are or will be covered in other tours in the future.
Moscow is a city with long history that starts in 1147. The year is taken as the year of its foundation because the earliest existing document mentioning the city by name dates back to it. But it is very likely that some settlements had existed on this territory even earlier. And the territory in question is that of the Kremlin that you can now see in front of you:
‘Kremlin’ from old Russian literally means ‘fortress’. Today those red brick walls you see and everything within them is considered to be the Kremlin of Moscow. The whole city was originally inside of it. In its early days Moscow is just a fortified settlement of a few hundred people living in, back then, the easternmost principality of Russia. By no measure an extraordinary town, it is located, however, in a very fortunate, naturally protected spot - on a hill, at the junction of two rivers that don’t only separate the city from any potential invaders, but also immediately open a lot of trading routes for local merchants. The latter would later be one of the key factors in amassing enough wealth and gaining enough recognition to become the new capital of Russia after a 200-year period of subjugation by mongols. They had burned the first capital (Kiev) and forced everyone here to pay them tributes with money and food not to be attacked.
One can say that Red Square played a part in Moscow’s original rise to power and that commercial success. Because in the beginning it was not a square but a market, part of a big trading district outside of the Kremlin walls. The square is right behind that big red building here:
And it is where we are eventually going while seeing all the buildings along the way.
But let’s start with a quick tourist suggestion.
You might not have noticed, but you’re standing on a rooftop of a sizable shopping mall right now. It is one of the ‘gifts’ to the city of Moscow from the 90s where every new construction project was a shopping mall. In 1997 its opening was set to the ‘Day of the City’ commemorating Moscow’s 850th birthday. It’s called ‘Okhotny Ryad’ and it is one of the most recommendable malls to visit in the center. Especially, if your goal is to actually buy something. Other malls like GUM and TSUM are sometimes referred to as ‘museums of prices’, while this one keeps it relatively humble and can offer everything from clothing to food within the ‘affordable’ category. All your Zaras and Top Shops, ATMs, cheap food, SIM cards and, most importantly, a supermarket - can be found inside. You’ll see the stairs of its main entrance when we get to our next spot.
Take a look around and go to this point over here:
From here you can see three historic hotels and the main building of the Russian parliament - State Duma. All are connected with the Soviet history except one. Ritz Carlton Moscow was actually built in early 2000s but we can say it’s on its way to the ‘historic’ category because of the alleged Donald Trump’s Russian adventures;)
We start here with Duma. Also known as one of the most Soviet looking buildings in the city. Wait... Close our eyes, imagine what the most typical government building in a socialist country would look like, now open - and... yes, here it is. Grey and utilitarian yet somehow imposing and projecting strength. With a massive hammer and sickle on top of its facade in case anyone would have any doubt what period it belongs to. Despite its cold rectangularity that might suggest some military origins, for most of its history people were actually doing math inside. The building hosted the central planning department of the Soviet Union, GosPlan, up until 1991. Famous Stalin’s Five-Year Plans? All calculated here. The number and price of every nut and bolt to be
produced in the country in absence of any market mechanisms in the economy? All thanks to the people inside.
Ever since the Union’s collapse it has served as the lower chamber of the Russian parliament - State Duma. 450 members split between 3-4 political parties, somewhat similar in function to that of the House of Representatives in the States. But unlike the inefficient and cumbersome US system suffering from almost equal balance of powers between the parties, constant back-and-forth debates and occasional shutdowns, the Russian one bolsters its outstanding efficiency. For more than a decade now the absolute majority inside has belonged to the main party of Vladimir Putin ‘United Russia’. And while occasional debate still happens here and there to show to the rest of the world vibrant political life in the country, this building’s main function today is to rubber-stamp all the most crucial and righteous initiatives of the main party like all the counter sanctions against the EU and the laws targeting NGOs as potential American spies.
One of the most famous and defining public quotes about Duma belongs to the former Head of the Parliament Boris Gryzlov (a member of the ruling party). Who at some point in 2003 said: ‘I think the State Duma is not a platform for political battles and protecting political ideologies. It’s a platform where we need to be occupied with constructive and efficient legislative activities’. Not for battles... well, let’s take his word for it. Considering the speed with which all the most unpopular latest proposals (like the increase of the retirement age) have been turning into laws, efficient it certainly is.
Right across the road we can see another Soviet building - the Four Seasons Moscow. The name today does not suggest anything even slightly socialist, but when it was first built here in 1935 it looked like this and was called ‘Moskva’ (it’s how you pronounce Moscow in Russian, by the way):
All is somewhat the same now with the exception that the current building is almost an entirely rebuild version of the original one. Apparently Four Seasons did not see Soviet room size standards as properly fitting into its concept of a 5-star hotel. And it was reconstructed almost from the ground up on the same foundation and opened anew in 2014.
But gladly, they perfectly preserved the original external appearance including the asymmetrical facade. Look at it. See what I’m talking about? Well, the story goes that Stalin one day received the draft of the building where the architect tried to offer two different designs on the same paper with a line in the center separating them. Bothered by something more urgent, Stalin did not notice the difference and simply signed it in the middle. So the savvy architect quickly figured that it’s, probably, not the best idea to question anything that the man has signed. And decided to build it exactly according that draft.
And although an urban legend, it remains a very fun one. Because everyone deep down perfectly understands till this day that under Stalin that kind of thing could’ve actually happened.
Another, slightly more anecdotal one like that says that the brown circle line of the metro appeared there because Stalin approved the draft and accidentally left a cup of coffee on it before leaving the room.
Another important hotel you can see to the left from the Duma building. The National also played an important role in the early Soviet history despite not looking like it. A few months after the Bolshevik October Revolution it was decided to move the country’s capital from Saint-Petersburg back to Moscow. Whether because they underestimated the size of their new government apparatus or overestimated the number of office buildings at the time in Moscow, or simply decided that the meaning of the word equality can be a bit more elastic than anyone had thought; but two luxury 5-star hotels (National and Metropol) were taken by the party as offices and even residences for select party members. Some government activities continued inside until the WWII and many famous party functionaries had visited or lived there over the years.
On the corner, slightly left from the blue sign with the name of the street you can see a granite plaque with the face of Vladimir Lenin, for example. It says that Lenin stayed there for a couple of weeks before settling in the Kremlin and did some important revolutionary stuff all throughout. Apparently, even today when you’re reserving a room on booking.com in this hotel, you can reserve that exact room and try to feel yourself closer to the spirit of the Revolution’s Chieftain.
The design of the building while preserved for the most part, was not left completely intact by the communists. See that happy bloke on a tractor topping the facade of classical pilasters and atlases supporting the balconies? Well, it might surprise you, but he wasn’t a part of the original design.
But what’s more surprising here is that it wasn’t the only perfect combination of old and new in the neighborhood. The building right behind the National used to look like this in the Soviet days:
If you squint hard enough, it almost dissolves in the surrounding architecture.
The Ritz Carlton Moscow
That Soviet monstrosity that used to be called Intourist Hotel was successfully rebuilt by Ritz Carlton in the early 00s. It turned into something much more fitting stylistically and even slightly resembling the historic National in front of it. They significantly reduced its previously outrageous height, but cleverly kept the building slightly higher than the hotel in front to provide guests on the top floors with one of the best panoramas of the Kremlin and Red Square.
That scenic vista is one of the key features of their Presidential Suite that for years has led the charts of the most expensive hotel suites in Moscow. But now it’s becoming even more popular among foreign guests of the capital with a grand publicity boost by no other than the President Trump himself. Yes, that famous alleged affair of the American President with some Russian women happened right there. And you can even see what the suite looks like inside in this episode of the Colbert Show (watch later, when you have time):
Also, you can enjoy the same view that costs about $14 000 a night almost for free from the open air bar on the rooftop called ‘O2 Lounge’. You don’t need to be a hotel resident to visit, but you have to be ready to spend an average of 2000 RUB per person or at least 500-600 RUB for a cup of coffee.
The street on which this hotel is located is called Tverskaya and is considered to be the main street of Moscow. It is called like that after the city of Tver’ that it used to lead to in the early days. Later it was extended right to Saint Petersburg and became the main road by which Tzars traveled between the two cities. Even today, all you need to do is to move straight, and some 600 km later you’ll get to the middle of the famous Nevsky Prospect of the Northern Capital.
In the Soviet times it was renamed into Gorky prospect and significantly widened. For which, they say, some of the buildings along it were moved behind by being cut off of their previous foundations and placed onto the new ones. Sounds sort of improbable, but too many sources confirm that. And here are some pictures of before and during:
Not only that this widening turned the street into one of the key traffic arteries in the city but also provided more than enough space for anything or anyone entering Red Square during numerous socialist parades and festivities. And of course, especially after the WWII, for the famous Victory Day military parades.
All those tanks and nukes you’ve seen on TV riding through Red Square on 9th of May get there via this road. In fact, if you look under your feet, you’ll find pale grey lines marking the exact route for those vehicles. They normally get painted bright yellow in the days before and after the parade.
Quick advice. If you ever decide to visit Moscow during that holiday and see the parade live, please, make sure come before 9th itself. Because during the actual parade the Square and the entire city center with it is blocked and barricaded so much that you’re not even allowed to go out of certain central metro stops unless you have a special invite. Most of the visitors including Russian ones end up watching it on screens of nearby bars and restaurants while listening to the echoes of it happening few hundred meters away. However, if you come earlier, you might catch one of the rehearsals (often on 5th and 7th of May) during which you can see all the vehicles sometimes from hand’s length distance as they move through this street.
Now, turn around and follow the route of tanks to our next stop.
This right here is a relatively new 1992 statue of General Zhukov. The man who was in charge of the Red Army through most of the WWII and by the end of it turned into the most renowned and decorated military personality of all of Russia’s history, as well as into a true worldwide celebrity.
Here he is, celebrating victory in the company of Eisenhower and other Allied generals
And here - appearing on the cover of Life Magazine in 1944
Unfortunately for him though, that kind of excessive popularity did not fly well with Stalin’s personal ambitions and a strong belief that he won the war himself. Zhukov is a stark example that back in that era nothing, even becoming world’s hero, could not have saved you from Stalin’s paranoia and desire of absolute power. Luckily, he was too prominent to be eliminated without a scandal and, instead, was simply sent away from Moscow to Crimea not to drop too much shadow on the leader. He was able to permanently return to Moscow only after Stalin’s death in 1953. And we’ll see his tomb on Red Square, behind the mausoleum of Lenin among other generals and Soviet leaders.
The statue shows him the same way he appeared on Red Square during the first ever Victory Parade there on 24th of June 1945.
The monument is one of the very few examples of Nazi swasticka symbols appearing in a public place like this. Here they are represented under a horse as symbol of the defeated enemy’s regime. Any other publicly shown Nazi symbols without proper historical connotation, even simply posted online, today in Russia can be fined with up to 200 000 RUB penalty.
The two wonderful looking brick buildings, the orange and the red, right behind the Zhukov statue are two history museums. The orange is of the history of 1812 Napoleon invasion of Moscow and the red is of general Russian history from dinosaurs till the revolution.
Both are made in possibly the most authentically Russian architectural style of Russian Revival, and both might be worth visiting if you’re a big history fan. Admission fees are 250 RUB per person in both.
Proceed to the next stop.
Congratulations! You are finally here. All that big paved square in front of you is the world famous Red Square. Today the it is made up by four key structures surrounding it (from your point of view): GUM department store and one of the Kremlin walls on left and right sides; and the aforementioned red building of the State History Museum and Saint Basil’s Cathedral at its beginning and the end respectively.
GUM Department Store
Saint Basil's Cathedral
As I mentioned earlier, the square doesn’t immediately become the square. For centuries it exists as a big market outside the Kremlin walls called ‘the Great Market’. Wooden stalls scattered everywhere across it were selling everything from vegetables to apparel and jewelry, and the mud beneath them was covered with logs and planks instead of today’s neat pavement. The abundance of wood everywhere makes it a very flammable place, and it catches fire in certain years almost every month. People even nicknamed it ‘the Great Fireplace’ at some point.
Not only that the fires presented constant threat to the Kremlin, but also all those market stalls could’ve been used as a cover by any potential invader making this side of the fortress particularly vulnerable. So in 15th century after Russia’s liberation from under Mongolian yoke the square is wiped clean. And since the place is one the most central geographical locations in the city, it quickly becomes the center of people’s gatherings, celebrations and military parades.
The name Red is used for the first time in 17th century when the first crowned Romanov (Michael) decides to stress how beautiful it was by naming it like that. And yes, the word Red in this case has nothing to do with the color despite no lack red buildings around it now. It is said that back in the days the word could simply be used with the meaning of ‘Beautiful’. The words even today have the same root (Красный - Red and Красивый - Beautiful). And even in 19th century Russian literature you can see authors sometimes using it in that sense to make things more poetic. However, it has long been out of day-to-day usage, and approaching a lady on the street today and telling her that she’s red would just sound weird. Even though she’ll certainly understand what what you were trying to say.
One thing about this name is very clear. Since it comes from 17th century, it surely has nothing to do with communism. The fact that the ideology that so profusely utilized red as their main color first took over the country that had already had Red Square in it was nothing but one of history’s most ironic coincidences.
Choosing whether to go inside Lenin's Tomb
However, before we walk all across it, let’s first focus on one of the square’s key attractions - the Tomb of Lenin. And since the entrance to it is right here, you have to decide before you proceed further whether you want to visit the Mausoleum and the cemetery around it or simply want to see it from outside. The Mausoleum is part of the cemetery that stretches all along Red Square from one Kremlin’s tower right next to you to another tower with a big clock you can see in the distance.
If you decide not to go in, or if it’s closed; you’ll see most of what this tour is going to talk about next just from slightly further away. The main difference in this case is that you’re not going to see the actual Lenin’s body inside his tomb.
If seeing him is a really important thing for you to do (as it probably should be), then be prepared to spend, depending on the season, around 40 minutes in line for a roughly 40-second experience inside. And be prepared that it might be closed regardless of its regular working hours because of any sudden special event organized on Red Square.
Since you’re not just visiting one tomb, but an entire cemetery; the entrance to the whole complex is here, through those metal detectors.
The tour from this point onward will assume that you actually decided to line up and go inside.
But again, it’s all up to you. And you’ll be almost as good simply walking along the right side of the square and reading everything. You just won’t get your personal encounter with the legendary father of the Russian revolution. But even then, I’ll show you some pictures.
The Kremlin Necropolis
While standing in line.
The building of the mausoleum today is not the original one. In fact, it wasn’t even the first tomb on Red Square. The cemetery that today contains remains of more than 400 people was originally opened by Lenin himself while he was alive. It’s called Kremlin Necropolis and in the Soviet days it was the most prestigious place to be interred.
First, Lenin in 1917 right after taking control of the city of Moscow laid the first piece of this cemetery by burying over 200 people who died in the revolutionary fights in a long narrow mass grave to the right of where the mausoleum is now.
Then Lenin suddenly passed away in 1924, and the first wooden building of the mausoleum appeared right in the center of the cemetery.
Later, under Stalin in the 30s another mass grave with a few hundred bodies was symmetrically placed on the other side of Lenin’s tomb.
All along in the meantime more prominent Soviet generals, revolutionaries and high party members were placed into the Kremlin wall behind after being cremated. And the original Lenin’s ‘old guard’ circle of friends as well as almost all the subsequent leaders of the country were interred in a more traditional manner right behind the mausoleum.
You’ll see all these parts during your visit and go out of the cemetery on the other side of the square, next to Saint Basil’s cathedral.
I hope you’ve already got through. So let’s start.
Stop right around the corner, at the beginning of a narrow road towards the Mausoleum after passing through security. You can stand at this point without being pushed forward by the guards.
First, notice that long mound next to the line of trees to your left. That’s the original mass grave that set the beginning of this cemetery. Only the most prominent names are mentioned on the granite engravings all along it. The actual number of people inside is over 200.
Also, pay attention to the occasional black plaques with golden letters on the Kremlin wall to your right. Those are the cremated bodies that I mentioned. Many prominent military figures, scientists and even some foreign revolutionaries are buried here like that. Among them the general Zhukov whose statue we just saw, the first man in space Gagarin, the father of Soviet space program Korolev, and the of the nuclear program - Kurchatov.
Here in the beginning of this road you can even see one American.
Bill Haywood was an American socialist and one of the founders of IWW or Industrial Workers of the World - one of the first socialist movements in the US.
Also, take a look at the pictures of the two previous wooden versions of the mausoleum:
This one from 1924, right after Lenin's death
And its later, also wooden replacement
Notice the eagle on top of the clock tower on the second picture, by the way. They were first replaced in 1935, and today's version appeared in 1937.
Today’s granite version of the tomb was created in 1929 by a very famous Russian/Soviet architect Alexey Schusev. In its structure it somewhat resembles ancient tombs of Egypt and Latin America by which it was very likely inspired. It also resembles a pyramid, and you also take a set of stairs to get down to a spacious crypt with a sarcophagus in the center.
Three other socialist countries later created their own mausoleums for their own leaders and founders: China, North Korea and Vietnam. Know that you’re are going to the most original one of them all.
Now continue moving forward to... wherever everyone else is moving, essentially. Take a quick picture before the entrance to the mausoleum and enjoy your experience inside.
Resume reading this article when you get out to a set of granite busts.
And keep in mind four sacred rules while inside the tomb: No talking, No photos, No hats and (I’m not making this one up) No hands in your pockets.
I hope you enjoyed your encounter with Lenin. Here are some pictures of him in case you decided not to go in and are reading from the outside now. Or of course, if the allotted 30-40 seconds wasn’t enough for you.
Now, let’s take a closer look at those 12 busts right behind the mausoleum.
The idea was that all Soviet leaders would eventually end up buried here. Which has almost materialized. There’s everyone except the two: Khrushchev and Gorbachev. Khrushchev because unlike all other Russian leaders before him he didn’t die in office (c-c-combo breaker) as a normal strong leader would. Instead he resigned under the mounting pressure from within the party as a result of several failed reforms, unconventional public appearances and the Cuban Crisis that he seemingly ‘lost’ to Kennedy. And was apparently later taken as something not particularly deserving a burial place like this.
And it’s quite surprising how many people ask, ‘Why Gorbachev is not here? and ‘Where else could he possibly be? The questions that mr. Gorbachev himself would probably not appreciate much by virtue of (as of writing of this article) still being alive.
Of the other important figures here are four other Soviet leaders: Andropov, Chernenko, Brezhnev and Stalin. And the first head of the KGB - Felix Dzerzhinsky.
Here are all the 12 surnames in the order you’ll see them moving forward. Follow ahead and stop at Stalin’s one for a moment.
And here he is - the generalissimus himself. Portrayed on this bust with the same glimpse of fatal suspicion he had before signing each and every one of the 257 execution lists throughout his lengthy 28-year tenure as the country’s chief.
Worth noting that the cult of personality of this man by the time of his death reached such unprecedented heights that it was absolutely unimaginable that he himself would’ve been OK with being buried somewhere behind Lenin’s Tomb. In fact, it was so high that it’s surprising he didn’t order himself to be placed on top of Lenin’s body inside the mausoleum.
He was indeed originally placed inside Lenin’s Tomb. The two were side by side next to one another like on this picture:
And the title above the main entrance you just saw instead of just ‘Lenin’ used to say ‘Lenin and Stalin’:
The same man who later will not be placed here - Khrushchev, after succeeding Stalin at his post started gradually hinting to everyone that Stalin’s cult doesn’t really reflect well on country’s image in general and doesn’t help building true socialism by any means. The program of Destalinisation was carried out under Khrushchev’s administration that gradually removed all of Stalin statues and images from all public places and streets across the Soviet Union, renamed Stalingrad back to Volgograd and reburied his body to the place you see in front of you now.
However, despite all the efforts to dismantle the cult from the top. There’s quite a sizable fan base in this country that keeps feeding it from the bottom even today. In huge televised SMS poll in 2010 ‘The most influential figure of Russian history’ Stalin took the first place by quite a margin. Almost half of all respondents in 2014 said that Stalin could’ve been elected President had he been able to run in the next elections. And this right here is a picture of a typical way this tomb looks like every 5th of March, the day of Stalin’s death:
There surely remains no lack of fans of this person in this country till this very day.
Now, proceed to the exit from the cemetery noting the tomb of Gagarin along the way.
Saint Basil’s Cathedral
You’ve been waiting for it, and here it is - Saint Basil’s cathedral. Not everyone would even know the name of this church or would even say for sure that it’s a church and nothing else (a lot of people abroad still think that it’s called Kremlin), but absolutely everyone around the world will tell you that it is some building in Russia. The image of this church is so widely used everywhere that it has long turned into the only possible cover to any book written about Moscow and Russia as a whole. A guide book for the city of Moscow? - Saint Basil’s. A history book about Gorbachev and his reforms? - Saint Basil’s. Something about poisoning of former KBG agents in Britain? - it should be there too. But why? You would ask. There are many other churches around.
Well, because not only it appears to be the most gorgeous looking one of them even from the slightest, non-biased glance. But that it was supposed to be the most beautiful one by the original idea of the Tzar himself.
Ivan the Terrible wanted to commemorate his successful military campaigns against Mongols on the east, as a result of which the country’s size effectively more than doubled, by building the most unprecedented-looking cathedral in the country on Red Square.
According to the legend he was so serious about it becoming the best one, he even ordered the architect to be blinded at the end of the construction. So that he won’t be able to build anything like that ever again.
Even though an urban legend, just like it was the case with Stalin, it is a very believable one considering his nickname was ‘the Terrible’.
The church was finished in 1561 and represents an ensemble of several churches on the same foundation. Each cupola in this building marks a separate church inside with its own official name, icons and altar. There were 9 in the beginning, and then the 10th was added roughly 40 years later.
The original name of the church as a whole came from the one under the central cupola - ‘The Church of Intercession’. And the full name of the overall building sounded like ‘The Cathedral of Intercession of the Most Holy Mother on the Moat’. Which remains its official first name even today.
But luckily for us, when they later added 10th church to the structure (the one with the spiky cupola), the building took its second name from it. Which is the one that people usually use everywhere now simply because it was a more catchy one - Saint Basil’s Cathedral.
The tomb of said Basil is kept inside that additional church, and you can see it and learn more about the man by going inside the cathedral later. But keep in mind that today it is a paid museum. And I personally remain firmly skeptical about suggesting anyone that it’s an absolute must see. Because all of the original icons inside were burned by the communists after the revolution and all the murals on walls whitewashed. What you see inside today is a combination of some icons from other churches and monasteries, not too well preserved or not too well restored murals and at times simply white walls as they were left after communists. And all this would’ve been fine if not the fact that before the World Cup they apparently figured that a lot of people are coming, and we can charge whatever we want. So the price from 300 RUB jumped to 700 RUB off-season and to 1000 RUB during summer months. If I were a tourist myself, I would certainly visit. I didn’t make all this trip here not to go, right? But if you have any doubts about it or any better purpose for your 1000 RUB, you can without much qualms postpone it until when you have done all the more important museums.
The church successfully survived all the most tumultuous moments of Russian history be it the invasion of Polish troops, Napoleon or Hitler’s armies. But the biggest damage to it was actually done by Russian people themselves. During the revolution in Moscow communists were shelling the Kremlin with cannonballs from a distance, and one of them slightly overshot and hit the drum under the western cupola. The one closest to the Kremlin wall.
But that was an accident. How did it survive all the Soviet anti-religious repressions later when Bolsheviks finally took power would probably a bigger question here.
Well, there was certainly no lack of people suggesting to destroy it including Stalin himself. When on the meeting of chief city planners Stalin raised the model of the church from the mock-up of Red Square to see how it was going to look without it, the architect that approached and dared to take his hand to lower it back to the table was even later sent to Siberia. But it was them: the architects, historians, museum workers who despite all the revolutionary fervor retained a sober approach towards the importance of preserving at least the most important pieces of the country’s cultural patrimony. It was mostly through their efforts and constant advocating on behalf of preservation and common sense that a lot of buildings like that and other historic objects and exhibits across Russia survived.
The church today is famous for its colorful domes, but those only appeared in the 18th century under Catherine the Great. Before that they most likely had been simply golden like the one in the center.
Those colors today, by the way, are even brighter than a couple of years ago. In 2011 the church celebrated its 450th birthday with a big renovation that saw it all repainted anew from the outside. And not just the domes. Red bricks and seems between them are painted red and white respectively as well. And in certain parts the original brick walls are completely flattened with stucco and painted over as bricks. Which makes it look even more fresh.
Minin and Pozharsky monument
The two you see portrayed on the monument straight in front of the cathedral are the two national heroes that led the rebellion against the Polish usurpers in 1612. The country was suffering a succession crisis after the son of Ivan the Terrible died childless. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth ceased the opportunity and invaded the country when it was least prepared. So successfully that they didn’t just take control of Moscow and the surrounding regions but that they held it for almost two years. They stationed their troops inside the Kremlin, stroke an accord with some members of local nobility to get their support and even eventually managed to crown the son of the Polish King who was with them on this campaign as the new Russian Tzar.
That last one was apparently the last drop to the patience of thousands of people across the country, especially in the more distant regions not fully controlled by the Polish. So they gathered together in 1612 and, led by those two guys on the statue, kicked them out of Russia.
The monument was originally standing right on Red Square pointing at the Kremlin. Sort of one was telling the other, ‘My brother, raise with me against the usurpers in the Kremlin’.
Later, when Soviet officials took power they apparently didn’t not like the ambiguous gesture because they were sitting in the Kremlin themselves now and decided to move it slightly away. So what are they saying now? Probably something like, ‘Hey, brother, remember where we used to stay? Right over there’. Pointing at their previous location.
If at any moment while reading all this you heard the sounds of that tower with a clock, know that you heard the sounds of Russian New Year’s Eve or at least a part of them.
This clock is considered to be the main clock of the country and the most official source of Moscow time. Its live feed is broadcast all over the nation on almost all Russian channels one minute before midnight. When it reaches zero, it first play that special melody and then tolls its bells 12 times marking the 12 hours of midnight.
According to this religiously followed Russian superstition, you’re supposed to stand up just before it starts ringing with a glass of champagne in your hands, make a wish and drink that glass to the bottom until the last bell rings. That’s supposed to guarantee your wish coming to life in the upcoming year. You can practice it next New Year by tuning to any Russian TV channel on the internet.
Also, it’s the reason why normally on all the tapes and broadcasts you don’t see people cheering and screaming right at the moment of midnight itself in Russia. Most of the time there’s at least a minute-long lag before everyone goes crazy and the fireworks start. Because right at midnight everyone is watching and listening to the clock.
Remember how I said that Red Square was not named after the color. Well, you won’t be the only one(s) to doubt that theory upon knowing that for centuries it was also the central place for capital punishments.
This circular stage over here was the main announcement stage back in the days and one of the types of those announcements were executions. People would be brought there to be shown to the crowd and say what they were guilty of, just to later be brought to the special gallows next to Saint Basil’s for hanging, beheading and breaking on the wheel. Here’s a famous painting from the Tratyakov Gallery called ‘Morning of Streltsy’s execution’ showing you the picture of
execution of a rebellious regiment that tried to set up a coup against Peter the Great’s government. With Peter on the picture not looking happy about it at all.
So yeah, even Russian people always make some parallels between executions and the name Red when they learn about this for the first time. But remember, that would not be a politically correct assumption today. And the official version is that it was simply a beautiful one.
The area where the executions were conducted right next to and behind the cathedral, the slope that goes all the way down to the river is called Vasilyevsky Slope. And it was the place where in 1987, in the last years of the Soviet Union suddenly for everyone landed a tiny plane from the, back then hostile, Western Germany. Piloted by a 19-year-old student Matias Rust who had barely had any flying experience before who made it on his own all the way from Hamburg to Moscow landing his plane right at the heart of the capital using Red Square as a landing strip.
Eventually parking it right behind the cathedral, he had a couple of hours signing autographs and trying to give any comments to a crowd of journalists and by-passers absolutely stunned by what they just witnessed. And sure thing, hours later he was already being apprehended by the KGB. Who later quickly sentenced him to 5 years in a Soviet jail despite the guy’s claims that he just wanted to make a political statement.
He said that he simply got tired of seeing the world divided and decided to somehow bridge the gap between East and West with his personal example. But what he probably did not expect is that after this incident Gorbachev will be able to conduct a series of high-rank firings within the military echelons of the party. And since military people tended to be the strongest opposers of Gorbachev’s reforms, removing them from power opened more opportunities to go ahead with further liberalization of the country and its economy. So inadvertently, that German student did literally bring some democracy to the USSR.He was pardoned by Gorbachev himself as a gesture of good will to Reagan and Thatcher with whom he had for a long time been trying to open a new page in Russian-Western relationships.
Here is that student on German TV in 2012.
Go to the next stop, which will be inside the GUM department store. Make sure to enter through the 3rd, the farthest from you entrance.
GUM department store
Welcome to one of the most amazing looking shopping malls in the world. The name GUM back in the Soviet days used to mean State Department Store. After the Union’s collapse when it stopped being state owned, they had to change the name. But since GUM over the Soviet decades has converted into such a renowned, country-known brand, everyone wanted to preserve the abbreviation. So instead of State, today it is called Main Department Store. But the first words in Russian start with the same ‘G’, so the abbreviation remains the same. Which is something you can’t say about the shop’s content.
To your left (if you entered through the 3rd entrance), on the wall along the stairs you can see a line of 4 different advertisements of the 1930s. And one of them is about GUM itself.
It says, ‘People visiting Moscow, don’t need to wear off your soles searching for better deals. In GUM you can everything very quick and very cheap!’
Yes, the last word with an exclamation point and a thick red line underneath is the Russian word ‘Cheap’. Which is certainly not the word that anyone would dare to apply to it right now. Everything in the Soviet Union had to be more or less within the purchasing power of an average Soviet citizen even in the fanciest stores like this.
So yes, the abbreviation remained the same, but the atmosphere inside is the opposite of what it was black then. Not only the prices are off the charts without an average Russian customer even slightly in mind. But also, in the Soviet says it was illegal to sell anything foreign, especially from the western countries. And now one would struggle to find a single Russian store here.
Even the company that essentially owns the store at this moment (controls 52% of shares), while being 100% Russian, calls itself with an Italian name. Simply because you sell more things this way. You can see their logos everywhere here.
Bosco di Ciliegi - Cherry Forest in Italian, or simply Bosco. Several of their own clothing lines are presented in the store. And by virtue of their good relationships with the government they’ve had rights to design all the national team uniforms for the biggest sporting events like the Olympics and Football Championships for the last decade or so. So if you’re coming during or after one of them, expect to see the most official event-themed souvenir store open here.
Now take your time and enjoy the store on your own for a while. Here are some of the things you can do:
1. The store is divided into three main lines along which everything is happening. The 1st and 3rd are normally redecorated every season or special holiday with some topical art, photo or any other sort of promotional installations. You can go take a look at what they’ve prepared for you today.
2. You can try some Soviet soda tastes or a traditional Russian rye drink called Kvas. Both are usually served next to the big fountain in the middle (which, depending on the season, can look like anything, by the way).
Kvas is usually on one side
And the soda is on the opposite
3. Along the 3rd line of the store stretches a very nice, somewhat Soviet themed supermarket. Right in the middle of it, next to the main entrance you can try your luck in tasting free black caviar. It is the third most expensive delicacy in the world today with the market price of about €2000 per kilo. And also - one of the most known Russian exports to the rest of the planet. There is a sampling fridge where, if you look like a potential customer and stare at the showcases with caviar long enough, a special girl next to it will offer you a bite. Remember, that in that O2 Lounge on top Ritz hotel we mentioned earlier it is priced at 600 RUB per gram. So every bite counts.
4. Also, you can get a very reasonably priced lunch in the so-called ‘Canteen 57’ right above those Soviet ads you just saw, on the third floor of the third line. It works as a regular canteen without waiters, provides a nice selection of Soviet and Russian food and tries to maintain the atmosphere of 1957 when it was first opened. Minimalistic design, Soviet posters on the walls and some of the most affordable prices in this neighborhood. But be warned, the place is so popular among local Russian office workers and so widely mentioned in numerous guidebooks for tourists that on certain hours throughout the day you can find some seeerious lines there. Which, I guess, is only supposed to add to the Soviet atmosphere they try to maintain.
5. And last but not least - the Historic Toilet. Jokes aside, it is its real name. Please, pronounce it with all the solemnity that it deserves.
It’s worth mentioning here that the original building of GUM appeared before the revolution in the middle of 19th century. Back then it was called Upper Trading Lines (because of the lines inside, and because there also were the middle and the lower ones nearby) and it looked very different:
The year that you see today on all the logos of the store 1893 is the year when the store was rebuild with its current design.
So, later in the modern days the store owners apparently found some 19th century photographs and decided to make an additional tourist attraction here by restoring one of the toilets back to its original lavishness of the Imperial times. So that you can enjoy the same toilet experience as the true Russian nobility had back before the revolution.
It’s 150 RUB against 50 RUB if you climb to the 3rd floor and visit a slightly more modest one right above it. But would you really care about the price when you have such a historic opportunity right in front of you.
Once you’ve finished exploring the store, go out from the opposite side of the store from where you entered and stop right here:
Also, if you’re not planning on going later to too many churches throughout your trip but really want to see a couple of them from inside, or if you’re a real church enthusiast; take the opportunity and visit this one. It is absolutely free and is not going to take too much of your time.
Church of Our Mother of Kazan
The church in front of you was first built in the 17th century to commemorate the war with the Polish that we talked about earlier. And it’s called after an important icon of Mary that used to be inside. However, the current building is just a modern replica of 1994. The original one was destroyed by Stalin in 1934 to make Red Square a bit less religious. And to utilize the useful space for subsequently: a cafeteria, a line of public toilets and a tiny square with benches and soda machines.
Also, if you’re not planning on going later to too many churches throughout your trip but really want to see a couple of them from inside, or if you’re a real church enthusiast; take the opportunity and visit this one. It is absolutely free and is not going to take too much of your time.
Another thing that Stalin destroyed in the same year was those gates connected to the red building of the history museum. Called Resurrection Gates they have an icon of resurrection on one side and a tiny chapel of Peter and Paul on the opposite one. It is said that everyone from average peasants to nobles and the Tzar himself used to make a bow and a little prayer inside before entering the square back in the days.
That is until the revolution when it was replaced with this socialist statue.
And later completely destroyed by Stalin in 1934 to temporarily allow vehicle traffic through Red Square and open more space for participants of different parades there and 9th of May parades after the WWII.
They were restored in 1994.
Go to the last stop of the tour.
According to the commonly believed story all Russian roads take their beginning at this particular point. In the Roman Empire all roads led to Rome. In Russia - all roads lead to Moscow.
Then it’s also known that it is not exactly true and for the actual zero kilometer people had always taken the location of the central Moscow post office about one block away from here. And that this spot was created in the 19th century as more of a tourist attraction.
But who cares. The important thing is what everyone believes in. And judging by the number of people throwing coins there it is the most real zero kilometer that ever existed.
The superstition is to stay in the middle, make a wish and throw a coin over your back. And that would allegedly help make it happen. But if you do dare to do this, make sure you’re OK with the fact that your coins will be immediately picked up by some random grandmothers standing behind. Maybe they play some part in that whole ‘making your wish come true’ process. But one is certain, some have been there for so long that they’ve invented special magnet sticks to pick them up.
Throw it or not, but our tour here comes to its end. I hope you’ve enjoyed it and found it informative. If you feel like it was really helpful; please, share it anywhere you can online and recommend to all your friends visiting Moscow.
I wish you all the best throughout your stay here and hope you find more useful tours on this website or, perhaps, even book one with me personally.
The most essential and central part of the city is now covered, and yet much more left to see.
You’re at the beginning of all roads. So, which one will you take next?