A Living Panorama Of Russian History


There is no shortage of sights to see in Moscow but one never to be missed is this iconic central plaza which is not only the heart of the city but of the country too. For here, abiding — and varied — symbols of Russia’s past, present and future stand close to each other without any sense of incongruity at all….writes Vikas Datta

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The State Historical Museum at the northern end of Red Square

If you are an early riser and prepared to bear the February chill (frequently in minus double figures), you can have the pleasure of having all the panoramic sweep of the Red Square, or Krasnaya Ploschad in Russian, all to yourself — though momentarily — as I did.

And history is not only evident in its grey cobbles over which passed the Soviet soldiers, marching on straight from a parade to combat Hitler’s forces during World War II, and then triumphantly at the end of the war and subsequently to depict Soviet and Russian power but in the other structures — Tsarist, Soviet and post-Soviet — encircling the 330 m long by 170 m wide “square”, or rather, rectangle.

The Red Square, however, does not get its name from the colour of the buildings around, or any association with Communism, but actually meant “beautiful place” as Krasnaya, which now only denotes the colour red, also bore the other meaning in that era.

But whatever be its origin, it is so impressive that I couldn’t get my fill in the half an hour in the late evening we had in our conducted tour and came especially next morning to relish it again in full daylight — skipping breakfast and cutting it close to the hotel checkout time.

No matter how many times you might have seen it in pictures or videos, the vista — like all prominent monuments like the Taj Mahal, the Pyramids and so on — has to be seen in person for the full effect to sink in. And though half the square was covered by the Winter Carnival for the young and the young at heart, it did not mask the impressive effect it leaves on you.

As you normally enter through the passages on the eastern sides, you can see on the northern side, the late 19th century neo-Russian structure of the State Historical Museum with its millions of artefacts, and flanked on one side by the eastern wall of the Kremlin, housing the office of the Russian President, and the impressive Spasskaya Tower (which still bears the red star of the Communist era on top).

Tucked just outside the Kremlin wall is the squat but attractive pyramid that is Lenin’s Tomb, still guarded by two arms-bearing soldiers, who decline to pose for photos but don’t object if they figure in the photos or selfies you click. The structure also served as grandstand for dignitaries during parades, right from Stalin’s times.

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St Basil\’s Cathedral – the most famous landmark of Moscow

The other side has the cubical, dome-surmounted Kazan Cathedral, built in the early 17th century to commemorate the expulsion of Poles — the only two invaders from the West to briefly capture Moscow — demolished by Stalin in 1936 and rebuilt to the original specifications in 1993, and close to it, the sprawling GUM department store, which is a whole mall by itself.

On the southern end is the St Basil’s Cathedral (more correctly, The Cathedral of the Intercession of the Virgin by the Moat), the most known Moscow landmark with its multiple and brightly coloured onion domes. Legend has it that Stalin acolyte Lazar Kaganovich had proposed to demolish it and as he jerked the structure out of the model to show how the place would look, Stalin peremptorily ordered him to put it back. Another story credits a brave architect with saving it by refusing to raze it.

The only sculpture on the square is a bronze statue of Kuzma Minin and Dmitry Pozharsky, two Moscow residents who helped in the expulsion of Polish invaders early in the 17th century. Close to it is the Lobnoye Mesto, a circular platform for public ceremonies though legend claims it was used for executions. Both were located more centrally in Red Square but moved to their current locations to allow the large Soviet-era military parades.

But the Red Square is not only about history, but entertainment too for the people, residents and visitors who throng it. Like the Carnival presently pitched on it and redolent with excited screams and laughter of children, it has earlier hosted a huge skating rink on New Year and also served as a venue for high-profile concerts, by the likes of Shakira, the Scorpions, Paul McCartney and others.

How many other public places in the world’s greatest capitals can compare to this?