Nothing I had read prepared me for the experience of walking through the Resurrection Gate and actually standing in the centre of Red Square. Everything around me — the surreal domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral, the massive ramparts of the Kremlin wall, the red and black granite monolith of Lenin’s Tomb, and the ornate towers of the State History Museum — everything, even the expansive façade of the GUM department store, is bigger, grander and more ornate than I ever imagined. We are just beginning our tour and it takes a few days to adjust to the scale of things in Russia where everything from art and architecture to history and geography is larger than life.
Red Square, which stretches for almost half a kilometre along the Kremlin’s northeastern wall, is the perfect place to start a tour of Moscow. Its cobblestones have borne witness to almost every twist and turn in the city’s convoluted history and today, spreading between the ancient walled city of the Kremlin and the GUM department store, it forms a link between modern Russia and its legendary past. During the Cold War trucks hauling ICBM’s rumbled across the square in the annual May Day display of military might, during WWII tanks rolled directly out of Red Square to the eastern front and, before the Russian winter sent them scurrying back to France, Napoleon’s hapless soldiers used the square as a staging ground. But Red Square and the Kremlin were already part of Russian history long before the French invasion of 1812.
Strategically located on a hill overlooking the Moskva and Neglina rivers the site was chosen by Prince Yuri Dolgorukie as the perfect spot for his hunting lodge. A wooden wall was built for protection and a town grew within the wall. That was back in the 1100s. In the 1360s the wooden walls were replaced by stone and by 1480 the once modest hunting lodge was an imposing fortress city, a kremlin, destined to become the economic and political centre of the world’s largest country.
My attention was drawn to St. Basil’s Cathedral at the southern end of the Square. With its cluster of brightly coloured cupolas, domes, towers and spires it resembles something out of a child’s fairy tale. Each of its onion-shaped domes has a different pattern and set of colours yet somehow the whole crazy thing hangs together and, more than any other building in Moscow, it has come to symbolize Russian medieval architecture. I asked Victoria, our knowledgeable guide, when it was built. “Ivan the Terrible had it built in 1550 to celebrate his victory over the last of the Tatar strongholds at Kazan.”