Built directly east of the Kremlin, Moscow’s historic fortress and the center of the Russian government, Red Square is home to some of the country’s most distinctive and important landmarks. Its origins date to the late 15th century, when the Muscovite prince Ivan III (Ivan the Great) expanded the Kremlin to reflect Moscow’s growing power and influence. An important public marketplace and meeting place for centuries, Red Square houses the ornate 16th-century St. Basil’s Cathedral, the State Historical Museum and the enormous GUM Department Store, as well as a modernist mausoleum for the revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin. During the 20th century, the square became famous as the site of large-scale military parades and other demonstrations designed to showcase Soviet strength.

Origins of Red Square and Its Name

Many medieval Russian cities built kremlins, or fortresses, to protect themselves from invaders. The original Kremlin in Moscow began in 1156 as a wooden structure north of the Moskva River. As Muscovite power and wealth expanded by the late 1400s, Prince Ivan III ordered the area now known as Red Square—which at the time was a slum or shantytown housing poor peasants and criminals—cleared. Ivan the Great, as he was known, built the Kremlin into its most splendid form yet, bringing in Italian architects to build new fortified stone walls and structures such as the Cathedral of the Assumption (also known as the Cathedral of the Dormition).

Did you know? Throughout the Soviet era, armed members of the Kremlin Regiment guarded Lenin's tomb, and the changing of the guard outside the mausoleum became one of the most recognizable features of Red Square.

Contrary to popular misconception, Red Square’s name is completely unrelated to the crimson color of its numerous buildings as well as to the Communist Party’s association with the color red. In its earliest incarnation, Red Square was known as Trinity Square, in honor of Trinity Cathedral, which stood on its southern end during the rule of Ivan III. From the 17th century onward, however, Russians began calling the square by its current name, “Krasnaya Ploschad.” The name is derived from the word krasnyi, which meant beautiful in Old Russian and only later came to mean red.

Red Square: A Center of Russian Life

Czar Ivan IV (known as Ivan the Terrible) ordered the construction of a cathedral on Red Square’s southeast end in 1554 to honor his capture of the Mongol stronghold of Kazan. Though it was officially named the Church of the Intercession, the structure was better known as the Cathedral of St. Basil the Blessed (or simply St. Basil’s) for its association with a poor prophet who foretold the Moscow fire of 1547. With its plethora of domes, towers, cupolas, spires and arches, St. Basil’s remains one of the most recognizable buildings in Russia.

Over the centuries, Red Square served the function of a central marketplace as well as a meeting place for the Muscovite masses. The square saw countless speeches, demonstrations, parades and other large gatherings, many of which centered on a white stone platform built in the 16th century and known as Lobnoye Mesto. The czars would take to the platform to deliver their annual messages to the Russian people, while those who defied the royal will (particularly during the reigns of Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great) were executed in Red Square in front of large crowds.

Red Square From the 20th Century On

In 1930, six years after the death of Vladimir Lenin, leader of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and architect of the Soviet state, his remains were interred in a granite mausoleum on the western edge of Red Square. That same year, a monument honoring Kuzma Minin and Prince Dmitry Pozharsky, whose armies defeated a Polish invasion in 1612, was moved from in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral to the center of the square. In the first half of the 20th century, Red Square became famous as the site of official military parades and demonstrations intended to display the strength of Soviet armed forces. In a dramatic display on November 7, 1941, lines of soldiers marched beside Soviet tanks directly from Moscow to the front during World War II, then only 50 kilometers away.

Even after the fall of the Soviet Union, Red Square remains an important center of Russia’s cultural life and a top tourist destination. In 1990, UNESCO designated Red Square as one of its World Heritage sites. The enormous GUM Department Store (the acronym GUM stood for State Universal Store), a symbol of the Soviet era that covers the square’s entire eastern end, is now marketed as a high-end shopping destination. At the northern end, the distinctive red brick State Historical Museum (built in 1873-75) is filled with the best of Russian history and art. And while fewer people may be lining up outside Lenin’s tomb, the crowds continue to flock to Red Square for rock concerts, festivals and other events.