In Italy, there is a saying that “all roads lead to Rome”. In Moscow, all roads do, in fact, lead to Red Square. Moscow’s major streets, which connect to Russia’s major highways, originate from the square. There’s even a plaque in front of the Iberian Gate that marks Kilometer Zero of the Russian highway system. It’s literally the center of not only Moscow, but of Russia itself. So naturally, if we saw nothing else but Red Square during our time in Moscow, we’d leave happy campers. The International Military Music Festival nearly foiled that plan.
Unbeknownst to us, Red Square was closed to the public for the International Military Music Festival for our entire time in Moscow. You needed a ticket to the festival just to even get in Red Square. We looked at Daria, our G Adventures guide, in sheer disbelief as we stood in Manege Square where Russian guards were not letting a soul pass through the Iberian Gate. My heart sank with the thought that we’d come all the way to Russia and we wouldn’t get to see the colorful onion domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral.
With a little online research, we discovered that there was free admission to Red Square from 11am – 4pm the next day. Here was our chance! We passed through the security checkpoint at the Iberian Gate, sadly unable to visit the tiny Iveron Chapel where the rebel Emelyan Pugachev asked the Russian people for forgiveness a few hours before his execution. No matter; we’d at least made it into Red Square.
Like several of the others in our tour group, we were a little disappointed to see that Red Square was set up with temporary structures for the festival. There was a track set up for jockeys to showcase horses and a grand stand for ticket holders to watch the evening concerts. Naturally, these temporary structures were blocking the view of the expanse of Red Square. Though we could still see some of the most important buildings.
Fun fact: The name Red Square doesn’t originate from the pigment of the surrounding buildings. In fact, they were all whitewashed at various points throughout history! The name also has no association between red and communism. In Russian, the word красная means “red” or “beautiful”. красная was originally applied to St. Basil’s Cathedral and the square was transferred its name from that reference.
Along the eastern side of Red Square is the GUM Department Store and the Kazan Cathedral, or rather a copy. The original was considered one of the most important churches in Moscow as it was a shrine to the liberation of Moscow from Poland-Lithuania. But in 1936, Stalin ordered Red Square cleared of churches in order for there to be room for Soviet military parades. Although efforts were made to save it, Kazan Cathedral was demolished. It was the first church to be completely rebuilt after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Lenin’s embalmed body has also been on display in Red Square, with the exception of holidays since 1924. I’m not sure if I’d really want to see his embalmed body (it was kind of odd seeing the embalmed body of Pope John Paul XXIII while it was on display in St. Peter’s Basilica), but there are strict hours for viewing and Lenin wasn’t available. If you really want to see him, you can for free between 10am and 1pm, except on Mondays, Fridays, or holidays.
What we really wanted to see anyway was St. Basil’s Cathedral. Unlike the Kazan Cathedral, it was saved from being demolished at the orders of Stalin. Shaped like the flame of a bonfire rising into the sky, it’s literally like no other Russian building. And try as we might by snapping hundreds of pictures from every angle possible, there’s no way for us to convey the sheer beauty of this cathedral when you are admiring it in person.
Ivan the Terrible commissioned the building of the cathedral to commemorate the capture of the Tartar stronghold of Kazan in the 14th century and it has been the hub of Moscow’s growth ever since. St. Basil’s (actually its full name is a mouthful – Cathedral of the Protection of Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat) has nine chapels, each unique. Though it wasn’t always so colorful; the color and detail were actually added nearly 200 years after its construction.
Though the color scheme is best seen at night, that wasn’t to be our fate. Though not for lack of trying! Tickets were sold out for the concert, but we heard that it would end with a fireworks show over St. Basil’s Cathedral. We thought we’d be sneaky and hung out in a parking lot behind the cathedral waiting for dark, waiting for the cathedral to be lit up, and waiting for the supposed fireworks show.
Oh, the humor in the situation. Dark fell and still St. Basil’s was not lit. Tim had gone off to take photos of the Kremlin from across the river, so I decided to try to get some information about the time of the fireworks from one of the many Russian policeman hanging about. None spoke English, but with the help of Google translate and iPhones, I managed to find out the fireworks would be at 10pm. I also got asked out on a date. Not really sure how he thought that would work out since we needed Google translate to communicate! It was too much effort to be bothered anymore with me after I showed him my phone with the translation that I’m married and my husband was just down the street.
I think the Russian’s were operating on Italian time (as in, whenever they get around to it) because after sitting in a parking lot for nearly 3 hours and through a couple bursts of pouring rain, a firework shot off finally around 10:30pm. Across the street from us. You see, the fireworks only have the appearance of being lit off over St. Basil’s. In reality, they were lit off in the parking lot across the street from us and at the distance of a meter 200 meters, not only did we not get fireworks pictures over a colorfully lit up St. Basil’s Cathedral, we were nearly deaf from the experience. Turns out something had been lost in translation (thanks Google translate!). The fireworks weren’t at 10pm for 30 minutes; they were at 10:30pm and lasted about 3 minutes.
At this point, there was nothing left to do but look at each and laugh. At least we got into Red Square, saw St. Basil’s, and we did hear the concert and see fireworks. Moral of this story? Check to see if there’s a festival (Daria told us there is nearly always something going on in Red Square) and if tickets are required before you go to Moscow.