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A quiet month for Red Square

MOSCOW — MOSCOW - Its churches have been restored, its 112-year-old shopping mall refurbished, its grand brick gate rebuilt. Lenin rests, freshly renovated, in his polished granite digs.

Red Square, the space around which the rest of Russia turns, has probably never been more polished or surrounded by more prosperity. But seldom, in the sweet heat of August, has it been more deserted.

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Moscow authorities quietly closed the square to most visitors July 11, and officials have variously claimed that the area has been closed for invisible "restoration" work, or because chemicals were sprayed to kill weeds.

But the decision to shut the square until next month is more likely due to fears that Chechen separatists might bring their guerrilla war to the Kremlin's doorstep. The closure came a week after two Chechen women strapped with explosives killed at least 15 people at a Moscow rock concert, and a day after a city policeman died trying to defuse another bomb near a downtown restaurant.

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Gennady Kuranov, a 63-year-old metal worker, and his granddaughter, Anastasia, 12, rode a train for 3 1/2 days to reach Moscow last week from Bisk, their steel-making hometown in Siberia. They arrived around 6 a.m., checked into a hotel, ate breakfast and headed directly to Red Square.

There, they found themselves with scores of other tourists, penned in by metal barricades and bored policemen. Before them stretched a lonely steppe of cobblestones, shimmering in morning sunshine. "We're very disappointed," said Kuranov, who has visited the square scores of times over the years but was eager to show it for the first time to Anastasia.

Kuranov wasn't worried about the series of attacks this summer, the most recent killing at least 50 people at a military hospital in southern Russia. "We didn't hesitate to come," he said.

Red Square is a powerful lure for many Russians, who are taught its history starting in grade school. For members of Moscow's architectural community, the square can border on an obsession.

"It is a sacred place," said Igor A. Bondarenko, a scholar with the Scientific Institute of Fundamental Problems in Architecture, who wrote the definitive study, the 295-page Moscow's Red Square.

His book traces the square's evolution over 600 years as a marketplace, parade field, execution ground, political graveyard and ideological shrine. It was where pilgrims gathered, mobs revolted and working people of the world marched in what was claimed to be revolutionary solidarity.

Its name changed several times - from Market Square, to Trinity Square, to Fire Square (after a fire devastated Moscow when it was built mostly of logs) and, finally, to Red Square in the late 17th century, when the Russian word for red, krasnaya, also meant beautiful.

Imposing, intimate

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Stand in the snow here in winter, and the square is the arctic tundra, surrounded by palaces clad in shimmering ice. In warm weather, the square feels like another archetypal Russian space - a wheat field waiting for planting, flanked by a forbidding forest of masonry.

To some first-time visitors, it's a surprisingly intimate space. It covers about 12 acres, compared with about 20 acres for the Place de la Concorde in Paris, or more than 130 acres for the National Mall in Washington.

But Red Square has a dramatic, brooding air, and serves as a kind of town center, the central, symbolic communal area in a vast country with centuries-old communal traditions. "It is not a huge space like some more modern squares," says Bondarenko, "but it's big enough to influence people."

In the early 1600s, Czar Boris Godunov replaced the wooden merchant stalls of the square with brick ones. Later, a moat was dug around the Kremlin walls; later still, the moat was filled in. In 1812, Napoleon's army blew up many of the towers overlooking the square, as the French raced to get out of Moscow before the depths of winter. Later that century, the Kremlin's brick walls and the towers of St. Basil's Cathedral were painted stark white, in keeping with a reigning architectural fad.

In the early 20th century, a trolley line ran through the square, and merchants schemed to transform it into a central trolley terminal. Newly risen to power, the Bolsheviks in 1918 decided to return the capital to Moscow, after 206 years in St. Petersburg, triggering more demolitions and the wildest notions of all.

A reprieve

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Some Communist architects had hoped to raze Moscow to its foundations. They envisioned skyscrapers overlooking a square cleansed of its bourgeois history. Whole neighborhoods flanking the square were slated for destruction, including the ancient commercial heart of the city.

The dictator Josef Stalin swept away the modest, if grandiosely named Kazan Cathedral and towering Resurrection Gate, with its soaring twin spires. He even considered demolishing what many consider the jewel in Red Square's crown, St. Basil's, a 16th-century fantasy of brick arches and spires that billow and taper like candle flames.

After an appeal by a famous architect, he spared St. Basil's. Being Stalin, he also sent the architect to prison for five years. World War II shelved Soviet plans to demolish many of Red Square's landmarks. German bomber pilots tried to target the square, but city authorities constructed the shells of buildings in Red Square and on barges on the nearby Moscow River, disguising the seat of power as a residential neighborhood.

New construction

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, traditionalists raced to rebuild Red Square's Kazan Cathedral and Resurrection Gate. In recent years St. Basil's has undergone an extensive, if controversial, facelift, including a garish new paint job.

Today, the biggest question facing the square is the fate of Lenin, the square's only permanent resident. His embalmed corpse still lies in state in a squat granite tomb snuggled up against the Kremlin walls. Many Russians would like to see the tomb hauled away.

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"I myself and my friends of course were ready for some drastic reconstruction of Red Square, for the mausoleum to be taken away, for Lenin to be buried," says Bondarenko, the architectural historian. "To my great disappointment, very many people decided to preserve the mausoleum as a symbol of Soviet times."

Lenin isn't the only remnant of Soviet power in the square. Red stars still light up the conical spires of the Kremlin. Everywhere in the square, there remains the clash of czarist and Communist symbols - as though both vanished empires were still competing for Russia's soul.

For many Americans, Red Square has a familiar, sinister air from TV images of tanks and rockets rumbling past the Kremlin walls during Communist holidays. As a boy, Bondarenko attended many of these military parades.

"It was always very horrifying to see those tanks pounding the cobblestones, because everything was shaking," he says.

Bondarenko wants more extensive archaeological excavation of both the square and the Kremlin, to create a kind of Russian Roman Forum, where visitors could wander through the physical remains of Moscow's past.

"We know very little about the history of the city," he says. "We have done some architectural research, but what we have found so far is only part of the story."

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Kuranov, the metal worker from Siberia, regards Red Square as just about perfect already. "This place evokes historical memories," he said. "And it helps one realize that the Russian people, who have thousands of years of history behind them, have built such a beautiful place."


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