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Red Square on a rainy night in Moscow. (Photograph by Erich Geisler, My Shot)

Fast Facts About Red Square

Moscow’s Red Square (Krasnaya Ploshchad) is known for its political symbolism, but was actually named for its loveliness: Krasnaya, or “red,” meant “beautiful” in old Russian.

The plaza has drawn crowds since it was a 1400s shantytown. Russians know the square as the front yard of rulers from Ivan the Terrible to Vladimir Putin. Westerners are apt to recall the Cold War’s lock-stepping armies. Along with Moscow’s great architectural jewels, including the crenellated Kremlin walls and St. Basil’s onion domes, Red Square remains the beating heart of Russia.

Here are some more fascinating facts about the architectural icon:

Geometrics: Red Square is actually a rectangle sprawling 800,000 square feet.

Accidental Tourist: In 1987, Mathias Rust penetrated Soviet airspace in an attempt to land his Cessna on the square using only a street map to navigate. He landed on a nearby bridge to avoid hitting tourists gathered at the landmark.

Intentional Terrorist: In December 2003 a suicide bomber (and widow of a Chechen rebel) blew herself up at the entrance to the square, killing five other people.

Architectural Redo: Two of the square’s masterpieces are just 20 years old. The Kazan Cathedral, blown up by Joseph Stalin in 1936, was rebuilt from old blueprints after the collapse of the Soviet state. The Resurrection Gates, removed in 1931 so tanks could enter, were restored in 1994.

Rest In Peace: The body of Vladimir Lenin, the Soviet Union’s first dictator who died in 1924, has been on display since 1930 in the granite tomb that flanks the square. His mummy is swabbed weekly with bleach to fight discoloring and mold.

I Spy:  Perched atop the Kremlin walls, the brick Tsar’s Tower may look like the top of a fairytale castle, but it has ominous origins. Five centuries ago, Ivan the Terrible spied on his subjects from the tower (formerly a wooden turret).

Red Tag Sale: The square’s Victorian Gosudarstvenny Universalny Magazin (GUM) opened in 1893 with more than 1,000 shops. Today it’s an outlet for luxury goods.

Back in the U.S.S.R.: Many Soviet leaders are buried in a Kremlin cemetery. Lesser mortals who share that resting place include John Reed (1887-1920), an American journalist who documented the Soviet Union’s birth and died there, and 238 Bolshevik soldiers buried in a mass grave.

Statue of Limitations: Despite being the country’s symbolic center, the square has only one statue. It depicts Kuzma Minin and Prince Dmitry Pozharsky, two patriots who defeated invading Poles in 1612.

This piece, written by Contributing Editor Andrew Nelson, appeared in the April 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine. There’s a lot that’s not online: Subscribe today to get the print edition for just $1 a month!