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It seems to be relatively common knowledge that the name "Красная Площадь," while translated in English as "Red Square," does not actually mean "Red Square" in Russian, but rather "Beautiful Square." However, I saw this:

The name Red Square does not originate from the pigment of the surrounding bricks (which, in fact, were whitewashed at certain periods) nor from the link between the color red and communism. Rather, the name came about because the Russian word красная (krasnaya), which means "red," was applied to a small area between St. Basil's Cathedral, the Spassky Tower of the Kremlin, and the Lobnoe Mesto (place of execution), and Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich officially extended the name to the entire square, which had previously been called Pozhar, or "burnt-out place", in reference to the fact that several buildings had to be burned down to make place for the square.

(Source: here and here.)

I can't find an original source for that information and would be willing to dismiss it entirely. However, I would still wonder why in seemingly every language--including every other Slavic language--the name of the square is equivalent to "Red" Square--especially since in Russian, "красный" has a distinct tie with прекрасный/красивый, and in a number of cases is still understood to mean that.

Questions:

  • Is there any chance that the name given for Красная Площадь was actually intended to mean "red"? (i.e., that the story that most people believe--of the epithet for St. Basil's Cathedral carrying over to the rest of the square--is not true?)

  • If you had to generalize, do Russians today hear/understand the name as "Red Square" or "Beautiful Square" (regardless of what they know intellectually about its origins)?

  • If the latter: why does ~every other nation, including former Soviet and CIS countries, seem, according to their translations, to understand it as "Red" Square?

Related: https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/1488/what-is-the-first-recorded-appearance-of-the-mistranslation-red-square

Closely related: When did Красная Площадь begin to shift from Beautiful to Red?

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If you had to generalize, do Russians today hear/understand the name as "Red Square" or "Beautiful Square" (regardless of what they know intellectually about its origins)?

No.

In modern Russian красный does not mean красивый. For example, even if there is an idiom красна девица or красная девица, meaning beautiful girl and used mostly in fairy tails, you cannot say to a girl ты очень красная. She would either not understand what are you trying to say, or think that she is red from hot weather, shyness etc. If a proof of a mathematical theorem is beautiful, you can call it красивое доказательство but not красное доказательство, and so on.

Here is what the colors mean in the modern Russian:

  • Красный: a communist
  • Коричневый: a nazi
  • Жёлтый: when speaking about mass media, it means the same as in English (жёлтая пресса, жёлтая передача etc.)
  • Зелёный: very young and/or inexperienced
  • Голубой: homosexual (male)
  • Синий: синяк means alcoholist (the main meaning is a bruise), синячить means to drink (alcoholic beverages). Also one can be "blue" from cold temperature, bruises, or blood supply problems.
  • Белый, чёрный: refers to skin color. Also, чёрный often means illegal or unofficial, especially with respect to money: чёрная зарплата, чёрный нал, чёрный археолог etc., while белый sometimes means the opposite (белая зарплата). There are many other meanings.
  • Серый: having no talents, ordinary, opposite of "outstanding".
  • Фиолетовый: (кому-либо) это фиолетово means (somebody) doesn't care at all about it, i. e. мне это глубоко фиолетово.
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    'Серый' may also be used in the line of 'белый' and 'чёрный', as something intermediate. For instance, 'серая зарплата' is a salary off which taxes are paid partly. Compare with English 'gray zone'. – ach Dec 23 '15 at 9:56
  • Зелёный may also mean ill ("ты совсем зелёный") or ecologically minded ("партия зелёных"). – alamar Dec 23 '15 at 13:07
  • @user31264 Thank you, but I'm afraid this did not really answer my question. (I am aware that красный is a very archaic way to say красивый.) – SAH Dec 24 '15 at 4:56
  • The answer to your question 'do Russians today hear/understand the name as "Red Square" or "Beautiful Square" (regardless of what they know intellectually about its origins)?' is No. – user31264 Dec 24 '15 at 13:44
  • @user31264 Do you mean that the answer is "Red Square" (...or are you trying to say something more subtle)? – SAH Dec 24 '15 at 14:33
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To answer your second question, in modern Russian красный (красная, красное) means red, as in color. When someone says Красная площадь, what comes to mind is the square at the center of Moscow, and neither color red nor anything else. It’s like if someone would say Sears tower, it’s the landmark building in Chicago that comes to mind, not the retail chain or its bankruptcy story. Or, if you hear White house, you’d think of the residence of US president, and not so much of the actual color. Red sea is a sea between Africa and Middle East, and we don’t associate it with anything red. Your first question is too deep for me to answer. I hope that helps.

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Is there any chance that the name given for Красная Площадь was actually intended to mean "red"? (i.e., that the story that most people believe--of the epithet for St. Basil's Cathedral carrying over to the rest of the square--is not true?)

Yes and no. It took place in XVII century. And as we know, the word "Красный" got the meaning of "Red" in XVI century, and (almost) fully replaced the word "Червлёный" during 1600s. So I believe that was an intended wordplay from the very beginning.

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Is there any chance that the name given for Красная Площадь was actually intended to mean "red"? (i.e., that the story that most people believe--of the epithet for St. Basil's Cathedral carrying over to the rest of the square--is not true?)

According to the most popular version, this name was given to the square by Tsar Alexis, who has extended it from a little part of the square (as we know it now) to the whole area between Kremlin wall, the Kazan Cathedral and the St. Basil's cathedral.

When a place is given a new name by a person, it is hardly just some kind of a word, it has to symbolize something.

For instance, a street which used to be called Chertolskaya, had been renamed Prechistenskaya ("The purest", one of the Virgin Mary's titles) because of the former name's similarity to the Russian word чёрт ("devil"). The street Vozdvizhenka was renamed Smolenskaya to mark the liberation of Smolensk which had happened four years earlier. And so on.

It's hardly possible that the Tsar (who had been a very literate person and of course aware of all the meanings of the word) just picked a random color to name a square. There was nothing remarkably red about the square at the time. On the other hand, renaming something from "the burnt place" to "the beautiful place" is a much more plausible thing to do.

If you had to generalize, do Russians today hear/understand the name as "Red Square" or "Beautiful Square" (regardless of what they know intellectually about its origins)?

A naive translation would have been "red", of course. However, most Russians are aware of the origin of the name.

If the latter: why does ~every other nation, including former Soviet and CIS countries, seem, according to their translations, to understand it as "Red" Square?

Probably for the same reasons Ivan IV is "Ivan the Terrible" and the body of water Moses crossed is "Red Sea" in every other language. Those are misnomers with a history.

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  • "There was nothing remarkably red about the square at the time." There seems to be some dispute about this. Source? – SAH Dec 28 '15 at 8:56
  • @SAH: what kind of dispute? – Quassnoi Dec 28 '15 at 16:12
  • Matt's comment here: russian.stackexchange.com/a/11465/4238 – SAH Dec 28 '15 at 16:14
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    @SAH: you mean were Kremlin walls whitewashed at the time or not? You could barely see them from the Red Square back then. The walls were separated from the square with a moat and a rampart. Aside from this, the whole area was a crowded marketplace, full of tents and small wooden booths, it hardly offered a good view on something – Quassnoi Dec 28 '15 at 16:35
  • I was referring to where Matt said "It was (unpainted) red then." Do you have a source that it was not? – SAH Jan 17 '16 at 20:07
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The Kremlin was painted red only in the times of Stalin, about 1947, before that it was painted white, so the name Красная площадь which was first attested in the early 17th century could no way relate to the now-red Kremlin walls and towers.

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