Red Fortress: The Secret Heart of Russia’s History, by Catherine Merridale

Lara Cook on how different leaders have made and remade the Kremlin

November 14, 2013

On visiting Russia, people tend to fall into one of two camps: those who fall for the classical elegance of St Petersburg and those who prefer exotic, crazy Moscow. St Petersburg is serenely beautiful, rational, civilised; Moscow is chaotic, with flashes of magnificence alongside plain ugliness. I firmly suspect that Catherine Merridale, like me, belongs to the Moscow camp, as her passion for her subject, the Kremlin, is infectious.

Those of us who have fallen under Moscow’s spell, however, have been fooled by a carefully staged illusion of “Russianness”. Nikolay Karamzin, the 19th-century conservative historian, called the Kremlin “a place of great historical memories”; Merridale agrees in principle, but highlights the way that the historical “remembering” of each age has been heavily influenced by the agenda of incumbent rulers, all of whom left their mark on the iconic fortress. The Kremlin is seen as a symbol of Russian strength, stability and continuity, but Merridale’s research reveals the opposite: how unstable and malleable the Russian state and Russianness have been across the centuries.

Red Fortress is the biography of a building, from the original settlement of the territory that became Moscow in the 9th century, through the construction of the original Kremlin in the closing decades of the 15th century, to destruction and reconstruction during the imperial and Soviet periods and ending in the present day. Twelve chronological chapters deliver a colourful and dramatic narrative of high politics, with the Kremlin in the foreground. Merridale encourages us to peer behind the velvet curtain and take a critical look at the image of the Kremlin presented to us by Russian leaders. Her thesis is that throughout its history the Kremlin has been “deliberately contrived”, shaped and reshaped by its inhabitants, the rulers of Russia, to support their shifting ideological needs. As dynastic blood succession rarely ran smoothly in Russia, the Kremlin was used to legitimise new rulers, to create the illusion of continuity through sacred space and ceremony. The churches, palaces and towers that the rulers commissioned and demolished also reflected their ideas of what “Russia” should mean. The citadel is a theatre, a gallery and a text that embodies the governing idea of the day.

The early Soviet period saw an awkward coexistence between the Bolshevik leadership and the keepers of the holy sites inside the Kremlin. Repairs to the cathedrals damaged during the 1917 Revolution were commissioned, and in mid-1918, two-thirds of its monastic residents were still living and praying inside the Kremlin, cheek by jowl with the Communist government. By the 1930s, however, its oldest and most sacred sites would be demolished on Stalin’s orders. In the post-Soviet era, the Putin regime’s reconstruction of these monuments emphasised continuity with the great imperial Russian past. But Merridale’s research on the Kremlin highlights numerous details inconvenient for Russian nationalists, not least that much of this symbol of Russian authenticity was the work of European architects and craftsmen.

A more faint-hearted historian might have been intimidated by the length and breadth of such a task. The book’s diverse sources encompass architectural studies, archaeology and cartography, as well as plain old documentary research. But as one of the country’s leading historians of Russia, Merridale has past form in producing works on an epic scale. As usual, her engaging writing style combines a keen eye for detail with a human touch. The historian’s salutary refrain of “less narrative, more analysis” could be applied to certain sections, although perhaps that would miss the point of the book’s journey. While the earlier chapters are largely a synthesis of existing scholarship, the use of primary source material increases as the book moves towards the modern period.

Of value to general and specialist audiences alike as an indispensable aid to understanding Russia past and present, Red Fortress raises important points about historical “remembering” and the invention of tradition. Historians are mindful of how documentary and visual sources are created and edited with a bias and a purpose. Merridale reminds us that buildings and historical sites require the same critical treatment if we are to avoid being lulled into a false sense of continuity in history. She observes that while “memory is mutable…with buildings which are so concrete, the only past is what there is right now”. The decisions of real people, individuals with their own agendas, have shaped the Kremlin’s changing form and its “memories”, as much under Putin as under Ivan the Terrible or Stalin.

Red Fortress: The Secret Heart of Russia’s History

By Catherine Merridale
Allen Lane, 528pp, £30.00
ISBN 9781846140372
Published 3 October 2013

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