October 18, 2013 7:11 pm

Red Fortress, by Catherine Merridale

Red Fortress: The Secret Heart of Russia’s History, by Catherine Merridale, Allen Lane RRP£30/Metropolitan Books RRP$35, 528 pages

 

Catherine Merridale’s Red Fortress is a tour de force, as readable as it is extensively researched. It never flags through nearly 10 centuries of Russian, Soviet and post-Soviet history. From the early princes of Kievan Rus, to the still mysterious world of present-day Russian political power, Merridale traces the fortunes of the collection of buildings known as the Moscow Kremlin.

More than a place, the Kremlin is “a theatre and a text”, a myth informing Russia’s sense of itself – and the outsider’s sense of Russia. As a word, it has stood for the whole edifice of Soviet and post-Soviet politics, the study of which is known as “Kremlinology”.

There is much about modern-day Moscow that is ersatz, such as the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour opposite the Kremlin. It was erected in the late 1990s in an attempt to turn back the clock, its predecessor having been demolished under Stalin in 1931, and is described by Merridale as “not quite a replica ... more like a vast, expensive fake”. The Kremlin has plenty of earlier examples of all not being quite what it seems. Even the hill on which much of the present structure was built during the reign of Tsar Ivan III (1462-1505) was reshaped to make it look as though the walls fitted naturally on top of it.

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But it is in the stories associated with the Kremlin, the retelling of the history of which it is the heart, that the mythmaking is most potent. Merridale is particularly interesting in her dissection of the foundation myths of the Russian nation – myths that do not, for instance, generally like to admit a Viking inheritance, or collaboration with the so-called Mongol horde.

There are other myths that seem to resurface in every generation of Kremlin dwellers and their subjects. One is the opinion that the Russian people appreciate a powerful ruler, that the size and character of the Russian nation somehow demands if not autocracy, at least only a very limited form of democracy.

Associated with this ideal of the strong leader is another myth – that, when things go wrong, it is not the fault of the leader himself but of his minions, be they boyars or bureaucrats, who are perceived as blocking access to the well-meaning tsar, or general secretary, or president. And then there is yet another dream, embodied in the repeating phenomenon of the pretender, or the “one True Tsar”, yet to claim his kingdom in the Kremlin; there have been several such pretenders most centuries.

Other repeating patterns centre on fire and alcohol: when Moscow was built largely of timber it caught fire over and over again (the fire that greeted Napoleon in 1812 being only the most famous of them), while every coup seems to have involved soldiers drinking alcohol out of their hats.

If I have any criticism of Red Fortress, it is that it could have been even longer. In particular, I would have liked more on the resurgence of the Russian Orthodox Church and its renewed, symbiotic, relationship with the state. Until the bolshevik revolution, the two were inextricably linked, with cathedrals and monasteries as much a part of the historic Kremlin as palaces and state rooms. Much of its mythology was written by church scribes, the old Russian chronicles copied by monks, and collected under the auspices of Metropolitan Makary in the mid-16th century in “the Kremlin’s first systematic attempt to rewrite history”.

Merridale, professor of contemporary history at Queen Mary, University of London, is both myth-buster and pilgrim, captivated by her subject even while turning an eye of scholarly detachment towards it.

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