Book review – Red Fortress: The Secret Heart of Russia's History

Simon Dixon praises a history of the Kremlin that examines those who sought to control Russia from behind its walls

Book review – Red Fortress: The Secret History of Russia's History
Author: Catherine Merridale
Publisher: Allen Lane
Reviewed by: Simon Dixon
Price (RRP): £30

Though she flirts with the conceit that buildings have personalities, Catherine Merridale’s sparkling new book shows that it is people who dominate architecture. Human beings not only create and destroy their surroundings, they use them to project ideology. By the time that the Moscow Kremlin acquired its own department for propaganda in 1961, the site had symbolised “everything from theocratic power to steel-coated technological utopia” for half a millennium.

Weaving her interpretation into a survey of Russian history – a familiar story, but told here with exceptional verve – Merridale traces the Kremlin from inauspicious medieval origins to its glory days as a 16th-century “state in microcosm”. Riots in 1648 were but one signal that government had outgrown the fortress walls; the subsequent feud between patriarch Nikon and Tsar Aleksey Mikhaylovich precipitated a fateful fracture between church and state. During the early years of the following century, Peter the Great transferred his capital to St Petersburg, leaving the Kremlin in relative desuetude. It would fall to the 19th-century tsars to resurrect a vision of Muscovite purity, partly through the pastiche artistry of Fedor Solntsev.

By the end of the old regime, the fortress was as much a historical theme park as a political institution. Only under Stalin did the walls again close in, leaving the cosseted Soviet elite to ponder the risks of proximity to power (the 1935 ‘Kremlin affair’, involving a supposed plot to murder Stalin, began with a purge of the cleaners and eventually claimed 110 lives).

Merridale charts recurrent cycles of construction and reconstruction, prompted either by natural disaster, such as the fires of 1547 and 1701, or by outright desecration. Nicholas I is “obstructive” and Alexander III “bigoted”, but the Bolsheviks get off lightly: “on paper, and in some places in fact, they were a government of visionaries”. The book’s most original chapter nevertheless charts the destruction they wrought in the cause of utopia. Not that Lenin was the first to threaten the Kremlin’s sacred places: in 1817, Alexander I had a 16th-century church destroyed overnight to make way for a parade ground.

The text is studded with colourful characters, from Richard Chancellor, who ‘discovered’ Russia for Tudor England in 1553, to Pavel Borodin, who lavished millions on President Yeltsin’s official residence in the mid-1990s.

Perhaps it’s partly because Merridale follows the (largely Soviet) scholarly literature so scrupulously that the fortress’s monasteries come into focus only on the eve of their destruction. For instance, there is no mention of the installation of the newly restored patriarch in November 1917. Even so, this book offers a marvellously readable way in to a fascinating subject.

Simon Dixon, University College London

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