Red Fortress: The Secret Heart of Russia's History. By Catherine Merridale. Allen Lane, 528pp, Pounds 30.00. ISBN 9781846140372. Published 3 October 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. …