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Donald Rayfield

View from the Kremlin

Red Fortress: The Secret Heart of Russia's History
By Catherine Merridale (Allen Lane/The Penguin Press 528pp 30)
Street scene close to the Saviour Tower and Kremlin Walls, c 1898

Mostly red, certainly a fortress with many secrets, and the heart (in a less than cordial sense of the word) of Russia, the Kremlin has a function, an architecture and a history unlike any place on earth. As with many important books, the reader will wonder why nothing like Catherine Merridale's work (ignoring a sensational account or two, and tourists' coffee-table volumes) has been written before. Secrecy is part of the reason: it affects even archaeologists trying to uncover the endless buried strata beneath today's monstrous complex. There is a particular difficulty in writing about an establishment that has proved so protean and that has, in its 500-year history, undergone so many destructions and resurrections and fulfilled so many different functions, religious, political and symbolic.

The Kremlin has always been best understood by outsiders. Russian poets had to come from as far away as St Petersburg in order to appreciate the full monstrosity of what to Muscovites feels like part of the scenery. Osip Mandelstam reacted typically. On his first visit, he was fascinated by the cacophony of the church bells and the attempt to recreate Athens and Florence in Moscow. Later, when the Bolsheviks had reawoken the Kremlin and Moscow had taken back its powers from St Petersburg, he was struck with horror. One of his late poems begins, 'Today we can dip our little finger into the Moscow River and remove the coloured transfers from that bandit the Kremlin.'

Merridale has succeeded in stripping off the veneer. Most British historians writing about Russia can be classified as either 'people' writers or 'places' writers, basing their histories either on their ability to get witnesses to talk or on their sensitivity to the atmosphere of a town or a battlefield. Merridale established her primacy with the former type of narrative in Night of Stone and Ivan's War. But Red Fortress proves that she can combine both types. She has the skills to get guardians of secret places talking (particularly difficult for a foreigner and, sometimes, a woman) and to negotiate access with Russian archivists (dogs in mangers can be more generous hosts), and thus penetrate the inner workings of the Kremlin. At the same time, she has a feeling for the site that brings dry archaeological and architectural facts to life: few writers can write the biography of a city or a citadel.

Red Fortress is in part a story of constant transformation by fire and rebuilding. Fifteenth-century logs and earthworks give way to limestone blocks and fired bricks; native craftsmen find themselves working for Italian and Scottish foremen. The history of the building works can be seen as an allegory of the Russian state. Reading about the antagonism between workmen content to throw logs together and not worry about perfect perpendiculars or levels, and architects who amaze workers with their precise stone-cutting and pedantic blueprints and measurements, any modern architect working in Russia would give a sigh of recognition. But the recurrent theme is conflagration (through arson or carelessness), collapse and demolition, with new building not so much reconstructing as superseding what went before. Consequently, the Kremlin is situated on top of forgotten churches, offices and residences, and is constantly evolving.

Its purpose has changed, too. Originally a refuge for a population threatened by barbarian invaders, it has been a monastery complex, a bazaar, an aristocratic residence and a seat of government. Nobody would include the Kremlin in a list of the world's most beautiful sites: Mandelstam's word 'cacophony' applies not just to the untuned church bells but to the jumble of architectural styles. Nor do bright, soaring Renaissance frontages and Muscovite grimness or whimsy make for a coherent, aesthetically pleasing fusion. At the hub of Moscow's concentric circles, at the centre of government and religion, even of the country's defence, the Kremlin has now seen its functions settled. Perhaps all that is new is its capacity to paralyse the whole city every time a government convoy speeds out of its gates. The Kremlin creates an impression of controlled chaos, of densely packed, solidified history and, often, of sheer menace that makes a first visit, even when following a tourist guide's flag, hard to forget.

This is not just a book about architecture, however. Merridale treats the Kremlin as the focal point of Russia's history. There is, of course, a major drawback to this approach. For the first 250 years of its existence, and for the last 100 years, all Russia's political turbulence has been focused in the Kremlin. But during the two centuries between Peter the Great's transfer of the capital to St Petersburg and the Bolsheviks' return of it to Moscow, the Kremlin was relegated to a site merely for crowning tsars. Only when Napoleon arrived in 1812 did its national significance flare up again - literally. Russian history, seen from the Kremlin, thus takes on a new shape. The 16th century, when Russia threw off the last vestiges of the Tatar yoke and became a unified state under Muscovite rule, before falling into chaos, looms particularly large. The Kremlin monopolises all the turmoil, and Merridale evokes with grim humour the horrible intrigues, torture and executions that reached their climax under Ivan the Terrible. This chapter, ironically called 'The Golden Palace', naturally leads one to think that Stalin was no exception in history: his paranoid suspicions and prophylactic killings make him a legitimate descendant of Ivan (except that Ivan was at least capable of extravagant remorse). The English historian who recently fancied he'd rather take his chances under Ivan the Terrible than under Queen Elizabeth I was, we see, badly misinformed: the Tudors were practically vegetarians compared to the last of the house of Rurik.

The devastation around the Kremlin in the early 17th century is graphically evoked: the populace almost exterminated by civil war, famine and plague, the countryside denuded by the demand for timber and stone. When we get to Peter the Great, his farewell to the Kremlin, marked by the sadistic execution of thousands of his musketeers, leads to a change in tone, as the site crumbles, burns, is patched up and left as a memorial.

When the Bolsheviks moved in, expelling nuns and tsarist officials, stringing the site with telephone wires and alarms, the Kremlin, like a vampire risen from the grave, came into action again. The highlight at this point is the 'Kremlin affair' of 1935, when Stalin was angered by cleaners and librarians gossiping about his wife's suicide and had the NKVD concoct a case linking them to tsarist remnants and his own political enemies. This was a practice run for the Great Terror and, although the fear it spread through the country was as great as in Ivan the Terrible's time, Stalin's fantasies showed a lunacy and implausibility absent from the more magnificent cruelties of the old tsars.

Red Fortress ends with Boris Yeltsin's shelling of parliament in the Russian White House in 1993, shown as the victory of the autocratic Kremlin over an embryonic, if defective, representative institution. Given Putin's actuarial prospects, the Kremlin's history is likely to be frozen for decades to come. This unique and stunningly well illustrated book is going to be a definitive study for just as long.


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Donald Rayfield is currently writing an expanded Russian version of Edge of Empire: A History of Georgia for BSG Press in Moscow.


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