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Red Fortress: History and Illusion in the Kremlin
By Catherine Merridale
Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Company
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
Spanning from the pre-Christian times of the early middle ages right up to rule of Vladimir Putin, Red Fortress: History and Illusion in the Kremlin by Catherine Merridale, is a magisterial distillation of nearly a thousand years of Russian history. Unlike other histories of Russia and the Soviet Union, Red Fortress focuses on the Kremlin. (Kreml means "red" in Russian.) The tight focus allows for a new perspective and gives Merridale a uniquely interdisciplinary approach to the material. The book is at once national history, local history (in this case, a subsection of Moscow), architectural history, art history, and museum history.
Bracketed by the Moscow and Neglinnaya Rivers, the Kremlin began as a fort in the northern Russian hinterlands. What began as a walled city to prevent the depredations of Mongols evolved into a princely enclave for the Ruirik, Danilov, and Romanov dynasties. (The rulers of Russia themselves evolving from dukes to grand dukes to princes and, finally, tsars.) In the opening pages, Merridale stands in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow appreciating the 1668 masterpiece, The Tree of the State of Muscovy. The icon shows "two men who have planted a tree. On the left, holding the medieval equivalent of a watering can, is a priest, and painted letters tell us that he is Peter, the leader of the early fourteenth-century Russian church. On the right, in charge of the plant itself, is a prince, Ivan I, who ruled Moscow for sixteen years from 1325 until his death in 1341." It is with this foundational myth that Merridale takes us all the way back to the beginning in the twelfth century, although "There is no reliable record for the Kremlin's beginning." What is exhilarating about reading this book is its immersive power. This is very much pop history and should be on the must-read list of any amateur Kremlinologist or those who enjoy Russian history.
The immersive power propels the narrative forward. The Kremlin's history has much bloodshed, coups, fires, and demolition. Much like Rome, the Kremlin becomes an accretion of history, layer upon layer building over the centuries. We read about early architectural masterpieces, lovingly described, only to witness their immolation or destruction. The Kremlin's rulers, always keeping a tight fist on historical interpretation, build new structures to highlight their glory or raze those that get in their way. In the nineteenth century, we see the clash of these interpretations with the rise of a conservative intellectual elite wanting to preserve the Kremlin's innate "Russian-ness," and the revolutionary firebrands who want to overthrow the ossifying monarchy.
Another key element to the Kremlin is religion. The walled city is a mosaic of watchtowers, monasteries and cathedrals, palaces and arsenals. After Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in the fifteenth century, Moscow saw itself as "The Third Rome." In modern language, one could see the Kremlin as home to a "spiritual superpower," transforming this once isolated backwater into a urban area with the prestige of Rome. (This also explains, but doesn't excuse, Putin's recent homophobic legislation and its sanctimonious language.)
In the end, the Kremlin attempts to preserve the national mythology of continuity, stability, and theocracy. The challenge is writing history in such a tightly controlled environment. Merridale explains her many workarounds and negotiations when dealing with a government that is less than forthcoming. Any historian must face the popular crowd when deconstructing a national mythology. (One sees this today in how the Right and the Left turn the Founder Fathers into two sets of dueling caricatures.) The pleasure of Red Fortress is witnessing history as a material thing that has to be wrestled with to be understood. With Russia's calamitous, horrific, and authoritarian history, it shows how the ordinary Russian would tolerate Vladimir Putin's illegal third term and be nostalgic for the reign of Joseph Stalin. If one just watched the nightly news or read social media updates, this behavior would seem illogical and obscene. But the everyday attitudes of ordinary citizens are framed by centuries of accumulated history, a dosage of fear for the future, and a nationalist stubbornness inherited from years of suffering, hardship, and disaster.
Red Fortress shows us how the local can become global and how an isolated river fort became the symbol of fear both within Russia and worldwide. Merridale reconstructs the past by diving into the archives, exploring the crevices of monasteries and palaces, and giving her own interpretive gloss on icons and artifacts from Russia's storied past.