Red Fortress by Catherine Merridale

Even the most casual visitor to the Ramblings would soon become aware that I have more than a passing interest in all things Russian, whether history, literature or culture. As I’ve probably mentioned before, this started when I was in Grammar School, many moons ago; we studied the Russian Revolution, and I was fascinated, an interest which was further ignited by an unplanned encounter with the “Doctor Zhivago” movie. Russian history and literature books are ones I’m always returning to, and OH knows me well enough to have picked up this title for a Christmas gift!

red fortress

And rather strangely, I was at school with the author! Catherine Merridale attended the same school (and in the same year group) as me, ending up as Head Girl if I recall. She was always rather clever so it’s no surprise she’s ended up with an illustrious career; and I find myself wondering if her love of things Russian was stimulated at the same time as mine! But that’s by the by – onto the book.

This is in fact Merridale’s third major book about Russia, the first two being “Night of Stone: Death and Memory in Russia” and “Ivan’s War”. I haven’t read the latter, but the former has been lurking on Mount TBR for a long time…. “Red Fortress” is her most recent work and it’s garnered plaudits from all over the place. The book is subtitled “history and illusion in the Kremlin”, and it purports to be a history of the mythology and symbolism of the heart of Moscow and Russia; it is that, but it’s also much, much more.

The earliest record of the Kremlin dates from the 12th century, where there was a wooden enclosed fortress; however, it’s possible that Finns had been established there around the early 800s, well before the Slavs arrived. In fact, over the decades, the place was occupied by a dizzying variety of different peoples, constantly changing hands in the early days, until it settled into the hands of the mediaeval Tsars. Much of its history was dominated by religion (as demonstrated by the large numbers of cathedrals and churches which have existed in its precincts) and it was only very latterly that the secular leaders had more influence that the religious ones.

Merridale draws on extensive sources to give a rounded picture of the development of the great fortress over the centuries; from the early settlement, fought over by Mongols and Finns; via the mediaeval fortress with the early incarnations of the Tsars and Boyars, to the heart of the Romanov empire, becoming the symbol of the Soviet state and finally its current incarnation as the representative of reborn Russian nationalism.

The Kremlin has always been a symbol of power in Russia (before it was even Russia, really!), which is why it remained dominant even when St. Petersburg was temporarily the capital of the country. The Russian people have a reverence for the place; it’s a holy site, linked to their past, regardless of how fake many of the so-called historical treasurers stored there are. In fact, Merridale’s history is full of appalling losses, through constant fires, looting and plundering, neglect and outright vandalism; it’s actually amazing that any of it has survived, but there were times when I would have loved a time machine to take me back to see the place in its earlier versions.


Or perhaps not… This is not a tale for the lily-livered, as there’s an awful lot of battle, torture and slaughter going on – either in wars to defend the Kremlin from invaders, or from the rulers dealing with insurgents or just uppity peasants. Add in a plague or two, and some fearsome winters and famines, and it’s amazing there are any Muscovites left.

“Red Fortress” is ambitious in its scope, and inevitably there is a little compression in the story; let’s face it, the Soviet/Stalin era of the Kremlin warrants a book of its own, and the tale of Ivan the Terrible (he really *was* terrible!) has featured in many films and books. But Merridale seems to have had unprecedented access to records over many visits, both before and after the fall of the Soviet Union, and she’s drawn the story together brilliantly to give a wonderful overview not only of the Kremlin, but in fact of the development of Russia itself – because it seems one cannot exist without the other. The section covering post-Soviet Russia was particularly interesting, charting the fall of the various regimes and the reinvention of the Kremlin as symbol of power and historical artefact.

Merridale’s writing is crisp and informative, with plenty of wry wit at the expense of the endless slaughter and continual fires that plagued the Kremlin. She occasionally drops in an anecdote about her experiences researching there over the years and I would have liked more of these. Nevertheless, this was a gripping, absorbing piece of history which was a great read too. The book also has some fascinating old maps and illustrations, and I wish I had access to larger versions; especially one very fascinating plan which is apparently 3ft square and charts all the various buildings that were ever part of the fortress.

My computer desktop background for many years has been a view of the Kremlin with St. Basil’s Cathedral in the foreground; the snowy image has always seemed to me to be very evocative of Russia and my love for it. But having read Merridale’s excellent book I will always look at it with very different eyes…