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12/19/2013 11:15 am ET | Updated Feb 18, 2014

Book Review: Red Fortress, History and Illusion in the Kremlin

Red Fortress: History and Illusion in the Kremlin

by Catherine Merridale
Henry Holt and Company, New York
479 pages
ISBN: 9780805086805

"The Kremlin is a deceiver; and it has been designed to project a story about Russia that hides far more than it reveals. We should question whether the state is in fact so strong," said British historian and author Catherine Merridale at a recent lecture to the London School of Economics.

One begins to comprehend the profound depth of the Russian story after reading through the first few chapters of Merridale's magnificent new book Red Fortress: History and Illusion in the Kremlin. It's the present-day, Russian history of the last 100 years that most of us know best; so it is refreshing to read in meticulous detail the deep past of a country few understand about, told with one of its most famous landmarks at the epicenter.

The book manages to keep its vision trained on the Kremlin -- not exclusively as a metonym of political and cultural life, but on the building itself and the people who shaped it. The various tsars, builders, architects, priests, boyars and others whose lives played out on this citadel's grounds are given nearly equal weight in the text, as we learn about this city within a city, which features Orthodox churches built alongside its presidential palace, cemeteries, museums, and arsenal.

Merridale, who also wrote Ivan's War: Life and Death in the Red Army 1939-1945, and Night of Stone, Death and Memory in Russia, manages to chronicle 900-some years of arcane Russian history in under 500 pages in a relatively accessible manner. At times, the subject matter can be weighty, as Western historian's have seemed to fashion the Kremlin inside a cloak of gloomy adjectives. Historians who have walked inside its walls portray it "not so much an administrative complex...as a vast and oppressive wasteland."

That said, what Merridale has achieved is remarkable: She has deftly sifted through countless state archives and oral histories to help shine a light on the dark parts of Russia's past. And as a scholar, she has been given unprecedented access to the Kremlin's archives, conveyed in her thorough knowledge of the subject matter at hand and expert level knowledge of Russian history. It's as if she is breaking down the inner red walls of the fortress to expose the myriad secrets lying within its walls.

Red Fortress Book

"The Kremlin is a deceiver; and it has been designed to project a story about Russia that hides far more than it reveals."--Catherine Merridale

Public Lecture, October 9 2013 to London School of Economics

One major theme of the book is that State officals' linking of the present with Russia's past history is something of an illusion. This illusion is used by the state to create a continuity of governance that isn't really there. Yet, one is left to questions how the mythos behind the modern Russian state could be any different from the tales any state power tells to perpetuate itself as institution. Still she asserts, "the cut and thrust of real politics, the compromises, corruption and deals, are hidden because everything depends on myth."

Merridale returns to this idea of myth throughout the work, because she realizes the country's rich heritage and past grandeur have many fascinating tales to impart -- even if its leaders have sought to hide many of its faults through its modern-day folklore. "People will see what they are meant to see and they believe because it suits them to, especially in country where opposition is often dangerous."

Towards the end of the book, we catch up to the twentieth century Russia. It is here where "all seven centuries of the pre-Soviet past were treated like a prelude to the real tale, and only events after 1917 were allowed to count as 'genuine' history," Merridale writes. This is no doubt in part due to the Russian hegemony which sought to sever itself from its past as the Communist Soviet state created its modern day legend of greatness by relegating everything else as prologue.

Regrettably, this is a disservice to modern Russia. The past contains such sumptuous and interesting stories that it's a wonder why there isn't more fascination with the subject outside of academia.

What ultimately sets this book apart from other recent "building biographies," (such as Steve Vogel's, The Pentagon) is that the building is given life through the stories of its past inhabitants. Red Fortress includes several maps of the Kremlin's layout at different periods of time. There are even color plates of some of the more famous architectural highlights. However, the book could benefit from the use of a timeline of Russian rulers and historical milestones to help the reader sort things into the proper context without having to do much of this themselves on the Internet alongside their reading.

One of the most interesting takeaways from the book is how the Kremlin supported state functions alongside its past-Orthodox cathedrals that shared the grounds. Many of the religious buildings were razed after the 1917 revolution, yet have been recently sought out to be restored to their former grandeur, with its former treasures inside to be reclaimed to history.

As Merridale concludes in her book: "icons, in Russian spirituality, are like mirrors...only in prayer, not in profane existence, can a person engage with the holy being beyond the painted board." The Kremlin building can almost be considered a modern day "icon" of a powerful state apparatus, just as much as the icons within these churches. Yet, if one can squint their eyes just enough, they can see how it came to be so transcendently mesmerizing through both the sacred and secular pasts of those who shaped it.

George Mocharko is a writer, editor and communications consultant residing in the Washington D.C area.

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