Reviewed by Maarten Zwiers
In her book Red Fortress: The Secret Heart of Russia’s History, historian Catherine Merridale analyzes the Kremlin as a text. Such a methodology became increasingly popular among cultural historians during the 1970s, after the so-called linguistic turn, when all sorts of cultural expressions (festivals, rituals, flags, you name it) were subjected to “thick” descriptions.
Merridale argues that the Kremlin is not only the residence of Russia’s leaders, but can also be regarded as a theater and a script, a reflection of what the country was and what it wants to be. With every changing of the guard, the Kremlin changed too, sometimes dramatically. It was “a gallery that displays and embodies the current governing idea,” because Russian potentates have the tendency – like many rulers, by the way – to rewrite history in order to legitimize their reign. This rewriting occurred through the construction of new buildings on the Kremlin grounds (especially churches), the destruction of buildings (in the case of the communist take-over, especially churches), and the adding of symbolic iconography (saints, hammers and sickles, red stars). The development of the architectural layout of the Kremlin thus tells the story of Russia’s political elite, from the days of Genghis Khan until Vladimir Putin.
The result of this approach is an impressive and thorough book that can be considered the definitive history of the Kremlin, at least for now. The idea of studying an iconic building as a historical text is original and convincing. If you are a Kremlin aficionado, you are going to love the meticulous details Merridale explores throughout the narrative. But it is also a very big book, which often drowns in streams of exhaustive information. I strongly advise readers to write down all the Vladimirs, Dmitrys, and Ivans that make their appearance, otherwise you will lose track of them, especially in the first part of the book. There are better general histories of Russia available, but if you are a patient reader and want an inside perspective on the power games inside the Kremlin during the last 850 (!) years, I heartily recommend Red Fortress.
(Blogmistress’s note: my apologies for the delay in posting. The Gift Ideas took over most of my time in October and November.)
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