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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Red Fortress

History and Illusion in the Kremlin

Catherine Merridale

Metropolitan Books



The Kremlin is one of the most famous structures in the world. If states have trademarks, Russia's could well be this fortress, viewed across Red Square. Everyone who comes to Moscow wants to see it, and everyone who visits seems to take a different view. ‘The only guarantee of a correct response is to choose your position before you come,' wrote the German philosopher Walter Benjamin. ‘In Russia, you can only see if you have already decided.' In 1927, his decision was to be enthralled.1 A hundred years before, however, a Frenchman called the marquis de Custine had opted for a scandalized tirade. To him, the Kremlin was ‘a prop of tyrants', a ‘satanic monument', ‘a habitation that would suit some of the personages of the Apocalypse'. ‘Like the bones of certain gigantic animals,' he concluded, ‘the Kremlin proves to us the history of a world of which we might doubt until after seeing the remains.'2

The site still mesmerizes foreign visitors. As the newspaper correspondent Mark Frankland once lamented, ‘there can be few other cities in the world where the feeling is so strong of being carried towards the centre whether one wants it or not.'3 ‘Do not forget that people went into some of those buildings and came out blinded,' a British government interpreter reminded me.4 When it comes to falling for the magic of the place, however, no outsider competes with the Russians themselves. The Kremlin is the symbol of their nationhood.5 Its walls may not have managed to withstand invading hordes of Mongol horsemen, and they were later breached by Poles and even Frenchmen, but like Russia itself, the citadel endured. Most Russians know that it was here, outside the Kremlin gates, that Stalin reviewed the fresh Red Army troops as they marched off to fight and die in 1941. Less than four years later, in steady early summer rain, the same iconic walls and towers looked down on rank upon rank of marching men. As Marshal Zhukov struggled to control a tetchy thoroughbred horse, the banners of two hundred vanquished Nazi regiments were hurled on to the gleaming stones beside the steps of Lenin's mausoleum. The country's second capital, St Petersburg, may be an architectural miracle, but the Kremlin is Russia's wailing wall.

The structure is not democratic. Built from specially hardened bricks, the walls of this red fortress were designed for war. Although they are so elegant that the fact is disguised, they are also exceptionally thick – honeycombed by a warren of stairs and corridors that feels like a city in itself – and in places they rise more than sixty feet above the surrounding land. The four main gates are made of ancient Russian oak, but their venerable iron locks have long been superseded by the pitiless systems of a digital age. Even now, the Kremlin is a military compound, managed by a person called the commandant, and its subterranean maze of tunnels and control-rooms is designed to survive a nuclear strike. There is no public access to the north-east quarter where the president's building stands. On Thursdays, in a tradition that dates from the era of the Communist Politburo, the entire site is closed, and it is also sealed, these days, at the first whiff of public disorder. But beauty of the most transcendent kind has flourished in this atmosphere of menace. The Kremlin's spired silhouette is crowned by its religious buildings, and the most entrancing of these are clustered like so many jewel-boxes round a single square. From almost any point on this historic ground, the eye will be drawn upwards from the white stones to an effulgence of coloured tile and on to the cascades of gilded domes that lead yet higher, up among the wheeling Moscow crows, to a dazzling procession of three-barred Orthodox crosses. The tallest towers are visible for miles around, standing white and gold above the city. Magnificent and lethal, holy and yet secretive, the fortress is indeed an incarnation of the legendary Russian state.

Its spell depends on an apparent timelessness. History is everywhere. The Dormition Cathedral, which is the oldest and most famous sacred building on the site, has witnessed every coronation since the days of Ivan the Terrible. Across the square, in the Cathedral of the Archangel Michael, most visitors can barely squeeze between the waist-high caskets that hold the remains of almost every Moscow prince from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries. In the reign of the last tsar, a nationalist court administration had forty-six of the carved stone coffins covered in uniform bronze casings, row upon sombre row, reinforcing the impression of unbroken lineage. By then the shifting of the capital to St Petersburg had long put an end to royal Kremlin burials, but the coronations continued until 1896, and each was followed by a banquet. The fifteenth-century Faceted Palace, where the royal diners gathered in a blaze of diamonds and gold, still graces the western margin of Cathedral Square. Towering behind it, the vast Grand Palace is a nineteenth-century pastiche, but anyone who ventures past the armed police will come upon the curving stair, mutely guarded by stone lions, that leads up to the older royal quarters and the churches that were carefully preserved within. Like Jerusalem, Rome, or Istanbul, the Kremlin is a place where history is concentrated, and every stone seems to embody several pasts. The effect is hypnotic.

It is also deliberately contrived. There is nothing accidental about the Kremlin's current appearance, from the chaos of its golden roofline to the overwhelming mass of palaces and ancient walls. Someone designed these shapes to celebrate the special character of Russian culture, and someone else approved the plans to go on building in a style that would suggest historically rooted power. The ubiquitous gold, in Orthodox iconography, may be a reminder of eternity, but for the rest of us it is also an impressive reflection of earthly wealth. From the churches and forbidding gates to the familiar spires that are its emblem, the Kremlin is not merely home to Russia's rulers. It is also a theatre and a text, a gallery that displays and embodies the current governing idea. That – and the incongruity of its survival in the heart of modern Moscow – has long been the secret of its magnetism.

I have been fascinated by the place since I first saw it three decades ago, and its story has seemed to acquire an ever-deeper resonance. A turning point came in 2007, towards the end of Vladimir Putin's second four-year term as president, a time when the question of his future was beginning to preoccupy the Russian press. In true arch-nationalist style, his supporters had begun to justify an unconstitutional third term by drawing on the supposed lessons of the past. They argued that the Russian nation had endured because it followed special rules. The people suffered most when there was weakness at the heart of power. The national genius took a unique creative form, they said, and it could flourish only when it was protected by a strong and centralizing state. Obliging textbook-writers duly came up with historical proof. From Peter the Great to Stalin, and from the bigoted Alexander III to Putin himself, the past showed just why Russia still needed a firm governing hand. Even doubters were aware that the alternative was risky. Weak government was something every Russian knew about, for the most recent case had been Boris Yeltsin's presidency in the 1990s, a time of national humiliation and desperate human misery. The statist message therefore fell on willing ears. In a poll to find the greatest name in Russian history, organized by the Rossiya television channel in 2008, the implacably reactionary Nicholas I took an early lead, and Stalin followed close behind in second place.6

The result came as no surprise to Russia-watchers in the west. If any thing, there was a depressing inevitability about it, as if the country were indeed eternally marked out for tyranny. Outsiders had been saying as much for centuries. ‘The prince alone controls everything,' a Jesuit envoy decided in the 1580s. ‘The deference accorded the Prince is something the mind can scarcely comprehend.'7 A succession of Englishmen who reported on Moscow in the reigns of Elizabeth and James I agreed.8 More than three hundred years later, when the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 turned into a dictatorship, expert onlookers were ready with a range of theories based on Russia's special path.9 It was the same when the reforms of perestroika faltered under Gorbachev. As one political scientist put it at the time: ‘too much freedom makes many Russians feel uncomfortable.'10 This sort of commentary flatters western prejudice, which is why it has persisted through so many complete changes of regime. In the end, however, the idea that Russia has a special destiny has survived because it suits the government of Russia itself. As a recent book on the subject neatly stated, ‘the statist interpretation of Russian history is a justification for unaccountability and an absolution of past crimes'.11 By using history, in the words of another writer, even the current government can ‘integrate itself with the traditions of the past', casting the state itself as ‘a focus of social and private life, in a way an ultimate justification for the life of the individual'.12

The Kremlin is an ideal site from which to think about all this. It is a place where myths are born, the stage on which the Russian state parades its power and its pedigree. But the fortress is also a character in its own right. I set out to explore its past because I wanted to know more about the present day, but in the end I found myself absorbed in its biography. It is a tale where show and fable often triumph over substance, but it is also very much about real things. In writing it, I have had to think about the stories rulers tell about themselves, and I have also had to master subjects ranging from the ideology behind the coronation ritual to the intricacies of Orthodox Christian theology. At the same time, however, I have found myself reading about clock-mechanisms, cannon-foundries and the technicalities of restoring old plaster. The story covers many cultures and at least two continents. In tracing it, I have looked to the grasslands of the east to follow the evolution of armies that began life on the Asian steppe, and I have also tried to picture the ride across forest and marsh that brought so many European craftsmen to Moscow's solemn, chilly, ritual-bound court. Each time the Kremlin was destroyed (it was not as eternal as it seemed), I have tried to discover how its masters saw the task of rebuilding and repossessing it. The French historian of places, Pierre Nora, would certainly have called the citadel a ‘site of memory', but it has also been a place of action and change, a theatre where the dramas have been about the present even when they were disguised as evocations of the past.

I soon confirmed that the idea of predestined continuity was very old. I also came to understand how the familiar stories were conceived. From monks to court scribes and from Soviet propagandists to Putin's favourite textbook-writers, there is nothing unusual in the idea that Russian courtiers should edit entire chapters of the past. They have usually done it in a calculated attempt to secure the authority of history in the name of a specific person, for the Russian state, far from enjoying stable and continuous leadership, has in fact suffered frequent crises at the heart of power. From princes and tsars to general secretaries and unelected presidents, many of its rulers have had only the slenderest of claims. To fend off chaos or potential civil war, therefore, their courts have worked to create a more or less convincing series of succession myths. Some appealed to religion, others invoked the people's will, but history has been the basis of almost everyone's tale. Ivan the Terrible's advisors were among the most assiduous when it came to rewriting the old records – he was accorded divine authority as well as a fabulous pedigree – and their successors in the seventeenth century did the same job for the first Romanov tsars. The Bolsheviks, despite their modernizing rhetoric, called on the blessing of a pantheon of dead heroes; they also made full use of the symbolic possibilities of the Kremlin itself. Through crisis after crisis, the immediate circumstances were so troubled that the people, for their part, were prepared to welcome even an implausible pretender if they believed that he conformed to a nostalgic, almost fairytale, ideal. Life was so hard, and every future so precarious, that even the most ordinary peasant craved the certainties of vanished times. ‘The highest good in Muscovy was not knowledge but memory,' James Billington decided half a century ago. ‘There was no higher appeal in a dispute than the "important good and firm memory" of the oldest available authority.'13

But memory, as we all know, is mutable. The Kremlin itself is a record of the past. It is also a sacred place, and its buildings once marked Moscow's holiest sites. The rituals that formed round them, from celebrations of divine liturgy to coronations and royal funerals, were originally designed to embody the truth of a religious timelessness. Even in the age of saints, however, the ceremonial changed and mutated. From generation to generation, the meaning of the same words and the same processions evolved into radically new shapes. The buildings also did not stand unaltered, and they could be the most treacherous witnesses of all. If a wall was repainted, or a palace knocked down and rebuilt, it was as if its previous incarnation had never been. The cycle of familiar prayers returned, with lines of icon-bearing priests and courtiers in golden robes, but the setting had been modified so completely that it encouraged entirely new ideas, and (for want of a better term) false memories. With buildings, which are so concrete, the only past is what is there right now. It was a lesson that the Bolsheviks put to dramatic use when they destroyed the Kremlin's ancient monasteries in 1929. As I would find, few people, even Muscovites, can now say where the buildings stood. Some even doubt that they existed, scratching their heads over the old photographs that prove the case.

This book, then, is about the Kremlin over centuries of time, but it is also very much about the Kremlin now. As I began to work on it, I quickly discovered the benefits of an association – even an unreciprocated one – with Russia's ultimate elite. Although the Kremlin's research staff work in conditions that are worse, if anything, than those of any university historian outside the walls, the general environment is spectacular. As I waved my hard-won cardboard pass at the armed guards at the Borovitsky Gate and swept past queues of early-bird tourists, I tasted the superiority that fellows of Oxford and Cambridge colleges surely enjoy every working day. I left the Moscow smog and traffic noise behind. Inside the walls, before the tour-groups really start, there is a pleasant quiet, and even now, in that land of diesel and cigarettes, the breeze carries a subtle perfume of incense. The library that I was heading for was high up, too, in an annex to the bell tower of Ivan the Great, which leaves the team who runs it without an inch of free space but means the crowds stay very far away.

Any sense of membership is relative, however, for this is not a normal research site. In the Kremlin, a visitor will see what she is meant to see. Locked doors are waiting even for the most persistent guest. To write this book, I had to travel well beyond that tower reading-room. The trail has taken me to Italy (home of the architects who designed the renaissance fort) and to libraries in the United States and Great Britain. When written records would not do, I have tracked down expert witnesses. Among the first people I interviewed were some of the politicians and diplomats who have known the Kremlin as a place of work. On one surreal evening, hours north of Stockholm, I met six of Sweden's former ambassadors to Moscow at a single sitting (‘you will have concluded that every adult Swedish male is required to serve his nation in this way,' the last one quipped when I expressed surprise). I have also talked to some of the architects and restorers who know the buildings inside out. Art historians have helped me to appreciate the icons and frescoes. Specialists in unfamiliar periods of history have answered questions and suggested new types of source. Tacking to and from the Moscow fortress over several years, I have even had a chance to admire the elusive falcons that are kept to kill the Kremlin crows.

One story seems to capture the excitement of the chase, however, and for me it was a kind of introduction in itself. Among my ambitions as a researcher, one of the hardest to achieve was any glimpse behind the obvious displays. As every archaeologist knows, you can learn a great deal about a culture, and especially a secretive one, by looking at the things it throws away. The Kremlin is not an obvious place to look for junk, but there was one occasion when I managed to visit the local equivalent of an attic. The chance came as an unexpected bonus when a busy woman who directs one of the Kremlin's specialist research departments kindly offered to escort me round the palace on a private tour. The idea was to look at all the extant churches, and there are lots of them.

I arrived early on the appointed morning, for I loved to spend a moment in the empty fortress, watching subtle autumn light play on the old limestone. My guide, whose office was located in an annex of the Annunciation Cathedral, had not quite finished collecting her things, so we chatted as she made her thoughtful selection from a box of keys. I marvelled at each one as they were lined up on her desk, for keys like these should really have been forged from meteorites and guarded by a dragon. Some were long and heavy, others intricate, and most were so ornate that they were hard to balance in one hand. I had no time to test them all, however, before the curator had finished rummaging in her cupboard and produced a pair of pliers. It turned out that their purpose was to break the heavy seals that safeguard the contents of the palace's numerous hidden chambers.

The first such seal awaited us at the top of a flight of polished marble steps. On the far side of an internal atrium, across a lake of gleaming parquet, we came upon a sealed pair of exquisitely wrought and gilded gates and beyond these, also locked and sealed, a pair of solid wooden doors. The prospect looked forbidding, but the pliers soon pulled off the wax, the long key turned with satisfying ease, and the wooden doors swung open to admit us to a seventeenth-century church with icons by the master Simon Ushakov. The first surprise was just how dim and even clammy the room seemed after the blazing chandeliers outside. We found the switch for the electric bulb, and by its unforgiving light I saw why the initial gloom had struck me with such force. Russian churches are meant to glint and shine, but this one had no gold or silver anywhere; the precious icons themselves were displayed in a crude-looking wooden iconostasis. It turned out that the antique silver with which the screen had once been finished, a work of fine art in its own right, had been stripped and melted down in Lenin's time, ostensibly to buy bread for the people but in fact to keep the government afloat. As our tour took in more churches, more forlorn iconostases, and chambers unlit and uncanny in their emptiness, I discovered that the same fate had befallen treasures elsewhere in the palace. But there was still plenty to see, and for some hours we wove back and forth, pausing at one point to peer into the winter-garden that had once been Stalin's cinema.

My new friend was generous with both time and expertise, but she hesitated before we descended the final set of stairs. ‘Don't tell the fire department,' she muttered. The corridor was narrowing; the carpets had not been replaced in a long time. We were on our way down to a fourteenth-century church that had been thought lost until it was rediscovered during building-work in the reign of Tsar Nicholas I. After more than six hundred years (so many wars, so many fires, so many redevelopment projects) there is not much left of the church itself (the walls are whitewashed), but there was a good deal else to see. Along the corridor and down the stairs were ladders, tins of paint, and broken chairs in awkward-looking stacks. There was a red flag rolled against a wall, a gilded table quarantined from some themed exhibition-space, dust sheets spattered with whitewash, a chunky radio. The expedition down through Nicholas's palace, and Mikhail Romanov's, Ivan the Terrible's, and the renaissance foundations of far older chambers was not only an experience of going back in time, which is what journeys into undercrofts are all supposed to be. I felt more as if a selection of discarded versions of the Kremlin's past had been assembled in a time-capsule, collapsing decade upon decade into one surreal space.

Russian history is full of destruction and rebuilding; the country has seen more than its fair share of change. For complex reasons, not always the same ones, the state, in a succession of different forms, has almost always managed to achieve priority at the expense of popular rights. At every moment of crisis, a set of choices has been made, often in the Kremlin, and always by specific people with a range of short-term interests to defend. There is nothing inevitable about this, and the discarded options testify to the fragmented nature of the tale. When today's Russian leaders talk about the mighty state, the so-called traditions that they have dubbed ‘sovereign democracy', they are making yet another choice. History has nothing to do with it, for precedent, as that red flag and those old chairs attest so well, is something that can be thrown out like last week's flowers. There have been many Russian pasts. Once its sealed doors have been unlocked, the Kremlin need no longer seem the prop of tyrants that Custine reviled. In a culture that seeks to control history itself, it is an awkward survivor, a magnificent, spellbinding, but ultimately incorruptible witness to the hidden heart of the Russian state.

Copyright © 2013 by Catherine Merridale