Review: Red Fortress: History and Illusion in the Kremlin

Posted 19 October, 2018 by Lianne in Books / 0 Comments

Red Fortress: History and Illusion in the Kremlin
By: Catherine Merridale
Format/Source: Hardback; my copy

The Kremlin is the heart of the Russian state, a fortress whose blood-red walls have witnessed more than eight hundred years of political drama and extraordinary violence. It has been the seat of a priestly monarchy and a worldly church; it has served as a crossroads for diplomacy, trade, and espionage; it has survived earthquakes, devastating fires, and at least three revolutions. Its very name is a byword for enduring power. From Ivan the Terrible to Vladimir Putin, generations of Russian leaders have sought to use the Kremlin to legitimize their vision of statehood.

Drawing on a dazzling array of sources from hitherto unseen archives and rare collections, renowned historian Catherine Merridale traces the full history of this enigmatic fortress. The Kremlin has inspired innumerable myths, but no invented tales could be more dramatic than the operatic successions and savage betrayals that took place within its vast compound of palaces and cathedrals. Today, its sumptuous golden crosses and huge electric red stars blaze side by side as the Kremlin fulfills its centuries-old role, linking the country’s recent history to its distant past and proclaiming the eternal continuity of the Russian state.

More than an absorbing history of Russia’s most famous landmark, Red Fortress uses the Kremlin as a unique lens, bringing into focus the evolution of Russia’s culture and the meaning of its politics.

As the blurb states, the Kremlin is such a notable structure in Russia and so representative of the state that it makes sense that a book would be written looking at the structure itself and its place in Russian history and development. This isn’t my first encounter with Catherine Merridale’s research; I previously read another book of hers when I was in grad school and knew her work to be quite solid and unique in approach.

Unfortunately this book left me a little disappointed. I was expecting it to be more like Neil MacGregor’s Germany (review) with the focus being on the Krelim and working the history around that focus but instead I was treated with a chronological overlay of Russian history with a back and forth return to the Kremlim. Which works for some people–I know I used to prefer that kind of approach to topics–but here I was expecting more focus on the Kremlin itself. It makes for a bit of an overwhelming read if you’re not familiar with Russian history; in my case, it felt like another standard Russian history textbook that I’ve read and there wasn’t anything new being offered to me save for the sections about the construction of the Kremlin itself.

So overall it was a disappointing venture on my part. If you haven’t read much of Russian history, you might find this book interesting with a lot of new information to think about but for me it didn’t offer much on top of what I already knew.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

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