Ever since the book The Red Fortress by Catherine Merridale was promoted/ reviewed by the Economist last autumn, it was on my to-read list. Not because the review sang such high praises, but because I thought it would be useful to read a history of the Kremlin, thereby improving my general historical knowledge of Moscow, and would give me a backdrop for the actual architecture when I arrived.
What cannot be ignored is that the text is well written. The author skilfully moves from architectural description to political history to art and religious history to then return and create a web of cultural experience and character. Although she covers long expanses of time, often within single chapters, this shifting of focus allows her to maintain some pace in her narrative, and avoid a dry historical timeline of events. In fact, the narrative of evolving art and architectural styles was fascinating, and I am very much looking forward to seeing the diverse styles in person.
However, my final impression, as I put the book aside, was that her version of events seems somewhat paradoxical. Let me explain.
I cannot claim to know much of the story (as I was reading this book for some sort of enlightenment), but it was Merridale’s portrayal of Gorbachev and Yeltsin (to whom I have devoted somewhat more time) that flagged up some issues for me. Merridale presents us with a clean, fluid narrative, with simple characters, who are not at all three dimensional. She asserts as fact some issues which have been debated due to lack of evidence (and some obstruction). Upon reflection, I noticed that this was present throughout the entire book- it is a wonderful assembly of (well sourced) ‘facts’.
Merridale’s conclusion is that every political actor in the Kremlin has used (and abused) history to shape the narrative that they want to tell, ignoring the half-truths and avoiding full sections of history if it suits them.
For someone who has questioned the right of history to lay claim to any kind of fact, and for whom the main message of the text was ‘history can be re-invented and reused, and has been by Russia’s rulers for centuries’, this was troubling. Although clearly well researched, and based on the materials she has gathered within the Kremlin archives, impressions from foreign scholars, as well as newspapers and journals, Merridale’s attempt to overwrite the diverse historical narratives with one of her own seems short-sighted.
Nevertheless, I think that reading this text will have given me a deeper understanding and appreciation for the Kremlin’s landscape, as well as a more sceptical approach to the clean historical narratives that states are currently utilizing. For, as Merridale points out, this revision of history is closely linked with the creation of a national identity, which has also been utilized in other post-soviet nations, and across the globe. Here she briefly taps into the study of nation-building and nationalism, which in itself is a fascinating topic. She reminds us of the importance of symbols, and the messages they represent.
And, something I think no one will argue with at the moment, Merridale suggests that the symbol of the Kremlin is one of strength and power, and (imagined) historical continuity.