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20 November 2018

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Red Fortress

Catherine Merridale (Henry Holt)

There is surely no world landmark that so personifies and encapsulates the state that contains it as the Kremlin. Across every inch of its architecture, buildings and rebuildings, it reflects the thousand-year history of the Russian state. The Kremlin is Russia and Russia is the Kremlin.

Indeed, the Kremlin is among those rare world structures that speak and have feelings (“Today, the Kremlin said...” “The Kremlin believes...”).

Yet, as Merridale aptly points out, this hypnotic, beautiful, historic fortress is also “deliberately contrived. There is nothing accidental about the Kremlin’s current appearance.”

Actually, some modern Russians might even have us believe there is nothing accidental about the Kremlin’s (i.e. Moscow’s) role in Russian history, that its preeminence was pre-ordained, the Third Rome rising to preeminence.

Yet, as Merridale shows, Moscow’s rise would have been difficult to predict 800 years ago, when the remote forest town was just another city-state vying for power in the land of Rus. History only turned in Moscow’s favor thanks to the canny Grand Prince, Ivan Moneybags (Kalita) – who struck a deal with the Mongol overlords, and to an ambitious Metropolitan who chose Moscow over Vladimir.

Of course, this is more than just a history of one architectural ensemble. It is a history of the Russian state as viewed through this highly representative conglomeration of bricks, oak, blood and ornamentation. As such, Merridale skillfully leads us through eight centuries that have been storied and bloody, pestilential and glorious... Whether evoking the muddy, fire-scorched founding centuries or the scandal-ridden days under Yeltsin, she tells this complex, fascinating history in a personal, approachable style, taking us behind doors locked to ordinary outsiders, while regaling us with stories and characters that could only ever have passed through the “magnificent, spellbinding” Kremlin.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Nov/Dec 2013