Anne Applebaum

Secrets of the Kremlin

Catherine Merridale's Red Fortress gets behind the facade of Russia's most famous building

A building bearing testimony to the power of eternal Russia; a timeless symbol of the Russian state; a monument to Russian sovereignty. To the modern eye, the Kremlin fortress seems as if it had always been there, as if it had never changed and never will.

All of which is utter nonsense, as Catherine Merridale’s fascinating history reveals: the story of this famous compound is not one of continuity, but of construction, destruction and reconstruction. Every reincarnation of the Russian state over the centuries — and there have been many — has been accompanied by a corresponding reincarnation of the Kremlin. Its history is thus a metaphorical history of Russia, as Merridale understands very well. ‘If states have trademarks,’ she writes, ‘Russia’s could well be this fortress, viewed across Red Square.’

Despite outward appearances of solidity, there are numerous holes in the story. It is not known for certain when anyone first built something on top of the hill overlooking the Moscow and Neglinnaya rivers. Probably the first settlers were Finns; the first Slavs arrived relatively late, at the beginning of the 800s, but for centuries they did not build so much as a stone palace in Moscow, a provincial trading post far from the glittering cities of Kievan Rus, at that time the dominant Orthodox power, and unimaginably far from Catholic Europe.

A monastery was built on the hill in the 13th century, and a wooden fortress certainly existed in the 14th century. A number of other churches followed. But although many of these rather primitive buildings were ‘retrospectively endowed with majesty’, the site actually burned several times and nothing much of the medieval structure remains. Only in the early 16th century were the Kremlin’s rulers wealthy enough to hire Italian stone-cutters, German cannon-founders and Persian smiths in sufficient abundance to produce the foundations of the brick walls and
towers that remain today, as well as the predecessors of the modern palaces and churches within the walls.

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