Here you will find only ashes

Geoffrey Hosking

  • Red Fortress: The Secret Heart of Russia’s History by Catherine Merridale
    Penguin, 528 pp, £10.99, May 2014, ISBN 978 0 14 103235 1

In 2007 France’s leading Slavist, Georges Nivat, following the example of Pierre Nora’s Lieux de mémoire, published a similar survey of Russia, Les Sites de la mémoire russe. Russia’s history, he remarked, was inexhaustibly rich, but susceptible to constant reinterpretation and punctuated by black holes: events that the authorities at any given time preferred their subjects to forget. Selective amnesia is not unique to Russia: Ernest Renan pointed out long ago that national memories are constituted as much by forgetting as by remembering. What is unusual is the sheer quantity and variety of dramatic and often bloody events in Russia’s past that historians, in accordance with the wishes of their rulers, have either embroidered or discreetly discarded – only for them to be scavenged by the chroniclers of succeeding rulers. At times of relative relaxation, amnesia about the past would give way to what Nivat calls ‘hypermnesia’, a proliferation of mutually contradictory historical narratives that engendered lively controversy until a single monolithic interpretation was reimposed by a later leader. In this way rulers have created an appearance of timelessness, each presenting his (occasionally her) own mark on history as a stage in the stately progress of the invincible and righteous Russian state. Putin offered the latest example when he justified the annexation of Crimea with a bouquet of historical memories, from the baptism of ‘Prince Vladimir of Rus’ in the tenth century up to the severance of the East Slav peoples at the fall of the Soviet Union. In fact, however, Russian history is scarred by deep discontinuities, abrupt transitions from one set of rulers to another, which would undo the work of its predecessors and erect glossy façades glorifying its own achievement. Much of this demolition and rebuilding went on within the walls of the Kremlin, which is why Catherine Merridale’s book is important.

Merridale established herself with Night of Stone: Death and Memory in Russia (2000) and Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-45 (2007), both of which displayed her remarkable ability to think herself into the minds of Russians faced by crises terrible almost beyond the imagining of Westerners. Red Fortress isn’t so insightful but is painted on a much larger canvas. Merridale not only traces the history of the Kremlin itself – its institutions, personalities and buildings – but uses it as a backdrop for a concise history of Russia. National symbol, military fortress, religious centre and, in later centuries, tourist attraction, the Kremlin is certainly a lieu de mémoire, but it is much more than that: no other nation has such an all-embracing symbolic centre, especially if one adds in the adjacent Red Square and St Basil’s Cathedral. Russia’s size and diversity have created the need for a stable, multi-purpose focus.

The endpapers of Red Fortress contain a map of the Kremlin site on which ghostly outlines have been superimposed on one another to represent the succession of buildings that have occupied various parts of its surface, and in the text too decades, or even centuries, fade into one another. Merridale has mined the Kremlin’s archives and drawn on the letters and memoirs of its various custodians. She also made friends with its present-day guides and attendants, who escorted her to areas well off the tourist track, rooms crammed with the dusty relics current rulers don’t wish to have drawn to people’s attention – for example, ‘a red flag rolled against a wall’ and ‘a gilded table quarantined from some themed exhibition space’.

Merridale writes with well-crafted irony but also somewhat superciliously about Russia’s rulers, showing most of them to have been vain, greedy and power-loving, which they usually were, but she shows little appreciation of the dilemmas and difficulties they faced. Their territory was so large, diverse and vulnerable that they needed the Kremlin as a unifying symbol of strength and authority. She talks of a ‘depressing inevitability’ about tyranny in Russia, but doesn’t do much to explain why Russians tend to accept authoritarian government, even though her material offers plenty of opportunity to do so. By the 17th century Russians had spread across northern Eurasia, as far as the Pacific, enabling the country’s rulers to claim by far the largest territory on earth. But with the technology of the time, it was very difficult to keep such a sprawling, ethnically variegated country together, while at the same time defending its far-flung and vulnerable frontiers. Yet unless Russia could do so, it was doomed, like all its predecessors in those vast spaces.

Not until the 18th century were Russia’s heartlands, let alone its borders, secure from attack across the steppe by nomadic horsemen. And there was always the danger that ambitious underlings would gain control of parts of the territory and spark internal wars, or exploit helpless local populations at the expense of the centre. In the early 17th century, and again in the early 20th century, Russia was briefly but memorably ruled by just such irresponsible, greedy and cruel warlords. At the height of the 17th-century Time of Troubles, the Kremlin was occupied by a Polish king and supported by a predominantly Polish army. (Imagine an Irish king installed in the Tower of London by an Irish-French army, supported by English Catholics and given diplomatic backing by the Vatican; English national memories might well be more lurid, and we too might be inclined to paranoid visions.) Such dangers are not just distant memories. Had the anti-Yeltsin rebels managed to seize the Ostankino television centre in 1993 (as they very nearly did) and broadcast their own version of events throughout the country, a civil war might well have taken place with local army leaders supported by local oligarchs fighting one another.

The Kremlin seems to have begun as a small wooden fort on a bluff overlooking the Moscow river. It belonged to a Finno-Ugrian tribe, and the name Moscow is probably Finnish in origin. Remote and surrounded by thick forest, it lay well off the main path until the 13th century, when its concealed location gave the Riurikid princes and their Orthodox churchmen an advantage over the invading Mongols. The fort was less accessible to nomadic cavalry than Kiev and Vladimir, their previous capital cities. In 1247 it acquired its own minor prince, and in 1262 it was awarded to Daniel, the son of Alexander Nevsky. After that it grew steadily in riches and power. Daniel’s descendants gradually accumulated territory, by conquest, purchase and dynastic marriage. They also claimed ever grander titles, until Ivan IV was crowned tsar (caesar, emperor) in 1547. By then the Kremlin was a fortified citadel, the heart of the city of Moscow. It contained palaces, government buildings, cathedrals and a monastery. Immediately outside it was the China Town, the major trading centre, and the ‘beautiful square’, also known as Red Square, on which Ivan built the Cathedral of the Protecting Veil, or St Basil’s, to celebrate his victory of 1552 over the Khanate of Kazan.

From then on, the Kremlin played a leading role in most of the major events of Russian history. Even when, from the 18th to the 20th century, the tsars moved their capital city to the initially remote estuary of the River Neva and called it St Petersburg, Moscow remained the pervoprestolnaya (‘first capital’) and all emperors and empresses were ceremonially crowned in the Kremlin’s Dormition Cathedral. The Peter-Paul Fortress in the new capital never quite replaced the Kremlin, though the emperors were buried there.

The Kremlin remained the symbolic heart of Russia even after it lost its military and governmental functions. As for Moscow, many nobles chose to go on living there, and it became the site of Russia’s first university in 1755. After it recovered from the fires of 1812, it became the phoenix-city (or ‘firebird’, in Merridale’s words), the emblem of Russia’s revival. It was the centre of trade and industry, and, when the railways arrived, the heart of the network. More relaxed than St Petersburg, and perceived as more genuinely Russian, it was the spiritual home of the Slavophiles, the 19th-century intellectuals committed to the notion of Russia’s distinctive inherited virtues, which they felt had been devalued and corrupted by the artificial and Westernised ‘second capital’. The city became the centre of historical and archaeological research, much of it conducted in the Kremlin archives, library and stores, or even under its pavements, where the foundations of previous buildings lay, and the centre too of a burgeoning trade in popular artefacts.

There were only three occasions when the Kremlin actually fell to an enemy. The Mongols sacked it in 1382, but we have little record of that event. The next was during the Time of Troubles when Polish troops occupied it and made preparations for the accession of a Catholic Polish prince. Rule by a foreigner was not uncommon in early modern Europe, but Muscovites, devoted to their Orthodox faith, would have none of it. Even without their own tsar to unite them, the population displayed plenty of determination, patriotism and capacity for solidarity. Their patriarch, Hermogen, smuggled missives from the Kremlin’s Chudov Monastery to the elders of Russia’s cities exhorting them to refuse to swear any oath to heretics and to gather a ‘militia of the land’ (zemskaia rat) to expel the foreigners from Russia’s sacred soil. Under the leadership of provincial nobles and merchants, people of various social classes and backgrounds cobbled together an improvised army, which assembled at Yaroslavl and marched on Moscow. On 4 November 1612 they recaptured the Kremlin and expelled the Polish garrison (the day is now commemorated as National Unity Day). All the towns and districts were then instructed to choose ‘the best and most trustworthy people’ to send to a ‘council of the land’ (sovet vseia zemli) to elect a new tsar. This was the origin of the Romanov dynasty, which lasted until 1917.

The third fall of the Kremlin came in 1812, when Napoleon’s Grande Armée invaded Russia. Alexander I reacted to the incursion by immediately visiting Moscow – the obvious place in which to arouse patriotic sentiment. Large, enthusiastic crowds flocked to acclaim him, and according to Pushkin, even the dandies ‘gave up Château Lafitte and took to eating cabbage soup’. Then came probably the most dramatic moment in Moscow’s entire history. After the immensely bloody and costly battle of Borodino not far to the west, Mikhail Kutuzov, the Russian commander-in-chief, decided with great reluctance that his army would be fatally weakened if it tried to save Moscow. ‘Moscow,’ he announced, ‘is not the whole of Russia. To defend Russia we need an army; to save the army we must give up the idea of defending Moscow.’ As the garrison marched out, the city’s governor, Count Fedor Rostopchin, ordered the fire service to leave as well and left a proclamation for the invaders: ‘Frenchmen! I have abandoned to you my two residences, with furniture worth half a million rubles. Here you will find only ashes.’

Rostopchin was as good as his word. The Comte de Ségur was initially enraptured by Moscow’s golden-domed churches: ‘A single sunbeam made this superb city glitter with a thousand varied colours; and the enchanted traveller halted in ecstasy at the sight.’ But within a few days the great majority of the buildings, many of which were wooden, had succumbed to a huge fire, depriving the Grande Armée of supplies and winter quarters. Most of the Kremlin survived the conflagration, only to be plundered and desecrated by French troops, while in its gaunt and empty palace Napoleon waited for a delegation of ‘boyars’ (as he called Russia’s nobles) to come and sue for peace. They never came, and eventually Napoleon began the long, wintry journey back to the Russian frontier. The wonder-working icons at the Spassky and Nikolsky gates had been preserved intact, or so it was said.

The last time the Kremlin was fought over was in the closing months of 1917, after the Bolsheviks had seized power in Petrograd. They did so in Moscow too, but anti-Bolshevik military cadets recaptured the Kremlin in a daring coup. The Red Guards then turned their artillery on it, to the horror of the cultural commissar in the new Soviet government, Anatoly Lunacharsky, who knew how many art treasures were stored there.

*

One momentous historical event for some reason doesn’t figure in Merridale’s account. In the early 18th century, Peter the Great abolished the patriarchate and the elected church councils, replacing them with a bureaucratic office called the Holy Synod. This meant that, in the opinion of most prelates, the church was not governed in accordance with canon law. At the height of the Revolution, however, an elected Orthodox church council re-created the patriarchate. This was the moment when the church at last emancipated itself from the secular power. In the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, just up the river and within hearing distance of the artillery pounding the Kremlin, councillors put forward three candidates for the restored office. The final choice was made not by adding up votes but by drawing lots, a procedure that was supposed to reflect God’s will rather than human caprice. An elderly monk drew the tokens, and Tikhon, Metropolitan of Moscow (who had received the smallest number of ‘human’ votes), was duly appointed patriarch.

His enthronement took place in the Kremlin on 21 November 1917. Members of the council were able to attend, but few ordinary Muscovites were there. The Soviet authorities had just taken command of the sacred space, and their sentries stopped the unauthorised from entering. The Kremlin itself was a sorry spectacle after the Red Guards’ bombardment: the Chudov Monastery was pockmarked by shells, the Dormition Cathedral had lost one of its domes and the debris of battle lay everywhere. But the bishops and archbishops assembled in their finery in the useable parts of the cathedral. Tikhon followed them in procession and was escorted to the dais, where after a solemn service his episcopal garments were taken off and the patriarchal robes and klobuk (ceremonial cap), unused for two hundred years, brought out of the vestry for him. Finally he was greeted by all as ‘Our most holy father Tikhon, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia’. It is said that the Red soldiers, who had smoked and laughed at the back of the cathedral during the service, knelt in front of the new patriarch as he proceeded out into the square.

It was a coincidence most unwelcome to the new Soviet authorities that Russia had once again acquired a patriarch just as they were taking power. After a few years, they arrested Tikhon and downgraded the patriarchate, permitting only a locum tenens. The principal sacred site of the atheist state was to be the mausoleum on Red Square, which housed Lenin, the Soviet ‘patriarch’. Visitors queued for hours to peer into the glass-encased catafalque at the embalmed corpse.

In the middle of the Second World War, however, it occurred to Stalin that a genuine patriarchate might have its uses. He began to dream of using the Orthodox Church as the tsars had done, to augment Russia’s influence in the Balkans and Middle East, and even to create a kind of Orthodox Vatican. This couldn’t be done without a patriarch, so in 1943 Stalin hurriedly summoned a pliant (and unelected) church council, which elected a new patriarch, Sergei Stragorodsky, the former locum. The Soviet regime was reluctantly saddled with a patriarch, who has come into his own as a partner of the president only in the post-Soviet Russian Federation.

Long before 1943, the Chudov Monastery had been closed, its monks expelled, its buildings demolished and the churches sealed off. Bureaucratic wrangling pitched those officials who wanted to conserve and catalogue ecclesiastical valuables against those who wanted to sell them off for foreign currency to bolster shaky Soviet finances. The Kremlin was also closed to casual visitors. Stalin worked there, often at night, deep in its gloomy and well-guarded interior. To get in at all required a panoply of special passes. When John Steinbeck and a colleague visited in 1947, they had to run a gauntlet of guards on the causeway leading up to it, where their passes were scrutinised, then bells rang and they proceeded further under military escort: ‘Just two hours in this royal palace so depressed us that we couldn’t shake it all day. What must a lifetime in it have done!’

Under Stalin’s successors, the public was once again admitted, though only to a small selection of rooms, where exhibitions of historical memorabilia were held. In the 1960s Khrushchev decided that the Kremlin should once again become a site of public power, and decreed the construction of a new Palace of Congresses, whose rectilinear exterior still gleams over the darker brick of the outer walls. Meanwhile ‘Kremlin-watchers’ – the world’s journalists and diplomats – noted the precise line-up of Communist leaders on Lenin’s mausoleum and interpreted their observations according to the occult science of ‘Kremlinology’, the only known method for penetrating the secrets of the leaders’ intentions, inter-relationships and conflicts.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the newly installed President Yeltsin fell under the Kremlin’s spell. ‘There is a strange magic to the place, the magic of the air of history,’ he declared. ‘People realise that, in spite of everything, this is the Kremlin, this is Russia, this is my country.’ But the rebuilding and restoration work he sponsored soon fell victim to the corruption of the new buccaneer capitalism: Pavel Borodin, the oligarch responsible, probably took millions of pounds in kickbacks from the companies that were contracted to do the work; Borodin himself was bailed from a Swiss jail by none other than Vladimir Putin. Following the rollercoaster ride of the 1990s, Putin has set about restoring national pride, for which purpose the Kremlin is ideally suited. For the foreseeable future it is likely to continue to be seen as a solid rock of existential certainty that guarantees Russian life a stable past and future, whatever individual rulers may do.