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’.

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