Comprehensive study of Moscow’s walled city, for centuries a byword for power, secrecy and cruelty.
“The Kremlin’s history is a tale of survival, and it is certainly an epic, but there is nothing inevitable about any of it.” So writes Merridale (Contemporary History/Queen Mary Univ. of London), author of the excellent Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939–1945 (2006), casting subtle doubt on the claims of the Putin government and its assertions of imperial destiny. Glorifying the past, of course, is a way to take eyes off the present, though the stratagem can sometimes backfire. What is of central importance to the history of the Kremlin and, by extension, that of Russia, is the capacity of its builders to return time and again to scenes of utter destruction and start from scratch. Or not quite from scratch, since, as Merridale notes at the close of her book, Russians were recently delighted to learn that the workmen who had been ordered to destroy the Kremlin’s Orthodox religious icons in the 1930s had defied Stalin’s orders and instead painted them over; and so skillfully that the paint can (comparatively, anyway) easily be removed and the icons restored. Stalin naturally figures heavily in these pages, a ruler whose apparatus was extremely effective in delivering cruelty. What is just as interesting, and perhaps surprising to most readers, is the role of non-Russians in making the Kremlin over the centuries, from a Venetian master builder to German craftsmen fleeing the religious wars of their homeland—to say nothing of the Byzantine hierarchy to whom Russian religious leaders used to answer.
Visitors of Russia and social historians alike will benefit from Merridale’s thoroughgoing research and lively writing.