Catherine Merridale's award-winning Red Fortress: The Secret Heart of Russia's History unlocks the myths of 'spellbinding' Kremlin

Merridale's book won the Pushkin House Russian Book Prize this week

The Kremlin is one of the most famous structures in the world. If states have trademarks, Russia's could well be this fortress, viewed across Red Square. Everyone who comes to Moscow wants to see it, and everyone who visits seems to take a different view.

"The only guarantee of a correct response is to choose your position before you come," wrote the German philosopher Walter Benjamin. "In Russia, you can only see if you have already decided." In 1927, his decision was to be enthralled. A hundred years before, however, a Frenchman called the Marquis de Custine had opted for a scandalised tirade. To him, the Kremlin was "a prop of tyrants", a "satanic monument", "a habitation that would suit some of the personages of the Apocalypse". "Like the bones of certain gigantic animals," he concluded, "the Kremlin proves to us the history of a world of which we might doubt until after seeing the remains."

The site still mesmerises foreign visitors. The Kremlin's spired silhouette is crowned by its religious buildings, and the most entrancing of these are clustered like so many jewel-boxes round a single square. From almost any point on this historic ground, the eye will be drawn upwards from the white stones to an effulgence of coloured tile and on to the cascades of gilded domes that lead yet higher, up among the wheeling Moscow crows, to a dazzling procession of three-barred Orthodox crosses. The tallest towers are visible for miles around, standing white and gold above the city. Magnificent and lethal, holy and yet secretive, the fortress is indeed an incarnation of the legendary Russian state.

Its spell depends on an apparent timelessness. The Dormition Cathedral, which is the oldest and most famous sacred building on the site, has witnessed every coronation since the days of Ivan the Terrible. Across the square, in the Cathedral of the Archangel Michael, most visitors can barely squeeze between the waist-high caskets that hold the remains of almost every Moscow prince from the 14th to the 17th centuries. In the reign of the last tsar, a nationalist court administration had 46 of the carved stone coffins covered in uniform bronze casings, row upon sombre row, reinforcing the impression of unbroken lineage. The 15th-century Faceted Palace, where the royal diners gathered in a blaze of diamonds and gold, still graces the western margin of Cathedral Square. Towering behind it, the vast Grand Palace is a 19th-century pastiche, but anyone who ventures past the armed police will come upon the curving stair, mutely guarded by stone lions, that leads up to the older royal quarters and the churches that were carefully preserved within. Like Jerusalem, Rome, or Istanbul, the Kremlin is a place where history is concentrated, and every stone seems to embody several pasts. The effect is hypnotic.

The magnificent Dormition Cathedral The magnificent Dormition Cathedral (Fine Art/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
It is also deliberately contrived. There is nothing accidental about the Kremlin's current appearance, from the chaos of its golden roofline to the overwhelming mass of palaces and ancient walls. Someone designed these shapes to celebrate the special character of Russian culture, and someone else approved the plans to go on building in a style that would suggest historically rooted power. The ubiquitous gold, in Orthodox iconography, may be a reminder of eternity, but for the rest of us it is also an impressive reflection of earthly wealth. From the churches and forbidding gates to the familiar spires that are its emblem, the Kremlin is not merely home to Russia's rulers. It is also a theatre and a text, a gallery that displays and embodies the current governing idea. That – and the incongruity of its survival in the heart of modern Moscow – has long been the secret of its magnetism.

It is a place where myths are born, the stage on which the Russian state parades its power and its pedigree. But the fortress is also a character in its own right. The Red Fortress, then, is about the Kremlin over centuries of time, but it is also very much about the Kremlin now. As I began to work on it, I quickly discovered the benefits of an association – even an unreciprocated one – with Russia's ultimate elite. Although the Kremlin's research staff work in conditions that are worse, if anything, than those of any university historian outside the walls, the general environment is spectacular. As I waved my hard-won cardboard pass at the armed guards at the Borovitsky Gate and swept past queues of early-bird tourists, I tasted the superiority that fellows of Oxford and Cambridge colleges surely enjoy every working day. I left the Moscow smog and traffic noise behind. Inside the walls, before the tour groups really start, there is a pleasant quiet, and even now, in that land of diesel and cigarettes, the breeze carries a subtle perfume of incense. The library that I was heading for was high up, too, in an annexe to the bell tower of Ivan the Great, which leaves the team that runs it without an inch of free space but means the crowds stay very far away.

Any sense of membership is relative, however, for this is not a normal research site. In the Kremlin, a visitor will see what she is meant to see. Locked doors are waiting even for the most persistent guest. As every archaeologist knows, you can learn a great deal about a culture, and especially a secretive one, by looking at the things it throws away. The Kremlin is not an obvious place to look for junk, but there was one occasion when I managed to visit the local equivalent of an attic. The chance came as an unexpected bonus when a busy woman who directs one of the Kremlin's specialist research departments kindly offered to escort me round the palace on a private tour. The idea was to look at all the extant churches, and there are lots of them.

I arrived early on the appointed morning, for I loved to spend a moment in the empty fortress, watching subtle autumn light play on the old limestone. My guide, whose office was located in an annexe of the Annunciation Cathedral, had not quite finished collecting her things, so we chatted as she made her thoughtful selection from a box of keys. I marvelled at each one as they were lined up on her desk, for keys like these should really have been forged from meteorites and guarded by a dragon. Some were long and heavy, others intricate, and most were so ornate that they were hard to balance in one hand. I had no time to test them all, however, before the curator had finished rummaging in her cupboard and produced a pair of pliers. It turned out that their purpose was to break the heavy seals that safeguard the contents of the palace's numerous hidden chambers.

The first such seal awaited us at the top of a flight of polished marble steps. On the far side of an internal atrium, across a lake of gleaming parquet, we came upon a sealed pair of exquisitely wrought and gilded gates and beyond these, also locked and sealed, a pair of solid wooden doors. The prospect looked forbidding, but the pliers soon pulled off the wax, the long key turned with satisfying ease, and the wooden doors swung open to admit us to a 17th-century church with icons by the master Simon Ushakov. The first surprise was just how dim and even clammy the room seemed after the blazing chandeliers outside. We found the switch for the electric bulb, and by its unforgiving light I saw why the initial gloom had struck me with such force. Russian churches are meant to glint and shine, but this one had no gold or silver anywhere; the precious icons themselves were displayed in a crude-looking wooden iconostasis. It turned out that the antique silver with which the screen had once been finished, a work of fine art in its own right, had been stripped and melted down in Lenin's time, ostensibly to buy bread for the people but in fact to keep the government afloat. As our tour took in more churches, more forlorn iconostases, and chambers unlit and uncanny in their emptiness, I discovered that the same fate had befallen treasures elsewhere in the palace. But there was still plenty to see, and for some hours we wove back and forth, pausing at one point to peer into the winter garden that had once been Stalin's cinema.

A 19th-century view of the Kremlin A 19th-century view of the Kremlin (Fine Art/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
My new friend was generous with both time and expertise, but she hesitated before we descended the final set of stairs. "Don't tell the fire department," she muttered. The corridor was narrowing; the carpets had not been replaced in a long time. We were on our way down to a 14th-century church that had been thought lost until it was rediscovered during building-work in the reign of Tsar Nicholas I. After more than 600 (so many wars, so many fires, so many redevelopment projects) there is not much left of the church itself (the walls are whitewashed), but there was a good deal else to see. Along the corridor and down the stairs were ladders, tins of paint, and broken chairs in awkward-looking stacks. There was a red flag rolled against a wall, a gilded table quarantined from some themed exhibition-space, dust sheets spattered with whitewash, a chunky radio. The expedition down through Nicholas's palace, and Mikhail Romanov's, Ivan the Terrible's, and the renaissance foundations of far older chambers was not only an experience of going back in time, which is what journeys into undercrofts are all supposed to be. I felt more as if a selection of discarded versions of the Kremlin's past had been assembled in a time-capsule, collapsing decade upon decade into one surreal space.

Russian history is full of destruction and rebuilding; the country has seen more than its fair share of change. For complex reasons, not always the same ones, the state, in a succession of different forms, has almost always managed to achieve priority at the expense of popular rights. At every moment of crisis, a set of choices has been made, often in the Kremlin, and always by specific people with a range of short-term interests to defend. There is nothing inevitable about this, and the discarded options testify to the fragmented nature of the tale. When today's Russian leaders talk about the mighty state, the so‑called traditions that they have dubbed "sovereign democracy", they are making yet another choice. History has nothing to do with it, for precedent, as that red flag and those old chairs attest so well, is something that can be thrown out like last week's flowers. There have been many Russian pasts. Once its sealed doors have been unlocked, the Kremlin need no longer seem the prop of tyrants that Custine reviled. In a culture that seeks to control history itself, it is an awkward survivor, a magnificent, spellbinding, but ultimately incorruptible witness to the hidden heart of the Russian state.

This is an edited extract from 'Red Fortress: The Secret Heart of Russia's History', by Catherine Merridale, published in paperback by Penguin (rrp£10.99) on May 12. To buy it for £9.89 free P&P, call 08430 600030 or visit independentbooksdirect.co.uk. The Pushkin House Russian Book Prize, run in association with Waterstones. pushkinhouse.org.uk

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