A “biography” of the Kremlin, one of Russia’s most mysterious and iconic buildings, has won a prestigious award that seeks to deepen understanding of the Russian speaking world.
Author Catherine Merridale, whose book has been hailed for its “sharp relevance to current issues,” first became interested in the culture after being forced to learn Russian at school as a punishment.
Her book Red Fortress: The Secret Heart of Russia’s History tonight beat competition from five others on the shortlist to win the Pushkin House Russian Book Prize, and a cheque for £5,000. She called it an “enormous honour. It was an enormous honour just to be nominated”.
The winner, professor of contemporary history at Queen Mary, University of London, was awarded the prize by Rowan Williams for the book which goes behind the giant red walls that overlook Red Square and reveals the most startling events from over 800 years of Russian history.
The former Archbishop of Canterbury called the book “profoundly engaging” and said it offered “the kind of understanding we badly need at the moment”.
Prof Merridale has written four other books on Russian history including Night of Stone: Death and Memory in Russia, which was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize.
“I studied victims for years in my previous work and people said I should study the torturers or interrogators,” she said. “I couldn’t face that, but I think to get at Russia, if you want to look at perpetrators, you need to look at the state.”
On the current situation in Russia, she said: “I’m very upset and sad to see what’s happening now. One of the things I want to get across to people is that Russia is not the same from century to century. The Russia we’re seeing now is not the one of Stalin or Ivan the Terrible.”
“If Putin is going down well among the people for how he deals with the West, we should be more shocked and concerned to understand why that is happening.”
While researching the book, she built up an “idiosyncratic” picture of Putin from talking to interpreters who worked at the Kremlin.
Viv Groskop, one of the judges, said: “Red Fortress is about the Kremlin as an idea as well as a place itself. Buried just beneath the surface is a history of power of extraordinary relevance to what’s going on in Russia today.”
The author had “always been amazed” by the Kremlin from her first trip to Russia at the age of 18.
“Going from the then ghastly Soviet airport, everything in Moscow was grey and cold and hard,” she said. “Suddenly in the middle of the city were these golden cupolas and enormous redbrick walls with peculiar swallowtail battlement pattern that didn’t look Russian, but did at the same time.”
Her fascination with Russia started while she attended a state school in Andover. Her ease with studying French led to her being labelled disruptive in class. “They said, only half jokingly, ‘you need to be punished by learning another language’.” She chose Russian over German.
While studying for her MA and PhD she made numerous trips to Russia, and lived in Moscow for a year. While researching in the reading room of the Lenin Library she would gaze over the fortress.
She lived in the city the first year Mikhail Gorbachev was head of the Communist Party. “It was very exciting. Everything changed during that time,” Prof Merridale.
“When I started you couldn’t work in the archives, but a year later you could get the documents. It was amazing to go back and see the place change and change and change.”