Mostly red, certainly a fortress with many secrets, and the heart (in a less than cordial sense of the word) of Russia, the Kremlin has a function, an architecture and a history unlike any place on earth. As with many important books, the reader will wonder why nothing like Catherine Merridale's work (ignoring a sensational account or two, and tourists' coffee-table volumes) has been written before. Secrecy is part of the reason: it affects even archaeologists trying to uncover the endless buried strata beneath today's monstrous complex. There is a particular difficulty in writing about an establishment that has proved so protean and that has, in its 500-year history, undergone so many destructions and resurrections and fulfilled so many different functions, religious, political and symbolic.
The Kremlin has always been best understood by outsiders. Russian poets had to come from as far away as St Petersburg in order to appreciate the full monstrosity of what to Muscovites feels like part of the scenery. Osip Mandelstam reacted typically. On his first visit, he was fascinated by the cacophony of the church bells and the attempt to recreate Athens and Florence in Moscow. Later, when the Bolsheviks had reawoken the Kremlin and Moscow had taken back its powers from St Petersburg, he was struck with horror. One of his late poems begins, 'Today we can dip our little finger into the Moscow River and remove the coloured transfers from that bandit the Kremlin.'
Merridale has succeeded in stripping off the veneer. Most British historians writing about Russia can be classified as either 'people' writers or 'places' writers, basing their histories either on their ability to get witnesses to talk or on their sensitivity to the atmosphere of a town or a battlefield. Merridale established her primacy with the former type of narrative in Night of Stone and Ivan's War. But Red Fortress proves that she can combine both types. She has the skills to get guardians of secret places talking (particularly difficult for a foreigner and, sometimes, a woman) and to negotiate access with Russian archivists (dogs in mangers can be more generous hosts), and thus penetrate the inner workings of the Kremlin. At the same time, she has a feeling for the site that brings dry archaeological and architectural facts to life: few writers can write the biography of a city or a citadel.
Red Fortress is in part a story of constant transformation by fire and rebuilding. Fifteenth-century logs and earthworks give way to limestone blocks and fired bricks; native craftsmen find themselves working for Italian and Scottish foremen. The history of the building works can be seen as an allegory of the Russian state. Reading about the antagonism between workmen content to throw logs together and not worry about perfect perpendiculars or levels, and architects who amaze workers with their precise stone-cutting and pedantic blueprints and measurements, any modern architect working in Russia would give a sigh of recognition. But the recurrent theme is conflagration (through arson or carelessness), collapse and demolition, with new building not so much reconstructing as superseding what went before. Consequently, the Kremlin is situated on top of forgotten churches, offices and residences, and is constantly evolving.
Its purpose has changed, too. Originally a refuge for a population threatened by barbarian invaders, it has been a monastery complex, a bazaar, an aristocratic residence and a seat of government. Nobody would include the Kremlin in a list of the world's most beautiful sites: Mandelstam's word 'cacophony' applies not just to the untuned church bells but to the jumble of architectural styles. Nor do bright, soaring Renaissance frontages and Muscovite grimness or whimsy make for a coherent, aesthetically pleasing fusion. At the hub of Moscow's concentric circles, at the centre of government and religion, even of the country's defence, the Kremlin has now seen its functions settled. Perhaps all that is new is its capacity to paralyse the whole city every time a government convoy speeds out of its gates. The Kremlin creates an impression of controlled chaos, of densely packed, solidified history and, often, of sheer menace that makes a first visit, even when following a tourist guide's flag, hard to forget.