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Red Fortress: The Secret Heart of Russia's History

3.89  ·  Rating details ·  454 ratings  ·  68 reviews
The extraordinary story of the Kremlin, from prize-winning author and historian Catherine Merridale

Both beautiful and profoundly menacing, the Kremlin has dominated Moscow for many centuries. Behind its great red walls and towers many of the most startling events in Russia's history have been acted out. It is both a real place and an imaginative idea; a shorthand for a cer
Hardcover, 506 pages
Published October 3rd 2013 by Allen Lane (first published January 1st 2013)
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Average rating 3.89  · 
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Start your review of Red Fortress: The Secret Heart of Russia's History
Sometimes we gaze out over the red brick walls at pivotal moments taking shape across the vast Russian landscape; sometimes we look down upon the Moskva but most of the time we're on the inside, watching buildings rise and crumble as Byzantine robes give way to red banners.

Neither fish nor fowl, it's easier to say what this book is not. It's not a history of Russia nor a history of Moscow. It's not completely a history of the Kremlin, either. That would entail an in-depth look at the architectur
Jul 25, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: book-list-2014
3.5 stars. This was a book that I'm glad I read but really felt like a slog. So much detail that it was overwhelming. I'm impressed at the research that went into this, but for a general audience book it felt too academic for me. Also, it could really use some timelines and maybe a brief cast of characters. I think that would've increased my understanding and ability to keep track of who was who and when significantly. ...more
Dec 07, 2013 rated it liked it

Reading the Red Fortress is like reading a mini-history of the various rulers of Russia. I was hoping for interesting architectural details and a full disclosure of all the tricks they use to keep Lenin looking fresh but no such luck.

Merridale does start from the beginning with invading hordes and eventually moving on to strong leaders consolidating power. She also spends time on Russia's religious past and the churches that have been built and torn down inside the Kremlin.

She details how the
Apr 12, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I always thought of the Kremlin as an elegant and stately government building in the French Imperial style with Byzantine and Russian motifs surrounded by an imposing red wall in front of the enormous Red Square forever flanked by St. Basil’s Cathedral which, in my humble opinion, is like an Arabian fairy tale nightmare induced by really bad “shrooms.”

In political terms, I believed said building simply housed the office and staff of Russian potentates, a sort of White House in steroids, since
Sep 03, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
“The Kremlin is one of the most famous landmarks in the world”. With this sentence Catherine Merridale opens her fascinating and in-depth study of this symbolic and instantly recognisable complex of ancient and modern buildings, which in so many ways is the very incarnation of the Russian state. There is no reliable record of the Kremlin’s beginnings, although there is a mention of a prince's residence in 1147, and traces of a 12th century wall. The word Kremlin first appears in the 1300s, and s ...more
Aug 04, 2015 rated it it was ok
For enthusiasm and research, Catherine Merridale deserves five stars, but despite having visited Moscow both before and after the collapse of Communism, and been inside the Kremlin, I found this history hard going.

The opening chapters seem padded out, since there is little to say about the rural backwater of Moscow and the wooden fortification of the initial Kremlin when Kiev was the centre of activity for the region. In the later Middle Ages, the political rulers on one hand and religious patri
Aug 08, 2015 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: History buffs, aesthetes, history of architecture fans, Russian history beginners
A fantastic introduction to the broad sweep of Russian history, through the lens of the pretty ill-treated Kremlin complex. Ms Merridale's depth of research is accompanied by a great turn of phrase and the ability to keep the reader interested through a sometimes dizzying whirl of dynastic change. I particularly enjoyed the coverage of the grim days of the Stalin purges, and the role of the Kremlin in attempts to legitimise the post-communist 'democratic' settlement. Ms Merridale's attempts to d ...more
Jul 07, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Another book where you want to start re-reading it the minute you've finished. This biography of the Kremlin provides a history of how Russia has re-invented itself over and over again across the centuries. The individuals in charge, who inflicted such suffering on the Russian people, are brought vividly to life and the firebird nature of the site itself is described in fascinating detail, sometimes ironic, sometimes tragic. The changing regimes have used the Kremlin as a symbol of power in thei ...more
Dec 31, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This book tells the story of Russia through the history of the Kremlin. And I mean that literally: the buildings. This talks about who built them, what happened to them, how their use has changed; Merridal knows a whole lot about architecture and art, and uses this to then explain how those things fit into historical patterns... including right up to the present day, which is a frankly very gutsy move.

This is an approach that really works for me. I love being shown the evidence first and then th
Julian Douglass
Dec 12, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Very detailed history of the Kremlin, spanning basically a millennium of Russian History. Ms. Merridale really did her homework while writing this book as it was full of information. However, being so full of information can be a blessing and a curse. With each chapter being on average 30+ pages, the chapters can really drag out especially when she rambles on about art and the way a building looks. I also think she spent too much time in the beginning and not as much time with Modern Russian his ...more
Michael Samerdyke
I'd give this 4-and-a-half if it were possible.

I enjoyed this more than I expected. Merridale does a terrific job bringing the "Muscovite" era to life. Her coverage of the Time of Troubles is masterfully done.

Even after the capital moved to St. Petersburg, her coverage of the cultural meaning of Moscow and the Kremlin proved fascinating.

The last two chapters, basically from Stalin's death to the present, seemed a little out of focus to me, more about the USSR/Russia as a whole than the Kremlin,
Arup Guha
Mar 28, 2020 rated it really liked it
This is a good book to get you started on Russian history. The scope is sweeping and you will have to work through centuries of details compressed in around 350 pages. But it will intrigue you. Two things stand out for me. First, how in Russia, every time any regime tries to introduce reforms, it comes to a violent end. This discouraged any future regime from introducing changes. Second, the mystique of kremlin. How the mysterious silent fortress has managed to remain the guardian of Russian pow ...more
Zhi Chen
Oct 11, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Captivating narrative throughout; interweaving the history of the Kremlin with Russian history. With that being said, this book is not entirely focused on the physical Kremlin but on its inhabitants and their affairs as well.
Feb 11, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Such an interesting book, couldn't put it down!
Feb 02, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: own, cities, politics, russia
4. 0 / 5.0

Surprised that after reading I still have only a fuzzy picture and understanding of "The Kremlin". That said the book is a informative romp through Russian / Moscow History. Shallow but broad with links to Moscow / Kremlin that are not stretched. Format follows Historical timeline and Pre Peter the Great Sections are particularly informative. Intriguing and point may really be that the idea of The Kremlin is elusive.
Brad Rousse
Dec 22, 2014 rated it it was amazing
The history of the Kremlin is the history of Moscow; and the history of Moscow is the history of Russia. This is essentially the argument of Catherine Merridale's engaging and intriguing history of one of the most foreboding and aloof buildings in the world. Starting with Moscow's far off origins in the Rus, Merridale takes her readers on a step by step, intimate view of the citadel as goes from earthen fort to the heart of a superpower. Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Lenin, Stalin, Putin; ...more
I read this one as research for the current novel in progress, and found its coverage of the subject both broad and deep. The timeline stretches from the earliest foundations of Moscow through recent events. With every generation, there's so much lost in terms of historical buildings and artifacts that it's rather heartbreaking to consider. Perhaps more than any other building on Earth, the Kremlin has come to symbolize the power of its associated government, and Merridale's account makes clear ...more
It's a very detailed book about the Kreml. I think too detailed, so I stopped at 2/3 of the book. Just too much information.
But for those, who are really interested, it's quite astonishing.
You learn a lot, not just about Moskow but about Russia and its history.

Lauren Albert
This dragged for me and I can't put my finger on the reason. It wasn't quite about the Kremlin. But it wasn't quite about Moscow or Russia either. ...more
Vikas Datta
Dec 18, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
History-writing at its most brilliant and inspiring..
Jul 04, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a biography of a building - actually a set of buildings - the Kremlin. The story goes back eight centuries and is related with the unfolding of Russia as a powerful state, from the consolidation of the Muscovite state and the reigns of the Ivans (great and terrible) to the Romanov dynasty to the Russian revolutions of 1917 and the emergence of the USSR to the post-Soviet governments of Yeltsin and Putin. The core of the story is how the Kremlin was a tool of various regimes and came to b ...more
Jun 25, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Loved this book. It was very well written, informative, and insightful. The only reasoning I did not rate it 5 stars is that the writing was not compelling. For me, 5 star books are books that linger in my mind after I read them, books that are outstanding above all else. This book was good, but it will not haunt me. If you aren't interested in the subject, you probably would not care to finish it. I, however, was fascinated by a historical insight into the most beautiful political fortress ever ...more
Megi Kartsivadze
Apr 06, 2018 rated it really liked it
Interesting book, examining ever-changing Kremlin achitecture as a reflection of Russian internal political and cultural transformation throughout the centuries. Merridale explains how Russian rulers from Ivan the Terrible to Putin have used Kremlin to legitimize their power and create a sense of historical continuity. The consistent methodology and writing style she engages in her research makes the narrative very comprehensive.
Nicole DiStasio
Jan 19, 2017 rated it really liked it
I enjoyed this book. But I have to wonder if I could have enjoyed it if I hadn't been to the Kremlin, were I not able to visualize all of those places, buildings, and structures she mentions. I also do not recommend this as a first, second, or even third book on Russian history! You'll need more context to enjoy this. ...more
Jessica Wilkins
Jul 14, 2018 rated it liked it
This book is excellent for what it is - a detailed historical account of life in and around the Kremlin, as well as what that symbolised for Russia as a whole. This is a dense text which I would not recommend as a holiday read or to a newcomer on Russian history. In fact, the deeper the reader's understanding of Russian history, the more they will like this book. ...more
Fred Eisenhut
Feb 21, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
This is an awesome read. The detail and explanations about each phase of Russian history really help explain the Russian mindset of its leaders. You may come away wondering if anyone has any sense of ethics in Russian history. Its story is both glorious and deeply distressing.
Claire Biggs
While the book is a bit hard going and you really have to concentrate, the history of the Kremlin is well researched and the author puts all views in the book, it shows how the country tried to move away from Royalist rule and were no better off with the so called revelation
Etienne Henry
Mar 29, 2018 rated it really liked it
Excellent overview of some important stages of Russian history since early days and some more specific aspects of the city of Moscow and, of course Moscow Kremlin.
Apr 02, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A good compact history of Russia without too many details to worry about. It was interesting to focus on the Kremlin as a microcosm of Russia as a whole.
Steven Heywood
Aug 21, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An astonishingly readable and comprehensive history of the fortress-cum-political theatre that is the Kremlin.
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