Delhi: “The Kremlin is the embodiment of Russia,” says British historian Catherine Merridale. “It stands for state power.” When Russia’s President Vladimir Putin received guests for crisis talks before the Ukraine war began, the world was astonished to see French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz sitting at the opposite end of a vast, opulent white table. “The Kremlin,” Merridale said in a recent interview with the Suddeutsche Zeitung, “is also a grandiose theater.”
A longtime Russia expert and historian who started to research in the Kremlin in the 1980s, in 2014 Merridale wrote “Red Fortress,” a widely acclaimed book about 500 years of power in the Kremlin from Ivan the Terrible to Vladimir Putin. The majesty and impressive size of the Kremlin had a purpose: The Tsarist Kremlin palaces were to be larger and more imposing than anything else in Europe. It was an architecture of intimidation. Like his predecessors, the current Kremlin ruler, Vladimir Putin, knows how to use the complex for his own benefit, impressing mere mortals with “the glittering halls in the Kremlin, the chandeliers,” Merridale says. “You’re supposed to be amazed.”
It is true that Tsar Peter the Great (1672-1725) moved his seat of government from Moscow to the new Saint Petersburg on the Baltic Sea. But the Kremlin never lost its attraction for Russia’s rulers. The French travel writer and diplomat Marquis Astolphe de Custine saw a “satanic monument,” a “prop for tyrants” in the Moscow building complex. Custine had made a long trip to Russia in the summer of 1839, and painted a picture of authoritarian rule.
“Despotism suppresses the free development of people,” the marquis wrote. “All are servants and especially towards strangers they become cautious and secretive.” Custine explained his observations by referring to Russia’s first great Tsarist imperialist. “Peter I and Catherine II gave the world a great and useful lesson, which Russia had to pay for; they showed us that despotism is never more to be feared than when it wants to create good, for then it believes it can justify its most outrageous actions.”
If Custine had been alive to comment Putin’s Ukraine war in 2022, his critique might have been similarly negative. But as the French marquis travelled through Russia, he noted his admiration for the Kremlin’s “original Russian construction method,” which had Russian needs in mind and which Russia’s master builders should therefore follow as an example. For Catherine Merridale, the Russian Orthodox Church has always ensured cohesion in an often politically divided Kremlin. As a result of the Mongol invasion, the leaders of the loose medieval federation of Kievan Rus — today’s Russia, Ukraine and Belarus — moved into the Kremlin in the 14th century.
A church was built there and would later became the golden-domed Cathedral of the Dormition, also known as the Cathedral of the Assumption, which has made the Orthodox Church forever present in the Kremlin. “Putin has used this connection to his advantage like no other head of state since the tsars,” says Merridale. “He prays publicly, lights candles, keeps in touch with the patriarch.” On the outside, the Kremlin looks very powerful. But inside, there is a danger of losing oneself completely, as Merridale told the Suddeutsche Zeitung. “When you’ve removed all the critics, you’re a prisoner of your own ego.”
This article was provided by Deutsche Welle