Interview with Catherine Merridale, winner of the 2014 Pushkin House Book Prize for 'Red Fortress'

Interview by Andrew Jack (@AJack)

How did you become interested in Russia? 

It was the language that did it. I ran away to France in my teens, and was very fluent when I returned. The state comprehensive where I studied said I should learn another language. My teacher, who was a linguist, suggested Russian because she was interested in it as an example of a European language influenced by non-European languages. My passion started with the amazing flexibility of the language, the fluidity, the unexpected brilliance of it, and then the literature. I may not be able to manage any fireworks myself, but I’m good enough to appreciate the wonder of Russian spoken by an educated person. What explains your focus on people and oral history in your previous books? I studied history and did a PhD at the Centre for Russian studies in Birmingham with RW Davies. It was extremely empirical, a numbers-based school, very rigorous. I had been doing fairly straightforward political history. But I remember being in a big heated discussion about how many people died in the purges: whether it was 1.3m or 1.7m. I had nursed a friend who was dying and was more concerned about how they felt. I wanted to talk to people. 

Why write this book, focused instead on a place? 

The answer that got me the grant is that having studied the grassroots, I wanted to look at the perpetrators. But after years researching the victims, the idea of studying the camp guards or the executioners was so physically revolting that I couldn’t do it. From the moment I first went to Russia, I'd always wanted to do something over the long term. With the Kremlin, it’s love-hate affair, of repulsion and compulsion. How difficult was it to write about the Kremlin throughout its history? It was incredibly challenging, a nightmare. I’d read various histories of places. At first, I'd thought it was going to be a fruitful, potentially rather beautiful way of looking at history and asking deep questions. It seemed such a good ruse. It turned into a complete Godzilla. One thousand years of history is too much for anyone to bite off, and I knew I would always be vulnerable criticism from all the experts in each of the different periods of history. The difficult thing is to keep the place as a hero, when it changes so much and especially when the people in it are so incredibly colourful. Plus I wanted keep readers going. It was fine that for a long period it was not the seat of Russian power. I quite like abandoned places and ruins. That provided an opportunity to reflect on other things that the Kremlin meant, and to talk about art and Russian nationalism. 

What is the thesis of the book? 

Some people don’t get it or like it, but my message is that we have to take each generation of Russian leaders as they are and not keep assuming that Russia is feted to follow a special path and will always be the same. That there is a Russian destiny. That’s a piece of theatre. Look at the Crimea today: there are geopolitical and strategic considerations, and there is history. But this is Vladimir Putin and his advisers taking decisions in a very different context. Any sense of continuity is an illusion. Consider my favourite image in the Kremlin: the portrait at the top of the stairs in the Grand Kremlin Palace is a very big canvas of a battle. But it’s not there because it’s always been there. It was taken there from the Tetryakov Gallery to replace a perfectly equal-sized canvass of Lenin that hung there till 1991, which replaced a portrait before the Revolution of Alexander III. They had to find something to fill the hole. 

Was it difficult gaining entry to the Kremlin archives? 

At first it seemed to be insuperable. I thought ‘what on earth have I done?’ I consulted Russian historians and curators who were all very sceptical about my getting access. You fight to get in and think you will be the only person, and once you arrive you find there are 30 other people working inside. It’s all down to being serious, about not lying. Finally, I got a reader’s pass for a week, and then on Wednesday afternoon I became very nervous because my time was running out, and on Thursdays it was always closed – because that was the day the Politburo always used to meet. I was told I could have as long as I wanted. That’s very Russian: once you’re in, and as long as you are a serious researcher, you work things out. The window of the Ivan the Great Belltower looks onto the Senate, the Presidential building, but the view is blocked by a big aspidistra. What was most surprising during your research? It was walking into the abandoned fourteenth century church of St Lazarus. I thought I wasn’t going to see closed buildings inside the Kremlin. Then on one of those purely Russian days, someone asked if would like a tour. You never refuse an offer from a well meaning Russian. Out came magnificent keys and pliers, and off we went. I was astonished by what I was shown. At the end of my tour, we went into St Lazarus. I’d expected it to be all so neat and orderly. Seeing the pliers to get into a church that was forgotten, rediscovered and lost again was amazing - almost like an informal kind of museum of Russia's past. The only problem was that I was not allowed to take a camera. 

Was it intimidating to be working in the Kremlin? 

There is a role of intimidation, which perhaps is encouraged by the Kremlin itself: the physical geography, the fact it is raised up, that you have to go through gates. There are all sorts of opportunities to harass you. Some are understandable, to protect against terrorism, but there is also cussedness. I think that is absolutely deliberate. The Kremlin is made to make you feel small. I asked all the people who lived and worked there. They said that once you get inside the walls you feel different, because of the history and the destiny. The really important thing is it hides you so you can get away with things. Once you shut people away and shut others out, you trap people inside. My dream is that the Kremlin should be opened up, as a wonderful World Museum of Tyranny. Were there any other obstacles to your research? The main hazard to my work was the cats at the RGADA, the Archive of Ancient Acts. They have a gang of working cats to tackle the mice. But they are so aggressive you have to sweep them off the documents. One sprayed me, and I lost a raincoat. What is your next project? I’m working on another book but if I told you what it was about, I’d have to kill you.