Russia Controlling its History

The Kremlin is one of those terms that we all know, but don’t really know much about. It is the country’s major tourist destination, but the term usually refers to the Russian government, whose buildings are within the huge fortress, still enclosed by high red walls, but it a huge complex of royal, religious and civic government , which has been destroyed and rebuilt many times over the centuries. This is an article from the i newspaper of 2 May, by Catherine Merridale, winner of the Pushkin House Russian Book Prize. This is her account of a visit to some of the hidden churches:

“On the far side of an internal atrium, across a lake of gleaming parquet, we came upon a sealed pair of exquisitely wrought and gilded gates and beyond these, also locked and sealed, a pair of solid wooden doors… [which] swung open to admit us to a 17t century church with icons by the master Simon Ushakov. The first surprise was just how dim and even clammy the room seemed after the blazing chandeliers outside. We found the switch for the electric bulb, and by its unforgiving light I saw why the initial gloom had struck me with such force. Russian churches are meant to glint and shine, but this one had no gold or silver anywhere: …

It turned out that the antique silver with which the screen had once been finished had been stripped and melted down in Lenin’s time, ostensibly to buy bread for the people but in fact to keep the government afloat. As our tour took in more churches, more forlorn iconostases, and chambers unlit and uncanny in their emptiness, I discovered that the same fate had befallen treasures elsewhere in the palace, But there was still plenty to see, and for some hours we wove back and forth , pausing at one point to peer into the winter garden that had once been Stalin’s cinema. ….

We were on our way town to a 14th-century church that had been thought lost until it was rediscovered during building work in the reign of Tsar Nicholas I. After more than 600 years (so many wars, so many fires, so many redevelopment projects) there is not much left of the church itself (the walls are whitewashed), but there was a good deal else to see. Along the corridor and down the stairs were ladders, tins of paint, and broken chairs in awkward-looking stacks. There was a red flag rolled against a wall, a gilded table quarantined from some themed exhibition space, dust sheets spattered with whitewash, a chunky radio. The expedition down through Nicholas’s palace, and Mikhail Romanov’s, Ivan the Terrible’s, and the renaissance foundations of far older chambers was not only an experience of going back in time, which is what journeys into the undercrofts are all supposed to be. I felt more as if a selection of discarded versions of the Kremlin’s past had been assembled in a time-capsule, collapsing decade upon decade into one space.

Russian history is full of destruction and rebuilding; the country has seen more than its fair share of change. For complex reasons, not always the same ones, the state, in a succession of different forms, ahs almost always managed to achieve priority at the expense of popular rights. At every moment of crisis, a set of choices has been made, often in the Kremlin, and always by specific people with a range of short-term interests to defend. There is nothing inevitable about this, and the discarded options testify to the fragmented nature of the tale. When today’s Russian leaders talk about the mighty state, the so-called traditions that they have dubbed ‘sovereign democracy’ they are making yet another choice. History has nothing to do with it, for precedent, as that red flag and those old chairs attest so well, is something that can be thrown out like last week’s flowers. There have been many Russian pasts. In a culture that seeks to control history itself, it is an awkward survivor, a magnificent, spellbinding, but ultimately incorruptible witness to the hidden heart of the Russian state.”

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