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Power and myth of the Kremlin

Stefan Dege
April 11, 2022

From Ivan the Terrible to Stalin and Vladimir Putin, rulers have long taken their seat at the zenith of Russian political authority: the Kremlin. But it is more than a symbol of power.

The Red Square, with St. Basil's Cathedral (l) and the Kremlin (r)
St. Basil's Cathedral and the Kremlin (right) tower over the Red SquareImage: Peter Seyfferth/imageBroker/picture alliance

Flanked by the Red Square with its golden-domed cathedrals, the Kremlin's vast red walls tower over the Moskva River. 

Since time immemorial, the imposing building has been a focal point of Russian history — and the seat of Russian rulers.

"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.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz sitting at opposite ends of a long oval table.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (l) and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz meeting at Moscow's Kremlin on February 15Image: Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/dpa/picture alliance

"The Kremlin," Merridale said in a recent interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung, "is also a grandiose theater."

The Kremlin's long and infamous history

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."

Red Square at night.
Red Square at nightImage: Federico Gambarini/dpa/picture alliance

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 traveled 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.

 A lithograph of the vast riverside building with towers
A lithograph from 1840 shows the vast scale of the riverside KremlinImage: akg-images/picture alliance

Orthodox Church always present

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."

For a long time, the Kremlin remained the tsar's residence. Only in 1918, with the tsar overthrown and the authority of the Orthodox Church broken, did the old fortress once again become the center of power.

Lenin's Mausoleum on Red Square
Lenin's mausoleum is also on Red SquareImage: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Kalaene

Then the Bolsheviks conquered it. And soon the communist leaders remembered the Kremlin's advantages since it's a cultural icon as well as a fortress that protects from attacks and assassinations — and from deadly pandemics during the civil war. 

Lenin escaped cholera and typhoid here, as well as the Spanish flu. He had his own disinfection chamber next to his bedroom. "Putin learned a lot from Lenin in that regard," says Merridale, "because he's panicky about getting infected!"

Lenin's successor, Joseph Stalin (1878-1953), also exercised caution: After the murder of an acolyte, he took shelter there. Fearing an assassination attempt, he threw his old comrades out of the Kremlin. Stalin no longer trusted anyone. The time of purges and great show trials began, a time of terror.

By banning the human rights organization Memorial, Putin is deliberately suppressing the memory of Stalin's crimes, says Merridale. The Kremlin ruler sees himself in the continuity of Russia's great leaders, first and foremost Ivan IV, or Ivan the Terrible, and Peter the Great, also a tyrant.

Memorial NGO faces Kremlin-ordered closure

Putin despises Gorbachev

The current Russian autocrat has nothing but contempt for reformer Mikhail Gorbachev. Putin holds him responsible for the end of the Soviet Union.

But in fact, Khrushchev's thaw and Gorbachev's glasnost brought the Kremlin closer to the people again. The real turning point came in 1991: After the failed coup attempt against Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, the latter moved into the Kremlin.

For a short time, two presidents held office in parallel. But the Soviet Union was history and the Kremlin once again the center of Russia.

In May 2000, Putin became president for the first time.

While the golden domes gleam along the Moskva River, the white bell tower of Ivan the Great towers above all the other churches and palaces. Above everything flies the Russian flag.

On the outside, the Kremlin looks very powerful. But inside, there is a danger of losing oneself completely, as Merridale told the Süddeutsche Zeitung. "When you've removed all the critics, you're a prisoner of your own ego."

The entourage only repeats what Putin wants to hear. "He is the best-guarded person in Russia. We won't get rid of him that quickly."

This article was originally written in German.