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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent journey through time into the heart of Russia's power base, 16 Nov. 2013
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This review is from: Red Fortress: The Secret Heart of Russia's History (Hardcover)
This is such a great read. The first thing to say about the author is that she is not at all a dusty and dry historian which is often such a turn-off in other historical tomes I have read by other writers. Catherine Merridale writes with a deep knowledge of her subject but with such beautifully descriptive language, and her own personal interpretation of what is being described which is sometimes sombre, sometimes light hearted, but always brings an image of the subject crystal clear in the reader's mind. For example, at the very beginning, the writer describes being given a private tour amongst some of the extant churches of the Kremlin; through rooms which many people never get the chance to see. Catherine describes the keys to these rooms being selected from a box by the official giving the tour, and that these keys "really should have been forged from meteorites and guarded by a dragon". How wonderful.

The book takes the reader on a journey, starting in ancient times; and the passage and then settling of travellers; we learn that the name Moscow is probably Finnish. The journey moves on; and we see the Russian people many times reinventing themselves with the backdrop of the Kremlin as the heart of their culture; and a display of their power.

One of my favourite parts of the book comes early in the piece with a marvellous description of the artwork on display in the Kremlin "The Tree of the State of Muscovy" by Ushakov. Catherine explains that this is a sacred work of art but is also a text about history. She describes the picture in detail - and this is helped by a colour plate of the picture also given - and that at first glance it appears to be simply a tree of life. However, look more closely, and one starts to see other images appearing, subtle messages, one of which is within roots of the tree proclaiming that the Tsar at the time of the picture's creation (Aleksai Romanov - 1645-76) has his roots firmly in Russia's past. The whole point about this picture and why I love this particular bit so much, is that it represents "the determination of successive Russian rulers to rewrite the past, so that the present, whatever it turns out to be, will seem as deeply rooted and organic as Ushakov's tree." Powerful stuff indeed.

There are many examples of this type of description throughout the book, but what is clear is that her research has been extensive and done with respect; and this shines through in her writing. I learned so much from reading this book which I am sure will be enjoyed by both serious academics and people, like myself, who enjoy a thumping good read which is factual, based on solid research and evidence, but also carries drama and passion within those facts, bringing the story to life with wonderfully descriptive language.

The photographic plates and the reproduced images in the centre of the book are beautiful and fully support the text, which for those people who have never visited Russia, and seen the Kremlin, bring the whole story to life. Plate no. 28 - that of Lenin's mausoleum on Red Square - is almost like a painting, the colours are incredible, and transports the reader right to that very place.

Very much looking forward to seeing more books from this wonderful writer as her previous books, and particularly Ivans War, were also beautifully written.
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