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Slezkine calls The House of Government a saga because it is structured like a novel: “a historical epic with multiple characters, motifs, and planes of reality intersecting and coexisting in time (and stretching over the lives of several generations)”. In the bound proof in which I read it (which did not include a bibliography or index) The House of Government runs to 1,229 pages. For all its heft, this is a book that should be read from beginning to end. To roam the corridors of the House of Government, following the endlessly intersecting stories of Bolshevik families at home, is to come as close as a distant reader can to the horror, strangeness and disorienting pathos of the revolution. Slezkine’s scholarship and his powerful historical imagination take us into the heart of the confrontation between the everyday    reality of Bolshevism and its extreme millenarian metaphysics.

Before getting lost in the pages of The House of Government, the reader should turn to the end, where Slezkine gives an alphabetical (partial) list of scores of leaseholders in the House, with details of their official positions and other occupations as well as some of the family members with whom they shared their domestic lives. There is Aleksandr Arosev, military leader of the Bolshevik uprising in Moscow and a “diarist, memoirist, novelist and short-story writer”, who lived in apartments 103 and 104 with his wife (a dance teacher) and three children. Next comes Matvei Berman, inhabitant of apartment 141 and Head of the Gulag. Nikita Khrushchev lived in apartments 199 and 206. Nikolai Bukharin’s young widow, Anna Larina, lived in apartment 470 with their son Yuri, who was born in 1936 and became a distinguished watercolourist. The Chekist Sergei Mironov, whom Slezkine dubs “one of the most prolific executioners in Russian history”, also lived in the House with his fashion-loving wife Agnessa Argiropulo and their adopted daughter. From Agnessa’s memoirs we learn that Mironov was a passionate and doting husband. She remembers how, at the height of the Great Terror of the late 1930s, “in our House of Government, not a night passed without someone being taken away”. But she loved living there as a family, among other families. “We were so happy!’ she writes. “Mirosha loved his new job.” Andrei Sverdlov, the Mephistophelian son of the revolutionary Yakov Sverdlov, grew up in apartment 319 and became an agent of the NKVD, the secret police. Andrei had known Anna Larina since early childhood, when they were playmates. “We had similar biographies,” Larina recalls, “we were both children of professional revolutionaries. Both our fathers had managed to die in time, we were equally loyal to the Soviet state.” After her arrest in 1939, soon after Bukharin’s show trial and execution, Andrei personally interrogated her in the Lubianka.

Slezkine’s writing is aphoristic, metaphorical and occasionally oracular. He freely combines social, political, intellectual and literary history with comparative anthropology, drawing bold analogies across cultures. A native Muscovite, he emigrated from the USSR to the United States as a graduate student in the 1980s, and studied under the prolific and influential social historian Sheila Fitzpatrick. His early research was on ethnic identity and the national question in Soviet history. In a once-controversial article of 1994, “The USSR as a Communal Apartment, or How a Socialist State Promoted Ethnic Particularism”, he challenged the received Cold War view of the USSR as a group of “captive nations”.

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August 12th, 2017
3:08 PM
Long article about a building but not one picture.

George Leonard
August 10th, 2017
7:08 PM
At my advanced age, it's infuriating to find yet another a gigantic book which I absolutely must read. "Always reading, never to be read?" His other book, "The Jewish Century," sounds wonderful too. Damn his eyes.

Chuck Lanigan
August 10th, 2017
5:08 PM
In paragraph 9 (?) I would add Anton Chekhov, son of a serf, who was born in 1860 and died in 1904. I would have to look up specifics (Perhaps 'Cherry Orchard' and 'Uncle Vanya'?), but his short stories and plays provide numerous visions of the future in which everything weak, feeble and old is swept away. Thanks for the nice review. Slezkine's book is on my list. I esp. find comparison to 19th Cent. and later millennial sects interesting.

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