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Slezkine gained renown beyond academic circles for his brilliant and provocative The Jewish Century (2004), a history (primarily) of the Russian Jews, describing the outcomes of their mass emigrations to Palestine, the US, and revolutionary Moscow. The Jewish Century contains seeds of the story of The House of Government, for many of its inhabitants were Jews who, as Slezkine explains, had a much higher proportion of members of the Soviet elite than any other ethnic group, and who dominated its “cultural contingent”: “they tended to be the poets, the prophets, and the propagandists.” 

The analytical heart of Slezkine’s book is his definition of Bolshevism as an apocalyptic millenarian sect. For him, this is a broad category that includes the 16th-century Anabaptists of Munster and the Branch Davidians of Waco, Texas, as well as “Christianity, Islam, Mormonism and countless other…faiths”. The Bolshevik revolutionaries, a small, almost entirely male group, believed in prophecy in the form of Marxist-Leninist historical determinism, and prepared for the apocalypse, believing that the end of this world would come to pass within their lifetimes.

The Bolsheviks’ secular millenarianism emerged in the profoundly apocalyptic culture of pre-revolutionary Russia. “The real day is coming,” Yakov Sverdlov wrote to a young female friend in 1904: “It is coming — noisy and tempestuous, sweeping away everything weak, feeble and old . . . The dawn, which sheds its fantastic, enchanting and transparent light over everything and everyone, is near . . .” In 1918, Sverdlov was among the small group of men entrusted with carrying out Lenin’s order to murder Tsar Nicholas II and his family.

The House of Government
draws on a huge range of archival sources, from diaries, love letters and childrens’ sketchbooks to the records of the Moscow Regional Engineering Bureau and the daily regimens of the spa resorts to which exhausted Bolsheviks went to recover from the nervous breakdowns brought on by trying to build an earthly paradise.  These varied sources shape a fascinating history of emotions, through all the forms of affection, happiness and pleasure, to fear, neurosis and rage, and deep into the riddling pages of the imprisoned Bukharin’s false confessions and pleas to his “dear friend”, Stalin: “I am writing to you . . . as a truly dear person, whom I even see in my dreams . . .”

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Anonymous
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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