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Scattered through the pages of The House of Government are architectural plans, photographs of buildings and people and, most hauntingly, art works, such as the fine drawings of the young self-improver Lyova Fedotov, son of a peasant trade unionist, or the graphic cycles of Eva Levina-Rozengolts, who spent seven years in Siberian exile. “Her human figures seem to emerge from the netherworld of silent despair into a crowded purgatory of ageless, sexless, anonymous souls,” Slezkine writes. “Some are imploring or praying; most seem resigned to whatever judgment awaits them.”

Almost all the characters in his book, from pitiless mass killers to bureaucrats of urban planning and the arts, were insatiable readers: “binge readers”, Slezkine calls them. Literature plays a major part in his interpretation of events. The fictive and the factual interpenetrate. “This is a work of history,” he writes in a dry disclaimer. “Any resemblance to fictional characters, dead or alive, is entirely coincidental.” Slezkine gives a new context for reading two of the greatest prose writers of the early Soviet period, Isaac Babel and Andrei Platonov: “Platonov, Babel, and their characters strive to ‘pull heaven down to earth’ but fail — and suffer for it.” Slezkine’s long epilogue to The House of Government is a lyrical tribute to the writer Yuri Trifonov, the son of a Cossack commissar who perished in the purges of 1938. Yuri lived on in the House of Government, and became its chronicler in fiction.

The House of Government is a book about faith and the loss of faith: “Revolutions do not devour their children; revolutions, like all millenarian experiments, are devoured by the children of the revolutionaries.” The Bolsheviks failed to reform or abolish the family, as millenarian sects always try to do. Instead, in the House of Government, they recreated the domesticity of the old world, complete with peasant nannies, piano practice, useless clutter, lifelong affections and walls lined with the classics of world literature.

In the reading passions of the Bolsheviks’ children, Slezkine finds a fascinating and paradoxical explanation for why “the Soviet age did not last beyond one human lifetime”. One of the Bolsheviks’ mistakes, according to Slezkine, was that they allowed their children to grow up reading not Marx-Engels-Lenin-Stalin, but Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoy, Dickens and Balzac. These writers gave children born in the 1920s and ’30s a chance to live imaginatively in past ages and lands far away from the House of Government. What their works “had in common was their anti-millenarian humanism”, Slezkine writes. They were “profoundly anti-Bolshevik, none more so than the one routinely described as the best of them all: Tolstoy’s War and Peace,” in which “all rules, plans, grand theories and historical explanations were vanity, stupidity, or deception . . . The meaning of life was in living it.”

The meaning of The House of Government is in reading it, right to the end. It is a monumental edifice of scholarship and historical insight.

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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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