Home from home for the Bolshevik elite

Yuri Slezkine's The House of Government tells the story of a place where revolutionaries came home and the revolution came to die

Rachel Polonsky

“Down with kitchen slavery” is the slogan on a classic Soviet poster of 1931 by the artist Grigory Shegal (now widely available as a nostalgic postcard). A woman in red pushes open the door of a room with black walls, hung with laundry and cobwebs. Behind her is another woman, up to her elbows in a sinkful of dishes. In the white-lit world beyond, the world of the “new everyday life” that the poster advertises, is a large glass and concrete building with clean constructivist lines. A red flag waves on a spire in the distance. Written in big letters on the building are the words “cafeteria”, “factory”, “kitchen”, “crèche”. Through a large window, rows of swaddled babies lie neatly in their cribs, while outside in the sunshine, athletic women in white shorts play with a ball or lounge in deckchairs. Like many early Soviet posters, the image in Shegal’s visionary agitprop is reminiscent of traditional Orthodox iconography. The woman in red has the stance of Christ in a prototypical Resurrection icon, freeing souls from bondage, leading them into the light of paradise.

“We are giving shape to a new everyday life, wrote one Soviet architect of the 1920s, “but where is this life? It does not exist. It has not yet been created.” The utopian building in Shegal’s poster closely resembles Moscow’s “House of Government”, the concrete expression of the Bolshevik dream of a “new everyday life”, which was completed in the same year, 1931. Now familiarly known as the “House on the Embankment”, this building is the setting and central metaphor of Yuri Slezkine’s prodigious  “saga of the Russian Revolution”. It was built as a home for the Soviet government during Stalin’s First Five-Year Plan, as the new socialist state was constructed. Lying diagonally across the Moscow River from the Kremlin on an area of reclaimed swamp, this gigantic structure, designed by the architect Boris Iofan, accommodated 505 furnished apartments for the families of the Bolshevik elite and had its own cafeteria, grocery shop, bank, clinic, gym, tennis court, hairdresser’s salon, library, kindergarten, post office, and two theatres. In its time, it was the largest residential building in Europe,  “a dormitory,” Slezkine says, “where state officials lived as husbands, wives, parents, and neighbours; a place where revolutionaries came home and the revolution came to die”.

The House was intended to sit in the shadow of a far larger monument to socialism, the Palace of Soviets, also designed by Iofan, on the opposite bank of the Moscow River, on the site of the 19th-century Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, which was dynamited in 1931. The Palace of Soviets was to have been the official stage for the dwellers in the House of Government, the heart of the new Moscow, “the ultimate wonder of the world”, Slezkine writes, “a tower that reached unto heaven not out of pride, but in triumph; a tower that gathered the scattered languages of the Earth and made them one”. A striking metaphor for the whole revolutionary dream, it never rose higher than a foundation pit.

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”.

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 . . .”
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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