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The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution 
by Yuri Slezkine.
Princeton, 1096 pp., £29.95, August 2017, 978 0 691 17694 9
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Yuri Slezkine​ , a master stylist as well as a first-class historian, is the least predictable of scholars. Still, it comes as a surprise to find that the book he has now produced, after long gestation, is a Soviet War and Peace. True, Slezkine says he is writing history, whereas Tolstoy’s War and Peace is generally treated, if somewhat gingerly, as a novel; and Slezkine’s subject is not so much war and peace as that curious state between the two that existed in the Soviet Union from the October Revolution of 1917 to the Second World War. The correspondences even so are notable. The two books are much the same length and offer the same practical difficulties of reading (the Penguin edition of War and Peace once fell apart in my hands when I tried to read it at the beach; The House of Government is so thick I had to put it on a flat surface to read it). The time span of the two books is much the same (fifteen years for Tolstoy, twenty or so for Slezkine), as is the intention to show how a society survived a cataclysmic event (the Napoleonic invasion for Tolstoy, the Bolshevik Revolution for Slezkine). Tolstoy had a philosophical point to make about history being the outcome, not of the decisions of a few great men, but of the chaotic actions of multitudes. Slezkine’s historical-philosophical point is that Bolshevism, and the Marxism from which it sprang, should be understood as millenarian religious movements.

To be sure, there are differences. Slezkine is fond of many of his (Old Bolshevik) characters, but when he writes about Bolshevism as an intellectual and political system there is a tinge of distaste, perhaps even contempt, that is alien to Tolstoy but reminiscent of another Russian epic predecessor on the boundary between history, literature and sarcastic polemic, Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. Then there is the difference, perhaps less important than it may at first seem, that Tolstoy’s work, despite its research base and the 160 historical figures among its characters, has made-up characters too and passes as fiction, whereas all Slezkine’s characters are real people who lived in the elite House of Government in Moscow in the 1930s. Slezkine doesn’t make up characters or dialogue, but then he scarcely needs to, given that the letters, diaries and memoirs his characters produced in such profusion show them to be self-inventors of a high order. The salient difference is perhaps not so much that Tolstoy’s characters are fictional as that, as a writer of fiction, Tolstoy can present them in the round, whereas Slezkine, as an intellectual historian, is restricted to their self-representations.

The House of Government begins with the disclaimer, a typical Slezkine inversion of a cliché, that ‘this is a work of history. Any resemblance to fictional characters, dead or alive, is entirely coincidental.’ Leaving aside the question of whether this is accurate, given his characters’ devotion to literature and their tendency to see life through its lens, it is a deceptively simple statement of disciplinary allegiance and genre that is quickly undercut in the introduction that follows. There are three strains in his work, Slezkine writes. One is ‘analytical’: that is, his argument that Bolshevism is a millenarian religion. Another is literary: at each stage of his story, in tandem with his historical account, he runs a summary of the literary works that ‘sought to interpret and mythologise’ events. But the most important strain, listed first, is the epic. Slezkine’s introduction makes only the modest claim that the book ‘is a family saga involving numerous named and unnamed residents of the House of Government … readers are urged to think of them as characters in an epic.’ But the publisher’s blurb more straightforwardly – and, I think, accurately – characterises the book as an ‘epic story … in the tradition of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Grossman’s Life and Fate and Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago’.

As befits an epic, Slezkine’s mode of narration is expansive. The first third of the book, before the House of Government even makes its appearance, offers a history of the Russian revolutionary movement, with a side excursion into Marx; a sixty-page overview of religion in human history, with special reference to millenarianism; and historical and literary accounts of 1917, the New Economic Policy of the 1920s, including the factional struggles in the party following Lenin’s death, and the ‘great turn’ of the late 1920s (Stalinist industrialisation, collectivisation and famine). There are several lengthy digressions on such topics as constructivism and utopian architectural visions. Slezkine lets his characters speak for themselves, both in long quotations from diaries, letters and autobiographies, and in extensive paraphrases. He affords equivalent space to literary works, most frequently Mayakovsky’s and Babel’s writing for the early years and Platonov’s and Leonov’s for the later ones.

There are endnotes referencing secondary works, particularly those of intellectual historians who share Slezkine’s eschatological view of Bolshevism. The endnotes are no doubt to remind us that the book is, inter alia, a work of scholarly history, but I think they would have been better left out. This is partly for the parochial reason that, as a social historian in the field, I was somewhat irritated by his choices, and partly because, as a reader, I was less interested in the book as a work of scholarship (impressive though it is in its breadth of research and reference) than as a work of literature. References to secondary sources suggest that this is an ordinary academic work which, according to the conventions, ought to ‘position itself in the scholarship’. It isn’t, any more than The Gulag Archipelago was.

The overall framework of the book is structured according to the stages of a millenarian movement. ‘Early in the book,’ Slezkine explains,

the Bolsheviks are identified as millenarian sectarians preparing for the apocalypse. In subsequent chapters, consecutive episodes in the Bolshevik family saga are related to stages in the history of a failed prophecy, from an apparent fulfilment to the great disappointment to a series of postponements to the desperate offer of a last sacrifice. They managed to take over Rome long before their faith could become an inherited habit, but they never figured out how to transform their certainty into a habit that their children or subordinates could inherit.

‘Anticipation’ is the title of the section on the revolutionaries in exile and underground in Russia before 1917, followed by ‘Fulfilment’ with the October Revolution, ‘The Second Coming’ and ‘The Reign of the Saints’ for the struggles to survive and fulfil the prophecy (incorporating ‘The Great Disappointment’, as it becomes ever more clear that what the revolution had brought into being was not heaven on earth), and ‘The Last Judgment’, winding up the drama with the destruction in the Great Purges of many of the erstwhile revolutionaries.

Slezkine suggests in passing that the early 20th-century Russian intelligentsia – symbolists and Christian mystics as well as revolutionaries – was in the grip of a millenarian and apocalyptic mood. But the main genesis of Bolshevik millenarianism, in Slezkine’s account, was Marxism. Marx’s early preoccupations, Slezkine argues, were the emancipation (resurrection) of Germany and the reformation of the Jews; and ‘the entire edifice of Marxist theory … was built on these foundations.’ Marx, ‘like Jesus and unlike Mazzini or Mickiewicz, succeeded in translating a tribal prophecy into a language of universalism’. Not being an expert on the early Marx, I will leave it to others to take up the gauntlet on this one, but I winced when, much later in the book, Hitler is thrown into the mix as a fellow millenarian with ‘the same enemy – but whereas the Bolsheviks thought of it as a class, the Nazis thought of it as a tribe’.

Interpretations of Bolshevism as a religion, of which there have been many over the years, generally leave me cold, but Slezkine’s argument is more interesting. I have always tended to dismiss the Bolsheviks’ predictions of imminent total transformation on the grounds that nobody could be so silly as to believe such a thing, except fleetingly in the madness of the revolutionary moment, but Slezkine has persuaded me to take it seriously – up to a point. I still privately believe that, for all the Bolsheviks who thought like Platonov characters, there were others of a practical cast of mind who didn’t. Lenin I can more or less accept as a millenarian, at least until October, after which responsibility sobered him up. But not even Slezkine could convince me that Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, also an Old Bolshevik, was ever anything of the kind. While that may restrict the applicability of Slezkine’s thesis, it doesn’t refute it. Slezkine himself notes that the most passionate exponents of Bolshevik millenarianism tended to be male.

You may by now be wondering when I am going tell you what the House of Government was and who lived there. Take it as my homage to Slezkine, a past master at stringing out anticipation. His narrative for the first 407 pages is dotted with stories and quotations from Old Bolsheviks who, the reader must presume, are likely to show up later as residents of the House of Government. This is so, by and large (even if Nikolai Bukharin, who makes many appearances in the story, did not actually live in the House), but it is also part of Slezkine’s art to avoid locking himself in with strict definitions. The reader, he warns at the beginning, should think of the persons who appear in his narrative not just as characters in an epic but also as similar to people encountered in their own lives, who may or may not be familiar and may or may not turn out to be important. ‘No family or individual is indispensable to the story,’ however. ‘Only the House of Government is.’

The building​ , renamed ‘the House on the Embankment’ in Yuri Trifonov’s autobiographical novel of the 1970s, was a grey constructivist/neoclassical elephant designed by Boris Iofan and built on Swamp Square on the Moscow River diagonally across from the Kremlin. (Slezkine likes to translate his Russian names into English: Swamp Square is his rendition of Bolotnaya ploshchad; the House of Government’s cinema Udarnik becomes Shock Worker.) Luxurious and modern by the standards of the time, and intended primarily, as the name suggests, to house senior government (including party, military and security) officials, the House consisted of 507 apartments ranging in size from one to seven rooms (three to five rooms was the norm), with facilities including a kindergarten, a shop, a club and a theatre.

In an earlier iteration, Slezkine’s book was conceived as a biography of the building, and traces of this remain, usually in the form of deadpan lists of objects, one of his standard techniques for dealing with non-narrative archival material. Incoming residents had to sign an inventory of 54 items including ‘ceilings, walls, wallpapers, tiled floors (in the kitchen, bathroom and toilet), parquet floors (in the rest of the apartment), closets, windows, hinges, lampshades, doors (French and regular), locks (two kinds), doorknobs (three kinds), nickel-plated doorstops, an electric doorbell, enamel bathtub with overflow drain and nickel-plated plug, nickel-plated shower’ and so on. Sometimes the lists are of abstract nouns, such as the Housekeeping Department’s priorities of ‘centralisation, symmetry, transparency, cleanliness, accountability and surveillance’, or even verbs: Slezkine reminds us of the practical demands on a building whose residents, as human beings, ‘ate, drank, slept, procreated, grew hair, produced waste, got sick, and needed heating and lighting, among other things’.

Once the story gets under way, the human beings come into focus. Tenants began moving into the House of Government in 1931, and by the mid-1930s they numbered 2655. Of the 700 leaseholders (heads of household), a high proportion were Old Bolsheviks (people whose connection with the party predated the revolution), mainly intellectuals born in the 1880s and 1890s currently holding high office; among the intellectuals, ‘by far the largest group’ were Jews. The rest of the residents were wives (an even higher percentage of whom were Jewish), children, wards, in-laws, maids and an array of other relatives and non-relatives who made up the often unconventional households. An appendix lists the 66 ‘leaseholders’ who, along with some of their dependants, are most prominent in Slezkine’s story. They include the journalist Mikhail Koltsov, who covered the Spanish Civil War and became a character in For Whom the Bell Tolls; the secret policeman Sergei Mironov, whose frivolous, clothes-loving wife wrote memoirs that serve as a foil to the high-mindedness of everyone else; the cultural official Alexander Arosev, a close friend of the head of the government, Vyacheslav Molotov; Aron Solts, the party’s morality expert; Valentin Trifonov, a Civil War military hero; Karl Radek, sometime oppositionist who for some years returned to favour with Stalin as an international specialist; and the trade minister Israel Veitser, married to the high-profile director of the Moscow Children’s Theatre, Natalia Sats. Elena Stasova – b. 1873, one of the oldest of Old Bolsheviks – is a rare woman among the overwhelmingly male leaseholders. Even Sats is listed only as a dependant of her husband. But most of the wives worked, if generally in less exalted jobs (usually in the cultural sphere) than their husbands.

The extraordinarily detailed information on the households and the complexity of their domestic relations is one of the remarkable and unique aspects of this book. Nobody knew what a good communist home ought to be like, Slezkine remarks, but on the basis of House of Government data it looks strikingly non-nuclear. Partnerships shifted, not always rancorously, so that an ex-wife plus children might be living down the hall from the new wife plus children, with the husband dividing his time between the flats. Arosev shuttled between three apartments: he lived in the House of Government with two daughters by a first marriage, their governess and a maid; his new wife and their young child lived next door; and his first wife and another daughter lived in a different building. Sometimes, an old wife and a new one lived in the same apartment, as in the case of Bukharin’s third wife (Anna Larina) and his first, who was an invalid, together with his aged father and Anna and Bukharin’s small son; Bukharin himself continued to live in the small apartment in the Kremlin he had swapped with Stalin after Stalin’s wife’s death. Valentin Trifonov lived in an apartment with his wife and their two children, Yury and Tatania, along with his mother-in-law (an old revolutionary to whom he had once been married) and Undik, the young man she had adopted as an orphan during the Volga famine of 1921.

Many families in the building included an adopted child – sometimes strays like Undik, sometimes children taken in after the arrest or death of their parents, who might be relatives or just friends. Registered tenants in Mikhail Koltsov’s apartment included his old wife, Elizaveta, and his new German partner, Maria Osten, along with a young German boy whom Mikhail and Maria had adopted. The two essential components in the everyday life of a House of Government apartment were a babushka (often of ‘bad’ social origin and/or a believing Christian or Jew) and a maid, running the household between them while the parents were out at work. The babushka was not necessarily an actual grandmother, but might be another elderly female relative. The maids came from the countryside: as Slezkine points out, high Soviet officials might, by virtue of their status, be insulated from the collectivisation struggle, but ‘almost every child raised in the House of Government was raised by one of its casualties.’

The Great Purges hit the House of Government with particular fury. The NKVD usually came for people at night, and many households experienced repeat visits, first for the husband and then, sometime later, weeks or months, for the wife. The apartments were sealed, and the remaining family moved elsewhere in the building, often sharing with another family in the same situation before finally being evicted. They came for Inna Gaister’s mother on her 12th birthday: ‘Mother kept walking through the rooms with me following behind her in my nightshirt. And Natasha [the nanny] followed after me with Valiushka [the youngest daughter] in her arms. We just kept walking like that in single file around the apartment.’ Arosev (and wife), Koltsov (and Maria Osten), Larina (and Bukharin), Trifonov (and wife), Radek, Mironov, Veitser and Sats were all arrested in the Great Purges; the men and some of the women were shot or died in the Gulag, but Gaister’s wife, Larina, and Sats survived, returning to Moscow in the 1950s. Platon Kerzhentsev, fired as head of the Committee on the Arts, wrote desperate denunciations as he awaited arrest – but the Black Maria passed him by and he died of heart failure a few years later. In similar circumstances, Solts had a breakdown, while another jurist, Yakov Brandenburgsky, appears to have feigned madness and sat out the terror in a psychiatric hospital.

‘Last night NKVD agents came and took Mommy away,’ 12-year-old Yuri Trifonov wrote in his diary for 3 April 1938. (Slezkine’s American translation of Mama as ‘Mommy’ is jarring, at least to my ears.) ‘They woke us up. Mommy was very brave. They took her away in the morning. Today I did not go to school.’ Yuri’s father had been arrested earlier. ‘Now it’s only Tania [his younger sister] and me with Grandma, Ania [a friend of his parents, living with them since her husband was arrested] and Undik.’ Some House of Government children were shunned by family and friends and had trouble at school; others found support at school from friends and teachers. Babushki and occasionally maids stepped in to care for the children after their parents’ arrests, but many ended up in orphanages in distant provinces.

The orphanage experience, as later recounted by the children, was not necessarily negative: nine-year-old Volodia Lande, sent to an orphanage in Penza in 1937 after the arrest of both his parents, received warmth and kindness from his teachers, quickly made friends, and eventually went to military college and became a naval officer. Surprisingly, the upheaval of 1937-38 seems not to have permanently thrown the House of Government children out of the circle of Soviet privilege. ‘Most of the children of government officials, including “family members of the traitors to the motherland”, graduated from prestigious colleges and (re)joined the postwar Soviet cultural and professional elite.’

The children of the House of Government are very important in Slezkine’s story. In the first place, he is deeply interested in their attitude (he treats it as a singular Weltanschauung rather than as a spectrum of positions) to their parents and the Soviet way of life. Their childhoods were blissfully happy (or remembered as such), as Soviet childhoods were meant to be. The children ‘admired their fathers, respected their seniors, loved their country, and looked forward to improving themselves for the sake of socialism and to building socialism as a means of self-improvement’. They loved school and loved their friends, as well as venerating the idea of friendship. Like their parents, they were passionate readers and admirers of the Russian classics, Pushkin usually coming at the top of the list, as well as the ‘Treasures of World Literature’: Dickens, Balzac, Cervantes etc, whose volumes were to be found on the shelves of their fathers’ studies. They were also attached to Jack London and Jules Verne; they were romantics who embraced the real-life sagas of polar explorers with the same fervour as the fictional adventures of Verne’s Children of Captain Grant.

You might think that the sudden arrest of their parents as ‘enemies of the people’ would have significantly changed these attitudes, but apparently not. Most of the children believed in their parents’ innocence, and perhaps that of their friends’ parents, while at the same time accepting the Soviet premise that enemies were everywhere and needed to be unmasked. When one House of Government child, Andrei Sverdlov, went to work for the NKVD and participated in the interrogation of some of his former playmates, most of his contemporaries ‘considered him a traitor but did not question the cause he was serving. They did not feel that they had to choose between their loyalty to the party and their loyalty to their friends, family and themselves.’

The​ Second World War marks the end of Slezkine’s saga. The House of Government, cast into turmoil by the Great Purges, was essentially emptied after bombing damage and with the approach of German troops in the autumn of 1941. Remaining residents were called up into the army or evacuated east. A significant proportion of the children died on active service. Those who survived tended to come back to Moscow but not to the House of Government, which was back in operation after the war with a largely new set of residents. Some of the mothers arrested during the Great Purges returned from the Gulag in the 1950s, but they were changed people, shadows of their former selves, and their adult children often found it difficult to relate to them.

The Great Terror ‘spelled the end of most Old Bolshevik families and homes; it did not bring about the end of faith,’ Slezkine says. But something did, since seventy odd pages later he writes that by the Brezhnev period the children still ‘venerated the memory’ of their dead fathers ‘but no longer shared their faith’. The cause of this loss of faith is not very clearly spelled out. It wasn’t the war, since as Slezkine tells us, ‘the coming of the war … justified all the previous sacrifices, both voluntary and involuntary, and offered the children of the original revolutionaries the opportunity to prove, through one more sacrifice, that their childhoods had been happy, that their fathers had been pure, that their country was their family, and that life was, indeed, beautiful, even in death.’ Nor, presumably, was it the Thaw of the mid-1950s, which ‘heartened and briefly rejuvenated’ the former House of Government children. Perhaps it was the long disillusioning years of Brezhnev’s ‘stagnation’, in which some of the House of Government children became dissidents and some of the Jewish ones emigrated. Most of those remaining in the Soviet Union ‘welcomed Gorbachev’s Perestroika’, but it was too late: some time in the postwar decades, ‘utopia’ had ‘evaporated … without anyone quite noticing’. ‘By the time the Soviet state collapsed, no one seemed to take the original prophecy seriously any more.’

‘Why did Bolshevism die after one generation?’ Slezkine asks. Why was its fate ‘so different from that of Christianity, Islam, Mormonism, and countless other millenarian faiths? Most “churches” are vast rhetorical and institutional structures built on broken promises. Why was Bolshevism unable to live with its own failure?’ His answer is that the Bolsheviks, unlike other millenarian sects, failed to bring the family under its control. ‘One of the central features of Bolshevism as a life-structuring web of institutions was that Soviets were made in school and at work, not at home … The Bolshevik family was subjected to much less pastoral guidance and communal surveillance than most of its Christian counterparts.’

Perhaps so. (But what about Pavlik Morozov, the heroic child of Soviet myth who denounced his own father?) One could also question Slezkine’s premise. The émigré sociologist Nicholas Timasheff in his book The Great Retreat: The Growth and Decline of Communism in Russia (1946) noted with approval a process of routinisation in the Soviet Union. A few years earlier, Trotsky had observed the same process, which he called ‘The Great Betrayal’. From this perspective, the Soviet (Stalinist) system that emerged in the mid-1930s looks very like one of those ‘vast rhetorical and institutional structures built on broken promises’ that follow the utopian moment in the millenarian success stories of Christianity and Mormonism.

Slezkine isn’t writing a success story, however. His saga is in the tragic mode, and tragedies, in his interpretation, are about failures and their inevitability. It wasn’t an inability to achieve ‘routinisation’ that constitutes Bolshevism’s real failure in his narrative, but the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. Slezkine’s short discussion of this is interesting if perfunctory. Marxism didn’t take permanent root because its economic determinism was sterile. The House of Government children inherited their parents’ literary tastes but not their interest in Marxist theory, being ‘entirely innocent of economics, and only indirectly acquainted with Marxism-Leninism through speeches, quotations, and history-book summaries’. It also failed because Russia was Russia. Bolshevism’s international orientation was unappealing, and the multinational structure of the Soviet state proved its undoing. ‘Stalin may have sounded like a Russian national prophet, but his Russian never sounded native … Because the House of Government had never become the Russian national home, late Soviet Communism became homeless – and, eventually, a ghost.’

Success and failure are a matter of opinion, and Slezkine’s interpretations should give Soviet historians plenty to argue about. But this may be beside the point. Bolshevik millenarianism and Soviet ideocracy must fail in Slezkine’s story, both for dramatic reasons and because of his intuitive conviction that they did. As for the issue of genre, the best summation probably comes from Tolstoy who, explaining that War and Peace was ‘not a novel, still less an epic poem, still less a historical chronicle’, stated simply that it was ‘what the author wanted and was able to express in the form in which it is expressed’.

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