May 12 2018

The House of Government by Yuri Slezkine — Halftime Report

One of the unexpected pleasures of The House of Government is Yuri Slezkine’s occasional playful way with words. Given the subject matter, and particularly given Slezkine’s argument that Bolshevism can best be understood as a millennarian sect that gained control of the state, a reader would be forgiven for thinking that his prose would range from ardent to dry. My sense from reading the book, however, is that Slezkine was enjoying the writing, page by page, sentence by sentence. Nothing else can really account for his light touch and occasional exercise in drollery, sometimes where it is least expected. “The main selection criterion [for execution during the Red Terror of 1918] was class belonging, manifested (or not) in antigovernment actions and opinions. The main markers of class belonging were in the eye of the beheader.” (p. 159) In another passage whose page number I have misplaced, he writes of party activists putting the cart before the material preconditions necessary for it.

The virtues that I found in the book’s first chapters have continued through the halfway point; namely, thoroughness without belaboring the point, a desire to tell his story comprehensively if not completely (and the cast of characters of the book as it does exist points out the impossibility of telling the story completely), and an ability to show how the parts relate to the whole. Modern printing technology also helps the book greatly; a significant number of two-page spreads feature photos of people mentioned on the pages, reproductions of period art, or pictures of locations discussed in the text. All of these combine to give a richer, more immediate sense of the times that Slezkine describes. Chapter 9, “The Eternal House” covers the construction of the House of Government, and it is particularly rich with illustrations. These show the building in progress, plans of the whole and individual apartments, how it fit with planners’ concepts of transforming Moscow, and more. Chapter 10, “The New Tenants,” shows many of them. That chapter also contains an interesting digression into the theater that was built into the House, the company that was selected to reside there, and the hazardous interplay between art and politics that shaped creative life in the Soviet Union.

Living up to expectations, and worth the time required to read.

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