The House of Government by Yuri Slezkine

When it was built, the House of Government — maybe better known in English as the House on the Embankment thanks to the book by Yuri Trefonov — was the largest residential building in Europe. With The House of Government, Yuri Slezkine gives the building, its people and its first era an equally enormous treatment. The main text is just under 1000 pages; the book itself is something of an argument for electronic editions. Although I am very happy to have it as a physical object (heft! good design! many illustrations and diagrams integrated into the text!) there is no way that I am reading it anywhere but at home. The bookmark whose downward progress I am self-indulgently admiring reads “Yes I’m actually reading this.” My original caption for this picture was “That’s not a book, mate, this is a book.” One friend has already remarked on social media that maybe he will get to this one in his next lifetime.

His loss, though, because so far the book is totally worth the effort, and in a way that’s inseparable from its size. Occasionally, I will come across books where it feels like the authors have put everything they know about a subject on the pages, like they are stretching to fill the pages. More often, given my tastes, I find myself wishing for more, that authors had taken the time to make their arguments completely, that they filled in details on subjects that they touched on briefly. Heck, I wanted more of an 876-page biography of Khrushchev. (Still do. Khrushchev had a second marriage that was largely unknown for decades, and Taubman only spent a page or two on that relationship.)

So far, Slezkine gets the balance just right. There are details, there are a lot of details, but none of the individual excerpts or quotations feels like Slezkine is stretching a point or including it just to fill up space. Neither does he skimp on his arguments, or take certain things as read or self-evident. “Early in the book, the Bolsheviks are identified as millenarian sectarians preparing for the apocalypse.” (p. XII) Considerations of communism as very much like a religion are not new, it’s an argument that has been made many times. The Captive Mind (1953) is essentially a collection of conversion experiences, so the argument was current even while Stalinism held sway.

With that background, I was prepared to take Slezkine’s characterization more or less on faith. But no, there it is in chapter three: forty pages of argument and discussion locating socialism, and particularly Bolshevism, within religions and specifically within a tradition of Christian millenarianism. Slezkine is thorough and relentless, pointing out the difficulty of constructing a definition of religion that includes Taoism but also excludes Maoism.

The question, then, is whether the Marxist drama of universal degradation and salvation (preordained, independent of human will, and incapable of falsifiable verification) is an impersonal process possessed of moral purpose and whether communism as the end of recognizable human existence (all conflicts resolved all needs satisfied, all of history’s work done) is in some sense “supernatural.” The usual answer is no: because the Marxist prediction is meant to be rational and this-worldly; because “ordinary people” don’t think of Marxism as a religion; and because the whole point of using the conventional definition is to exclude Marxism and other beliefs that assume the nonexistence of supernatural (science-defying) entities.
The problem with this formulation is that it also excludes a lot of beliefs that ordinary people and professional scholars routinely describe as “religions.” (p. 73)

Slezkine ventures further into attempts to set up the kingdom of heaven here on earth, whether in Reformation-era Münster, reason-driven Revolutionary France, following the revelations of Joseph Smith into sparsely-settled Utah, or upending Chinese society in the Taiping Rebellion. The argument situates Bolshevism not only within Russian history and society, but within a much longer tradition of remaking the world.

With the foregoing in mind, it’s no surprise that Slezkine starts his book well before anyone has a notion of building a House of Government on the banks of the Moskva. He begins with a physical description of the future setting (Chapter 1, The Swamp) during the later years of the Russian Empire. There are churches, factories, a power station; a girls’ school is nearby. In the second chapter (The Preachers) he introduces revolutionaries, some of whom had ties to the swamp, to show their hopes and dreams, how they related with each other, how they envisioned the revolution they were sure would come. Some of them, I presume, will wind up as tenants in the House of Government. Others perish in the revolution, the Civil War, or in intra-Party rivalries.

At present, I’m about a sixth of the way through the book. Construction begins between a quarter and a third of the way through. I can already tell that The House of Government is an immense achievement, and a very satisfying book to read.

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