The House of Government by Yuri Slezkine

The first half of The House of Government located the Bolshevik party within a specifically Russian tradition of millennarianism. Revolutionary socialism would redeem the world, starting with Russia, and usher in a new era, a time of plenty, a time of the perfectibility of humanity. The second half of the book details what life is like, and supposed to be like, in the arriven utopia.

The House itself, which was Europe’s largest residential building when it was completed, is simultaneously a prototype for the Bolsheviks’ hopes of creating a new kind of life by altering the material conditions under which people lived, a reward for high functionaries in the Party and state (although not the highest; they followed centuries of Russian rulers by living in the Moscow Kremlin), and the scene of hundreds of dramas as victorious revolutionaries settled into the long haul of governing. They worked together, socialized together, had affairs, brought in additional family members, raised children, managed second (or third) marriages, had breakdowns, and did all the things that ambitious humans are prone to do. They did it while attempting to make a new society from the remnants of the Tsarist empire, collectivizing agriculture, forcing industrialization, and otherwise trying to build what had only been glimpsed in the theoretical writings of Marx.

Slezkine captures slices of these lives by generous quotations from their letters, diaries and other personal accounts. The immense size of the book is necessary for him to tell even a small portion of what happens to the people in the House, to give a sense of the ferment, the intrigues, and the interconnectedness among the upper reaches of Bolshevik society. I never found the reading a slog; even now, looking back through the book, if I open it to one of the pages I have flagged, I tend to get pulled back into the myriad stories that Slezkine sketches, following the lines of connection and argument to the next photo, the next anecdote, the next mix of old and new. “Ilya Zharsky’s job after [university] graduation was exempt from Marxist exegesis. (He liked to call himself a ‘paraschite,’ but his official title was ‘Lenin mausoleum employee.’) In other arts and sciences, young proletarian true believers of mostly nonproletarian origin were trying to oust their former teachers while fighting among themselves over Party patronage and definitions of orthodoxy. Urbanists, disurbanists, constructivists, RAPPists, AKhRRists, and sulphuric acid engineers were planning a new world in the ruins of the old.” (p. 455) Slezkine’s occasionally droll take on the very serious Soviets is on display, both in “mostly nonproletarian origin” and in the importance of orthodoxy, but not Orthodoxy, among Russia’s new rulers.

Once in power and ensconced in the House of Government many, but of course not all, Bolsheviks recreated the lives of the educated upper bourgeoisie that they had displaced in Moscow. They had household servants, some of them amassed collections of art, many of them played the pianos that graced House apartments. Some traditions came back with new, Party-approved meanings.

Christmas trees are an example. “[M]ost turn-of-the-century urbanites had grown up with the regular rite of midnight magic associated with the domesticated version of the axis mundi. … Bolshevism, like all new faiths, viewed competing sacred calendars as pagan superstitions and campaigned vigorously against them. During the reconstruction period of the late 1920s, the Christmas tree was, in effect, banned, although some true-believer families … continued to decorate fir trees for their children (correctly assuming, one suspects, that the E.T.A. Hoffmann and Hans Christian Andersen versions they had grown up with had little to do with the cult of baby Jesus).” (p. 524) Just two years after dreadful famine, the leadership was keen to show that life in the Soviet Union was getting better, becoming more joyful.

From 1935:

We walked out and climbed into Stalin’s car. We all managed to squeeze in. We talked as we drove around … At some point, Postyshev asked: ‘Comrade Stalin, wouldn’t a Christmas tree celebration be a good tradition, one that would appeal to the people and bring joy, especially to the children= We’ve been condemning it, but why not give the tree back to the children?’ Stalin agreed: ‘Take the initiative, publish your suggestion to give the tree back to the children in the press, and we’ll support you. (p. 524)

Pravda soon chimed in:

In prerevolutionary times the bourgeoisie and their officials always staged New Year Tree celebrations for their children. The children of the workers would look on with envy through the windows at the tree ablaze with gaily colored lights and the rich men’s children making merry around it.
Why do our schools, orphanages, kindergartens, children’s clubs, and palaces of young pioneers deprive the children of the Soviet working class of this wonderful joy? Some deviationists, probably of the ‘left’ variety, have labeled this children’s entertainment a bourgeois invention.
It is time we put an end to this improper condemnation of the New Year Tree, which is a wonderful entertainment for children. … There should not be a single kolkhoz where the governing board, together with the Komsomol members, does not organize a New Year’s Even party for its children. Municipal councils, heads of district executive committees, rural soviets, and local public education offices must help stage New Year Tree celebrations for the children of our great socialist Motherland. (pp. 524–25)

And so New Year’s Eve became the most popular Soviet holiday. (It continues to hold its own as a Russian holiday into the present, with massive bursts of mobile telephone activity as each time zone crosses into the new year and friends, family and acquaintances all send their greetings at once.) “For most Russian intelligentsia members and their peers from rich men’s families, it was, indeed, a return. For most Jewish Bolsheviks, it was a welcome substitute for rejected family traditions. For most ordinary Soviets, it was a ‘Christmas’ miracle. … The only House residents who did not celebrate New Year’s Eve were those former workers who had remained workers in taste and habit.” (p. 525)

Slezkine’s chapters on life in the House, on days off, on recreational retreats to country dachas or sanitaria in the south (often more recovery from revolutionary injuries or the Bolsheviks’ punishing work schedule) capture the texture of life near the top of the Soviet pyramid, humanizing the people who turned the Party wheels. “Molotov had always been an extremely quiet and reserved man. … But here, in the bathing area, they [Molotov and Aleksandr Arosev] were fighting, dunking and grabbing on to each other’s legs and shoulders, tearing off any remaining clothes, and raising a fountain of splashes every time they climbed out onto the bank and crashed into the water again. They were acting wild and ferocious, like little boys, I [Arosev’s daughter] thought, reproachfully, at the time. And I was right. For a few moments on that peaceful summer day at the dacha, on the grassy bank and in the water, they were transformed from statesmen into regular, spontaneous people. Could it be that they — these former swimmers, brawlers, and athletes — had suddenly recollected their Volga childhood?” (p. 551)

The childhoods of the people who grew up in the House receive their own chapters. Although the revolution had triumphed, the next generation would be the one to truly enjoy socialism, having grown up in it and without having had to throw off the dead hand of the past. I found those chapters full of foreboding, however, because the increasing joy of 1935, however artificially conjured by Stalin and Pravda was but a period of relief before the terror and purges of the late 1930s. Slezkine calls Part III of his book “On Trial,” and it details the successive waves of denunciation, arrest, and sentencing that did more than decimate the ranks of high Party officials living in the House. The chapter titles relate the course of events: The Telephone Call, The Admission of Guilt, The Valley of the Dead, The Knock on the Door, The Good People, The Supreme Penalty. These are harrowing reading, as the terror that the Party visited on so many millions comes home to the House of Government. And then it ends.

Witch hunts begin abruptly, as violent reactions to particular events, and die down gradually, for no apparent reason. Participants have difficulty remembering and explaining what has happened and try to avoid talking or thinking about it.
In the second half of November 1938, without a formal announcement or explanation, the mass operations were discontinued, the troikas [that had issued summary judgements] disbanded, and Ezhov [head of the NKVD] fired. …
The last act of the mass operations was the liquidation of their organizers. Having woken up after the orgy, Stalin and the surviving members of the inner circle needed to get rid of those who had administered it.” (p. 864)

The Great Patriotic War, otherwise so central to Soviet identity, is more of an afterthought in The House of Government. Of those who had survived the purges, a far smaller share of House residents fought on the front than of Soviet society more generally. Fewer than a quarter of them were killed in the fighting, also lower than average. The children of the revolutionaries, which was the cohort that mostly fought in the war, had wartime jobs that matched their status and mostly kept them away from hostile fire. Or at least as away as anyone in European Russia could be. After the war, the composition of residents changed, and of course the generation of revolutionaries, of the builders of the House, gradually receded into history. The House is still home to hundreds of people, still on the banks of the Moskva.

Slezkine’s book has much, much more than I have been able to discuss here. His argument about the sectarian nature of Bolshevism continues throughout the book. He writes about the House’s inhabitants’ taste in literature, about how they helped relatives during the time of famine, about how they faced the possibility of arrest on any given night. As I said in my first thoughts about the work, The House of Government is an immense achievement, and a very satisfying book to read. It was worth each one of the many hours I spent with it.

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