Yuri Slezkine on The House of Government

Slezkine The House of Government is unlike any other book about the Russian Revolution and the Soviet experiment. Yuri Slezkine’s gripping narrative tells the true story of the residents of an enormous Moscow apartment building where top Communist officials and their families lived before they were destroyed in Stalin’s purges. A vivid account of the personal and public lives of Bolshevik true believers, the book begins with their conversion to Communism and ends with their children’s loss of faith and the fall of the Soviet Union. The result is an unforgettable human saga of a building that, like the Soviet Union itself, became a haunted house, forever disturbed by the ghosts of the disappeared. Read on to learn more about the House, the book, and why the Bolsheviks can be considered a millenarian sect.

What gave you the idea to write this book?

YS: I grew up in Moscow, in a communal apartment (an apartment that contained several unrelated families, each occupying one room and sharing a kitchen, bathroom, and hallway). About twenty years ago, it occurred to me that it would be interesting to write a history of the Soviet Union through the history of one such apartment. Tracking down different families and their archives proved difficult, however, and I kept moving from one building to the next until I ended up in the largest and most famous of them all, the House of Government.

What was the House of Government?

YS: It was the apartment building where most top members of the Soviet Government lived in the 1930s. It was located in a low-lying area called “the Swamp,” across the Moskva River from the Kremlin. The largest residential building in Europe and a model of socialist domesticity, it combined 550 fully furnished family apartments with public spaces including a cafeteria, grocery store, walk-in clinic, child-care center, hairdresser’s salon, post office, telegraph, bank, gym, laundry, library, theater, movie theater, tennis court, and several dozen rooms for various activities (from billiards and target shooting to painting and orchestra rehearsals). It is still there today, next to Swamp Square and across the river from the Kremlin—still a house, but no longer “of government.” Most Muscovites know it as a huge, sinister gray building—the last address of the founders of the Soviet state and the subject of Yuri Trifonov’s wonderful novella, The House on the Embankment.

Is The House of Government a history of that building?

YS: It is a history of the building and of the men, women, and children who lived there. It begins with the Old Bolsheviks’ conversion to communism, culminates in their execution for treason, and ends with their children’s loss of faith and the fall of the Soviet Union. It is a history of the Russian Revolution through the story of the original revolutionaries and their families.

 In what sense is it a “saga?”

YS: It is an epic prose narrative with multiple heroic characters and, at the same time, a history of particular families over several generations. The reason an apartment building is a perfect subject for a book about the revolution is that all radical attempts to transform human life are ultimately assaults on the family (the oldest and most conservative of human institutions). Family apartments were places where Bolsheviks came home and the revolution came to die. Revolutions do not devour their children; revolutions, like all millenarian experiments, are devoured by the children of the revolutionaries. My book is about how and why that happened.

Why millenarian?

YS: Because, in my view, the Bolsheviks were a millenarian sect. They believed in Providence (which they called History), the fatal corruption of the world (which they called “the last stage of capitalism”), the approaching apocalypse (which they called Revolution) and the more or less immediate—”in this generation”—collective salvation leading to the Millennium (which they called Communism).

Their prophecy was analogous to those of Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Mormonism, Nazism, Rastafarianism, and the Branch Davidians, among many others, but the Bolsheviks were more successful than most because they took over Babylon while still expecting the disappearance of the old world in their lifetimes (Christianity did not become the empire’s official faith until the wait for the Last Days had become routinized). It is as if the Fifth Monarchists, the most radical of the nonconformist dissenters, had won the English Civil War and formed a Puritan International. Or as if Jim Jones had installed himself in the White House, renamed the United States the People’s Temple, and won the civil war he had done so much to bring about.

The Bolsheviks succeeded in casting out the moneychangers and collectivizing most worldly possessions, but they failed the test of disappointment. All end-of-the-world prophecies have so far proven false. Some millenarian sects have managed to cross the succession threshold, institutionalize themselves as churches with hereditary membership, and turn the revelation into an allegory and the promise of “till Kingdom come” into a synonym of “till the cows come home.” Others—the overwhelming majority—have disappeared, more or less violently, along with the first generation of believers.

The Bolsheviks’ failure was almost as spectacular as their success. They built a great empire but never figured out how to penetrate the home and reform the family. Their faith remained silent on the mysteries of birth, marriage, and death, and the Babylon they conquered proved more durable than they did. A hundred years after the fall of the Winter Palace, Russia is back, and the Bolsheviks are all gone.

Yuri Slezkine is the Jane K. Sather Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley. His books includeThe Jewish Century (Princeton), which won the National Jewish Book Award. He is the author of The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution.