Yuri Slezkine’s author tour in the UK

PUP Publicity Assistant Amy Stewart attended The House of Government author Yuri Slezkine’s event at the Blenheim Palace Festival of Literature, Film & Music in the UK. Read on to find out more about Slezkine’s talk and his other European events. 

SlezkineFor a book which is framed so significantly by the architecture of a vast Moscow apartment block, what better place for Yuri Slezkine to complete his time in the UK than inside Blenheim Palace for the Blenheim Palace Festival of Literature, Film, & Music just across the road from our European office in Woodstock? Slezkine spent an hour in conversation with BBC Media Correspondent Nick Higham about his extensive book The House of Government, which Higham praised as ‘quite a remarkable book’ and one of the longest he has read for a while.

Slezkine’s event at Blenheim focused on the nature of his research and the tension between academic nonfiction and fiction within his new book. Slezkine stressed that, although his book has a distinctive narrative that could be likened to fiction, the book is founded on the extensive research he has been conducting over the past twenty years. Slezkine allowed his audience an insight into his research by detailing some of his interviews with residents who had spent some of their childhood in the Moscow apartment block. Many of Slezkine’s sources arose from these interviews where he was given previously unseen photographs and letters from the residents’ years in the House of Government.

A final point of interest from Slezkine’s event at Blenheim Palace was his position as a historian: whether he judges Slezkinehis characters himself or simply lays them out for his reader to come to their own conclusions about real historical events. Slezkine swayed towards the latter which seems to further highlight this book’s uniqueness.

Prior to this event, Slezkine had a jam-packed week in the UK with sold-out events in London, Cheltenham, and Oxford. Starting with full events at the Kings Russia Institute and the LRB Bookshop, Slezkine also appeared at the Cheltenham Literary Festival then ventured over to Oxford for a packed event in Blackwell’s, followed by his event at Blenheim Palace which the whole office went over to see.

Overall, a very exciting week for the European Office!

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.

A peek inside The House of Government

The House of Government by Yuri Slezkine is unlike any other book about the Russian Revolution and the Soviet experiment. Written in the tradition of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Grossman’s Life and Fate, and Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, 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. Drawing on letters, diaries, and interviews, and featuring hundreds of rare photographs, The House of Government weaves together biography, literary criticism, architectural history, and fascinating new theories of revolutions, millennial prophecies, and reigns of terror. 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. Take a peek at what’s in store.

 

 

Yuri Slezkine is the Jane K. Sather Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley. His books include The Jewish Century, which won the National Jewish Book Award.

Throwback Thursday #TBT: Gary Marker’s Publishing, Printing, and the Origins of Intellectual Life in Russia, 1700-1800 (1985)

 

Welcome to another edition of Throwback Thursday! On today’s #TBT, we’re taking a look at Gary Marker’s Publishing, Printing, and the Origins of Intellectual Life in Russia, 1700-1800Originally published in 1985, this book is just one of the many classics recently resurrected by the Princeton Legacy Library. Here’s a little more information about it:

Gary Marker describes the pursuit of an effective public voice by political, Church, and literary elites in Russia as synonymous with the struggle to control the printed media, showing that Russian publishing and printing evolved in a way that sharply diverged from Western experiences but that proved to be highly significant for Russian society.

We’ve hope you’ve enjoyed this installment of Throwback Thursday. See you next week!

Angela Stent on US-Russia relations – a video

Angela Stent discusses the issues within her new book The Limits of Partnership: U.S.-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century with The Economist’s Europe Editor, John Peet in this video from The Economist. What are the main factors contributing to the prickly political relationship between Russia and the United States? Angela Stent explains here.

 

Steven Barnes Shortlisted for the 2013 Central Eurasian Studies Society Book Award

Steven A. Barnes – Death and Redemption: The Gulag and the Shaping of Soviet Society
Shortlisted for the 2013 Central Eurasian Studies Society Book Award

Each year the CESS Book Award and a monetary prize of $500 is presented to the author of the research monograph, published in the preceding two years, that represents the most important contribution to Central Eurasian studies, or that holds the greatest potential for furthering scholarship on the Central Eurasian region.  Although Barnes’ book did not win, it was one of a “very strong shortlist of six books.”

Death and RedemptionDeath and Redemption offers a fundamental reinterpretation of the role of the Gulag– the Soviet Union’s vast system of forced-labor camps, internal exile, and prisons– in Soviet society. Soviet authorities undoubtedly had the means to exterminate all the prisoners who passed through the Gulag, but unlike the Nazis they did not conceive of their concentration camps as instruments of genocide. In this provocative book, Steven Barnes argues that the Gulag must be understood primarily as a penal institution where prisoners were given one final chance to reintegrate into Soviet society. Millions whom authorities deemed “reeducated” through brutal forced labor were allowed to leave. Millions more who “failed” never got out alive.

Drawing on newly opened archives in Russia and Kazakhstan as well as memoirs by actual prisoners, Barnes shows how the Gulag was integral to the Soviet goal of building a utopian socialist society. He takes readers into the Gulag itself, focusing on one outpost of the Gulag system in the Karaganda region of Kazakhstan, a location that featured the full panoply of Soviet detention institutions. Barnes traces the Gulag experience from its beginnings after the 1917 Russian Revolution to its decline following the 1953 death of Stalin.

Death and Redemption reveals how the Gulag defined the border between those who would reenter Soviet society and those who would be excluded through death.

Steven A. Barnes is associate professor of history and director of the Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at George Mason University.

Angela E. Stent Interviews with TVO About “The Limits of Partnership”

The conflict in Syria has strained an already tenuous relationship between the United States and Russia. The Story of the Week over at TVO: the US and Russian clash over what to do about Syria.

Angela E. Stent, a professor of government and foreign service and director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies at Georgetown University, weighs in on the conflict. Her recent book, The Limits of Partnership: U.S.-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century, makes her an expert on the topic.