In 1994, as many Western scholars and journalists were still struggling to make sense of the collapse of the Soviet Union—and in most cases only just beginning to learn about the scattering of nation-states that its disintegration had produced—the Russian historian Yuri Slezkine wrote a brilliant article comparing the USSR to a communal apartment. In this wry extended metaphor, the territories that made up the Soviet Union were “rooms” within a single shared residence—and since Russia itself was by far the largest, it took up a combination of “the enormous hall, corridor and the kitchen where all the major decisions were made.” The disparities and tensions between the USSR’s different national groups were rendered as a series of domestic arguments stretching across much of the 20th century, while the country’s dismantling in 1991 and its aftermath appeared as the stuff of forlorn comedy:
the tenants of various rooms barricaded their doors and started using the windows, while the befuddled residents of the enormous hall and kitchen stood in the center scratching the backs of their heads. Should they try to recover their belongings? Should they knock down the walls? Should they cut off the gas? Should they convert their “living area” into a proper apartment?
In his colossal new book, The House of Government, Slezkine has turned this metaphor inside out, using the real history of a single building and its residents as a guide to understanding the triumph and tragedy of the Russian Revolution. The “House of Government” of the book’s title is a hulking gray 10-story complex in the heart of Moscow and just across the river from the Kremlin. Constructed between 1928 and 1931, it originally contained—in addition to more than 500 apartments—a grocery store, a post office, a bank, a library, a tennis court, a gym, and a hairdresser’s salon, among other amenities, as well as a theater and a cinema that were open to the public. It was much more than an apartment block, and the 2,500 or so people who lived there were not just any residents: The building was home to a cross section of the Soviet Union’s more privileged citizens, from high Communist Party functionaries to prominent writers and artists, from veterans of Bolshevism’s prerevolutionary underground years to the “shock workers” of the Stalin era, who were rewarded for their feats on the production line with plush apartments.
The dozens of people who populate Slezkine’s book played roles both large and small in the making of the Soviet system, and in its self-slaughter through mass arrests and imprisonments in the 1930s. Several well-known Bolshevik grandees lived in the building, including some of Stalin’s relatives; a young Nikita Khrushchev; Karl Radek, a leading figure in the Communist International; and Nikolai Bukharin’s family after Bukharin had been arrested. Among the many other figures we meet are Maria Denisova, a sculptor who had once been the muse of avant-garde poet Vladimir Mayakovsky; the writer and editor Aleksandr Voronsky; Boris Zbarsky, Lenin’s embalmer; Boris Shumiatsky, head of the Soviet film industry; Filipp Goloshchekin, the man who, in 1918, had been entrusted with the execution of the czar and his family; Matvei Berman, head of the gulag system in the 1930s; Tania Miagkova, imprisoned first in the Urals and then in remote Magadan for being a Trotskyist; and Sergei Mironov, a secret policeman whose method for rapidly meeting arrest and execution quotas established a grisly model that would be followed across the country during the Great Terror of the mid- to late 1930s.