Can the History of the Soviet Union Be Told through a Single Building?

Can the History of the Soviet Union Be Told through a Single Building?

After the Revolution

In his new history, Yuri Slezkine examines life in the Soviet Union through a single apartment building.


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.

In those bleak years, the building served as a home for Stalin’s executioners and their victims—many of the former also ended up being imprisoned or shot. Those residents who survived the 1930s soon went through another inferno during the Second World War. Many served at the front; the rest were evacuated from the building in 1941 as the Wehrmacht approached Moscow. One-fifth of the residents never returned after the war. In fact, neither the House of Government nor the USSR was the same in the postwar years: The generation that had built both in their turbulent first decades had now left the stage.

In its scale and subject matter, The House of Government is something of a departure from Slezkine’s earlier work, but there are clear continuities in his concerns and his sense of intellectual adventure. Born in February 1956—just before Khrushchev’s “secret speech” launched the process of de-Stalinization—Slezkine is the son of an eminent expert on the Americas and the grandson of a writer who was friends with Mikhail Bulgakov. After training as a philologist at Moscow State University, he spent time in Mozambique and Portugal (he originally intended to work on African history) and in 1983 emigrated to the United States, where he studied at the University of Texas with Sheila Fitzpatrick, one of the leading social historians of the USSR. Slezkine’s 1989 doctoral thesis, on Soviet policy toward the “small” nationalities of the Far North, was published as Arctic Mirrors in 1994. By that time, Slezkine had moved to the University of California, Berkeley, where he has been based since 1992.

Slezkine’s early work, especially his article “The USSR as a Communal Apartment,” overturned much of the conventional wisdom about the Bolsheviks and the nationalities of the former Russian Empire. Far from being a “prison of nations,” as often depicted by its Cold War critics, the Soviet state, Slezkine argued, was actually built by encouraging a multitude of ethnic groups to claim their rights and territories. Groundbreaking as these arguments were, Slezkine gained wider acclaim with his next book, The Jewish Century, which appeared 10 years later. The winner of a National Jewish Book Award in 2005, The Jewish Century zoomed in on the plight of a particular ethnic minority—Russian Jews—and examined their complex relationship with the Soviet regime as a group that was both central and marginal to it. Slezkine also ranged far beyond the geographical scope of his earlier work, offering a sweeping historical-sociological theory for understanding the relationship between Jews and modernity.

Drawing parallels with groups from different nations and eras, from medieval Korea to contemporary West Africa, Slezkine argued that Jews are one of a series of “Mercurian” peoples, operating on the margins of “Apollonian” societies as nomads, traders, intermediaries, and later as bearers of revolutionary ideas. Because of their interstitial location, such groups were in some ways ideally prepared for the advent of modernity. Since “modernization is about everyone becoming urban, mobile, literate, articulate, intellectually intricate, physically fastidious, and occupationally flexible,” Slezkine wrote, then “modernization…is about everyone becoming Jewish.” The curious double move—seemingly undoing Jewish exceptionalism, only to enshrine it anew as a kind of adaptive specialization—is characteristic of Slezkine’s approach. His work is both mischievous and calmly analytical, wildly provocative and thoughtful at the same time.

These qualities are very much present in The House of Government, which is often fascinating, moving, and profound, but also at times exasperatingly excessive. At the outset, Slezkine describes the book as being partly a “family saga,” and it has something of the capaciousness of a 19th-century novel, though inevitably Vasily Grossman’s Soviet epic Life and Fate springs to mind as well. There is also a direct literary model—The House of Government opens with an epigraph from it—in Georges Perec’s novel Life: A User’s Manual (1978), which puts the fictional denizens of a Paris apartment block under the microscope. Perec, of course, had the twin luxury and burden of being able to invent everything; Slezkine, on the other hand, had to spend two decades on research, during which he mined a wealth of sources, from state archives to personal diaries, letters, and memoirs. Throughout, he often lets the residents speak for themselves, reproducing long verbatim quotations from their correspondence or private journals. The result is less a historical narrative than an in-depth anthropological study, a cascade of conversations with the dead.

Yet just as the House of Government was more than an apartment building, Slezkine’s book is more than a narrative history of the people who called the place home. In effect, it is several books in one, operating at different scales and with overlapping but distinct goals. The dominant, and most successful, book-within-the-book unearths and retells the stories of the House of Government and its residents. Through this vast act of historical recovery, Slezkine has produced a collective portrait that is at once intimate and epic. Parts of it could surely have been done more economically: Quotations sometimes stretch over several pages, and there are lengthy digressions about everything from Soviet urbanism and 1930s fashion to music and holiday homes. Still, by any measure, this strand of the book is an impressive achievement.

The House of Government also offers a distinctive angle on the Stalin era, a kind of social history of the “mass elite”: The building’s residents were mostly not at the very summit of power, but rather a few levels below, where the machinery of state came into much closer contact with Soviet society. As Slezkine puts it, the building “was and was not an island.” For instance, many of the residents were among the functionaries charged with carrying out the forcible collectivization of agriculture at the turn of the 1930s; at the same time, several of the building’s domestic servants had recently fled the disasters afflicting the countryside. As a result, “one of the consequences of collectivization was that almost every child raised in the House of Government was raised by one of its casualties.”

There are dozens of brutal ironies of this kind, especially in the book’s final third, in which a relentless tide of arrests, imprisonments, and executions sweeps away many of the people whom readers have come to know. There are also moments of incongruous levity. When Voronsky’s daughter Galina was arrested, her interrogator turned out to be a fan of Sergei Esenin’s poetry, and the two spent most of their sessions reciting his verses to each other—until another NKVD officer walked into the cell, at which point the interrogator “would quickly readjust his manner and shout: ‘Voronskaia, you’d better start testifying!'” Elsewhere, we learn that at Radek’s dinner parties, his poodle would be given a seat at the table, as well as “a plate of food that he would carefully munch on.” Radek’s subsequent downfall—after being arrested in 1936 and convicted in a show trial the following year, he was murdered in prison in 1939—is one of several charted here. Later, another of the building’s residents plays a central role in restoring the posthumous reputations of many of her former neighbors: After the 20th Party Congress in 1956, Elena Stasova, former secretary of the party’s Central Committee, became what Slezkine calls “a one-woman rehabilitation committee.” One of the building’s last living links to the people who made the revolution, Stasova spent her final years tending to its ruined memory.

Embedded within the story of the building and its residents, however, are two other strands, each of which could have been a book in its own right. One of them amounts to a literary-cultural interpretation of Bolshevism: Slezkine describes a host of novels, poems, and plays that were central to the worldview of the House of Government’s inhabitants, from the “classics” venerated by bourgeois culture—Shakespeare, Balzac, Dickens, Heine, Ibsen—to the canonical socialist-realist works of Nikolai Ostrovsky and Leonid Leonov. These texts, according to Slezkine, supplied the language and concepts through which many of the early Bolsheviks grasped reality.

Sometimes there’s a direct link between literary texts and the House of Government itself: for example, through fictional characters based on real residents, or through the work of Yuri Trifonov, who grew up in the building and later immortalized it as “the House on the Embankment” in his 1976 novel of the same name. But often the connection is looser, more metaphorical, and at times this strand of The House of Government can seem like an indulgence—for instance, when it requires the reader to work through several pages of plot summary of a socialist-realist novel for a fairly modest payoff in understanding. (These are among the many occasions in the book where the material seems to have gotten out of control, and I often found myself wishing that Slezkine’s editors had taken a firmer hand.)

Much more contentious is the third, analytical strand of The House of Government, in which Slezkine puts forward an argument about the character and fate of the Soviet system by identifying Bolshevism as a religion. In the spirit of The Jewish Century‘s globe-spanning historical comparisons, Slezkine here sets Russian revolutionaries alongside a dizzying array of groups, from the Zoroastrians through militant versions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, to Rastafarians and modern-day cargo cults. After pursuing this argument in detail, he concludes that the Bolsheviks were a millenarian sect, and their Marxism a materialist veneer over a belief in the coming transfiguration of the world, the “real day” that seemed on its way in 1917. Since much of the Bolshevik worldview was forged long before the October Revolution, Slezkine also delves back into its origins and dissemination among the Russian intelligentsia in the Romanov era, and follows its development through the years of exile and underground activism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (This story occupies most of the book’s first part; construction on the House of Government doesn’t begin until after page 300.)

For Slezkine, the Bolsheviks’ millenarian thinking not only instilled in them the faith necessary to carry out a revolution; it also presented them with a particular set of challenges once they had taken power. First, there was the question of how to institutionalize their creed in a country that largely seemed not to share it. Then there was the inconvenient fact that the “real day”—the spread of revolution across the globe—not only didn’t arrive, but seemed to be growing more distant as time wore on.

Stalin’s doctrine of “socialism in one country” solved the second problem, adjusting the original prophecy to proclaim that the destination had already been reached. The first problem, meanwhile, was dealt with by the emergence of a priestly caste in the form of the party-state, which sought to transform the populace by half-educating, half-coercing it out of its backwardness. But these were no more than temporary fixes: Slezkine argues that the Bolsheviks were ultimately unable either to remake the country or to instill their own beliefs in their descendants, and so the sect withered away, like others before it. The revolutionaries thought they were forging the future of the planet, but as it turned out, “the Soviet Age did not last beyond one human lifetime.”

How useful is the analogy with religion as a way of thinking about what Bolshevism was—and hence as a key to understanding the Soviet experience as a whole? Even Slezkine seems to have his doubts. In an early chapter, he asks whether the Bolsheviks’ “faith” was a religion and observes: “The most sensible answer is that it does not matter.” But despite this, Slezkine uses the idea to sustain much of his argument over the next several hundred pages of his book.

It is also more than a little puzzling that he should want to revive such a worn anticommunist trope. Time and again, Marxism has been categorized as a secular religion, and its commitment to the revolutionary transformation of society as a mere rebranding of millenarianism. Within this wider cliché, Bolshevism has often been likened to one of the more fanatical monotheistic sects. In 1920, Bertrand Russell compared it to Islam, describing both as “practical, social, unspiritual” faiths that were “impervious to scientific evidence.” During the Cold War, the parallel was taken up by the likes of Bernard Lewis and Jules Monnerot with a tiresome combination of hysterical anticommunism and Orientalist Islamophobia. (Since 2001, the terms of the comparison have been reversed, with conservatives denouncing fundamentalist Islam as the “new Bolshevism.”)

Slezkine is incapable of such crude thinking. In his hands, the analogy opens the way for wide-ranging digressions on the comparative history of religion. But it has profound flaws that even someone with his wit and imagination can’t overcome. First there’s the obvious fact that Bolshevism was far from monolithic. For most of the period that Slezkine covers, serious factional disputes, rooted in genuinely different ideas about what direction the party and country should take, were the norm. The Bolshevism-as-religion analogy flattens this disputatious history into a single, uninterrupted lineage—and, in the process, does away with its very real contingency, projecting Stalin’s narrow doctrinal rigor decades backward onto a diverse movement.

Slezkine might respond that the Bolsheviks themselves often described their beliefs in millenarian terms, drawing on biblical imagery to explain their vision of the coming world. But this raises a second problem: At the time, religious terminology was the language in which people most commonly expressed beliefs of any kind, political or otherwise. And in a culture shaped for centuries by the precepts of Orthodox Christianity, how better to evoke the end of the existing socioeconomic order than as a kind of apocalypse? The fact that the Bolsheviks and others used religious language doesn’t prove how similar the two “faiths” were, but rather how prevalent and powerful religion was as a way of understanding the world. If Bolshevism was millenarian, it was because the whole Judeo-Christian tradition that it emerged within and defined itself against was, too.

There is a still more significant problem with the idea: In the end, it’s a simile, not an explanation. Saying that Bolshevism is a religion really only tells us that belief is belief. It leaves unaddressed the problem of why these people in this place were committed to a particular idea of revolutionary transformation. The answer to this lies not in the fact of belief itself, but in the specific social and political terrain in which the Bolsheviks operated: the mass poverty and exploitation they dreamed of ending, and the new society they built after the revolution of 1917, with its real advances and achievements, its dreams and distorting cruelties.

That specific social and political terrain is, in fact, the subject of much of The House of Government, and Slezkine documents it in near-encyclopedic detail. But this brings us to what is perhaps the deepest flaw in Slezkine’s religious reading of Bolshevism: It is ultimately a decontextualizing, depoliticizing move. Describing it as a worldly religion tends to emphasize the second term over the first, thereby removing the political and social content from what was primarily a political and social phenomenon. The effect of this is to detach Bolshevism from its foundations, evacuating the Soviet experience of its living substance: the millions of lives transformed—for better and for worse—throughout the ensuing decades.

This ultimately means that one of the main analytical strands of The House of Government is at odds with the rest. While Slezkine offers us a monumental social history that carefully records the lived experience of dozens of people caught up in the maelstrom of events, his core argument pulls us toward transhistorical abstractions. These contradictory impulses mean that it’s unclear, in the end, what Slezkine is telling us about the nature of the Soviet system. On the one hand, he casts the October Revolution as the beginning of a distinctive project of communist modernization. On the other, he argues that the fate of Bolshevism boils down to a story of failed succession from one generation of the faithful to the next. His book is therefore often less Grossman’s Life and Fate than Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons—and perhaps for this reason, it makes sense that he would describe Bolshevism’s anticlimactic end with another domestic metaphor: “The surviving revolutionaries and their children and grandchildren were facing each other across the kitchen table, unable to see or listen.”

The swing between the gigantic and the miniature, the epoch-making transformation and the kitchen scene, is obviously deliberate: Slezkine no doubt chose the House of Government as his subject because it would allow him to move back and forth between large-scale processes of historical change and the details of their unfolding in individual lives. But one consequence of this is that we frequently lose sight of the book’s focus: It is simultaneously about the entire Soviet Union and a single building, about one particular set of people and things, and about everything else, too.

This pendular movement means that we often see only in passing the actually existing society that gave rise to, and was remade by, the Bolsheviks: the vast country surrounding the House of Government. It’s a place that often intrudes on the lives of the building’s inhabitants, in scenes that Slezkine has evoked with tremendous compassion and care. Its noise and music and turmoil flow through the windows, the doorways, and the courtyards. But for much of the book, it remains at an unresolvable distance, at once too close and too far away to be seen clearly.

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