Review: The House of Government







Yuri Slezkine is a Russian-American historian (he is also technically Portuguese-American, since he first emigrated from Russia to Portugal and then came to the US with a Portuguese passport) who has written a number of interesting books, and “The House of Government; a Saga of the Russian Revolution” is his latest and greatest offering.  At over 1000 pages, it is not a lightweight book, literally or metaphorically. What he does is follow the lives of a large number of Bolshevik revolutionaries, from their origins as young rebels (they were almost all very young; very few were over 40 when they took over the largest country in the world) to the heady days of the Bolshevik revolution, to the civil war that followed, the first compromise (the NEP), the second and more serious attempt at “true communism” (the five year plan), the terrible violence and suffering of collectivization,  the victory of communism under Stalin, the insane purge and auto-annihilation that followed that victory, the second world war, the desiccation and death of revolutionary ideology, and, perhaps most strikingly, the coming of age of the next generation without any sincere transfer of the purported official ideology, leading to the final, inevitable collapse of the entire experiment.

The characters in the book are mostly second tier revolutionaries, who all held important positions, but who were not for the most part at the very top (there are some exceptions, Sverdlov and Bukharin are discussed in detail and they were no doubt first tier, Sverdlov practically led the revolution until his early death in March 1919 and Bukharin was a first tier leader until the late 20s and had the prestige of one well into the 1930s). As Slezkine himself makes clear in the beginning, the characters he has selected are first and foremost distinguished by the fact that they left a record; either they or their near and dear ones (wives, children) wrote diaries, letters and books that allow Slezkine to paint this incredibly detailed portrait of their lives. Still, it is worth keeping in mind that this is a group that may not may not be completely typical, but he has selected a large enough sample that we can be confident that we are getting at least a very important part of the picture.

The Bolshevik revolution (aka “The October Revolution”) was, strictly speaking, the second Russian revolution; the first was the popular upheaval that overthrew the Czar in February 1917 and that led to a few months of genuine freedom (and chaos). The second was the Bolshevik coup that overthrew the provisional government and established the dictatorship of the (relatively small, certainly not a majority in terms of popular support) Bolshevik party. The party may not have had vast popular support (the Socialist Revolutionaries, SRs, certainly had greater popular support, as indicated by their showing in the only elections ever held in Russia that year) but they had the clearest conception of what they wanted, and the most willingness to use violence to achieve it. This group established control, won the civil war, and created the Soviet Union. Which brings us to the first thing this book is not; it is not a history of the Soviet Union. The reader is expected to know that history in some detail already. There is a lot of detail about what happened, but not a lot of summary history. It will help if you read some general books about the revolution before or alongside this great work.

The house of government referred to in the title was a very large set of apartments build across the river from the Kremlin for the senior officials of the Soviet Union. Most (but not all) of the characters in the book lived in this building at some point and the house serves as a device to hold together the various lives that make up this book. The house had over 500 apartments as well as a theater, music hall, health clinic, hair salon, grocery store, and repair shop. It offered opportunities for tennis, chess, fencing, painting, skating, skiing, singing, sewing, boxing, theater, volleyball, basketball, photography, stenography, target shooting and radio-building. The residents lived comfortably, served by hundreds of maids, handymen, housekeeping workers and guards. While the adults tended to socialize (if at all) with smaller circles of friends and comrades, the children of the house of government grew up playing together going to the same schools, visiting the same entertainments (nearby Gorky park had everything from circuses to carousels, bumper cars and concerts, given by 10 different orchestras a day). But beyond this function of holding the various story lines together in one physical location, the house actually plays a relatively limited role in the narrative. If there were no such house and the characters lived scattered across the various converted hotels of central Moscow (repurposed as the various “houses of Soviets”), the book would have been little different.

The other (and more significant) organizing principle of the book is religious. Slezkine describes the Bolshevik party as

“..millenarian sectarians preparing for the apocalypse. .consecutive episodes in the Bolshevik family saga are related to stages in the history of a failed prophecy, from an apparent fulfillment to the great disappointment to a series of postponements to the desperate offer of a last sacrifice. Compared to other sects with similar commitments, the Bolsheviks were remarkable for both their success and their failure. They managed to take over Rome long before their faith could become an inherited habit, but they never figured out how to transform their certainty into a habit that their children or subordinates could inherit.”

This, in brief, is the whole argument of the book, the rest is details. The argument is made with great verve and deep learning; Slezkine gives us a general history of sects, including wonderfully concise histories of Christianity (moving from the initial apocalyptic vision to its taming and successful routinization by the Eastern and Western churches, to its fracturing with the Reformation and the slew of baby sects that followed), early Islam and the various (almost all Christian) millenarian movements that arose in the lands devastated by Christian colonists. He makes a very convincing case, but like all such cases, it is never completely settled. It may well be that there is no single explanation, but while it may not be the only explanation, it is certainly one explanation, and probably an important one.

The third aspect of the book is literary; As he himself states:

“For the Old Bolsheviks, reading the “treasures of world literature” was a crucial part of conversion experiences, courtship rituals, prison “universities,” and House of Government domesticity. For their children, it was the single most important leisure activity and educational requirement.”

While he also insists that “this is a work of history, any resemblance to fictional characters is purely coincidental”, this is not really true. The book is as much “War and Peace” as it is a work of history, and it is the richer for it.

But irrespective of your opinion of his meta narratives, the book is worth reading because the reader does not really have to accept his core thesis to benefit from it. The details are what makes this book great; you will learn more about the Russian revolution and its movers and shakers than you ever knew as Slezkine describes the lives of these characters, their loves and domestic problems, their hopes and ideals, their everyday lives, the books they read and the books they wrote, the plays and movies they watched (and in some cases, made) and ways they (frequently gruesomely) built the new world and the way they met their (frequently gruesome) fate in this new world.

And what details these are; a “left deviationist” locked up in a prison called a “political isolator” incessantly writes to her family asking about the five year plan and how it is going. The secret policeman Mironov is rounding up enemies of the people and torturing and shooting them in a desperate attempt to meet Stalin’s increasingly insane quotas while his wife is focused on fashionable dresses and describes sumptuous dinners and feasts of caviar in the midst of thousands of “kulaks” starving to death and reduced in some cases to cannibalism (including pickling and eating their own children). I will post some excerpts to give you a flavor:

“The Morozov District chairman claimed that, having received a telegram urging a “more energetic . . . implementation of the dictatorship of the proletariat,” he “got drunk to dull the pain, walked over to the jailhouse, picked up a list of prisoners, summoned them by number one by one, and executed the first sixty- four of them.”.

A bestselling account of the civil war recounts how “The house of the Ataman was searched from top to bottom, but he was nowhere to be found. He had fled. The soldiers began shouting: “If you don’t come out, we’ll kill all your children!”
The Ataman did not come out.
They began to slaughter the children. Grovelling on her knees with her braids streaming down, the Ataman’s wife clutched desperately at the soldiers’ legs. One of them turned to her and said reproachfully:
“Why are you yelling like a stuck pig? I had a daughter just like
yours—a three- year- old. We buried her up there in the mountains,
but I didn’t yell.” And he hacked down the little girl and then crushed the skull of the hysterically laughing mother.”

In the village of Ust- Inza, Lunin District, during the dekulakization of the kulak Imagulov, the entire family was evicted at 1 a.m. and forced out into the winter cold. The baby froze to death and Imagulov’s sick daughter- in- law was badly frostbitten. (She had given birth two days previously.)”

The Lower Volga and Ukraine, along with the North Caucasus, accounted for the largest total number of famine deaths, but, per capita, the most affected area was Kazakhstan, where, according to estimates based on official statistics, 2,330,000 rural residents (39 percent of the whole rural population) were lost to death and emigration between 1929 and 1933. The ethnic Kazakh population was reduced by about 50 percent: between 1.2 million and 1.5 million died of starvation, and about 615,000 emigrated
abroad or to other Soviet republics”

It is not all blood and gore. There are many moments of joy and genuine elation. The revolutionary heroine Larissa Reissner is described by a contemporary

In front, on a black stallion, rode a woman in a soldier’s tunic and a wide, light- blue and navy checkered skirt. Sitting gracefully in her saddle, she galloped bravely across the ploughed field. Clods of black earth flew from under the horse’s hooves. It was Larisa Reisner, Chief of Army Scouts. The rider’s enchanting face glowed from the wind. She had light gray eyes, chestnut hair pulled back from her temples and coiled into a bun at the back of her head, and a high, clear brow intersected by a single tiny, stern crease”

The poor peasants of mostly rural Russia were a particular bete noir of the urban, intelligentsia-origin Bolsheviks, who regularly described them as stupid, primitive, moronic, etc. As the Soviet state destroyed orthodox Russian Christianity, these peasants sometimes asked for replacements. Mikhail Koltsov describes a visit by a group of peasants who want “a godless Soviet liturgy for deceased, honest, non- Party peasants, as well as a full schedule of Red Baptisms (‘Octoberings’) and a register of revolutionary saints’ names for each day of the year for the naming of peasant infants.” The narrator’s reaction is predictable:
“I tried to convince them that this was all nonsense and did not matter
at all, and that what was important was not rituals but libraries, the
liquidation of illiteracy, agricultural cooperatives, mutual aid committees,
collective plowing, the fight against moonshine production, tractors,
agronomists, newspapers, movies, and rural mail deliveries.”
The visitors persist, however, and the narrator “commits an act of bourgeois philistinism and intellectual backwardness at the level of one village” by taking them to a stationary store and helping them buy “portraits of leaders, red lampshades, ribbons, slogans, and posters. . . . A cardboard poster ‘Save Time: When Your Work Is Done, Go Home’ may soon rustle above the head of a corpse. A fancy picture of airplanes and gas masks
may well be displayed over the respectfully bent heads of newlyweds. A ‘No
Smoking’ poster may hang before the tiny blue eyes of an unschooled newborn.

The revolutionaries were great fans of Russian literature (a group used to toast “To Marxism, Russian literature and new machines) and authors and artists frequently became members of the Soviet elite, were provided dachas and maids and were tolerated and cultivated even when they were not orthodox Bolsheviks. This was especially true of Stalin, who invested much time and energy into bringing Maxim Gorky back to the Soviet Union and tried to protect (non-communist) writer Bulgakov from censorship by apparatchiks who were more keen on orthodoxy than literature.

Sverdlov, who played such a critical role in making the revolution (and ordered the killing of the Czar and his family, including the children), was a fan of Heine, and his favorite stanza was:

A different song, a better song,
will get the subject straighter:

let’s make heaven on earth, my friends,
instead of waiting till later.

As Slezkine writes:

Reading had been central to their own conversion and their early efforts to convert others; reading imaginative literature was of special significance because of the “enormous power of feeling” that it could generate. As Osinsky wrote to Shaternikova, it was “comparable to revolutionary enthusiasm” in its “power, clarity, and purity,” and it could fan or temper that enthusiasm, if directed accordingly. He himself could not think of a better representation of the “psychology of future times” than Verhaeren’s poem, “The Blacksmith”; Bukharin attributed his discovery of love without God to Dostoevsky’s The Adolescent; Voronsky had found the best portrait of a ruthless revolutionary in Ibsen’s Brand; Sverdlov’s favorite prophecy of future perfection came from Heine’s “Germany”; and Sverdlov’s (and Voronsky’s) friend Filipp Goloshchekin, who oversaw the massacre of the tsar’s family, had left behind an epitaph from  Heine’s “Belsazar.” Fiction had structured, nuanced, and illustrated the Bolshevik experience.

The violent and frequently cruel struggle against the peasants and the bourgeoisie also strained the nerves of the revolutionaries, and they needed frequent trips to sanatoriums and rest-homes to recover. There were dozens of these rest homes, and hundreds of revolutionaries went there on extended holidays, availing themselves of healing mineral baths and massages for weeks and months on end, then coming back to the fray, revitalized. But this life did not last. After the horrors of collectivization and famine were over and millions had been killed, Stalin turned on his own party and state apparatus, shooting 680,000 (the NKVD’s own official count. Stalin personally signed death lists (that survive) containing at least 43000 names) of them in the course of two years of terror in 1937-38.

Slezkine manages to fit this purge into his religious framework too, identifying it with the ancient cultural practice of finding and killing a “scapegoat”. He describes the witch hunts of medieval Europe and is able to show some similarities in the way people were guilty once they were charged, with extreme tortures ensuring that confession as well as the naming of co-conspirators would be forthcoming in almost all cases.  They would be arrested in turn and tortured, and naturally they would name others.

Most interestingly, his other example is from the United States: the “daycare child sexual abuse” scare that swept the United States in the 1980s and early 90s. He is able to show some similarities with how accusation alone was sufficient to set that process in motion, with prosecutors and police using extreme coercion and other inducements to get fantastic confessions out of people who had committed no crime. And then holding show trials where people confessed to fantastic crimes and all sorts of people believed every case, no matter how insane the circumstances now seem in retrospect.

But ultimately this schema remains as unsatisfactory an explanation of this period of madness as all the others that have been proposed to date. The horror of the Soviet purges was simply too large, and too insane, to be explained by any rational explanation, even one as imaginative as this one.

Anyway, to get a flavor of Slezkine’s thesis, see this excerpt about the trial of Radek and Bukharin (both of whom were sincere communinsts who had served at the very highest levels of the Soviet state):

Of the seventeen prisoners, thirteen, amongst whom were close friends of Radek, had been condemned to death, while he himself and three others had been sentenced only to imprisonment. The judge had read the verdict, and all of us had listened to it standing up..
Radek offered himself—along with Bukharin, among other friends—
as a scapegoat, a metaphor of unopposed temptation, the embodiment
of forbidden thought. He may not have murdered anybody, or even conspired with any murderers, but in Bolshevism, as in Christianity or any
other ideology of undivided devotion, it was the thought that counted. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” The interchangeability of acts and thoughts was the main theme of Radek’s exchange with the state prosecutor, A. Ia. Vyshinsky.
The fact of having had sinful thoughts was proof of the reality of criminal actions..

.. The following morning, Pravda published an article by the head of its arts and literature section, I. Lezhnev (Isai Altshuler), titled “Smerdiakovs”: “Sitting in the dock are the monstrous offspring of fascism, traitors to the motherland, wreckers, spies, and saboteurs—the most evil and perfidious enemies of the people. They appeared before the court in all their loathsome nakedness, and we saw a new edition of Smerdiakov, a disgusting image become flesh and blood. The Smerdiakovs of our day provoke combined feelings of indignation and revulsion. They are not just the ideologues of the restoration of capitalism, they are the moral incarnation of the fascist bourgeoisie, the product of its senile dementia, mad ravings, and creeping

..The Bolshevik inquisitorial procedure, like its numerous Christian, Buddhist, and post- Freudian counterparts, assumed that a wholly virtuous life was impossible, but that partial reconciliation could be achieved through confession and that an unconfessed sin could be forgiven if it was honestly forgotten, not deliberately concealed. The difference between honest forgetfulness and deliberate concealment, apparent to God, history, and perhaps an experienced interrogator, was, in most human interactions, a matter of trust. But, as Stalin would tell Bukharin at the December 1936 Central Committee plenum, after Kirov’s murder, no one, even those who “volunteer to personally execute their friends,” could be trusted. It was a “hellish situation”: sincerity, as the events of the previous two years had demonstrated convincingly, had become a relative, and therefore irrelevant, concept.”

Slezkine also explains how the scale of the terror was hidden from most people, even as arrests and executions reached into every institution and every city and village:

Most news of the campaign against anti- Soviet elements was about its
carefully scripted public reenactments. The campaign itself was conducted
underground and was meant to remain there. Most arrests, searches, and executions took place at night. Family members were not told where their relatives had been taken and had to travel from one prison to another until their parcels were accepted. When the parcels were no longer accepted, they were to conclude that their relative had been transferred or executed. Executions were usually disguised as sentences of “ten years without the right of correspondence.” Places of execution were hidden (and, within Sergei Mironov’s jurisdiction, camouflaged with previously cut turf). The accused were not informed of the “mass operations” or the individual decisions that had led to their arrests. The interrogators were to banish the numbers of the accused from their minds, “while those who cannot must force themselves to do it anyway” (as Sergei Mironov put it). Large- scale deportations, including those of entire ethnic groups, were carried out in secret and remained largely unknown in the loudly resonant Moscow.”

The rest of the book, after the account of the purges, is relatively short. Decades are covered in a few hundred pages and we quickly arrive at the end, with the Soviet Union built at such horrendous cost and with such staggering violence, passing away almost without a fight.

Why did the Soviet religion fail to survive where other millenial sects (even those that made very specific promises of apocalypse that obviously failed to arrive) continue to thrive for 100s and even thousands of years? Slezkine’s answer is not about economic or state failure, but about something more fundamental: unlike other millenarian sects, Bolshevism failed to bring the family under its control. ‘One of the central features of Bolshevism as a life-structuring web of institutions was that Soviets were made in school and at work, not at home”.

I will let Slezkine himself explain this:

Marxism’s economic determinism had an even more fatal consequence—
one most obviously on display in the House of Government and
most pointedly not seen by those who had eyes. Focused on political economy and “base”- derived sociology, Marxism developed a remarkably flat conception of human nature. A revolution in property relations was the only necessary condition for a revolution in human hearts. The dictatorship of unchained proletarians would automatically result in the withering away of whatever got in the way of Communism, from the state to the family. Accordingly, the Bolsheviks never worried very much about the
family, never policed the home, and never connected the domestic rites of
passage—childbirth, marriage, and death—to their sociology and political
economy. Party, Komsomol, and Young Pioneer members were registered
and monitored in school and at work, not at home, and the only House of
Government residents subject to outside surveillance were those who
worked there. Not only did the Bolsheviks never devise a policy analogous
to Christian pastoral care or its “child protective” successors in the modern
therapeutic state: they had no local parishes (missions) at all. District
Party committees supervised work- based primary cells and coordinated
plan fulfillment by local enterprises, leaving “hen- and- rooster” problems
and whatever their opponents called “spiritual needs” to history and an
occasional exhortation campaign.

Most millenarian sects attempt to reform or abolish the family (by decreeing celibacy, promiscuity, or the leader’s sexual monopoly), but if they are to survive, they must incorporate it as part of the providential plan

Jesus said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father, mother,
wife, children, brothers, and sisters, as well as his own life, he can’t be my
disciple.” Jesus’s disciple, Paul, told his (much more numerous and diverse)
disciples: “I say this as a concession, not as a command. I wish that
all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one
has this gift, another has that. Now to the unmarried and the widows I say:
It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. But if they cannot control
themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with
passion.” And then, following Augustine’s reconciliation with the indefinite
postponement of Jesus’s return, marriage became a sacrament enforced
by the church and, in later Protestant practice, the institution anchoring
the community of the faithful. The Bolsheviks’ early attempts to reform
the family, halfhearted and marginal to begin with, were soon abandoned
in favor of an acceptance that remained untheorized and apparently irrelevant to the building of Communism

Christianity attached itself to the law of Moses and kept devising new
ways of monitoring the family. Muhammad codified and reformed Arabian
common law. Marx- Engels- Lenin- Stalin had nothing to say about everyday human morality and left their disciples no guidance on how to be good Communists at home.

Communism failed because it did not destroy or successfully coopt the family. Whether you agree with Slezkine or not, you should read this book. It is much much more than its primary thesis. The devil is in the details, and the details are all here. Lives, books, movies, art, everything.
Well, everything but the economics. Ironically for a book about an economist philosophy, Slezkine has little or nothing to say about economics. The striking thing is, it does not seem to matter.

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Omar Ali

I am a physician interested in obesity and insulin resistance, and in particular in the genetics and epigenetics of obesity As a blogger, I am more interested in history, Islam, India, the ideology of Pakistan, and whatever catches my fancy. My opinions can change.

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[…] better men, all these probably played a role, but no explanation is fully satisfactory. No wonder Yuri Slezkine fell back on a primarily religious explanation, more akin to scapegoating and witch hunts than […]

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