Slezkine, Yuri. The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017) XVIII, 1104 pp. $39.95.
By John W. Steinberg
Yuri Slezkine has written an extraordinary book. Building his epic around the lives of Soviet luminaries, he combines a host of topics ranging from intellectual to architectural history to reveal the underpinnings and the practice of power in early Soviet history. The focus of this work is the House of Government, constructed between 1927 and 1931 on Marsh Island, a strip of land adjacent to the Moscow River, across from the Kremlin, known as “the Swamp.” It was constructed exclusively for the apparatchiks who populated the higher bureaucratic positions within the Soviet government. At its conclusion, the building consisted of 505 apartments. The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution uses the construction of the building as a way into an analysis of the 19th-century origins of Bolshevism, what he considers its millenarian qualities, and how they came to find expression over time ending with the Soviet period of history. The story of its design and construction alone merits a separate monograph on how socialists built their new reality, but this was not Slezkine’s primary mission in writing The House of Government.
Instead, the author seeks to tell the story of the first half of the 20th century by reflecting on the philosophical and religious thought that shaped the revolutionary and intellectual underpinnings of the Russian Revolutionary movement. He then assesses the lives of people who endured the era of revolution and subsequent Stalinist terror, all while seeking to build socialism for the masses. Slezkine is at his best when he uses a wide range of sources, especially the letters, diaries, and memories of the inhabitants (he also conducted numerous interviews with both the relatives of and the survivors of the period). Some names such as Nikolai Bukharin and Karl Radek readers will recognize but others such as Alexander Arosev, Alexander Voronskii, Ivan Gronskii, and Mikhail Koltsov (to name a few) will not be as well-known. But all represented the highest echelon of the Soviet nomenklatura. They and they children were residents of the mammoth House of Government. Indeed, through the book’s detailed narrative of the construction of the Swamp—and the description of its amenities which offered collective leisure activities, a large library, and a huge dining room—readers can appreciate how early socialists envisioned themselves and the early character of socialism as it emerged in Soviet Russia.
Through a biographical study of those who called the “government house” home, the author constructs a richly textured lens through which readers can deeply appreciate the triumphs and tragedies of early socialism. As such, this book offers readers the story of people who were swept away in a revolutionary fervor only to become disillusioned by Josef Stalin’s seizure of power. Ultimately, they became victims of the terror that resulted in the exile or even their death. Slezkine describes how the leading bureaucrats of the Soviet Union enjoyed a privileged life, residing in their “modern” apartment buildings and running the government until the day that they became enemies of the state. According to the author, approximately 800 of these Soviet operatives faced arrest, exile, and, in some cases, execution by the very State they had previously served with much enthusiasm. As people disappeared after midnight knocks on doors, their residences were turned over to members of the NKVD (the Soviet Union’s secret police, a pre-cursor to the KGB). The House of Government became the house of perpetrators and their victims.
The House of Government’s multifaceted organization and its rich texture on every level adds much to our knowledge and understanding of how the Soviet’s envisioned themselves and how they sought to construct a new world not only for themselves but also for the rest of Russia. The author’s efforts to reconstruct the sources of the thinking and consciousness of revolutionaries—Bolsheviks—and then the new Homos Sovieticus is not new to the field. But it is done with a master’s touch, making this nexus approachable for most readers. The depth of this book (1,104 pages) is profound, but it is well written. Each chapter serves as a short story unto itself and can be read as such. Taken in its entirety, Slezkine offers readers a richly textured portrait of the glory of early Soviet history in all of its glory and all of its horror!
John W. Steinberg
Austin Peay State University
Featured image (at top): House of Government, Moscow, September 2017, courtesy of wikimediacommons.