More than one critic has described Yuri Slezkine’s The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution as a 21st century analogue of classic 19th and 20th century works of fiction, citing in particular Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate.
Having tried, and failed, to read War and Peace many years ago (intimidated, from what I remember, by its size and confused by the cast of characters), while Life and Fate remains on my bucket list, I can neither verify nor deny the comparisons. But there is clearly one respect in which Slezkine’s monumental tome is different. “This is a work of history,” the author declares in place of a dedication. “Any resemblance to fictional characters, dead or alive, is entirely coincidental.”
That’s what makes it, in large part, a fascinating chronicle. A great deal of research clearly went into creating what is on the face of it an uncommon masterpiece and Slezkine relies to a considerable extent on diaries and unpublished memoirs that ended up in state archives.
An uncommon masterpiece on the Russian Revolution of 1917 incorporates illuminating insights and information, even if one of its central theses is questionable
The book derives its title and primary focus from a huge construction project that replaced a candy factory across the Moskva River from the Kremlin. The closely connected blocks of flats were intended to, and did, house hundreds of the leading personalities of the Soviet state and their families, beginning a dozen or so years after the 1917 revolution. Given that the city then known as Petrograd, the birthplace of the revolution, was under threat from the German war machine as well as internal enemies, the national capital was shifted to Moscow. The fate of the Soviet Union might have been very different had this not occurred, given the prolonged siege of Leningrad (as Petrograd was renamed after Vladimir Lenin’s premature demise, before eventually reverting to its original name, St Petersburg, in the 1990s) during the Second World War.
Key state apparatchiks needed somewhere to dwell in Moscow and the city’s leading hotels — including the National and the Metropol — were repurposed as Houses of Soviets in the interim. After the House of Government became habitable, the hotels eventually reverted to their original status. (While briefly a student in Moscow, I recall visiting the National in 1977 to spend time with Faiz Ahmed Faiz and the journalist Hameed Akhtar, but have no recollection of setting eyes on the House of Government.)
At the height of its prestige, thousands of people from among the cream of the Communist Party resided in the conveniently located and well-maintained House of Government — from commissars and ideologues to writers, artists and, of course, their families. There was an army of staff, at least 600-strong, to cater to their needs. The vast compound boasted its own theatre, cinema, clinic, childcare arrangements, facilities for sports and recreation and cafeteria, as well as room service on demand. The idea, evidently, was to keep the party elite satisfied and thereby dedicated — at least in theory — to its primary responsibilities.
Inevitably, it did not work out that way. But based on Slezkine’s documentation, there was a halcyon period when the denizens of the House of Government not only lived in relative comfort — even when substantial swaths of the Soviet Union were being devastated by famine, partly as a consequence of directives from residents of the house — but thought relatively freely, read widely (including non-Russian classics of world literature) and enjoyed access to holiday dachas and health farms.
This was evidence, arguably, that the aftermath of the revolution was in some ways corrupted; that privilege had somehow crept back into the equation, in the wake of an upheaval that was intended in large part to eliminate classes in society. It’s worth noting that the Yugoslav communist Milovan Djilas titled his critique of Soviet reality The New Class: An Analysis of the Communist System, and that Lenin in his stroke-ridden final years sought to change the course of the revolution he had masterminded, not least by toppling Josef Stalin from his post as arbiter of Soviet fortunes.
Lenin failed. In his book The Soviet Century, Moshe Lewin makes the credible case that Bolshevism effectively ceased to exist beyond 1927. Stalin, by then, had consolidated his gains and begun to sideline his opponents within the party. The key figure in the initial purge was Leon Trotsky, effectively Lenin’s second-in-command, who had played an indispensable role not only in the takeover of November 1917, but also in the subsequent civil war, transforming the Red Army from a ragtag bunch of militias into a fighting force that defeated the Western-backed semi-tsarist opposition.
At that point Trotsky could not be eliminated, but he could be exiled to Siberia — the treatment the tsars routinely meted out to their more inveterate opponents — and subsequently to Turkey. He was assassinated in Mexico in 1940. By then, Stalin was the sole survivor from the party central committee under Lenin. A few of its members had died natural deaths, but most of them — from Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev (a particularly close comrade of Lenin’s during his European exile) to Nikolai Bukharin (one of the most affectionately regarded members of the party hierarchy) and Karl Radek — had been executed at Stalin’s behest. Many had been accused of being Trotskyite deviationists, which was absurdly construed as being on par with fascism. Bukharin’s pleas to his former comrade Koba — Stalin’s earlier nickname — are profoundly pathetic.
The rot really set in, as Slezkine demonstrates, in 1934 with the assassination of the popular Leningrad party chief Sergei Kirov. His killer was apparently a man of diminished intellectual capacities, but Stalin suddenly saw conspiracies everywhere. The purge entrapped many of the leaseholders in the House of Government and, sooner or later, their families, but it also drew in hundreds of thousands of others across the country. A proportion of them survived. Some even returned to the House of Government in the aftermath of the Great Patriotic War in 1941-45, after Adolf Hitler reneged on his pact with Stalin and conquered large parts of the Soviet Union before being pushed back. But many of them were subsequently rearrested.
The disaster ended only with Stalin’s death in 1953. By then the House of Government was no longer the house of government, and those who managed to return found few neighbours that they recognised. It still stands there, in a swamp at the heart of Moscow, bearing testimony to a dream that went horribly wrong.
Slezkine’s The House of Government is a unique way of analysing one of the most significant events of the 20th century and it is fascinating in a number of ways. But it is also deeply flawed. The author announces at the outset his view of the Bolsheviks as a millenarian apocalyptic sect and sticks to the theme thereafter, returning to it — often at great length — frequently. There are no doubt valid parallels to be drawn between Bolshevism and religion, not least in the post-Lenin era when Stalin, a former seminary student, deployed his interpretation of the Marxist-Leninist ‘gospel’ as the driving force behind his excesses. Both Karl Marx and Lenin, though, were willing to adjust their thoughts to the prevailing circumstances and, although both were keen to demolish their ideological rivals, neither would have sanctioned the elimination of their closest comrades — as Stalin did, without any qualms, thereby earning from Trotsky the justified appellation of the gravedigger of the revolution.
Much in Slezkine’s book points to that conclusion. But he prefers to stick with his pseudo-religious thesis, much as Stalin did. His epic cannot be designated the best way of approaching the centenary of the 1917 revolution. But if one can get past the ideological asides that crop up all too frequently, this is, nonetheless, a thoroughly illuminating compendium of information and insights.
The reviewer is a journalist based in Australia
The House of Government:
A Saga of the Russian
By Yuri Slezkine
Princeton University Press,
INDESCRIBABLE JOHN ELI
By Shabbir Aariz
This indeed is proverbially a herculean task to describe or define John Elia in any particular frame. Whosoever while mentioning him, is either trapped in contradictions of one’s own opinion or is able to confine to a few verses of John Elia to judge him. But the more one tries to understand John, the more confused one is and I believe that you need another John Elia to explain him. He is a phenomenon, a thing like a live fish to hold in your hand or an elephant amongst blinds to be described. Wusatullah Khan, a noted broadcaster, holds that knowing John is as good as dating with a liberated lady. And it is quite obvious that a man who in him is a philosopher, a scholar, a biographer, a linguist with command over Urdu, Arabic, English, Persian, Sanskrit and Hebrew and needless to say that the Ismaili sect of the subcontinent could not find anyone other than John to translate Ismaili treatises from Hebrew, it becomes a tedious affair to be conclusive about John. Common perception though with an element of truth is that John is a progressive Marxist, an unconventional poet and always in denial of everything including himself while himself saying in three line verse,
“KISKO FUSAT K MUJSAY BAHAS KARAY…..
OOR SABIT KARAY K MERA WAJOOD….
ZINDZGI K LIYAY ZARORI HAY
(Anyone prepared to argue and prove that my existence is imperative for life). His poetry is admittedly very close to life and his verses in the words of a legendry poet, Majrooh Sultanpuri, are like a dialogue which no other poet has the distinction to be capable of. John has an extra-ordinary craft of connecting with his audience that has created an unprecedented fan following which no other contemporary poet can claim to have. So magical is his poetry and its rendition that it has created a cult of his admirers with such an obsession and longing for the life of melancholy lead by John Elia himself. It is no secret that he was never a happy man with defiance and protest against everything and anything around. Loudly a nonconformist when he says
“unjaman main mayri khamooshi…..
burdabari nahin hay wehshat hay”.
His style made him famous and popular. He appears to be disgusted even with creation when he says … “HASILE KUN HAY YEH JAHANE KHARAAB….
YAHI MUMKIN THA AYSI UJLAT MAIN”.
His admirers strangely wish to pass through the same pain and despair that is hallmark of John’s poetry besides satire and the disdain for the system which contributed to his sadness in life. He has so glorified and romanticized the pain and sadness that it leaves his audience in frenzied ecstasy.
John Elia was born in the year 1931 and died in 2002. He originally belonged to Amroha in the state of Uttar Pradesh, younger brother of Rayees Amrohi, a known journalist and writer. John migrated to Pakistan in the year 1957 and settled in Karachi where he is buried now. But Amroha never left his heart and mind. He never felt comfortable after leaving Amroha partly because his stay in Karachi brought him in conflict with the system too. Many other things have also contributed to his sadness in life. He was married to a well-known writer of Pakistan, Zahida Hina but in mid-80’s , the relation between the two became bumpy and ended up in divorce which left John devastated and for ten long years thereafter went in depression without writing a word.
As is true about many in the history of literature, John earned his name and fame more after his death than in his life time while he was not received well and felt a strange type of suffocation when he says,
“AAP APNAY SAY HUMSUKHAN REHNA…..
HUMNISHEEN SAANS PHOOL JATI HAY”.
Thanks to the electronic boom and You Tube that brought him to the lime light and enabled audience to reach him and his works. As if this was not enough that his first poetic collection only came to be published when he reached the age of 60. It is worthwhile mention that he has as many as seven poetic collections to his credit namely SHAYAD, YANI, LEKIN, GUMAAN, GOYA, FARMOD and RAMOOZ. Except one, all other are published posthumously. This is besides his scholarly works in prose which may require greater insight to go into.
John all his life remained honest, direct and straightforward in expressing his views on matters of public interest. He also never demonstrated any pretentions or reservations while expressing the truth of his personal life. He never made any secret of his fantasies, love affairs or drinking habits. Yet he was never at peace either with the times or with himself. John Elia, in my humble opinion lived ahead of times and even the desire of dying young without being bed ridden was not granted to him except that he strangely enough wanted to die of tuberculosis and which he did.
(The author, a senior lawyers, is a well known poet and writer. Feedback at: [email protected])
Manto: Why I wanted to read a ‘lewd’ writer
By Naveed Hussain
I first read Saadat Hasan Manto as a teenager and the spirit of what I’m writing now was etched on my memory in those years.
I was too young to understand the intricacies of his stories but I enjoyed what I read and craved for more. Back then, Manto wasn’t available in the small town of Haripur where I lived. A friend introduced me to a schoolteacher, a bibliophile who had a modest collection of Manto in his personal library.
“Why do you want to read Manto, he’s a ribald, lewd writer,” he quipped. “This is exactly why I want to read him,” I replied, almost impulsively. He smiled and agreed to lend me Manto’s books. Thus began my journey to explore Manto. The more I read, the deeper my love for him became.
Manto was a nonconformist, an unorthodox and ruthlessly bold writer. He didn’t believe in the so-called literary norms of ‘decency’ and ‘civility’ set by didactic writers of his time. For him, truth is truth. No matter how bitter and despicable the reality, Manto never dilutes the truth. Like a muckraker, he pokes his nose into the muck, rakes it, and then holds it up to the reader – in all its profound ugliness and twisted beauty. “If you don’t know your society, read my stories. If you find a defect, it’s the defect of your society, not my stories,” he says.
Manto wrote on socially taboo topics like sex, incest and prostitution, which earned him the wrath of contemporary traditionalists, conservatives and even progressives. For some of his ‘lewd’ and ‘obscene’ stories he had to face lawsuits – among them were great stories such as Thanda Gosht, Bu, Khol Do, Dhuan and Kali Shalwar.
But it is to miss the point to simply say that Manto wrote about sex. He wrote about the sexual debauchery of men and the sexual exploitation of women; about our patriarchal society where women are often treated as a ‘sex toy’, not a human being. Unlike many, I don’t compare Manto with DH Lawrence, because Manto is not lustful, even though he explicitly writes about the female anatomy. He’s more like Guy de Maupassant, who sees the throbbing heart, not the sensuous body, of the prostitute.
Manto blames the ‘diseased mind’ for reading ‘ribaldry’ into his stories. If a sex maniac derives morbid gratification from Venus De Milo, should we blame Alexandros of Antioch for chiselling such a ‘graphic’ sculpture? No, certainly not.
For contemporary literary pundits, Manto was also unacceptable because he wrote ‘indecent’ language. “They [the critics] criticise me when my characters verbally abuse one another – but why don’t they criticise their society instead where hundreds of thousands of profanities are hurled on the streets, every day,” he wonders.
I also love Manto because he was honest. He was an unflinchingly true writer who believed in calling a spade a spade. Sketch-writing was introduced as a genre in Urdu literature much earlier, but Manto created his own peculiar tell-all style. He didn’t write only the good qualities of his characters. “In my bathroom, everyone is naked. I don’t clothe them because it’s the tailor’s job,” he writes.
Manto’s sketches, which he initially wrote for the Lahore-based Daily Afaq newspaper, were later collected and published as Ganjay Farishtay. Manto wasn’t a hypocrite. He minced no words while writing about his dead friends. “I curse a thousand times a so-called civilised society where a man’s character is cleansed of all its ills and tagged as ‘May-God-Bless Him’,” Manto wrote in Ganjay Farishtay. Manto wrote sketches of filmstars Ashok Kumar, Shyam, Noor Jahan, literary figures such as Meera Ji, Agha Hashar and Ismat Chughtai and some politicians. “I have no camera that could have washed smallpox marks off the face of Agha Hashar or change obscenities uttered by him in his flowery style.”
Before embarking on his literary career, Manto had read Russian, French and English masters like Chekhov, Gorky, Victor Hugo, de Maupassant and Oscar Wilde and translated some of their works into Urdu. Surprisingly enough, despite his love for revolutionaries, Manto was not a Marxist ideologue. He was a humanist who was pained to see social injustices, economic disparities and exploitation of the underprivileged. He hated the obscurantist clergy and parasitic elites alike.
Although Manto had migrated to Pakistan after 1947, he couldn’t understand the rationale of partitioning a land along religious lines. His stories of bloodshed and cross-border migration, such as Teetwaal Ka Kutta and Toba Tek Singh, made him unpopular with ‘patriotic’ Pakistanis. To this day he remains a shadowy figure on the official literary lists of Pakistan: our school curricula, our national awards, our drawing room conversations.
Manto was acknowledged as a creative genius even by his detractors. And he knew this, which is perhaps why he wanted these words to mark his grave: “Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto and with him lie all the secrets and mysteries of the art of short story writing. Under tons of earth he lies, still wondering who among the two is the greater short story writer: he or God.”
Manto’s family feared his self-written epitaph would attract the unwanted attention of the ignorantly religious, so on his grave one finds a Ghalib couplet. He faced censorship all his life and even now has chunks of his stories taken out by the authorities. But as we mark his centenary year, I can say this with the instant certainty I felt as a young man in Haripur: the words and stories of Saadat Hasan Manto will outlive us all.
Gauhar Raza: Giving Poetry the Power to Protest
By Asheesh Mamgain
If things were different his poems would have been different, or maybe he would not have been a poet at all. But things are what they are. And that is why Gauhar Raza, the poet is writing, and it is why he writes his poetry of protest.
“Maybe I would have written about love, the beauty of nature and science. But as things stand my poetry is predominantly about resistance and protest,” said Raza, who is faithful to the tradition of resistance poetry to the extent that he has throttled, without much difficulty, the romantic and the scientist in him. “The need to write poetry always arose when something happened around me which affected me, to the core. I have never written and will never write poetry just for the sake of it.”
“The murder of Safdar Hashmi, the breaking up of the Soviet Union, the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the killing of an activist in Afghanistan, the death of Rohith Vemula are some of those things,” he said.
Raza’s second published collection of ghazals and nazms (71 in all) came out in November 2017 and is titled Khamoshi, or Silence.
Is there a lot of anger in his poems? Yes, there is definitely a lot of anger. But then there is also hope. That is where Raza becomes special.
“For me, a poem that merely complains or rants about the injustice, violence and persecution happening all around is not enough. A poet has to go beyond this; he has to give a vision. The vision of an alternative world, of a better world. Only then will his poetry be successful and meaningful. A poet has to show the consciousness he wants to bring into society.”
So how does he define good poetry? “Well, a good poem should be able to raise the level of the reader at least one notch higher, and also give him a fresh perspective about the aspect being dealt in the poem. Something new to dwell upon,” said Raza.
The influences that shaped his poetic thought came pretty early, at home and at the Aligarh Muslim University where he studied. Raza’s father, Wizarat Hussain, worked in the education department there and was a second-generation Leftist.
“The question about the existence of God came up very early in my life and soon I became an atheist for life,” said Raza. Literature was read with passion at home and by the time he was 15 he had read all the Urdu literature available at the AMU library as well as a solid portion of Russian literature.
“During my growing years, Leftist thought had a major presence in the university. On the other hand, the fundamental forces were also steadily getting stronger. I was smitten by the leftist idea. I was part of a literary study circle, we served tea at the secret meetings of leftist groups and listened to discussions at home between my father and other intellectuals such as Irfan Habib and Iqtidar Alam Khan.”
There was a lot of churning in his mind and soon he started pouring the remnants of all that into his poems. When it comes to poetry some of Raza’s major influences have been Ghalib, Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Sahir Ludhianvi. He is often seen reciting their work at length during his various lectures, with Sahir Ludhianvi’s long poem ‘Parchhaiyan’ or Shadows one of his favourites.
“Writing the kind of poetry I do is not easy. Each time a write a poem I must relive all the pain and emotion I went through when the particular incident happened that forced me to write. All those disturbing images come rushing back to me. It is a difficult thing to undergo.”
Nor is poetry Raza’s only means of reaching the people. He recently retired as chief scientist from the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research. He is also into documentary filmmaking, his documentaries on Bhagat Singh and the 2002 Gujarat genocide being very well known.
Where does poetry stand today, as a means of communication with the reader? According to Raza, “for one, social media has helped. It has helped poets reach a wider audience. Also, the tradition of musharias and kavi sammelans (poetry meets) is still very strong in India. So even if a poet is competing with the multimedia world, it is easy to reach one’s audience with one’s poetry, provided you have something pertinent to say.”
More broadly speaking, however, “I have to say that things have progressed in a disturbing direction. A poem I wrote 20 years ago, I could rededicate it to Rohith Vemula and then to Gauri Lankesh. This disturbing trend is seen all over the world. I believe that the fall of the USSR has been a major turning point in the way our World has evolved.”
A few lines from one of his poems brings out his concern and struggle.
Mein phool khilata hoon jab bhi,
Woh baad e khizan le aate hain,
Mein geet sunata hoon jab bhi,
Yeh aag se ji bahlate hain.
Whenever I make a flower blossom
They bring the autumn wind
Whenever I sing a song
They give the soul succour with flame.
But Raza is still hopeful. “There has been a resurgence of resistance poetry in Urdu in the recent past. The trend of religious poetry in Urdu has also reduced in recent times. The youth today has become more involved in this attempt to bring a positive change. I have seen young people reading protest poetry and reacting to it. Once again universities have become a place of resistance and struggle for change.”