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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creating what is on the face of it an uncommon masterpiece and Slezkine relies to a considerable extent on diaries and unpublished memoirs that ended up in state archives.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,
ISBN: 978-0691176949