Shortlisted for the 2018 Pushkin House Russian Book Prize, Yuri Slezkine's 'The House of Government' tells of the rise and fall of Bolshevism through the history of a notorious block of flats in Moscow, home to the Soviet elite
What is your background?
I was born in 1956 in Moscow, raised there, went to Moscow State University and then to graduate school in Texas after a year in Lisbon. I got my degree in 1989 and have been teaching Russian history ever since, first at Wake Forest in North Carolina and then at the University of California, Berkeley. As an undergraduate, I studied literature and linguistics. I changed disciplines as well as countries, and discovered all sorts of new things. I was drawn to history in general, the history of the Soviet Union and questions having to do with nationalism and ethnicity.
Why did you decide to write The House of Government?
I wrote an article in the mid-1990s about the USSR as a communal apartment, where “communal apartment” was a metaphor for the Soviet Union as a federal state. Then it occurred to me that it would be very interesting to write a history of an actual communal apartment shared by different families. I looked at various apartments and ended up in the largest building in the Soviet Union. It was called the House of Government or the House on the Embankment, and I could be sure there would be enough people to interview and family archives to look at. Also, there was Yuri Trifonov’s novella, “The House on the Embankement," which made a strong impression on me when I read it in the 1970s.
But was it the best example of communal apartments?
No, it wasn’t. There were several kommunalkas in that building (apartments which contained several families, each one living in a room of its own, sharing the same kitchen, bathroom and toilet), but they were mostly for service personnel. The overwhelming majority of residents lived in their own family apartments. I wouldn’t call it hypocrisy, they weren’t cynical about it. But there was certainly a great deal of tension. The contrast between the way they lived and the way most Soviets lived was striking.
What surprised you during your research?
Most of it was a discovery. I didn’t know much about the private lives and loves of the Bolshevik revolutionaries. There is a great deal of mythology, but not much real research; it was a story that needed to be told. But some things did come as a surprise. Quite a few of the children of the arrested residents were taken to special secret police reception points and then on to orphanages. I was struck by how fondly most of them remembered their time in those places; how connected they still felt to their country, their teachers and other children. I had assumed their “happy Soviet childhoods” would end the night their parents were arrested, but it was not really the case.
But the most interesting, if not necessarily surprising, things were the personal stories. There is one example of 20 years of letters between a very prominent Bolshevik and the secret love of his life. The first was written in February 1917, two days before the February Revolution; the last — after the Central Committee plenum which launched the mass campaign against hidden enemies (including him, as it turned out). It is the story of his love for the woman and for Communism at the same time, a love that began on the eve of the revolution and then vanished. He was arrested within a few months of saying farewell to her and shot a year later.
What about stories from among the secret police?
One of the executioners, one of the most prominent, lived in the House and had personally participated in designing and administering the purges. He was responsible for thousands and thousands of deaths, personally interrogating, and, from what I can tell, torturing, prisoners. When he got a call, late at night, he knew exactly what it meant. He left home after answering the phone, and disappeared. Secret police officials kept calling his wife, coming to the apartment and searching for him untill he finally turned himself in. He had spent 6 or 7 hours in the middle of a very cold, snowy January night in Moscow wandering around before turning himself in. That was the image his widow kept. One wonders if it was enough punishment for the things he had done.
What do you think of the House on the Embankment today?
It’s symbolically less visible today than in the 1990s, when there was a huge Mercedes logo on top of the building, and all kinds of nouveaux riches, visiting foreigners and corporate CEOs were moving in, replacing the old Soviet residents. It’s a monument to another era, another time. Today most Muscovites know it as a building covered in memorial plaques. It lost its appeal to most members of the Soviet elite after the war. The preferred place to live shifted to Kutuzovsky Prospect, the Arbat, and then the western suburbs. But my book is about the heyday, when most top Soviet officials lived in their own House of Government until many of them were taken out and sent to their deaths, one at a time.
Do you have any regrets over the work?
There aren’t that many people who lived there in the 1930s who are still alive. I feel a little guilty about taking so long – 20 years – to write the book, so most will not get a chance to read it. But I hope it’s a better book for all the work I’ve done.
What is your next project?
At some point, I realised that I should have written that book in Russian. It has a Russian feel; it belongs to a certain Russian tradition; and I think of it primarily as a Russian book. In a sense I began by writing the English translation, and now I’m finally writing the Russian original. I hope it will be out in the autumn.
Yuri Slezkine is the Jane K. Sather Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley. His books include 'The Jewish Century' (Princeton).