It is hard to be impressed by a non-fiction book. Those that depict interesting figures or narratives must often be enjoyed in spite of their dry prose, and the works of “pop-history” that at least attempt to engage the audience are often surface-level in terms of research. However, there are a handful of books which truly stand out, that are engaging but extensive and thorough in narrative and argument. Yuri Slezkine’s The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution is one of those truly surprising books.
To describe The House of Government is difficult— and especially challenging to do without a length rivaling the eleven hundred pages of the book. Set in the House of Government, a residential building reserved for upper-level Communist party members, the book details the early days of the Soviet Union, beginning with the initial days of revolution in 1917 and ending with the aftermath of the Great Purge during the 1930s. Slezkine describes these events through the individuals living at the House, utilizing various primary sources to illustrate characters, history, and Slezkine’s own commentary.
The main distinctive quality of The House of Government is that Slezkine truly makes people his focus. Through diaries, letters, speech transcripts, and the recollections of surviving family members, Slezkine turns what could be a faceless array of political functionaries and their families into compelling characters caught up in a grand historical story. The reader is immersed in the world of the Inner Party, with both office decorations and the daily routines of children recalled in vivid detail. As a result, the book reads like an epic novel rather than a simple historical text. Additionally, the focus on the House residents creates a unique point of view. Disasters like the famine in Ukraine are described through the reports of commissars and politicians rather than victims. Though such accounts sacrifice emotional imagery in favor of bureaucratic matter-of-factness, the facts hidden behind their businesslike tones are often still shocking.
In a refreshing departure from many non-fiction texts, Slezkine uses statistics as support for narratives, not the other way around. By utilizing personal accounts rather than numbers as a vehicle to illustrate the horrors of collectivization and the Purges, the book remains both informative and engaging in a manner superior to other works. Similarly, the time spent discussing things equally interesting but less grim, like the intense political rivalries between authors or the recreational habits of members of the House, not only serves to broaden the scope of the book into an accurate depiction of daily life but also makes what could have been a horribly dark read into a layered and sometimes wistfully happy story.
The characters of the House of Government, despite their various unique qualities and stories, are ultimately notable for their participation in the history of the Russian Revolution. As he describes the daily lives of the House residents, Slezkine keeps the historical narrative continually churning in the background.
In the first part of the story, En Route, Slezkine focuses on the initial revolutionaries. He describes both the zealous radical intellectuals, as well as those that enlisted under their banner, some of whom could be most charitably described as street thugs (one man is particularly notable for throwing a bowl of soup onto his boss during an argument “and boiling his whole head.”) In the story of the initial days of the revolution, Slezkine introduces the characters that will form the core of the story while also highlighting phenomena, including the bloody mass repression carried out against the country’s Cossack population or the ejection of dissidents from the Communist Party, that would foreshadow more catastrophic events to come.
The second section, At Home, deals largely with the economic, social, and cultural aspects of the USSR and party members. The House of Government itself is constructed during this portion, and many of the revolutionary figures, now settled into influential roles as administrators, inhabit it. Slezkine spends much of his time discussing the lives of residents at the House, as well as the stories of those who worked there— one particularly interesting section being that of an in-building theater director and his conflicts with government censors. The sunny stories of family vacations and personal routines stand in sharp contrast to collectivization, the section’s other focus. Here, Slezkine relies on both official documents and speeches to document the inhumane actions taken in the Ukraine, as well as their lesser-known counterparts in Kazakhstan.
On Trial, the final part, details the course and aftermath of the Great Purge. The way Slezkine describes it can only be compared to that of a wildfire, sparked by the execution of a small number of political unfavorables, quickly burning beyond them to encompass the whole nation, and ultimately exhausting itself, killing old Bolshevik politicians and commissar executioners alike in one final conflagration.
Towering above the whole scene is the rarely mentioned but omnipresent figure of Stalin, who, for a story focused on personal narrative, is almost never portrayed as human. By the height of the purges, Stalin has become an apparatus of power and punishment resembling the “steel” he adopted as a political alias, refusing earnest pleas for clemency from his former compatriots and instead verbally tormenting them as they cower before punitive committees.
As before, Slezkine relies on primary sources to establish both the broad arc of Stalin’s narrative, as well as small individual moments, like one thoroughly beaten defendant asking that he at least not be jeered at during his trial (“I’m finished, no doubt about it, but why mock me for no good reason?”). One of the most compelling characters here is Nikolai Bukharin, who found himself trapped by the same logical consistency he had imposed on other dissidents in the past and was ultimately forced to capitulate in a false confession to the state. Another is Sergei Mironov, an NKVD official who shot through the ranks due to his ordering of mass executions until he himself was marked for arrest. Throughout the section, Slezkine portrays the pathos of confessions and false accusations but also tempers it with an unflinching understanding of the crimes these figures visited on others and the irony inherent in their weapons of choice ultimately being used against them.
Does Slezkine see their deaths as personal tragedy or moral comeuppance? He is too professional to say, but I would hazard it is a mix of both.
Along with excellent history and superb personal stories, Slezkine incorporates his own insightful theories regarding the Russian Revolution. The first is a categorization of Bolshevism as a form of millenarianism, a term that encompasses various religious movements that anticipate the end of current society and the creation of a new, perfect world. In general, Slezkine writes, the immediate utopia expected by millenarian movements inspires them to significant and sudden action. When that utopia fails to be realized, the result is either disintegration or, in the case of the Bolsheviks, a “postponement” of utopia that necessitates the establishment of a hierarchy in what once was a formless, relatively egalitarian group.
Slezkine’s second theory, which he does not fully flesh out until the end of the book, is the role of cultural transmission within the USSR and how it ultimately led to the political stagnation of the Bolshevik movement. Slezkine sees the literature produced under the Soviet Union as a significant window into the psyche of the Party. However he also notes that it was not widely read by either elites or their children— there were very few “Communist classics” produced. Instead, many revolutionaries, themselves highly educated, focused on the old Western canon. These “Pamirs” of literature, including Goethe, Dante, and Cervantes, were still as popular post-revolution as they were before, in a curiously ideologically-neutral way. Some of the most widely read authors, including Dickens and Tolstoy, were explicitly anti-revolutionary.
Whether Puritanism or early Mormonism, millenarian movements only survive, Slezkine argues, by isolating themselves from the modern world and governing all portions of life under the organizational ideology. Throughout the book, the author notes the failure of Bolshevism to incorporate the family into the ruling philosophy in any real way, its half-hearted mimicry of Orthodox traditions like baptism and Christmas, and, ultimately, the failure to transmit the original revolutionary zeal to children who instead read the literature of Romanticism. Fortunately for Russia, but unfortunately for the ideologues, “the problem with Bolshevism was that it was not totalitarian enough.”
Though it succeeds at both tasks, The House of Government is ultimately not just a story of a revolution’s implosion, or even a dramatic documentation of individual lives. Instead, throughout the book, Slezkine emphasizes the role that individual life and belief— whether explicitly religious or ideologically pseudo-religious— serves for the success or failure of any national project. As he puts it:
“No state, however routinized, is fully divorced from its sacred origins, and no claim to legitimacy is purely ‘rational-instrumental.’ Particular governments may justify their right to rule in terms of due process, but the states they represent do not.”
The argument that the truly secular state is impossible might be incendiary but is certainly not unreasonable. One need only look to increasing descriptions of American democratic rights and symbols as “sacred” to view what Slezkine describes as a governmental monopolization of the religious impulse. To participate in any political apparatus, even ones as far removed as the 1930’s House of Government or the present-day American Capitol, one must resolve to be catechized into an ideological priesthood. The exact form varies, but the pattern remains the same.