- - Wednesday, November 8, 2017



By Yuri Slezkine

Princeton University Press, $39.95, 1,104 pages

Unlike many of his fellow academics, Yuri Slezkine, a professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley, is also an extremely gifted writer whose insight and erudition extend far beyond his specific discipline. He also has a keen sense of humor, which comes in handy when writing a massive book on a tragically depressing subject.

“This is a work of history,” he informs his readers in a note following the title page of “The House of Government.” “Any resemblance to fictional characters, dead or alive, is entirely coincidental.”

Coincidental or not, most of the real people and situations making up his narrative could have stepped directly out of the pages of Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Turgenev or Tolstoy. They’re all there: fanatics, visionaries, lunatics, martyrs, murderers, Holy Fools and collateral casualties — often innocent sons, daughters wives and even servants — who suffer the inevitable consequences of (literally) collective folly.

All of them lived under the same roof, in the lofty “House of Government” built on reclaimed swamp land across the Moskva River from the Kremlin. It was a luxurious complex of apartments, complete with “a cafeteria, grocery store, walk-in clinic, childcare center, hairdresser’s salon, post office, telegraph, bank, gym, laundry, library, tennis court, and several dozen rooms for various activities (from billiards and target shooting to painting and orchestra rehearsals).”

By 1935 there were 505 furnished apartment units and 2,655 registered tenants. About 700 of them “were state and Party officials most of the rest were their dependents, including 588 children.”

In the immediate aftermath of the Red Revolution, it looked like its veteran apparatchiks and new ideological elite were in for a safe, secure and rather cushy future — including the services of between 600 and 800 waiters, laundresses and maintenance staff — even as ordinary Soviet citizens endured material privation and the terrors of the biggest, most intensively brutal police state the world had yet witnessed.

But the shining “House of Government” soon proved to be a way station to death and degradation for many of its privileged residents. During the 1930s and 1940s “about eight hundred House residents and an unspecified number of employees were evicted from their apartments and accused of duplicity, degeneracy, counterrevolutionary activity, or general unreliability. They were all found guilty one way or another.”

Mr. Slezkine weaves together scores of their personal stories, many of them heartbreaking, a few of them inspiring, but all of them case studies in what happens in a society where false science, millenarian frenzy and fanatic self-righteousness result in a system that — because it is based on false assumptions about human nature — must inevitably resort to escalating levels of physical and mental violence to stay in power.

Perhaps the only consolation to be drawn from this sad, tangled tale of idealism gone berserk and brutality run rampant is the fact that many of the principal victims went to their own deaths with blood on their hands. A striking example is Nikolai Bukharin, one of the highest-ranking “Old Bolsheviks” and an early confidant of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin.

A sincere believer and a rather appealing character as a private individual, Bukharin’s show trial and execution shook the faith of many western communists and fellow travelers. Yet, at the height of his influence, Bukharin himself had championed a policy of “concentrated violence” against nine categories of his fellow citizens that included everyone from former landowners, bureaucrats, engineers, investors, agronomists, veterinarians, doctors, professors, lawyers, well-off peasantry, petty urban bourgeoisie and “the clergy, even the unskilled kind.” He didn’t bother to list who would be left.

Millions of his proposed targets had already been tortured and murdered before Bukharin’s turn came, which makes his groveling pleas to Stalin for mercy — a mercy predictably denied him — a little less sympathetic.

Perhaps the whole sordid mess was best summed up by Leonid Leonov, a longtime popular Soviet novelist who outlived Stalinism and, writing in extreme old age in the 1990s, asked: “Was it not Russia’s historic mission to crash to the ground from the height of a thousand-year greatness before the eyes of the world, so as to warn the coming generations against repeated attempts to contrive a heaven on earth?”

“The House of Government” should be required, remedial reading for people like Vladimir Putin, who cling to a false picture of Russia’s brutal past, and to deluded loons like Bernie Sanders who still dream of imposing a collectivized “worker’s paradise” on the rest of us.

Aram Bakshian Jr., an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, writes widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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