The House on the Embankment, c. 1930.Interfoto/Alamy
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Yuri Slezkine’s Brilliant New ‘The House of Government’ Tells the Story of a Religion That Pretended to Be a Political Theory

Early Soviet elites living—and dying—in thrall to a totalitarian ideal

David Mikics
January 17, 2018
The House on the Embankment, c. 1930.Interfoto/Alamy

Soviet Communism was a faith masquerading as political theory. Whereas the Nazis lashed out at external enemies, most of all the Jews, the Bolsheviks attacked the enemy within, the self that refused to adhere completely to the godlike thinking of Lenin or Stalin. In December 1934, former leading Bolshevik Grigory Zinoviev was arrested for conspiring to kill Leningrad party boss Sergey Kirov, who had been murdered, without Zinoviev’s help, earlier that month. At his trial Zinoviev diagnosed himself and his fellow defendants:

The problem is that … we were unable to submit to the Party, merge with it completely, become imbued with the same feelings of absolute acceptance toward Stalin that the party and the whole country have become imbued with, but instead continued to look backward and to live our separate, stifling lives.

Yuri Slezkine quotes Zinoviev’s speech to his judges at the first Moscow Show trial in his magisterial new book The House of Government. Zinoviev knew, Slezkine says, that the trial “was about the soul, not politics.” His actual crime, as his words show, was failure to annihilate the bourgeois construct of independent selfhood and allow Stalin’s will to become his own. Try as he might, Zinoviev could not love Big Brother absolutely. Because of this sin, he was a dead man. Zinoviev was executed in August 1936, condemned by his own words, as Stalin wanted it.

Slezkine has given us a darkly enthralling thousand-page history of the House of Government, usually called the House on the Embankment. Built in 1931, the block-wide House across the Moskva River from the Kremlin had 505 apartments and was the largest residential building in the world. In it lived about 700 Soviet state and party officials and their families. The building had a theater, music hall, health clinic, hair salon, grocery store, and repair shop. In addition to tennis and chess, Slezkine reports, the House’s club offered lessons in “fencing, painting, skating, skiing, singing, sewing, boxing, theater, volleyball, basketball, photography, stenography, target shooting, radio-building, and various foreign languages.” In nearby Gorky Park, there were carousels, bumper cars, daily circuses, and concerts given by 10 different orchestras a day. In the House of Government, the head of the Gulag, Matvei Berman, rubbed shoulders with Lenin’s embalmer, Stalin’s relatives, Nikita Khrushchev, then first secretary of the Party’s Moscow branch, and the author Yuri Trifonov, who later wrote a poignant novel titled The House on the Embankment.

The residents of the House of Government lived well: they employed maids and governesses. Many had country dachas. But their isolation from their country’s agonies did not last. During and after the Great Terror of the 1930s, 800 of the House’s residents were evicted, found guilty of crimes against the revolution, and then imprisoned or shot.

“The House of Government was where the revolution came to die,” Slezkine remarked at a lecture he gave last month in New York. Before that, though, the House was a residence for true believers, Communists who thought—no, knew—that Lenin had ushered in a new heaven and new earth. Slezkine calls Bolshevism a Millenarian sect, like the Millerites of upstate New York or the original Jesus cult. Such movements expect an imminent apocalypse, and when that doesn’t happen, they either recalibrate or die off. Paradise on Earth didn’t materialize in Russia, and the result was a large number of nervous breakdowns.

The death of Lenin, Slezkine said in his lecture, resulted in the Bolsheviks “smoking cigarettes, having lots of sex, arguing about historical necessity—and weeping.” This led to a question: “Was there a neuroticism that was not bourgeois?” Yet despite these neurotic episodes, the Soviet elite proved adaptable to the point of self-deceit. If the USSR was no utopia, its great strides forward were nevertheless the wonder of the world. Before long the capitalist countries would collapse under their own weight, and then, after the bloody revenge of the workers on their bosses, the world of iron necessity would become a kingdom of eternal love. Stalin’s purges interrupted the reverie but failed to shatter it.

Slezkine presents a varied gallery of characters from the House. Some of them seem created by Chekhov, others by Dostoevsky, but they’re all real: The book’s epigraph is “This is a work of history. Any resemblance to fictional characters, dead or alive, is purely coincidental.” He shows us Arosev and Molotov, both fearsome top Bolsheviks, enjoying their horseplay at Molotov’s dacha, splashing in the water like little boys. He tells the story of Comintern member Karl Radek, who bared his chest at the 1934 Writers’ Conference and gave what a visiting German writer described as “a Dostoevsky speech, an act of ecstatic confession and self-flagellation. ‘We must look more deeply into our hearts and scatter the eggshells of our self-deception’ he cried. … I found him terrifying, with his gleaming eyes and the little, ugly fringe of beard on his chin.” Radek’s daughter Sofia, a friend said, “was a glamorous girl. She had all kinds of admirers, mostly pilots. Sometimes they got drunk and threw up in the bathrooms.”

In a few of Slezkine’s cases, the self-delusion is heartbreaking. In January 1933 Tania Miagkova-Poloz was arrested as a “counterrevolutionary Trotskyite” and sent to a “political isolator” (prison) in the Urals. “It is so good to be a citizen of the USSR, even if you are temporarily confined to an isolator,” she wrote to her mother. After the crash of the airplane Maxim Gorky, she added, “The common experience of joy and grief in our USSR is extremely precious.” Her letters reflect what Slezkine calls “the recently introduced main themes of Soviet public life: the love of life, the richness of everyday experience, the joy of being a witness to history.” When her husband was charged with being a Ukrainian nationalist and sentenced to 10 years in a labor camp, she pleaded to join him but was turned down. Transferred to another labor camp, Kolyma, she wrote to her young daughter, “My life is not very easy these days, my little one, because I am so far away from you and all alone.” Miagkova-Poloz never saw her family again. She was executed in November 1937, about two weeks after her husband.

For the Marxists, Slezkine writes, freedom was “the coincidence of the human will with the will of God”—if for the word God you substitute history, whose arc must naturally bend toward justice. The voice of history was the Party, which was embodied in the person of its leader, who gave the correct line. In this way, history offered a release from the agony of the Russian, especially Jewish, intellectual, who had a habit of “asking ‘the accursed questions’ over lunch and dinner; falling deeper and deeper into doubt and confusion as a matter of principle.” Lenin provided the answers just as Christian theology had done, by insisting that correct thinking removes all doubt.

But Bolshevism also needed visible results. The goal was “to produce harmonious men and women who love what they cannot escape.” “Communism was about conquering the kingdom of necessity by submitting to it,” Slezkine writes, by showing self-discipline with even the most minor tasks. Yet what the Soviet Union eventually turned into was a place where, as the Brezhnev-era joke went, you pretended to work and they pretended to pay you. The spiritual fervor had died out.

In contrast to most sects, Bolshevism didn’t much care about its followers’ private lives. This, Slezkine argues, was because Marxism had “a remarkably flat conception of human nature.” The Bolsheviks had nothing to say about how to have sex or raise children as a Communist. Unlike other Millenarians, they did not try for a complete remaking of the human being. A worldwide overturning of property relations, the Marxists thought, would rapidly lead to a revolution in everything. Cooperation would blossom, work and freedom become one.

The Bolsheviks also preserved traditional Russian culture. Their educational system focused on Pushkin, Gogol, and Tolstoy rather than Marxist texts. As Slezkine remarks, these were anti-Bolshevik books: consider War and Peace with its attack on grand schemes and sweeping historical judgments.

The result of these inconsistencies was that Soviet Communism failed to last even one human lifetime. The first elite generation pored over Marx’s Capital. Their children instead focused nostalgically on the country dachas where they enjoyed nature, the trips to Gorky Park, and the living rooms where the whole family dived into the “treasures of world literature,” from Goethe and Heine to Mark Twain.

What doomed the Soviet idea, Slezkine argues, was not Stalinist paranoia, but the split between the cult of revolution and the bourgeois domestic comfort that families enjoyed in a place like the House of Government. The will of the party could not take over private existence (“our separate, stifling lives,” as Zinoviev put it). And so the parents failed to pass on their own revolutionary zeal to a new generation. The children did not devote themselves like their parents to following the correct Leninist line. They cared not about Marx and Engels but about Jules Verne, Tolstoy, and Dickens, whose books were a crucial part of the culture of home, the “happy Soviet childhood” that so many of them clung to as the Communist system began to seem less and less ideal.


Jewish matters bring out Slezkine’s wicked sense of humor, here as in The Jewish Century (2004), his sweeping, scholarly masterpiece. The Hebrew God, Slezkine notices in The House of Government, resembles Dostoevsky’s underground man, constantly boasting about his superiority. As for Lenin, he was the Bolshevik Moses, “a true prophet who could both lead his people through the parting waves and attend, one way or another, to their every petulant complaint.”

The Jewish Century is full of bravura set pieces on everything from the Jewish nose to Joyce’s Ulysses, Einstein, and Freud. The book’s plotline is that modernist universalism really means nationalism, with every nation a suffering chosen people in its own eyes. In the 20th century, the most cosmopolitan one ever, no one was allowed to be a cosmopolitan. The “mercurial” Jews, as Slezkine calls them, those ambitious orphans who threw away tradition and liked to skate between foreign cultures, wound up either choosing a nation to belong to or, in the shape of Zionism, inventing one.

Russianness was supremely important to secular Russian Jews, those lovers of Pushkin par excellence. But it was easier for Philip Roth’s Swede Lvov to become a bucolic American squire in Old Rimrock, New Jersey, than for Russian Jews to become truly Russian. When the Great Patriotic War came, Soviet mythology recentered itself around Russianness, and the Jews who formed so much of Bolshevism’s inner circles and its artistic elite began to look like strangers, not “real” Russians.

At his trial in 1938, Nikolai Bukharin, one of the original Bolsheviks, lamented that “no one believes human emotions anymore: feelings, passions, tears.” He was greeted by scornful laughter, but his accusers knew just what he meant. The Bolshevik revolution was forged by intense emotion: Its marriage of passionate impatience and ruthless logic stirred the depths of the spirit.

“These were not monsters,” Slezkine said after his lecture about the (mostly male) Bolshevik leaders. “They were in love, with particular women, and with the revolution.” The men and women from the House of Government kept the faith when they were signing off on the executions, as they did later on when they were being executed. As a result, the Soviet Union never reached the apex of totalitarianism predicted in Orwell’s 1984, where the party exercises power for power’s sake rather than for an ideal. Communism remained a religion, though a faded one. Lenin and Stalin were still revered, the divine men who had known what history meant. But the people died in the wilderness.

David Mikics is the author, most recently, of Stanley Kubrick (Yale Jewish Lives). He lives in Brooklyn and Houston, where he is John and Rebecca Moores Professor of English at the University of Houston.

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