Book review: ‘The House of Government’ by Yuri Slezkine

Moscow’s notorious Dom na Naberezhnoi building - ‘the House on the Embankment’ - embodies one of the darkest periods in Russian history.

As I am writing these lines, the word ‘Russia’ can be heard everywhere: from TVs, from the web and from the radio, where BBC Radio 4’s ‘Russian Week’ has just begun. No wonder. In the run-up to the centenary of the 1917 Bolshevik coup d’etat, Russia is again on everyone’s lips. In a number of TV and radio travelogues, young and daring British presenters travel the length and breadth of the world’s largest country, at times still followed (for no particular reason) by the FSB, the KGB’s successor - a fact that leads to the conclusion that nothing much has changed on one-sixth of the Earth’s territory in the last 100 years. Why? Where does this extraordinary adherence to totalitarianism come from?

To find an answer, in ‘The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution’ (Princeton University Press, £29.95, ISBN 9780691176949), Yuri Slezkine, professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley, rather than venturing to Russia’s remote parts decided to zoom in on one spot in Moscow. One building, to be more exact: the famously notorious (and notoriously famous) Dom na Naberezhnoi, 'the House on the Embankment' – a grey 12-storeyed constructivist bulk of a residential block completed in 1931. It was located, incidentally, not far from the sprawling Gustav List Metal Works - once Russia’s leading engineering plant which produced steam engines, fire hydrants and water pipes. Most Moscow pedestrians, however, would walk past the House at 2, Serafimovicha (formerly Bolotnaya) Street briskly, without looking up.

The building’s dark ‘fame’ went back to the years of the Great Terror between 1936 and 1938, when hundreds of its tenants were led away during the night to be arrested, interrogated and promptly executed in the basement of the still-functioning Lubianka prison. It was in a way a brutalist concrete microcosm of the Stalinist Soviet Union itself, the only difference being that the House’s tenants were almost exclusively high-ranking apparatchiks, academics, artists and journalists – the crème de la crème of the pre-WWII Soviet society, the short-lasting (until their executions that is) members of the Soviet elite and their families.

Among them were such prominent engineers and industrialists as Mikhail Granovsky, head of construction and the director of the Berezniki Chemical Plant and one-time director of the Central Administration of Railroad Construction; Boris Ivanov, chairman of the Soviet Flour Milling Industry Directorate, and Alexander Bruskin, former director of the Cheliabinsk Tractor Plant and later people’s commissar of machine and tool industry, to name just a few. The stories of many of the victims are recounted in the book.

The statistics associated with the ill-famed building are astounding and can only be matched by those of this Bible-sized review title itself, which with its 1,100 odd pages and an estimated one million word count is now by far the largest volume in my library. In 1935, ‘the House of Government’, as Slezkin refers to the House on the Embankment, had 2,665 registered tenants (including 588 children), of whom 700 were state and party officials. The building contained nearly 600 well-designed high-ceilinged apartments (still very much coveted by tenants in the 1970s and 1980s), a library, a tennis court, an Udarnik (‘shock worker’) cinema and a capacious Variety Theatre (Teatr Estradi), where I myself had the chance to perform a couple of times, reading out my own humorous stories and poems.

According to Zlezkine, in the 1930s and 1940s, about 800 House residents were evicted from their apartments; 344 of them are known to have been shot and the rest sentenced to various forms of imprisonment.

Unsurprisingly, those gruesome statistics of the House were kept secret in the USSR, with the first major leak of the truth in 1976, when writer Yuri Trifonov, himself a son of one of the House’s erstwhile residents, published his novel ‘Dom na naberezhnoi’ in Noviy Mir magazine. The novel, telling only slightly fictionalised stories of the purged residents of the House, became an immediate bestseller in the USSR, and Trifonov himself came close to being nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature. The nomination was, of course, eventually blocked by Soviet officialdom, but the genie was out of the bottle and the House acquired an even more sinister look in the eyes of the Moscow passers-by.

Zlezkine’s book, although extremely well written, certainly cannot compete with Trifonov’s in literary merit. However, it certainly exceeds the latter in the sheer number of stories told. Among them is the heartbreaking ordeal of the acclaimed military journalist, one-time editor of Krokodil magazine and Pravda correspondent, Mikhail Koltsov, who lived in apartment 143. Koltsov was arrested on the morning after a reception in his honour that was attended by Stalin himself, who, according to some sources, annoyed by Koltsov’s growing popularity threatened the journalist with death and advised him to commit suicide there and then. Sure enough, the journalist was executed shortly after his arrest. I knew Koltsov’s story from the words of his brother Boris Yefimov, one of the leading political cartoonists on Krokodil magazine, where I also worked in the 1980s.

My favourite part of this truly substantial book is ‘The Faith’, where Slezkine, having looked back at the essence of the world’s leading religions, tries to understand whether Marxism in general and Russian Bolshevism in particular may have originated from some honest and heartfelt religious beliefs. He doesn’t give a direct answer, leaving it to the reader, but finishes the chapter with the fairly conclusive quote from George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’: “He loved Big Brother”.

This extraordinary book is certainly a pleasure to read, but it is also a challenge. Not so much because of its size, but due to its emotional and informational charge – enormous and eye-opening in equal measure. It can indeed be compared to the Bible, again, not in sheer volume, but in its importance for anyone interested in Russia and the Soviet Union. In short, not a brick (of the book), but - using a nice engineering term - a true cornerstone, not just of the ‘House of Government’, but of the history of totalitarianism, too.

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