One time, in college, my best friend threw a gently mocking party for a freshman on his dorm hall to celebrate the anniversary of the young man’s arrival in the United States from Russia. Dima proudly showed everybody pictures of a slightly younger self on a New York City street- “here I was On the Broadway, eating a meat pie!” and earlier and fuzzier shots of the old days in Saint Petersburg.
I showed up with a guitar and a heavy beard (I was on my Americorps year, and so the freshmen didn’t know me), pretended not to speak English, and sang the two Russian folk songs I knew (Ochi Chernye and Kalinka) while Dima demonstrated the sailor dance where you cross your arms and kick out your legs.
The line that we referenced later most from that night, though, was something Dima said about when his parents were looking for a place to live in New York: “Not like Russia! There, you know, you are written into apartment.”
The most useful recent book I have read in understanding the crisis of American politics in 2019 is one that discusses the United States only incidentally, and ends its main narrative in 1939, with an epilogue trailing off in the early 60s. It is Yuri Slezkine’s mammoth intellectual and social history of the Bolshevik Revolution, The House of Government, that tells the story of the Russian revolution and its aftermath through the story of the people written into and out of one Moscow apartment building, the House on the Embankment across from the Kremlin. This was the largest residential structure in Europe at the time, built to hold the Party elite, the former revolutionaries who became the nomenklatura running the sprawling Soviet state, apart from the few who lived in the Kremlin itself. This was the group tasked with administering the new Soviet state and driving its attempts to remake society, art, and culture.
Unlike most histories of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath, House of Government keeps Lenin and Stalin out of focus- they are powerful personal and symbolic forces that shape (and often end) the lives of the protagonists but are themselves indistinct, and Slezkine even passes over the events of 1917 with little slowing of the narrative. Neither is House of Government especially interested in the economics (or lack thereof) of the Communist state, or the weakness of the tsarist institutions- Church and army and gentry and bureaucracy- that fell so quickly before a relatively small and inexperienced group of outsiders.
Instead, Slezkine crafts his thousand or so dense but incisive pages around how a new faith came to command the daily lives of the inhabitants of a fifth of the world’s land area, and how the theology of Bolshevism interpreted, understood, and accommodated the triumphs and disappointments of a new religion- before becoming, in a single generation, a set of texts honored in word but not spirit, at least by the elite that administered the faltering Soviet state for another fifty years. The distinction of the book is not only its drawing together of a dizzying array of sources, voices, and lives into an overarching narrative, but tying of these airy words to the physical reality of domestic life inside and outside the actual apartment building of the House of Government, through the quotidian facts of ledger books and private diaries and the numerous grainy but revealing photographs accompanying the text. As suggested by the title of the 1994 essay that first gained Slezkine notoriety, “The Soviet Union as a Communal Apartment,” the basic facts of our household and familial lives cannot be disentangled from the political worlds we inhabit and create.
It is this intimacy with its subjects that ultimately gives the book its power in illuminating the power of revolutionary ideology and the trail of blood it leaves. Ironically, it is not by lampooning the incoherence and paradoxes of Marxist-Leninism but by entering into the minds of its fastest adherents that we can come to understand why this new faith and its successors thrived and grew in spite of its manifest madness and failures. That communism is still alleged to have “noble aims” in spite of continent spanning concentration camps, mass starvation, systematic torture, universal poverty, slavish cults of personality and environmental devastation probably tells us something about why it is able to do so much damage. For observers of American politics in 2019, too, understanding the forms in which a new religion takes hold, how it sustains itself in the face of disappointment, revenges itself upon its enemies and friends, and interfaces with and accommodates the basic facts of domestic, familial and sexual life is critical to articulating the ideologies overtaking our own political scene. As the quasi-religious revival consuming American intellectual and cultural life, the Great Awokening, enters its sixth year, revisiting our cultural cousin, rival, and frenemy’s convulsions of a century ago may well not allow us to elude the fate that time’s wheel is preparing for us, but at least we might get a glimmer of what is coming.
Slezkine sets his stage with a micro-history of the neighborhood in Moscow where the House of Government would come to be built, as it was in the early 1900s: a bricolage of shantytowns, brothels, factories, and churches nicknamed “the Swamp,” that symbolizes the Russian empire’s decay and incoherence on the eve of its destruction. This empire was “crawling with prophets, soothsayers, and itinerant preachers. Everyone seemed to believe that the world was sick and would not last much longer.”
Into this cacophony of competing ideologies and swamp of decaying imperial institutions, Slezkine places his main characters, the future Bolshevik nomenklatura who would inhabit the House of Government. Slezkine is a Russian Jew, and has long been interested in the outsized Jewish role in the Bolshevik revolution (so much so that his previous book, The Jewish Century, was grudgingly praised by the arch-anti-Semite Kevin MacDonald as well as by conventional left-leaning Jewish historians.) In House of Government, Slezkine takes as a central theme the seeming contradiction of the Communist faith’s clear ideological adjacency to many currents in Christianity with the central role played by Jews in the birth and metastasis of Bolshevism. As he describes early in the book:
MOST PROPHETS of the Real Day were either Christians or socialists. The majority of Christians continued to think of “the Second Coming” as a metaphor for endless postponement, but a growing minority, including a few decadent intellectuals and the rapidly multiplying Evangelical Protestants, expected the Last Judgment in their lifetimes. This belief was shared by those who associated Babylon with capitalism and looked forward to a violent revolution followed by a reign of social justice.
The two groups had a great deal in common. Some people believed that revolutionary socialism was a form of Christianity; others believed that Christianity was a form of revolutionary socialism. Sergei Bulgakov and Nikolai Berdyaev proposed to incorporate political apocalypticism into Christianity; Anatoly Lunacharsky and Maxim Gorky considered Marxism a religion of earthly salvation; Vladimir Bonch-Bruevich referred to Baptists and Flagellants as natural “transmission points” of Bolshevik propaganda; and the Bolshevik propagandist (and priest’s son) Aleksandr Voronsky claimed to have met a revolutionary terrorist who was using the Gospels as a guide to “the violent overthrow of the tsarist regime.”
But normally they saw each other as opposites. Christians tended to think of socialists as atheists or Antichrists, and socialists tended to agree (while considering Christians backward or hypocritical). In standard socialist autobiographies, the loss of “religious” faith was a prerequisite for spiritual awakening. One crucial difference was that most preachers of a Christian apocalypse were workers and peasants, while most theorists of workers’ and peasants’ revolutions were students and “eternal students.” The students were usually the children of clerks, clergymen, teachers, doctors, Jews, and other “proletarians of mental labor”: professional intellectuals as metaphorical Jews (chosen, learned, and alienated) and Jews as honorary intellectuals irrespective of what they did for a living. They all grew up as perennial prodigies, as heirs to a lost sacred mission, as strangers among people they called “the people.” They were, for the most part, hereditary members of the intelligentsia.
As Slezkine describes, these “professional intellectuals as metaphorical Jews…and Jews as honorary intellectuals” led parallel lives in the lead-up to the Revolution. Children of the late 19th century, they were exposed to socialist ideas in student groups and reading circles, were converted to one or another of these new faiths before settling on Bolshevism (the most extreme and uncompromising of those on offer), and then generally had themselves hardened by a period of imprisonment and exile to the Russian empire’s many prison camps of the far North and East, before returning to facilitate and rejoice in the destruction of the tsarist regime. As intellectuals, prison was only secondarily a time of plotting revolution and hardening themselves to the violence to come; mainly it was a time of reading and study, and another of Slezkine’s themes is the conjoining of radical faith in socialism’s possibilities with lives immersed in books and letters and literature, with the Logos of text (literary as well as ideological) providing the metaphysical support and abstraction that would allow them to endure both personal privation and all the collective madness that followed the Revolution. As one of Slezkine’s protagonists, the future literary critic and memoirist Alexander Voronsky, remarks of his proto-revolutionary days:
As it turns out, “you don’t realize the danger you’re in” was true for the revolutionaries as much as the hated shop-goers, restaurant-eaters, opera-watchers; Voronsky like many of the characters in the book would eventually be shot in Stalin’s great purges, after decades of intermittent exile and partial reconciliation.
Having painted the backdrop of his set, the Swamp of late tsarist Russia, and introduced his Dramatis Personae, Slezkine then makes an ambitious and perhaps hubristic detour: in a long chapter titled “The Faith,” he gives a tour of millenarian, messianic cults created in expectation of the imminent end of the world through thousands years of history, from before Christ through Islam and the medieval era, the Protestant Reformation and its radical Calvinist and Anabaptist offshoots, the Taiping rebellion, the Mormons and Jehovahs Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists and 20th century millenarian cults, before landing back on Marx and the Communists. Marxism is, to Slezkine, an echo of earlier faiths like early Christianity itself- suspicious of Judaism even as it is promulgated mainly by Jews, ringing in a New Day and a new world as it announces the utter irredeemable fallenness of the old world that is being destroyed.
Slezkine’s intent in his historical/theological detour becomes clearer as the rest of the book progresses. Having surveyed the massive homicidal and suicidal violence that accompanied other millennarian faiths, Slezkine suggests that the blood spilled by the Bolsheviks should not be a surprise; this is simply what millennarians do. Indeed, having brushed in impressionistic strokes over the collapse of the Tsarist regime in 1917 and the seizure of power in Red October, Slezkine sharpens his focus again in 1918 as the Bolsheviks are already planning mass violence and liquidation even of groups cooperating with them, and tells (through the diaries and letters of the Bolsheviks as well as the novels and memoirs of the Civil War that followed) of how his characters framed their narratives in sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly Biblical terms, seeing the in the blood and suffering of the fight between the Reds and the Whites the Armageddon that arrived to bring in the New Day and the Promised Land and the Last Judgement. This Biblical framing- in how the Bolsheviks describe their own lives continues on to accompany the disappointment after Lenin’s death, the era of collectivization and grand industrial construction projects (which the Bolsheviks see as a new Creation, a new Genesis), and the near-literal witch hunts of Stalin’s purges, when one after another of the apartments in the House of Government is emptied of inhabitants.
Like his “hereditary intellectual” protagonists and their literary heroes, Slezkine is concerned with peace as well as war, with the ways the Bolsheviks made lives in their apartments and dachas when they weren’t busy starving Ukrainians and murdering each other. If you’ve seen Nikita Mikhailov’s lovely if melodramatic 1996 film of the 30s purges, Burnt by the Sun, you have some of the flavor of these chapters, of how the pleasures of ordinary life mingle the aspiration of a new workers’ society with the old Chekhovian and Tolstoyan inherited cultural order, shadowed all the while by the imminent threat of accusation, interrogation, imprisonment, death. Perhaps my favorite section of the book is a Nabokovian series of excerpts from the diaries of the teenage Yuri Trifonov, who as an adult would write a well-regarded novel about the House of Government, The House on the Embankment. In his teenage voice, Trifonov records his impressions and enthusiasms for the music, books, art, experiences that are available to him as a child of the nomenklatura elite- and then his father’s arrest and execution and his mother’s exile.
Slezkine argues that it was, indeed, Peace rather than War that spelled the end of Bolshevism as a living faith rather than a dead letter. Slezkine’s basic thesis on the decline of Bolshevism as revolutionary movement is it was defeated by domesticity;an ideology that treated production as constitutive of identity,it could never figure out how to be just as totalitarian at home as it was at work. The founders of the sect expected their children to read Tolstoy and Dickens, not Lenin and Trotsky, but the premises of Bolshevism were undermined by the humanism of these stories:
Bolshevism, Slezkine argues, was defeated at its heart by family life- not economic failure or universal bloodshed, or even the betrayal of those that founded it. A key commonality of millenarian apocalyptic sects across time and space is the drive to separate devotees from their families, so as to redirect loyalty and affection and make it exclusive to the cult. This is the key source of power of belief for these sects, and yet it poses a key riddle for those that would maintain the faith for more than a generation, since literal reproduction of the founders of the faith is in tension with symbolic reproduction of their beliefs.
The Bolsheviks were well aware of the perils of family life for the continuation of their faith, and several of the early chapters of House of Government feature elaborate plans for the abolishment of marriage, communal child-rearing, and illustrations and designs for nightmarish new housing for the New Soviet Man in which all are equal and indistinguishable and no individual relationships- neither husband and wife nor mother and child- survive intact. And yet when the nomenklatura came to build the House of Government itself as their own home, they came away with a typical (if extravagantly large and well-equipped) apartment building with typical family-style apartments, and if their own marriages and divorces- their “hen and rooster problems” as one Bolshevik theorist of the family put it- were sometimes messy and unconventional, they were no more so than those of the characters of Chekhov and Tolstoy. In the years of the Civil War, one revolutionary is asked by his mistress- what would you do if I were revealed to be an enemy? Shoot you, then shoot myself, he replies, but if many of the Bolsheviks’ lives and loves were tragic and doomed, they still were their lives and their loves, and did not belong to the collective.
I made above the tendentious claim that House of Government is revelatory about the United States in 2019 and not just Russia in 1919. Slezkine makes only a few mentions of the US’s home-grown millenarian cults of the 19th and 20th centuries, and a few more of the US’s distinctively ubiquitous civic religion of Stars and Stripes Forever (and Everywhere). This civic religion appears to many to be on the verge of collapse, to be replaced by a single emergent successor ideology (perhaps Pride of various kinds) or by mere disintegration and incoherence. What is inarguable to me is the current of millenarianism that appears to be carrying us along. Twitter is, like 1900-era Moscow, crawling with prophets, soothsayers, and itinerant preachers. Everyone seems to believe that the world is sick and will not last much longer.
It is this confidence that we are cut off from both the past and future, as I have written elsewhere, that I suspect produces the greatest psychological strain on those living in our current ideological regime and also presents the greatest danger of genuine upheaval and disintegration going forward. Revolutionary fervor can endure enormous suffering and come away hardened- as steel is tempered,the Bolsheviks used to say. What it cannot endure is contact with the past that treats previous life as not merely chains to be thrown off but as joys and complexities equal to our own. As Slezkine writes “the children of the original Bolsheviks lived in the House of Government the way Tom Sawyer lived in St. Petersburg, Missouri: there and not there; in the present and in the past.
This is why, I suspect, our present increasingly revolutionary ideology demands that George Washington must be stripped off murals and Jefferson dropped from names- not merely because their sins must be counted with their achievements, since surely we lose both with these acts of erasure, but because sympathy for the past is corrosive to revolutionary fervor. If this is so, perhaps books like House of Government, that allow us the pleasures and interest of being here and not here, in the present and in the past, give us a clue for how our own millenarian madness can be outwitted, delayed, forestalled.