I Wanna Be Literated #172

I Wanna Be Literated #172

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution
by Yuri Slezkine

The Russian Revolution of 1917 is such a rich vein of cultural and social lessons. The same of course can be said for the soviet experiment. Countless books have been written on the subject from both participants who were there to see things for themselves, and historians who try to uncover new truths as they become available. This year marks 100 years since the revolution and a time to be retrospective, perhaps. I’ve read plenty of books on soviet Russia, but none quite like Yuri Slezkine’s House of Government.

The House of Government itself is an apartment complex of sorts built in Moscow in the 1930s that served to house party members of the government and their family. Hundreds of people lived there, and many of those would become victims of the purges that would ensue.

The terror that would descend on the Russian people through Stalin was tragic and loaded with statistics. Not surprising considering how much death and destruction it involved. What this book tries to do is instead of giving us numbers and statistics, is to tell the individual stories that might have been lost.

Surprisingly, the first third of this massive book really has nothing to do with the house itself, and focuses more on the Bolshevik party members, their upbringings, their learning of Marxist theory, their devotion to the party and Lenin. There’s also a surprising amount of focus on Bukharin which might be because he would become prevalent during the next several decades or just because he chose to write about these early days of the party. But one thing Slezkine does really well is basically humanize all these players and the revolution itself. The party members were quite aware that not everything was alright, and they felt incredible strain as it became obvious that this communist paradise they were building for their children was further and further away.

The House of Government focuses heavily on the 30s and 40s and as soviet life progressed it heavily affected the lives of the inhabitants of this building, and vice versa. Society wanted to be strictly Soviet but there was no Soviet culture to consume, no books, no art, no plays, etc. So decisions had to be made as to what exactly would make up Soviet culture. And a new generation had to do all this under the watchful eye of the state.

But the Soviet government needed to preserve itself above all else and as its grip tightened on its citizens more and more victims and scapegoats had to be created in order to save itself. These were done through brutal persecution and sometimes voluntarily by party members who would incriminate themselves in order to save the party. In some sense, the party had succeeded in indoctrinating the minds of all who lived within it.

Although the stories in the House of Government sometimes seem redundant and the narrative too often drifts between reality and fiction (making it hard sometimes to understand what one is reading), it paints quite a vivid picture of the happiness and deep sadness that was experienced by the people of Russia during this time. It truly brings the citizens of the House of Government back to life.

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