Saturday, October 03, 2020

The House of Government

I recently finished Yuri Slezkine's The House of Government, which was (mostly) good. Slezkine's large tome (994 pages, not counting notes and index) traces the history of the Bolshevik revolution and its aftermath by focusing on the history of a huge residential building built by the Soviet government for high-level government officials, situated across the river from the Kremlin, and some of its more notable tenants. The thing I found most interesting about it was that all these Bolshevik Communists working for the state had maids, nannies, and chauffeurs, and they largely just took over aristocratic amenities (under the legal device of collective ownership, of course). But there were also other interesting aspects. One of Slezkine's arguments is that the bookishness of the Bolsheviks -- they were primarily students interested in literature, economics, and philosophy -- which was one of the things that made them possible at all, also in the long run hampered their efforts. They raised their children not on pure Bolshevikism but on literary classics of the kind that they had liked themselves when growing up; many of the children of the Bolsheviks read Dickens, few read Marx. The Soviet taste in art and literature was to some extent a Bolshevik failure: they made some abortive attempts at revolutionizing them, but their taste in these things was mostly inherited and traditional, not revolutionary. A few experiments in revolutionary art (especially literature) did very well, but it was often because they fit with their already existing taste for Dickens or Goethe or the like. I also liked the in-depth characterization of how benefit- and title-based incentives often took the place of wages and salaries as primary motivators among Soviet civil servants and leaders. And Slezkine is also very good at giving a sense, drawn from diaries and correspondence, of what people thought when the knock came at the door because they had ended up on the wrong side of Stalin or some other higher-up.

The least successful aspect of the work is the religious aspect. Slezkine pushes very hard the analogies and parallels between the Bolsheviks and millenarian religions. This works well in the early part of the book, since not only are there such analogies, but the well-read Bolsheviks, raised in a Russian Orthodox culture, often described their own work in such terms. As time goes on, the religious analogies become more strained and imposed rather than organically growing from the evidence presented.

In any case, it's well worth reading if you like in-detail people-based history.