Revolutionaries at home


More than one critic has described Yuri Slezkine’s The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution as a 21st century analogue of classic 19th and 20th century works of fiction, citing in particular Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate.

Having tried, and failed, to read War and Peace many years ago (intimidated, from what I remember, by its size and confused by the cast of characters), while Life and Fate remains on my bucket list, I can neither verify nor deny the comparisons. But there is clearly one respect in which Slezkine’s monumental tome is different. “This is a work of history,” the author declares in place of a dedication. “Any resemblance to fictional characters, dead or alive, is entirely coincidental.”

That’s what makes it, in large part, a fascinating chronicle. A great deal of research clearly went into creating what is on the face of it an uncommon masterpiece and Slezkine relies to a considerable extent on diaries and unpublished memoirs that ended up in state archives.

An uncommon masterpiece on the Russian Revolution of 1917 incorporates illuminating insights and information, even if one of its central theses is questionable

The book derives its title and primary focus from a huge construction project that replaced a candy factory across the Moskva River from the Kremlin. The closely connected blocks of flats were intended to, and did, house hundreds of the leading personalities of the Soviet state and their families, beginning a dozen or so years after the 1917 revolution. Given that the city then known as Petrograd, the birthplace of the revolution, was under threat from the German war machine as well as internal enemies, the national capital was shifted to Moscow. The fate of the Soviet Union might have been very different had this not occurred, given the prolonged siege of Leningrad (as Petrograd was renamed after Vladimir Lenin’s premature demise, before eventually reverting to its original name, St Petersburg, in the 1990s) during the Second World War.

Key state apparatchiks needed somewhere to dwell in Moscow and the city’s leading hotels — including the National and the Metropol — were repurposed as Houses of Soviets in the interim. After the House of Government became habitable, the hotels eventually reverted to their original status. (While briefly a student in Moscow, I recall visiting the National in 1977 to spend time with Faiz Ahmed Faiz and the journalist Hameed Akhtar, but have no recollection of setting eyes on the House of Government.)

At the height of its prestige, thousands of people from among the cream of the Communist Party resided in the conveniently located and well-maintained House of Government — from commissars and ideologues to writers, artists and, of course, their families. There was an army of staff, at least 600-strong, to cater to their needs. The vast compound boasted its own theatre, cinema, clinic, childcare arrangements, facilities for sports and recreation and cafeteria, as well as room service on demand. The idea, evidently, was to keep the party elite satisfied and thereby dedicated — at least in theory — to its primary responsibilities.

Inevitably, it did not work out that way.

Dawn for more

Comments are closed.