The House of Government by Yuri Slezkine review – the Russian Revolution told through one building

A dizzying epic history of a 1931 block of flats in Moscow, home to the Soviet elite, aims to tell of the rise and fall of Bolshevism

It is rare to come across a work of history that so obviously wants to be a literary masterpiece. Roughly the length of War and Peace, The House of Government aims to capture the rise and fall of Bolshevism through a building and its residents, via a study in eschatology – the creation of an apocalyptic cult, its unexpected success, and its equally unexpected failure. It is a dizzying book, a hall of mirrors, panoramic and bizarre, as puzzlingly esoteric and thrillingly fervent as the doctrines it describes. Whether it succeeds in what it tries to do – essentially, to write a totally new history of the Russian revolution, cast in the mould of a teeming historical novel – is questionable. That there is nothing else like it is indisputable.

We should begin where the author does not, with the building. Slezkine is best known to non-specialists for The Jewish Century, a lively revisionist history that placed the Soviet Union at the heart of 20th-century Jewish experience, but in the academy he might be better known for his essay The USSR as a Communal Apartment, a pivotal study of Soviet multinationalism through the spatial/architectural metaphor of a crowded, thinly subdivided “kommunalka” flat. The House of Government was another, larger block of flats, completed in 1931, “a place where revolutionaries came home and the revolution came to die”. It was designed in the late 1920s by the architect Boris Iofan for the Soviet elite. Its tenants were decimated in the Great Purge, leading to the later nickname “the House of Preliminary Detention”.

That’s as simple as The House of Government gets. Perhaps more important is Slezkine’s central view of Bolshevism as a millenarian cult, a notion that was a mainstay of the cold war. His idea of what Marxism is or was is comically inadequate, based on Marx’s early work on Hegel and the “Jewish question”, although the book his tenant inhabitants are always reading, or rather failing to read, is Das Kapital. The Bolsheviks here are not contemporaries of, say, Rosa Luxemburg or James Maxton, but successors to the Anabaptists of the 16th century, who “banned all books except the Bible, destroyed altars and sculptures, renamed streets and days of the week (and named their city the New Jerusalem), banned monogamy and private property, rationed food and clothing, enforced communal dining”. What makes Slezkine’s version of this hoary idea interesting is a lack of moralism, and a mindboggling sweeping perspective that aligns Bolshevism with Christianity, Islam and “the Commonwealth of Massachusetts”.

The House’s site is equally crucial – a low-rise, unplanned area of central Moscow known as “the Swamp”. By 1905, the Swamp had a power station and factories alongside its street markets and muddy, frequently flooded, streets. In that year, “the empire was crawling with prophets, soothsayers and itinerant preachers. Everyone seemed to believe that the world was sick and would not last much longer.”

In 1917, the Swamp’s workers were, Slezkine notes, solidly pro-Bolshevik; yet the need to fight against the petit bourgeoisie continued. Their New Jerusalem would be clean, rational, machine-made. Slezkine treats this as pathological, though it seems a fairly uncontroversial response to the realities of Russia in the early 20th century – trying to stop men beating their wives and shitting in the street does not an apocalyptic cult make. But when the central argument becomes tiresome, there are digressions into, to take a random sample, revolutionary nudism, monumental and modernist architecture, Don Quixote and the Spanish civil war, the socialist realist novel, abuse scandals of early 1990s America, Ibsen ...

The building itself was a result of Bolshevism’s shift from eager expectation of global revolution into “Augustinian” state-building. As Slezkine rightly notes, in design it was (and is) closer to the Dakota in New York (or Dolphin Square in London) than to the utopian communes of constructivism, with family apartments connected to abundant communal facilities – cinema, club, pool, theatre, restaurant. With the turn of the 1930s, the elite tenants attempted to drain further swamps, with de-kulakisation, collectivisation and the creation of the Gulag. With the Moscow Metro, under the direction of tenant Nikita Khrushchev, they even brought the opulence and glory of the New Jerusalem right down into the bog and clay itself.

Puzzlingly esoteric, thrillingly fervent … Yuri Slezkine.
Puzzlingly esoteric, thrillingly fervent … Yuri Slezkine. Photograph: Anatoly Strunin/TASS

During the horrific famines they brought to Ukraine and Kazakhstan, the tenants were publicly resolute in persecuting “saboteurs”. In private, however, they desperately tried to convince the real first rank of power – the likes of Stalin, Molotov and Kaganovich, resident in the Kremlin opposite – to send relief. This gap between deed and thought would be remembered, when the Great Purge came in 1937. Here, The House of Government becomes almost unbearably harrowing. one , in starved Kazakhstan, administered by House resident Filipp Goloshchekin, where we glimpse an empty village, out of which runs “some sort of small creature … its long hair had frozen into bloody icicles which stuck out at all angles … its teeth were bared, and its mouth dripped with red foam”. It then disappeared, just as quickly as it emerged.

The other is told through the self-abasing letters of the Old Bolshevik Tatiana Miagkova. Thrown into an isolator for oppositionist sympathies, when her husband is arrested too, she writes to her daughter that a concentration camp is not all bad, as “it means working and therefore participating in the life of our country. There is no place for hopelessness in our – very tough – system.”

Does Slezkine’s own construction atop the swamp of Soviet history hold steady? Not entirely. One crucial problem is in isolating the House and its tenants from events around them. When Slezkine finds Lenin, in 1918, quoting the then-decades old prediction by Engels that capitalism would produce “a world war of an extent and violence hitherto undreamed of”, he sees a raving cult leader proclaiming a confirmed prophecy, rather than a politician citing a remarkably accurate prediction of the state of Europe in that year. The postwar revolutionary wave of 1918-19, or the rise of fascism and the Great Depression, are treated essentially as figments of the Bolsheviks’ apocalyptic imaginations. The many non-Soviet communists who passed through the House are ignored, as is the Comintern – or communism outside Russia at all.

That omission is not accidental. In a throwaway concluding note, Slezkine argues that Bolshevism only endured where it became a national liberation movement, as in China, Cuba and Vietnam – something the cosmopolitan, Latvian, Jewish, Georgian, Ukrainian and Polish inhabitants of the House of Government could never entirely countenance, although the surviving tenants would toy with Russian nationalism in Stalin’s late years. Finally, Slezkine ascribes the USSR’s failure to endure to a refusal to break up the family. “The problem with Bolshevism is that it was not totalitarian enough.” It is a maddening conclusion, perverse and infuriatingly partial, but in the context of The House of Government it makes perfect sense – after being trapped in this labyrinthine, terrifying, fascinating structure for 1,096 pages, the paradoxical becomes logical.

• To order The House of Government for £25.46 (RRP £29.95) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


Owen Hatherley

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
House of Stone by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma review – Zimbabwe’s story extraordinarily told
A debut novel that is by turns painful and playful as its characters are forced to perform unspeakable acts to survive

Helon Habila

09, Aug, 2018 @2:00 PM

Article image
How Lenin’s love of literature shaped the Russian Revolution
The father of the Soviet Union was also a Latin buff who adored Goethe and liked to compare his enemies to figures in novels

Tariq Ali

25, Mar, 2017 @9:30 AM

Article image
Collusion: How Russia Helped Trump Win the White House by Luke Harding – review
Secret meetings and dirty money in a compelling investigation of the US president’s 30-year relationship with Russia

Charles Kaiser

14, Dec, 2017 @7:30 AM

Article image
October by China Miéville review – a brilliant retelling of the Russian Revolution
Miéville returns to the dazzling reality of the events of 1917 and sees nothing inevitable about their eventual degradation

Jonathan Steele

17, May, 2017 @8:59 AM

Article image
Book reviews roundup: A Very Expensive Poison; The Course of Love; The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History
What the critics thought of A Very Expensive Poison by Luke Harding, The Course of Love by Alain de Botton and The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History by Frank Dikötter

06, May, 2016 @5:00 PM

Article image
Civilisations by Laurent Binet review – thought-provoking fantasy histories
What if the Incas had invaded Europe? Flights of fancy reimagine a 16th century that never happened

Sam Leith

29, Apr, 2021 @11:00 AM

Article image
Novel Houses by Christina Hardyment review – famous fictional dwellings
From Howards End to Bag End, fictional houses can be as characterful as the people who live in them

Kathryn Hughes

31, Oct, 2019 @7:30 AM

Article image
The Sisters Mao review – dazzlingly ambitious yet modestly human
Gavin McCrea’s second novel juxtaposes revolutionaries in London and China as it explores the roles of art and motherhood in communism

Lara Feigel

16, Sep, 2021 @8:00 AM

Article image
Himself by Jess Kidd review – a dark and rollicking debut
Buried secrets are uncovered and the dead rise in Kidd’s fantastical literary thriller set on the west coast of Ireland

Catherine Taylor

23, Nov, 2016 @12:00 PM

Article image
Words in My Hand by Guinevere Glasfurd review – life with Descartes
An accomplished first novel that imagines the life, in 17th-century Amsterdam, of young servant Helena Jans van der Strom and her relationship with the philosopher

Jane Housham

17, Feb, 2017 @4:30 PM