The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution

The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution

by Yuri Slezkine

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On the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, the epic story of an enormous apartment building where Communist true believers lived before their destruction

The House of Government is unlike any other book about the Russian Revolution and the Soviet experiment. Written in the tradition of Tolstoy's War and Peace, Grossman’s Life and Fate, and Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, Yuri Slezkine’s gripping narrative tells the true story of the residents of an enormous Moscow apartment building where top Communist officials and their families lived before they were destroyed in Stalin’s purges. A vivid account of the personal and public lives of Bolshevik true believers, the book begins with their conversion to Communism and ends with their children’s loss of faith and the fall of the Soviet Union.

Completed in 1931, the House of Government, later known as the House on the Embankment, was located across the Moscow River from the Kremlin. The largest residential building in Europe, it combined 505 furnished apartments with public spaces that included everything from a movie theater and a library to a tennis court and a shooting range. Slezkine tells the chilling story of how the building’s residents lived in their apartments and ruled the Soviet state until some eight hundred of them were evicted from the House and led, one by one, to prison or their deaths.

Drawing on letters, diaries, and interviews, and featuring hundreds of rare photographs, The House of Government weaves together biography, literary criticism, architectural history, and fascinating new theories of revolutions, millennial prophecies, and reigns of terror. The result is an unforgettable human saga of a building that, like the Soviet Union itself, became a haunted house, forever disturbed by the ghosts of the disappeared.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691176949
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 08/22/2017
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 1128
Sales rank: 328,180
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 2.20(d)

About the Author

Yuri Slezkine is the Jane K. Sather Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley. His books include The Jewish Century (Princeton), which won the National Jewish Book Award.

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Moscow was founded on the high left bank of the river it was named after. The wide-open and frequently invaded "Trans-Moskva" fields on the right side gradually filled up with quarters of coopers, weavers, shearers, carters, soldiers, blacksmiths, interpreters, and tribute-collectors, but the floodplain just opposite the Kremlin remained a chain of swamps and marshy meadows. In 1495, Ivan III decreed that all buildings along the right bank of the river be torn down and replaced by Royal Gardens. The gardens were planted and, under Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich, neatly landscaped, but the mud kept creeping in. The Middle Garden was bounded on the west by the Boloto ("swamp" in Russian); on the east by the Balchug ("swamp" in Turkic); and on the south by nameless puddles and lakes. The construction of the All Saints Stone Bridge in 1693 transformed the old southern crossing into a causeway lined with shops, taverns, and warehouses (including the Royal Wool Yard and Royal Wine and Salt Yard). After the fire of 1701, the gardens were abandoned, and one part of the swamp began to be used as a market square and a place for recreational fistfighting, fireworks displays, and public executions.

After the spring flood of 1783, the Vodootvodnyi (or "Drainage") Canal was built along the southern edge of the Moskva floodplain. The embankments were reinforced; the perpendicular ditches became alleys; and the former Royal Gardens were transformed into a crescent-shaped, densely populated island. The fire of 1812, which smoked Napoleon out of Moscow, destroyed most of the buildings and drove away most of the residents. The new structures — including inns, schools, factories, and merchant mansions — were largely built of stone. The Babyegorodskaia Dam at the western tip of the island made the canal navigable and floods less frequent. Next to the dam, on the Kremlin side, arose the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, consecrated in 1883 and dedicated "to the eternal memory of the unrivaled diligence, loyalty, and love of Faith and Fatherland, with which, in those difficult times, the Russian people acquitted themselves, and in commemoration of Our gratitude to the Divine Providence that saved Russia from the calamity that threatened to befall it."

On the eve of World War I, the western section of the island ("the Swamp") was dominated and partially owned by the F. T. Einem Chocolate, Candy, and Cookie Factory, famous for its Dutch cocoa, bridal baskets, colorful marzipan figures, and "Fall in Love with Me" chocolate cakes. Founded in 1867 by two German entrepreneurs who made their fortune selling syrups and jams to the Russian army, the factory had several steam engines, brand new hydraulic presses, and the title of official supplier of the Imperial Court. Its director, Oskar Heuss (the son of one of the co-founders), lived nearby in a large, two-story house with bathrooms on both floors, a greenhouse, and a big stable. On the opposite side of the courtyard were apartments for the factory's engineers (mostly Germans), doctors' assistants, married and unmarried employees, housekeepers, and coachmen, as well as a library, laundry, and several dormitories and cafeterias for the workers. The factory was known for its high wages, good working conditions, amateur theater, and active police-sponsored mutual aid fund. Sunday lunches included a shot of vodka or half bottle of beer; boarders under sixteen received free clothing, sang in a choir, worked in the store (for about eleven hours a day), and had an 8:00 p.m. curfew. About half the workers had been there for more than fifteen years; the hardest work was done by day laborers, mostly women.

To the west of the chocolate factory were army barracks, a collection of shops, and, on the island's "Arrowhead," the Moscow Sailing Club. To the east was the seventeenth-century residence of the Duma clerk Averky Kirillov, which contained the Moscow Archaeological Society, and the Church of St. Nicholas the Miracle Worker, which contained the remains of Averky Kirillov. The deacons, sextons, psalm-readers, holy bread bakers, and priests (Father Orlov and Father Dmitriev) all lived in the churchyard, alongside dozens of lodgers and the wards of St. Nicholas Almshouse.

According to Nikolai Bukharin, who grew up a short walk away on Bolshaia Ordynka Street, the Trans-Moskva churches were usually full.

In the front stood the merchants' wives, rustling their silk skirts and blouses and crossing themselves with plump, rosy fingers, while, beside them, their husbands prayed gravely and fervently. Farther back one could see household dependents and poor relations: old women in black, God-fearing gossips, matchmakers, keepers of the family hearth, aunts with nieces still hoping for bridegrooms and swooning from fat and longing, confidantes, and housemaids. The government officials and their wives stood nearby looking fashionable. And at the back, pressing together as they stood or knelt, were exhausted laborers, waiting for consolation and salvation from the all-merciful God, our Savior. But the Savior remained silent as he looked sadly down at the hunched bodies and bent backs. ... Joking and laughing a little nervously, young boys and girls spat on their fingertips and tried to put each other's candles out. As the candles sputtered, they would snicker, then stifle their laughter under the stern gaze of the grownups. Here and there, lovers could be seen exchanging glances. The porch was full of wall-eyed beggars in pitiful rags, with turned-up eyelids and stumps instead of hands and feet; the blind, lame, and holy fools for Christ's sake.

Most of them lived close by. Next to the church, along the Drainage Canal (also known as the Ditch), and all around the chocolate factory were courtyards filled with wooden or stone buildings with assorted annexes, mezzanines, wings, porches, basements, and lofts. Inside were apartments, rooms, "small chambers," and "corners with cots" inhabited by a motley mix of people who might or might not attend the Mass celebrated by Father Orlov and Father Dmitriev. A sixteen-year-old factory apprentice, Semen Kanatchikov, who lived in the neighborhood in the second half of the 1890s and went to Mass regularly before converting to socialism, described his building as a "huge stone house with a courtyard that looked like a large stone well. Wet linens dangled from taut clotheslines all along the upper stories. The courtyard had an acrid stench of carbolic acid. Throughout the courtyard were dirty puddles of water and discarded vegetables. In the apartments and all around the courtyard people were crowding, making noise, cursing." Kanatchikov lived in one of those apartments with about fifteen other men from his native region, who shared the rent. "Some were bachelors, others had wives who lived in the villages and ran their households."

Next to the church of St. Nicholas was the Ivan Smirnov and Sons' Vodka Factory, owned by Ivan's grandson, Sergei Sergeevich Smirnov, and famous for its brightly labeled bottles of cheap alcohol — made, as one government commission charged, from low-quality moonshine distilled by Tula Province peasants. At the end of the block, between the Smirnov Factory and All Saints Street, was the former Wine and Salt Yard, which housed the Moscow Assembly of Justices of the Peace, the office and residence of the city's sewage administrator, a water-supply office, several stone warehouses (including three for apples and one for eggs), and the Main Electric Tram Power Station, crowned by two chimneys and a little tower with a spire.

The All Saints Bridge, commonly known as the Big Stone Bridge (even though it had been mostly metal since 1858), was a gathering place for pilgrims, vagrants, and beggars — except for the first week of Lent, when the surrounding area became the city's largest mushroom market. According to newspaper reports, mushrooms — dried and pickled — predominated, but there were also "mountains of bagels and white radishes," "lots of honey, preserves, cheap sweets, and sacks of dried fruit," and "long rows of stalls with crockery, cheap furniture, and all sorts of plain household utensils." One could hear "the shouting, laughter, whistling, and not-so-Lenten joking of thousands of people, many of them still hungover from the Shrovetide feast." "People wade through muddy slush, but no one seems to notice. Pranksters stomp on puddles, in order to splash the women with dirt. There are quite a few pickpockets, who try to start stampedes."

Across the road from the Wine and Salt Yard and next to the Birliukovskaia Hermitage, stood the Chapel of St. Nicholas the Miracle Worker, with two small wings that housed the monks' rooms, a drapery, and a vegetable stall. Next to the chapel were several pubs, a cheap bathhouse doubling as a brothel, and several former Wool Yard buildings filled with crowded apartments and shops occupied by various tradesmen, including a dyer, hairdresser, tinsmith, cobbler, seamstress, embroiderer, dressmaker, and "phonographer."

Farther along the embankment, facing the Kremlin but partially hidden from view by tall trees in the front yard, was the three-story Maria Women's College, dedicated to "using the students' talents not only for the education of the mind, but also for the education of the heart and character." Most of the heart's education took place in the music rooms on the first floor between the administration office and the dining hall. From 1894 to 1906, one of the instructors at the college was Sergei Rachmaninoff, who did not like teaching but needed the exemption from military service that came with it. According to one of his students, upon entering the classroom, Rachmaninoff, who was twenty-three at the time, "would sit down at his desk, pull out his handkerchief, wipe his face with it for a long time, rest his head on his fingers, and, usually without looking up, call on a pupil and ask her to recite her lesson." One morning he walked out of the class because his students had not done their homework. He wrote to the principal to apologize: "I am generally a bad teacher, but today I was also unpardonably ill-tempered. If I had known that my pupils would have to pay for my behavior, I would not have allowed myself to act in such a way." Perhaps as penance, Rachmaninoff composed his Six Choruses for Women's or Children's Voices, op. 15, and also played at several school performances.

Behind the school was the sprawling Gustav List Metal Works, which employed more than a thousand workers and produced steam engines, fire hydrants, and water pipes, among other things. Gustav List himself lived above the factory office in a large apartment with a winter garden. He had arrived from Germany in 1856, worked as a mechanic at the Voronezh Sugar Mill, started his Moscow factory in 1863, and turned it into a joint-stock company in 1897.

The factory's shops, warehouses, and dormitories took up the rest of the block. Semen Kanatchikov worked in the "aristocratic" pattern workshop. "Most of the pattern-makers were urban types — they dressed neatly, wore their trousers over their boots, wore their shirts 'fantasia' style, tucked into their trousers, fastened their collars with a colored lace instead of a necktie, and on holidays some of them even wore bowler hats. ... They used foul language only when they lost their tempers and in extreme situations, or on paydays, when they got drunk, and not even all of them at that."

In the foundry, where the finished patterns ended up, "dirty, dark-colored people, whose blackened, soot-covered faces revealed only the whites of their eyes, rummaged like moles in the earth and dust of the earthen floor." To the roar of the "enormous lifting cranes and turning gears," the "heavy fire-red stream of molten pig iron spewed forth large blazing sparks and illuminated the dark faces of the smelters standing by. ... The heat near the pots and the furnaces was unbearable and the clothes of the smelters would repeatedly catch fire and have to be doused with water."

When Kanatchikov first arrived at the plant, the workday was eleven and a half hours, not counting overtime night shifts during the busy fall and winter seasons, but after the St. Petersburg weavers' strike of 1896, List introduced the ten-hour day. Most workers, both the "urban types" and the "peasants" (who "wore high boots, traditional cotton-print blouses girdled with a sash, had their hair cut 'under a pot,' and wore beards that were rarely touched by a barber's hand"), lived in and around the Swamp. When they were not working, they drank Smirnov vodka; brawled at weddings; told funny stories about priests; fished in the Moskva and the Ditch; consorted with local prostitutes; courted stocking-knitters, milliners, and cooks in the Alexander Garden next to the Kremlin; read crime chronicles, serialized novels, and Christian and socialist tracts; attended church services and various conspiratorial meetings; staged bloody fistfights on the frozen river by the dam (usually with the Butikov textile workers from across the river); and visited the nearby Tretyakov Gallery of Russian Art, Imperial Museum of Russian History, and Rumiantsev Museum (of just about everything). On Sundays, museum admission was free, but the most popular "free spectacles," according to Kanatchikov, were Moscow fires, which, "no matter how tired," the workers "would run at breakneck speed to see."

Twice a month, on Saturday paydays, most of Kanatchikov's housemates "indulged in wild carousing. Some, as soon as they had collected their pay, would go directly from the factory to beer halls, taverns, or to some grassy spot, whereas others — the somewhat more dandified types — first went back to the apartment to change their clothes." On the following Mondays, the "sufferers ... with swollen red faces and glazed eyes" would treat their hangovers with shots of alcohol-based varnish kept in a special tin can. "After lunch half the shop would be drunk. Some would loaf on other people's workbenches; others would sit it out in the lavatory. Those whose morning-after drinking had gone too far went to sleep in the drying room or in the shop shed."

East of the Gustav List Metal Works was the "Renaissance" mansion of the sugar millionaire, Kharitonenko, with Gothic interiors by Fedor Schechtel and a large gallery of Russian art. Between Gustav List and the Ditch was the Swamp proper: a large square filled with long sheds, filled with small shops, filled with all kinds of things, mostly edible. In late summer and early fall, the space between the sheds became Moscow's largest farmers' market. Every night, the dealers would gather in Afanasyev's tea room to agree on prices. At about two in the morning, they would come out to greet the arriving peasants, and, according to one newspaper report, each would "walk unhurriedly along the line of carts, glancing indifferently at the mountains of berries. Having made a choice, he would name a price and, if the peasant began to object, would shrug and walk away, lighting up a cigarette." In the ensuing haggling, "various numbers, promises, oaths, and jokes would be jumbled together, passed on, and spread around the square." At sunrise, the peasants would leave, the selling of berries to the public would begin, and, "as if by magic, everything would come alive and turn bright and cheerful. ... There was so much of everything that one could not help wondering about the size and appetite of Moscow's belly, which, day after day, devoured these gifts of the Swamp quite casually — a mere tasty morsel or idle amusement."

Later in the day, the berries would be replaced by mushrooms, vegetables, and, on holidays, promenaders and tavern regulars. The inhabitants of "the hovels where naked children crawled amidst soiled rags and which smelled of untreated leather, sauerkraut, the outhouse, and dank mold" would, in Nikolai Bukharin's words, "spill out onto the streets or suffocate in the fumes of taverns and bars with red and blue signs that read 'Beer-hall with Garden' or, in fancy script, 'The "Meeting of Friends" Inn.' Waiters, in jackets that were white in name only, would scurry around through the smoke while in the background, a 'music machine' played, glasses clinked, an accordion wailed, and a voice sang mournful, heart-rending songs. And this motley, mixed-up world was full of moaning, brawling, drinking, screaming, hugging, fighting, kissing, and crying."


Excerpted from "The House of Government"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Yuri Slezkine.
Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface xi

Acknowledgments xvii

1 En Route

I Anticipation 3

1 The Swamp 5

2 The Preachers 23

3 The Faith 73

II Fulfillment 119

4 The Real Day 121

5 The Last Battle 158

6 The New City 180

7 The Great Disappointment 220

8 The Party Line 272

2 At Home

III The Second Coming 315

9 The Eternal House 317

10 The New Tenants 377

11 The Economic Foundations 408

12 The Virgin Lands 421

13 The Ideological Substance 454

IV The Reign of the Saints 479

14 The New Life 481

15 The Days Off 508

16 The Houses of Rest 535

17 The Next of Kin 552

18 The Center of the World 582

19 The Pettiness of Existence 610

20 The Thought of Death 623

21 The Happy Childhood 645

22 The New Men 665

3 On Trial

V The Last Judgment 697

23 The Telephone Call 699

24 The Admission of Guilt 715

25 The Valley of the Dead 753

26 The Knock on the Door 773

27 The Good People 813

28 The Supreme Penalty 840

VI The Afterlife 871

29 The End of Childhood 873

30 The Persistence of Happiness 887

31 The Coming of War 912

32 The Return 924

33 The End 946

Epilogue: The House on the Embankment 961

Appendix: Partial List of Leaseholders 983

Notes 995

Index 1083

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“Compelling. . . . [L]ike Solzhenitsyn with photographs.”—Tom Stoppard, Times Literary Supplement

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