• Donna Bryson
  • I've detoured to many books since starting this in March. Here's why I kept stopping to...
I've detoured to many books since starting this in March. Here's why I kept stopping to read something else. And kept coming back.
Written by
Donna Bryson
August 2018
Written by
Donna Bryson
August 2018

I often describe a good book as “un-putdownable.”
Yuri Slezkine’s “The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution” is a very good book. But I found myself putting it down often. Not because I didn’t want to know what would happen _ feeling compelled to discover what comes next is another sign of a good book. The problem was that Slezkine managed to imbue such a sense of horror into his encyclopedic study of the rise of the Bolsheviks and the fall of the Soviets. 
Slezkine sets his book in the complex of more than 500 apartments as well as places to dine, be entertained and work that housed Moscow’s political elite and their spouses and children. I would find myself feeling what the House of Government residents must have felt during Stalin’s purges. Everyone expected the NKVD police, the Interior Ministry’s feared agents, to arrive at any nocturnal moment to begin the interrogations that led inevitably to execution.
Slezkine writes in a passage that sums up the quotidian dread: “The former head of the Bookselling Directorate, David Schvarts, would stay up at night, looking out the window.  According to his son, the window looked out onto the courtyard. ‘Whenever a “black raven” (NKVD car) would enter the courtyard, my father would start getting dressed.’”
I put “House of Government” aside when the dark mood became overwhelming. I came back because   Slezkine moved me to care about the people he described so vividly. 
The Old Bolshevik Elena Dmitrievna Stasova, House of Government Apartment 291, Entryway 15, was a one-woman rehabilitation committee who worked on behalf of those whose reputations were destroyed by Stalin. She was generous, loyal, indefatigable and intelligent. And “famously humorless, irritable and difficult to please. According to Goloshchekin’s wife, once, when Goloshchekin made a grave political mistake, Stalin threatened to force him to marry Stasova.”
Slezkine is at his best when he allows his revolutionaries to describe themselves or one another. The Soviet-born historian who taught at Berkeley for years mined diaries, letters, autobiographies, autobiographical novels, love poems and even confessions. His 1,200-page mosaic of a book is an exercise in intimate portraiture.  
Here, for example, is the Russian playwright Aleksandr Kron writing in his autobiography about his compatriot and friend, theater director Fedor Nikolaevich Kaverin:
"He always walked as if he were backstage during a performance, trying not to make any noise, stumble over a cable, or run into a piece of scenery -- as if he were saying: 'Hush! There's a show going on.' He loved the magic of the theater, its ability to transform nondescript rags and cheap baubles into fabulous garments and sparkling ornaments; he was intoxicated by the rattling of wooden swords and the clinking of cups wrapped in gold paper. What he loved about theater was its theatricality."
Or future novelist Yuri Trifonov at 12, musing in his diary: “The sun and the trees. The smell of pine. All the greenery. A light breeze coming through the open window and stirring the pages of my diary …. The phlox and dahlias under my window perfuming the air. Bushes and trees and other greenery all around. Greenery, greenery everywhere … and the sun turning it all emerald green.”
Such youthful lyricism contrasts with the bloodless bureaucratic lists that Slezkine also cites. The latter accountings of dacha menus, party guests, household furnishings, prisoners and deaths show the inhuman machinery of the Soviet Union. Slezkine argues that the Bolsheviks built a vast, rhetorical and institutional church that, for all its totalitarian ambitions, was no match for human foibles, loyalties, love of art and nature.
Slezkine concludes that “the Revolution ended at home,” in apartments where children were raised as romantics on the fairy tales and Bible stories of peasant nannies and the novels of their parents.
The apartment doors could not keep out the NKVD. But Slezkine kept my attention on the people amid the drama, celebrating the legacy of the still-standing House of Government as a humanist haven. 


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