THE FIRST NOMENKLATURA of the Soviet Union were inhabitants of a swamp. They lived in a giant complex, completed in 1931 and designed specifically for party elites in an area on the banks of the Moskva River formerly known as “the Swamp.” This fairly rundown neighborhood served as the perfect site for a hulking project that would accommodate the first generation of Bolshevik commanders, who had been squeezed into commandeered hotels and private homes since 1917. The new building, called the House of Government, was built in the constructivist style, a subset of modernism enamored with factory aesthetics and the scale of mass production. It was a weighty anchor to a growing city, designed by Boris Iofan, the same architect who had won a competition to build the never-completed Palace of the Soviets skyscraper nearby — a cathedral to Soviet communism, topped with a giant statue of its patron saint, V. I. Lenin. Iofan’s House of Government — with its brand new apartments, theater, and club — was a desirable address. What made it most desirable, of course, was that it sat at the heart of Soviet power. The building’s 2,655 residents included Bundist Jews, rewarded “shock workers” (men and women who had overfulfilled their quotas), forgiven Mensheviks, and Red Army generals. They knew they were doing righteous work, building communism from the ground up and performing their solidarity with the movement by living as a single unit. Yet only a decade after the House of Government’s completion, it would be hollowed out, having given over 30 percent of its former residents to the Gulag, firing squads, exile, and, in the case of children, orphanages.

In his new book The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution, Yuri Slezkine tells the story of the early Soviet regime — from the idealism of 1917 to the horrors of Stalin’s Great Terror of 1936–’38 — using the House as a vessel of social history. Under its roof, the first Soviet generation embarked on its vigorous journey toward communism. While coordinating the largest political-economic realignment in world history, they also revised traditions of religion, family, and gender. Their stories, which Slezkine relates in tremendous detail, are diverse; some were barely literate workers, others converted members of the tsarist aristocracy, but all were dedicated to the radical change promised by the October Revolution. While Slezkine’s narrative traces the emergence of a new society and its eventual betrayal, his chief theme is the religious nature of Soviet communism. The House of Government was not merely a place for the anointed but a monastery for true believers. And as Slezkine shows, like so many communities of messianic faith, this order succumbed to a witch hunt and the purging of those whose conviction was in doubt.

Slezkine is adamant that those who fought to make the revolution of 1917 were adherents of a messianic faith no different from Mormonism, evangelical Christianity, or Hassidic Judaism. “All millenarianisms are cargo cults at heart,” Slezkine tells us, asserting that the idea of equal distribution has its origins in the ancient world, not in the utopias conceived by Saint-Simon, Fourier, or other early socialists. Marx’s prophecy was actually quite familiar, Slezkine writes, quoting the man himself:

The new Babylon, like the old, had reduced everything to the naked pursuit of cargoes of gold and “compelled all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production” ― by, among other things, forcing all women into “prostitution both public and private” and “stripping of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe […]” But the end was near […] Like all millenarians, they [communists] would work hard to bring about the ineluctable.

Slezkine’s epic 1,000-plus-page social history begins during the tsarist days of the Swamp, when working-class revolutionaries and intellectuals traded revolutionary ideas in the warehouses and factories at the edge of the Moskva. Many of the early agitators for socialism were quickly dispatched to prison or into Siberian exile, and it was in the wilderness that their radicalization began in earnest. Through informal study circles, they disseminated Marxist ideas among their fellow prisoners, deepening each other’s commitment to the struggle. Exile was harsh, but many of the camps were run as self-administering communes, allowing the radicals to put their socialist schemes into practice. In this section of the book, Slezkine exposes a vast multinational social network, based in Moscow but stretching to Siberia, Kiev, Berlin, and beyond. The lives of those involved and their myriad connections are described in such abundant detail that one can be both overwhelmed and inspired, as one often is by a classic Russian novel.

When the revolution did arrive, it was a prophecy fulfilled — but also an awkward moment for Marxist intellectuals. They had predicted that world communism would begin in developed capitalist countries (most likely Germany), where the proletariat was numerous. Russia was a predominantly agricultural economy with a weak capitalist class, which had only recently (1861) abolished the feudal system of serfdom. Marx and Engels did not provide instructions for Russia’s transformation, and the revolutionaries were divided at every step. Perhaps the biggest divide concerned the extent of the revolution: should Soviet Russia work toward insurgency around the world or consolidate “socialism in one country”?

Within the House of Government, a central question was how to convert those living outside of the Bolshevik power base in Moscow. The revolutionaries were young, urban, atheistic, and often of Jewish origin; the country around them was rural and religious. They believed the masses would support them in their drive to redistribute wealth, but the challenge was to convince the masses to accept a new faith. As Slezkine explains:

[T]he Soviet state had to […] convert the majority of the population to the official faith. It was an enormous task: the Bolsheviks had taken over the world’s largest empire […] Christians had not become the ruling party in the Roman Empire until more than three centuries after the death of the sect’s founder […] Bolsheviks counted sacred time in years and clearly assumed, as had Paul, that “the world in its present form is passing away.”

Party leaders had to invent new rituals (the holiday of May 1 being the most famous and lasting), as well as ceremonies for the recently converted: red baptisms that explained the new state in the simplest terms to rural villagers who were the grandchildren of serfs. The sanctification of the new state, including the beatification of Lenin, who was embalmed and set out for public viewing in Moscow, was largely successful. Slezkine makes clear that, despite the scientific tone of Marxist ideology, the Soviet Union is a prime example of how “[n]o state, however routinized, is fully divorced from its sacred origins, and no claim to legitimacy is purely ‘rational-instrumental.’”

The House of Government was originally designed in a spirit of religious fervor, which was typical of Soviet society in the 1920s. Women were to be largely liberated from household duties through collective cafeterias and day care. The family unit was to be reimagined in order to crush the social reproduction of bourgeois tendencies; dozens of people would sleep in large rooms collectively. But members of the Communist Party, who had grown tired of the difficulties of the Civil War years (1917–1922), now yearned for privacy, ample space for their books, and stability. Radical changes to family life never took root, and women were not freed from domestic chores; the apartments fostered bourgeois domesticity in fundamental ways. Still, women did participate in the workforce in greater numbers, and the social mores of the tsarist era were at least amended, if not exploded. Valentin Trifonov, a Cossack who supported the Bolsheviks, lived with his ex-wife as well as her daughter from another marriage, who became his new wife, and their son Yuri — who would grow up to become one of the Soviet Union’s most popular authors. (Yuri Trifonov’s novel House on the Embankment [1976] concerns the fate of the House of Government’s residents in the 1930s.) Slezkine, who wrote an influential article called “The USSR as a Communal Apartment” in the 1990s, is keen to show that elite Soviet homes were charged with intellectual discourse, but that Party members still read Robinson Crusoe to their children at bedtime.

Indeed, children were the focus of life in the House of Government. They were the first “red generation,” born into the faith, which had to be maintained through rigorous practice. The optimism and vast expectations for this generation made their fate in the 1930s seem all the more piteous. After growing up in an environment of intensive self-improvement in the 1920s, during which they “read [more or less] nonstop” (a term, Slezkine points out, that the Russians also use for binge drinking), they found themselves cowering in fear of raids and arrests, organized by their neighbors and comrades. Most shockingly, the traits that previously conferred status and respect — such as representing the Soviet Union abroad, speaking foreign languages, and cultivating international leftist contacts — had become grounds for suspicion.

Critics of the Soviet project take the Stalinist purges as the most pronounced expression of its rationale, rather than as a deviation. They point to the fact that the Great Terror actually came at a moment of relative political stability, when the state faced few threats from real internal plots or external pressures. The witch hunt came from the religion itself. Former communists like Arthur Koestler described Soviet communism as a “Byzantine cult,” in which believers were sickened with mass hysteria. What else could account for the fact that the victims and facilitators of the purges were neighbors in the House? And what else could account for the Terror’s scale? By 1937, the ritual of arrest, torture, false confession, and execution had gotten to be too much for the beleaguered NKVD officials and agents (many of whom were also killed after a few years of serving as nonstop purgers). In 1937–’38 in Moscow alone, 29,000 people were shot in the woods outside of the city.

Often, the male heads of households were dragged off first, followed several weeks later by their wives, leaving their children to be adopted or consigned to orphanages. The children of the House of Government, who were meant to inherit the socialist state from their parents, were left with nearly nothing, and many were imprisoned if not killed. Those who returned to Moscow were not welcomed back to their old flats in the House, even after Nikita Khrushchev (former resident of apartments 199 and 206) denounced Stalin in 1956. Yet some kept faith. Slezkine quotes Feoktista Yakovlevna Miagkova, who kept a portrait of Stalin on her wall even after she was forced to raise her granddaughter following the execution of her daughter and son-in-law: “[T]here were so many enemies that it was impossible not to make a mistake.” (Her son-in-law, Mikhail Poloz, a chairman of the State Planning Committee for Ukraine, was killed alongside 264 other prisoners who were made to dig their own graves and lie in them in their undergarments before they were shot.) But many other Soviet citizens did lose their faith, carrying on with dull resignation. Unlike the suffering of their parents, theirs was not in the service of eventual redemption — it was simply hardship.

Slezkine ends the book by describing Bolshevism as a “Reformation” for tradition-bound Russia, which makes the USSR a radical project of modernization:

The Bolshevik Reformation was not a popular movement: it was a massive missionary campaign mounted by a sect that proved strong enough to conquer an empire but not resourceful enough to either convert the barbarians or reproduce itself at home […] [T]he founders’ children had moved from the romance of those embarking on a new quest to the irony of those who have seen it all before.

The House of Government now stands amid many other gray blocks — the functional, hideous, homogenous “Khrushchyovka” apartments that dot the landscape of the former Soviet Union. It has come to symbolize the fizzled dreams and squandered faith of the first Soviet generation.

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Max Holleran is lecturer in Sociology at the University of Melbourne.