SO, HOW TO write sensibly of a roughly 1,000 page history in a 4-5 paragraph blog post?
I can hardly do justice to the book. The time Slezkine must have spent in the archives is staggering, to say nothing of the effort he had to put into translations of most of the documents he quotes, and then the composing of the narrative itself. Miraculously, the finished product is a swift and engaging read.
The House of Government was an enormous apartment complex in Moscow, designed and built by the Soviet government, meant to embody the capabilities, virtues, and values of the new socialist society. The greater part of the inhabitants were the families of people from the higher (though not necessarily the highest) echelons of the new national administration, in the arts, engineering, agriculture, and so on.
The word “saga” in the subtitle fits in a couple of ways. For one thing, the narrative has an arc. In the ‘teens, we have the wild green hopes of the revolutionaries, seemingly deliriously out of touch with reality, but suddenly vindicated by events. In the twenties, we get the intoxication of their finding themselves in power, in history’s vanguard, creating the future, living the prophecy. As the later twenties turn into the thirties, they are hard at work in the newly-established routines, carrying out the Five-Year Plan, making things happen, tempering the steel. The celebrations over the Five-Year Plan’s having succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations are just settling down when Kirov is assassinated and the trials begin. As the thirties wear on, most inhabitants of the House of Government are waiting for that midnight knock on the door, which inevitably, sooner or later, comes.
Also saga-like is that the book has a recurring cast. We meet people as young revolutionaries; we see them take on roles in the Soviet state, movie into the House of Government, and start families. We see them at their summer dachas, hear about what their children are doing at school, find out what they are reading and writing. Then...night descends. Imagine Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet lasting for two hundred pages. One after another, all the dedicated Communists we have seen creating the new world are taken away, some eventually to return, most not.
In some ways, Slezkine has come up with the great Russian novel about the Soviet world that never got written because Stalin was imprisoning the writers who might have written it.