The great error - The bookishness of Bolsheviks

What more fitting monument to a millenarian movement could there be than a thousand-page “saga”? Yuri Slezkine’s guiding argument in this remarkable, many-layered account of the men (rarely women) who shaped the October Revolution is that the Bolsheviks were not a party but an apocalyptic sect. In an extended essay on comparative religion that constitutes just one of his thirty-three chapters, he puts Russia’s victorious revolutionaries in a long line of millenarians extending back to the ancient Israelites; in their “totalitarian” demands on the individual believer, he suggests, the Bolsheviks are cut from the same cloth as the sixteenth-century Münster Anabaptists and the original “radical fundamentalist”, Jesus Christ.

Slezkine is by no means the first person to draw the analogy between the Bolsheviks and sectarians (Lenin himself is reported to have taken an interest in the Münster Anabaptists and Cromwell’s Puritans as he pondered Russia’s revolutionary potential in the early twentieth century), but no one before him has extracted such analytical mileage from it. This intellectual framework allows him to explain the Bolsheviks’ striving to bring self and society, individual and history, into perfect alignment; their relentless study and exegesis of their own version of scripture (Marx and Engels, later Lenin); their jealous guarding of their purity and integrity; and their embrace of violence, which was a welcome sign of the apocalyptic confrontation that would herald the “Real Day”. Like other sects, the Bolsheviks had an intense, even incestuous, small-group cohesion born of initial persecution: they bonded fiercely and permanently in the prisons, places of exile and underground discussion circles where they first encountered one another. Like other millenarians, many of them seemed to relish the heat of battle more than the fruits of victory. Combat and violence provided a more immediate purpose than the future utopia, the outlines of which remained hazy and contested. Here, Slezkine suggests, the Bolsheviks had something in common with their founding fathers: Marx and Engels were more eloquent and informative on the irreconcilable contradictions and coming crisis of capitalism than on the future shape of communism.

There were, however, some crucial differences between the Bolsheviks and all previous sectarians. The main one was the vast power they obtained at a relatively early stage of their collective existence, which brought with it an unusual degree of insecurity. As Slezkine puts it, they were the only apocalyptic sect that had ever taken over an “existing heathen empire”: they ruled over the population of the former Russian Empire, which was overwhelmingly ignorant of or unreceptive to their teachings. This required a proselytizing effort unparalleled in history; and when persuasion failed, coercion would have to follow, along with the isolation, exclusion and even extermination of the unconverted. Apocalypse – in the form of the destruction of the old regime and the ensuing civil war – occurred much sooner than even Lenin could have expected. When it failed to deliver paradise, and indeed forced all sorts of regrettable compromises with petit-bourgeois reality, it was hard to avoid the conclusion that the prophecy had not been fulfilled..

Slezkine paints the 1920s, the era of the New Economic Policy, as the time of the Bolsheviks’ “Great Disappointment”. The first years after the civil war were haunted by apprehensions of contamination by the class enemy, emasculation and materialism. The quintessential bogey of NEP culture was a frivolously attired bourgeoise bearing chocolate. For a while the Bolsheviks could maintain their revolutionary elan by wearing leather jackets or military tunics and leading a peripatetic existence as they hopped from one party mission to the next. But sooner or later, almost all of them donned suits, acquired families (sometimes more than one), accumulated possessions, put down roots. They seem not to have been excessively troubled by the contrast between their own living conditions and the less luxurious dwellings and rations of the surrounding Muscovites, let alone the plight of the millions they drove into starvation during the collectivization campaign. But some rhetorical ingenuity was required. Summer jaunts to the Crimea, for example, were routinely justified as necessary to cure chronic ailments or nervous disorders.

Another important distinctive feature of the Bolsheviks as sectarians was that their large-scale attempt at a reformation took place in a post-Romantic age. This meant that the individual self required an exceptionally high degree of maintenance: even after they were converted and incorporated, Bolsheviks continued to ask themselves, and each other, a great many questions about the revolutionary’s conduct and motives. As they did so, the written word was their greatest friend. They wrote voluminously: The House of Government would be unthinkable without the corpus of letters and diaries that this group of people managed to leave behind, despite the depre­dations of the late 1930s. Above all, Slezkine’s subjects read incessantly. Besides Marx, the “Pamirs” of world literature got most of their attention: Cervantes, Goethe, Tolstoy, with honourable mentions for Heine, Romain Rolland and various others. For the Bolsheviks, scripture was not a single book but a whole library. No wonder that “father’s study” was the main fixed point in the nomenklatura apartment, and that the in-house carpenters were kept busy making shelves. The Bolsheviks’ aim, in the motto of Yakov Sverdlov, the future mastermind of the party apparatus, was to “put books to the test of life, and life to the test of books”. It seems that neither life nor books emerged unscathed from the encounter. In 1911, when Sverdlov wrote from pre-trial detention to his pregnant common-law wife, he earnestly used War and Peace as a guide to childbirth.

The intense bookishness of the upper echelons of Bolshevism permeates Slezkine’s work, which draws to great effect not only on first-person documents of the time but also on fictional distillations or sublimations of the revolutionary cause. The Bolsheviks’ acceptance, at times even relish, of apocalyptic violence was not suppressed or concealed by the literary fraternity: it was on display in civil war novels such as Alexander Serafim­ovich’s canonical The Iron Flood (Zheleznyi potok, 1924). Conversely, nowhere are the apprehensions and nightmares of the NEP period rawer than in the fiction of the 1920s. The tensions of the Bolshevik project are most poignantly expressed in works whose narrators and protagonists desperately want to believe, set out to chronicle the building of socialism, but remain, to quote the title of one Andrei Platonov story, “doubting Makars”. Whether they are novelists or diarists, Slezkine’s authors are often allowed to speak for themselves: sources are quoted at length, sometimes several paragraphs at a time. Bolshevism, he implies, was a text as well as a political project.

The House of Government is both an inquiry into the historical sociology of religion and an exercise in literary-cultural excavation and recreation. But it is also, as the title suggests, a fine-grained history of a very particular place: the enormous residential complex for the Bolshevik elite that went up on the south bank of the Moscow River, almost opposite the Kremlin, during the first five-year plan (1928–32). The House of Government contained more than 500 spacious apartments as well as extensive leisure and service facilities. The dimensions were generous and the specification high: 11-foot ceilings, granite panelling, marble steps, ceramic tiles. Slezkine has conducted prodigious research into the building and its inhabitants, drawing on the relevant institutional repositories but also soliciting documents from family archives and conducting a series of interviews in the late 1990s with surviving descendants of the Old Bolsheviks. This material would sustain a very fine book on its own.

The House was not just a perk of office but a powerful statement. It stood on an island formed by the Moscow River on one side and the Vodootvodnyi (drainage) canal on the other. Its very location made tangible the struggle with the “old” world. Before the Revolution, this was known as a swampy district, and “swamp” was a convenient metaphor for the old social order that would be swept away by the “flood” of revolution. The completion of this nomenklatura citadel would serve as a high-profile demonstration of the triumph of socialist construction. Here was a monument to Soviet permanence – and the best spot in town to watch the symbolic obliteration of the old world through the detonation of the Christ the Saviour cathedral in December 1931.

But in fact the House of Government was an equivocal place from the moment its plans were approved. In architectural terms, it was not an unambiguous statement of the newness of the new world but rather a blend of constructivism and neoclassicism. It took inspiration from bourgeois New York apartment living rather than anything particularly socialist. The House was fortunate in that “infantile leftism” went into remission halfway through its construction, which meant it could be hailed as a model building rather than a betrayal of utopian ambitions. There had always been muttering about the inordinate cost, which outran the original estimate by a factor of ten. Ultimately, however, money for the project was no object, as the government was always able to grant itself credits to build its own home. The more enduring problem was that the House did not constitute the symbolic break with the past that its initiators had intended. By 1934, Lazar Kaganovich declared that it could not after all serve as a model for the future, because “its composition is a bit too heavy”. Nor did the building’s internal design have obvious revolutionary credentials. Far from challenging the ancient institution of the family, the House entrenched it at the heart of the Soviet elite. Worse still, the families in question were far from neat and cellular: the typical Old Bolshevik household was complex and three-generational, as party potentates gathered their extended families and other dependants around them. There was little in the way of collective life beyond the unit of the single-apartment clan. By the standards of many Western apartment blocks, the House was distinctly lacking in communal spirit and routine socializing. A Bolshevik’s apartment, it turned out, was his castle.

Admittedly, the Bolshevik men were usually out at work or roving the country in search of construction projects or enemies of the people. The permanent element was the women and (especially) the children. Slezkine provides a rich ethnography of Soviet elite life in the 1930s, showing just how fulfilled the “happy Soviet childhood” was in this milieu. Like their fathers and mothers before them, the offspring of the nomenklatura read voraciously, formed close intellectual friendships and had a blissful sense of purpose in life. Unlike their parents, they did not even have to go to prison or sit through Siberian exile to enjoy these blessings. As usual, the consummation of life came in writing. Slezkine spends almost thirty pages on the extraordinary teenager Lyova (Lev) Fed­otov, artist, musician, collector and above all chronicler. In a thoroughly Tolstoyan attempt to fuse living and writing, Lyova went so far as to produce a hundred-page diary entry on a single day. Slezkine sums up his endeavour in a characteristically striking metaphor: “He wrote as he read, and he read as he wrote, and he lived through what he read and wrote in an ever-tightening dog-chase-tail race for the fullness of time and limitless self-awareness”.

Before long, of course, some of the Bolshevik children did in fact experience prison and exile as their parents were arrested and disgraced. After an ethnographic lull in its treatment of the House of Government routine in the 1930s, the book builds to an inevitable climax in the Great Terror. As Slezkine tells it, the phone call with news of Sergei Kirov’s murder in December 1934 “changed everything”: without this event, which triggered an ever-widening search for the culprits and an avalanche of accusations and denunciations, the Bolshevik elite might have stabilized itself. Here the theorist in Slezkine takes a back seat to the storyteller: unexpected phone calls are a wonderful plot device, but the book has already shown that the bloodletting of the 1930s was far from surprising given the Bolsheviks’ longstanding fear of infiltration and stigmatization of dissent, however deeply buried. The reader may have been beguiled into the pastoral mode by Slezkine’s account of the domesticity, dachas and rest homes of the House residents in the early 1930s, but this apparently timeless “normality” was in fact nothing of the sort. If we follow the logic of Slezkine’s “sectarian” analysis, what followed was perhaps the least unexpected witch-hunt in history.

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