A warning against trying to create heaven on earth

Review: The House of Government

Author: Yuri Slezkine

Last year was not only the anniversary of the Reformation; it was also the anniversary of the Russian Revolution. As with the Reformation, there are many books commemorating and explaining it, none more successfully ambitious and monumental than Yuri Slezkine’s The House of Government, which is the story of a Moscow building but also peers into the lives of individuals to explain the rise and fall of the USSR.

The House of Government was part of the Soviet government’s building program in the 1930s. It was Europe’s biggest apartment complex housing government leaders, officials, officers and their families, with 500 apartments and theatres and shops. Perhaps inspired by the scale of the building and perhaps inspired by one resident’s diary entry reading ‘everything is important for history’, Slezkline delights in lists of furnishings, food and books. More importantly, by detailing what the residents read and wrote he shows how individuals embraced Soviet ideology as a kind of religion.

To see the Revolution as anti-religious in ideology but religious in method is no unique revelation. To misquote GK Chesterton, once you stop believing in God, you have to believe in something else, a fact blatantly obvious in, amongst other things, the Soviet plans to build a Babel-like tower topped with a gargantuan statue of Lenin, or the portrait of Stalin as an all-wise and all-loving figure who anyone could personally appeal to. But what is notable about Slezkine’s book is how thoroughly he pursues his identification of the Revolution with millenarian cults, even if he sometimes squeezes Jesus or Christianity into the same mould. (It is, for example, a contentious claim that early Christianity was a movement dominated by men, considering Jesus’ appeal to women and outcasts.)

Students in 1917, feeding on a sense of impending apocalypse in Moscow, described political activism as ‘mission’ and ‘faith’, and looked forward to a coming day of judgement. Leading Bolsheviks spoke of prophets and exodus. Moral control, right language, revival, a rightly-oriented heart over mere action, loyalty even above one’s family – these were all important to the state. The Revolution was like Christ’s death and resurrection, the impending socialist world order like the Second Coming. In the Stalinist purges, which inspired Orwell’s dystopian fiction, we see scapegoats and purification.

It was not so much the insanity of the purges or capitalist aggression that eventually brought the Soviet state down, but the apostasy of the next generation who were merely going through the motions. Intriguingly, Slezkine suggests that when the state abandoned its rejection of the family, old values crept back in. The children of the revolutionaries, part of a new elite that had simply replaced the old, began reading the old novelists again, instead of the communist novelists who could never quite get communist ideology right, probably because there was never clarity about what the new world would look like and how it could be effected. The realisation that the past could not be paved over, nor utopia realised, led to the loss of faith, and, as one Russian novelist put it in the 1990s, the failed USSR stood as a warning against trying to create heaven on earth.

Nick Mattiske




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