Socialism in one apartment complex
Historian Yuri Slezkine in conversation with ‘Rīgas Laiks’ editor Uldis Tirons
The historian Yuri Slezkine, professor of Russian history and director of the Berkeley Program in Eurasian and East European Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, is one of those Soviet émigrés who have ended up in the US not so much trby force of circumstance as out of curiosity and thanks to a chain of coincidences. In the late 1970s, after graduating from Moscow State University, Slezkine worked in Mozambique, later moving to Lisbon and, in 1983, to Texas, to teach Russian at the University of Texas at Austin, where he gained a PhD.
Although, as Slezkine explains, his wanderings were driven by a desire to discover more of the world rather than by the pursuit of a career, this experience, both academic and general, nevertheless exerted a fundamental influence on the theoretical thrust of his research. In the early 1980s Slezkine visited a number of indigenous Indian reservations in America, studying the impact of western colonial policy on what the Soviets referred to as ‘small peoples’. However, as a historian working and studying abroad, the system required him to cover Russian history in one way or another, and he began to study the Soviet Union’s treatment of its multinational population in the broader context of colonial policies, drawing parallels between the collective fates of national minorities in various imperial structures. This provided the theme of two of his books: Arctic Mirrors: Russia and the Small Peoples of the North (Cornell University Press, 1994) and The Jewish Century (Princeton University Press, 2004). His most recent book, The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution (Princeton University Press, 2017), which took Slezkine 20 years to write, is an exhaustive account of the most prestigious block of flats in the Soviet Union, situated on the embankment of the River Moskva, and of the first generations of its tenants – revolutionaries and functionaries and their families. Here, as in his previous works, Slezkine views national identity as a vital element of their life, but on this occasion his focus in on personal history: what went on in the kitchens and bedrooms of the nomenklatura, its members’ faith in a new utopian life, and the disillusionment that the utopia turned into.
Sven Kuzmins, Rīgas Laiks
Uldis Tirons: Mikhail Gefter said that if we understand Lenin, we will understand what happened to Russia and the revolution. I also recall that, in a reference to Dostoevsky, he called the House on the Embankment the House of the Dead’, in the sense that the people who lived there had themselves laid the groundwork for their own deaths. I went to see it five years ago and sure enough, looking at the building, you cannot but imagine the fate of its dwellers from a life in the lap of luxury to their ultimate demise. Can you tell me what particular aspect of this historic place and which events caught your interest when you decided to focus on it? This is, after all, not just an abstract historical topic but also fruitful ground for what we might call the novelistic style you have employed.
Yuri Slezkine: It all began with an article ‘The USSR as a communal apartment’ on the structure of the multinational Soviet state that I wrote some 20 years back. A Bolshevik by the name of Vareikis once said that the Soviet Union was a communal apartment.
Yes. And I used this metaphor in my article.
But, presumably, he used it in a positive sense.
Yes, although I didn’t set out to discuss it in negative terms either. It just seemed a convenient metaphor, and I made use of it. After completing my article I thought it might be interesting to write about an actual communal apartment. Not the metaphor, but rather a specific place where people lived. What I had in mind was the kind of communal apartment I myself grew up in.
Did you grow up in a kommunalka, like the one Vysotsky sang about, with ‘thirty-one rooms and only one toilet’?
Yes, I lived in kommunalkas until the age of fourteen, as did all my friends and both my grandmothers. One of them shared a huge apartment with some very colourful neighbours. So I decided to write the history of one such communal apartment from the 1920s onwards, when both the institution and its literary depiction were in their infancy. But after several months of research I realised I might never find enough families and that I might have to rely too much on luck and coincidence. I decided to pick a building with a sufficient number of characters. I looked at house after house until I ended up with the largest and most famous one. The House of Government embodies, to some extent, the history of the Soviet state and the Russian revolution. Did this alter my approach, the topic, the metaphor? Yes, because the main point of a communal apartment is that complete strangers are thrown together by chance. By contrast, the tenants of the House of Government were not brought together by chance: they were high-ranking officials. It is a place that has a completely different organisational structure, a different architecture. It is the largest apartment block in Europe. I spent 20 years interviewing people who lived there, rummaging through archives…
When was it built?
The building works lasted approximately from 1928 to 1931. People started to move in in 1931 but it took several more years to complete. It suited me that the construction of the house coincided with the period of the construction of the Soviet Union, with the first Five Year Plan. The people who moved into the house were those who built the Soviet state, the new socialist planned economy, the new cities of Magnitogorsk and Kuznetsk and, at the same time, their own house. I ended up with a history of the revolutionaries who rebuilt the world while building their own lives, as well as the story of how their own lives came into conflict with the world they sought to build.
To the best of my knowledge, many of those who grew up there were left with memories of a happy childhood. It makes me think of Aleksandr Moiseevich Pyatigorsky, who lived nearby, on Prechistenka, behind the church of Christ the Redeemer. He wrote a book, ‘The Philosophy of a Back Alley’ [‘Философия одного переулкa’] about the boys who grew up in those courtyards. They, too, belonged to good, solid houses whose tenants included many high-ranking army officials. He recalls how army officers were taken away while in the courtyard he and the other children played Nazis and Chekists and discussed all this. I’m sure that we cannot fully appreciate the extent to which boys between the ages of nine and fourteen were involved in the life of the grown-ups. How far were the children growing up in the House on the Embankment affected by this community, defined as it was by the hierarchical structure of the government and the construction of the Soviet Union? That building also had a courtyard. Do the children recall this aspect of their life?
Indeed they do. I have collected quite a few diaries and letters. Interestingly enough, there was no community of adults in the House of Government. Neighbourly relations barely existed between them.
What is the explanation for that?
The apartments were registered in the name of men who were almost never at home. They would come home at three in the morning, only to get up again and be driven back to work. They were at home only on their days off – one day a week. That’s when they would spend time with their children. Relatives usually came to visit on holidays and birthdays. The institution of friendship did not exist. What did exist was the institution of comradeship and dedication to the common cause. But this was hardly reflected in the domestic rituals at all. Perhaps the only exception were the old-guard Bolsheviks who would get together to mark certain anniversaries, sing songs and reminisce about the good old days of exile. The institution of neighbourly relations in terms of exchanging gossip and items of everyday use did not exist among the men. They would merely greet each other in the lift or run into each other in the courtyard.
But fellowship of some kind did exist among them. Of what kind was this, if not a neighbourly one?
An ideological one. And an institutional one, since they would meet at work one way or another. And an existential, personal one, based on a shared past.
That applies to the revolutionaries. But there were also the new functionaries.
There weren’t that many new functionaries in the 1930s. My narrative ends with the disappearance of the first generation, that is, the years 1937 and 1938. Many of them are arrested, afterwards, and during the war all the survivors move out and the character of the house changes radically.
Also, some heroes of the Civil War moved in, including, incidentally, some Latvians. On the state holidays on 7 November and 1 May, they would rekindle their community spirit, so to speak, by taking part in shared rituals: attending parades in Red Square together. But children, unlike their parents, lived together, collectively. They shared a common life, which took place in the courtyards. This particular house has three courtyards, virtually enclosed spaces.
Behind the arches?
Yes. Those spaces had their own hierarchy. There was your courtyard and somebody else’s courtyard, as you might imagine with children marking out their territory. Nearly all of them attended the same school, School Number 19 on Sophia Embankment. They would all walk there and back together and share a life in the courtyards and cellars of this house. Club activities were also organised: a naval-military club, a dance and theatre club. They participated in these activities with great gusto. They lived a full life, suffused with a sense of elation.
Elation at what?
At the fact that they were living in the best country in the world. That their fathers were great revolutionaries, that they were growing up in a world filled with friendship, love and adventure. And exciting books. You can tell from their diaries, which are full of entries about reading. Many of them kept diaries. Many made drawings. Some tried their hand at being writers. This was, in fact, how Yuri Trifonovg started out – he would have been around nine when he wrote his first short story. And many of those around him did the same. They loved school, they loved their teachers. And they were preparing themselves all the time for adventure and discoveries. They loved reading Jules Verne, Mayne Reid, Boussenard, among others – colonial and adventure books. This, by the way, explains the popularity of the film ‘The Children of Captain Grant’, which came to symbolize an era.
And they had the heroes of the Arctic and assorted aviators.
Definitely. But, interestingly, apart from the heroes of the Soviet Arctic and aviators, and sailors of the SS Chelyuskin, they also loved historical literature. Much has been written recently about the history of socialist realism, but we must remember that Soviet books made up only a fraction of home libraries. The children of the House of Government spent virtually all their time reading, and along with Russian classics they would bury themselves in literature in translation: Dumas, Hugo, Sir Walter Scott, Dickens, Balzac, Goethe’s ‘Faust’, who plays a particularly important role in my book. In one way or another, the house belonged to the children. The fathers would come home to sleep, the mothers would be away at work.
Didn’t all the women become housewives?
Some did, but not many. Nearly all the flats in this house were registered in the men’s names, reflecting the party structure of those early years. Women were registered as family members. The majority of the women were doctors, pharmacists, engineers, statisticians. They were mostly professionals.
Do we know the ethnic composition of the tenants?
Yes, more or less. If we were to divide the house into groups with a shared past whose members recognised each other, Jews would lead by a wide margin.
In this particular house?
Yes. And also generally, within the Soviet elite. There were more Russians in absolute terms. But they came from all over the country and lacked a sense of shared roots. And relative to the percentage of the country’s population as a whole, Latvians, Poles and Germans and, above all, Jews, dominated. In terms of behaviour and lifestyle, the Jews had some unique specific traits. But that’s the subject of one of my other books.
My main protagonists are the people whose descendants I was able to locate or about whom I had some documentation. I had no choice – I wrote about people on whom I could find something personal, not just party information.
Was there already something distinctive about members of the Cheka at that time? Did some of them also live there?
Yes. Some lived there, too. It is hard to know how much of what we know about them was the subject of reinterpretation later. People who remember them often single them out as a separate group. My sense – although this is not based on a large body of documentary material – is that they did indeed keep to themselves. They were less shy about showing off their prosperity. They dressed their children somewhat differently. And their children might have felt slightly different as well.
How do you mean ‘dressed differently’? Did Cheka members dress their children in leather jackets?
No, but they would wear more expensive clothes. Although, on the whole, an ascetic style prevailed… However, this changed significantly in the mid-1930s when the men themselves swapped their leather jackets for suits. The head of the GULAG, Matvey Berman, lived there, as did many other Chekists, but I didn’t find any personal information on them that I could use in my book. The only one on whom I found a lot was a certain Sergei Mironov, who ran the NKVD in western Siberia under Eihe. Western Siberia was controlled by these two men – Robert Eihe as party chairman and Sergei Mironov as head of the NKVD. Between them they signed off on the lists of people to be shot in the Great Terror.
Did people keep any pets in the house?
There were guard dogs, but they belonged to the house. There was even a person in charge of the dogs, of training them. But there were practically no household pets.
Why was that?
I asked people about the flats, furniture, paintings on the walls and so on. I asked about animals, too. They were not part of the culture because of their association with bourgeois comforts. Especially cats. Gradually, as people settled in the house, some started to worry that the revolution was coming to an end. Many of them had no curtains. This was seen as something bourgeois.
(Laughs.) Oh, yes! Very bourgeois indeed!
And they also wondered if wallpaper was appropriate or not. This was seen as a gender issue. Many accused their wives of bourgeois leanings, of promoting a cult of objects.
That means that the first feminist wave of women’s liberation, characteristic of the early 1920s, was over by then?
No, in fact an ideology of women’s liberation was practically non-existent. Or rather, it existed de facto – in the sense that most women worked and took their work seriously, they were proud of their education and professional achievements. At the same time, the higher they climbed on the professional ladder, the greater their chance was of being shot (as opposed to being sent into exile). Within families there was a strict division of labour between father and mother. The father invariably had a study. The father’s study was the main room in the home. And that’s what it was called: the father’s study. Women sometimes had separate bedrooms, sometimes they didn’t; that varied from family to family. Every family had a housemaid, typically a young peasant girl fleeing collectivisation.
If the men were practically never at home, didn’t this result in sexual affairs? Or do the documents and memoirs not suggest that?
They do indeed suggest that. However, I have found much more evidence of affairs conducted by men than by stay-at-home women. I should mention that not all of them had jobs. Besides, many men moved into the House on the Embankment in 1931 and 1932 with new wives. A key moment for them had been the 1920s when they lived in ‘houses of Soviets’ (hotels converted into dormitories). During the civil war some of them had steady partners, others lived with various women in various places. By the time they moved to the House of Soviets in the 1920s, they began to settle down to family life and have children. Most of the old Bolsheviks’ children happened to be born in the mid 1920s, at the time of the New Economic Plan (NEP). Trifonov, for example, was born in 1925. The 1920s launched what is known in English as ‘musical chairs’.
Why musical chairs?
After the game where there is one less chair than people playing, and everyone has to stand up and sit down on command. I have written a lot about this because it seems to me that the revolution dies at home and that any radical attempt to change human life represents a kind of attack on the institution of the family. This is a key theme in my book. The Bolsheviks, as is often the case with members of sects, were young men who associated the dream of a new life with the image of a beautiful woman. One of the goals of a revolution is never to grow old. This was an important theme in the 1920s. The Bolsheviks believed that the revolution was the end of what is sometimes called eternal return: human life casts off its shackles and concludes with the young lovers reunited, as in comedy. And that’s it. Never again do the young turn into old fools. But they do. And that is why I have sought to link the revolutionary hopes with the way these people conducted their lives, their hope of an all-conquering love, their endless affairs…
Recalling ‘The Heart of a Dog’, people like that being crammed in the flats where the old, educated representatives of Tsarist Russia lived, raises the question: could anything pre-revolutionary have survived in this house?
That’s a very interesting question. In some sense, that is the main theme of my book. You may recall that the house was built on a swamp. Like the city of St Petersburg. By the way, I always take the [statue of the] Bronze Horseman as my point of reference. In a way, every Soviet novel from the period of the first five-year plan deals with the creation myth in some way. And, at the same time, with the Bronze Horseman – a new city, a new world that is being built on a swamp.
Riga was also built on a swamp.
Yes, but Riga is a less striking example because humidity here [the interview was done in Riga] is not as high as in Petersburg. In any case, the swamp metaphor is very important to me, because it was very important to the Bolsheviks. Lenin wrote a great deal about sliding into the swamp. And now we have Bolotnaya [Swamp] Square, in the centre of Moscow…
Maybe that is why the democratic movement in Russia hasn’t got anywhere?
Do you know Chukovsky’s poem: ‘It is not an easy job to drag an elephant out of a swamp!’? The first chapter in my book is entitled ‘The Swamp’. It depicts the bustling, overcrowded, messy, disorderly, seedy lives people used to live there. The small shops and stalls, the churches with their church-goers, the prostitutes, tramps, markets and fishwives, the workshops – this was the swamp the Bolsheviks had set out to drain. Just like Peter the Great and many others – they wanted to drain the swamp and build in its place the ‘eternal house’ Platonov writes about. His Doubting Makar works on the building site of the House of Government. The old life was to be destroyed so that a new house could be built on new foundations for a new man, for a new life. My book is about the Bolsheviks who drain the swamp and build a house, but the swamp returns and starts to seep up through the flats. This metaphor takes material form immediately because the tenants of the House on the Embankment found it sterile. Nobody really liked the constructivist aesthetic and they tried to soften it as best they could. They would bring into the building their favourite beds and armchairs, writing desks that had belonged to their grandmothers and grandfathers. And, more importantly, they would bring their relatives. There were almost no nuclear families of the mother-father-son-and-daughter kind. Almost in every apartment there lived grandmothers, some poor relations, hangers-on, grown-up children with their families. Many ex-wives also lived there, nobody considered it a big deal. A husband would bring his new wife, and the old one would move into the room next-door. Interestingly, domestic extramarital affairs were not subjected to much party scrutiny. Inspectors would head straight for the cellar to check on people who worked in the house. As you know, in the Soviet Union the process of registration, vetting and disciplinary action in the party and Komsomol happened at the workplace and school. But not at home. The tenants were accountable to the party through their commissariats, and only people working in the house were accountable to the local authorities. This included the housemaids. That is why the apartments seemed to be beyond the reach of the all-seeing eye of the state. People lived their lives and their children were largely raised by their Russian Orthodox nannies and German governesses, whose political reliability nobody checked. As well as by distant relatives who also lived there. Jewish grandmas, Russian Old Believers and so on. The Bolsheviks lived in a swamp. When the authorities came to get them, the tenants knew that they were guilty of something.
I once asked Aleksandr Moiseevich [Pyatigorsky] what he thought of Hotel Ukraina. He said that he remembered it being built, and how he suddenly realised that real people would live there, but this had nothing to do with them, they would be people of a special category. That is to say, this division was already tangible in the building itself, which seemed to radiate power as mysterious black cars would be driven out of the house. What was interesting was that inside the house people lived a completely different life, one that followed its own rules, although from the outside it might have looked like a fairytale of sorts.
Yes, that’s absolutely true. This is one of the strengths of Trifonov’s novella ‘House on the Embankment’. Although he grew up in this house and had been all his life preoccupied with the lives of its tenants – his father and his friends in particular – he chose as his protagonist a man who lived in squalid housing and saw the big house from the outside. He managed to inveigle himself into this world through betrayal – by betraying friendship, love and his teacher. At the same time a betrayal of the revolution was taking place inside the house, without anyone realising it. This is another very important theme for me: these people did not pass their faith on to their children. I see here a similarity between the Bolsheviks and various apocalyptic sects. But what is the main difference between the Bolsheviks and all these sects? To put it bluntly, they were much less afraid of being contaminated by the outside world. These people were mostly raised on the literary classics. And they read Gogol, Dickens, Tolstoy and Pushkin aloud to their children without realising that the children were growing up with a culture that was in profound contradiction to the world they themselves were building.
Are you suggesting this was quite common? That in Moscow – the symbolic centre of the Soviet Union – faith started crumbling as early as in the first generation and that our generation is just a late inheritor of this breakdown?
The tenants themselves were not aware of what was happening. But inside the flats, faith was dying. It was not just the old cabinets, sofas, rugs, all the cousins and hangers-on, but also the books and the alluring world they revealed. The children of old, orthodox, die-hard Bolsheviks did not read Marx and Lenin. No one told them they had to read Marx, that was endlessly deferred: ‘There will be time for that later.’
If I remember right, you wrote that people nevertheless gradually became disillusioned with this life of privilege. Were you referring to the children or their parents? And what was the relationship of the children to their parents?
Some revolutionaries were certainly aware that they were living a lie and that things really ought to be different. That it wasn’t right to live in a house of privilege. Their justification was that they were getting close to their goal – very soon everyone’s life would be like this, or even better. But, on the whole, they realised that something was wrong. I have the diaries of the writer Arosev. He was the father of the renowned Soviet actress Olga Aroseva, whom you may remember. This is something he constantly comes back to. And it also comes across very strongly in the literature of this period. A sense of discomfort about constantly acquiring things and the increasingly bourgeois nature of life. But the children hardly ever thought about that, except when they came into conflict with people like the protagonist of Trifonov’s ‘House on the Embankment’. They attended the same schools as the boys and girls who lived in squalid housing on islands in the old swamp.
Were there no privileged schools at the time?
Not yet. There was one special school that many of these children attended, which later became privileged. But an overwhelming majority of them attended the ordinary School Number 19 in Sofia Embankment. There were many of them, but other children also attended this school. Of course, they did sense a difference in social status. This is very clear in Trifonov. The boys and girls from workers’ families marvelled at these apartments. In Trifonov’s book the mother of the bride accuses the main protagonist of having moved in with them because of their possessions, for material gain, and therefore not having understood the revolution. He, in turn, accuses her of hypocrisy. And both of them are right, in a way. So these children were aware of the social inequality, they encountered boys who beat them.
Who beat whom?
Hooligans from the squalid houses would beat up the boys from the House on the Embankment.
And it served them right…
But on the whole, as far as I understand, not many children were fully aware of their special position. A few girls said that their parents used to scold them: ‘Don’t let the driver take you to school.’ And some recalled: ‘But what was I to do if I sat in a classroom with the portrait of my father hanging on the wall?’
Did food distribution centres not yet exist at that time?
They did exist. The house had a canteen, which had its own distribution centre. The housemaids would buy groceries there. Or the drivers would go to Granovsky Street where there was another state government house, known as the House of Soviets Number 5. This started very early on, as did a system of dacha hierarchy, and access to holiday resorts and sanatoria. Winter resorts, where you went skiing and summer ones, with swimming and so on. This was an incredibly important part of their lives and those of their children, it was the golden age, the era of innocence and happiness. And of course, access to all this was strictly limited to the nomenklatura.
Maya Turovskaya spoke of attending the same school as Bukharin’s daughter. One day their form teacher came into the classroom and said that Svetlana wasn’t coming to school and they all knew that something terrible had happened. I was going to ask you the same question. When did the parents and their children first experience fear and begin to understand that something terrible was happening? That it wasn’t just the ideals of the revolution crumbling but that people were being taken away? After all, the percentage of people in this house who were taken away must have been rather high.
It was indeed a very high percentage. Approximately 800 people were thrown out of the house, one way or another.
How many people lived there altogether?
If we include family members, approximately 2,500. A large percentage of the heads of families perished. The figure 800 includes the wives who were sent into exile and children sent to children’s homes. 344 people were shot, most of them men. Fear surfaced at the beginning of what were known as mass operations. Around the summer of 1937.
So late? Not after Kirov’s assassination?
You’re right, the assassination of Kirov did have a profound impact on everyone. This is clear not only from memoirs, but also from contemporary sources. The assassination of Kirov was a turning point in how they saw the country and the world. But it took some time to gather pace. At first nobody thought that anything out of the ordinary had happened. Punishing the opposition was regarded as normal. Generally, everyone believed there was only one correct point of view – with the swamp to the left and to the right… Fear emerged when they started coming every night and taking people away.
How were people taken away?
In all sorts of ways. Some were arrested at work, others while on a business trip. But mostly they would come to pick them up at home at night. Sometimes people would be arrested in the middle of the day, especially at work. But mostly at night.
Didn’t they also search the houses?
Very often people would turn themselves in after being summoned. Their house would only be searched later, after their arrest. Sometimes they would come at night bringing witnesses, neighbours or guards from the downstairs entrance.
And were there cases when they just seized someone’s flat?
Usually they would take the head of the family. They would search the house thoroughly, turning everything upside down. One room would be sealed. And then the remaining family members would be moved to one of the flats that had become vacant, thus turning it into a communal apartment. For example, remnants of five families ended up in a flat that had belonged to a people’s commissar. In the same block of flats. But this was only temporary, until another place was found for them. They weren’t thrown out into the street. And then they would be moved somewhere.
What about the furniture and other stuff?
Most of the furniture was state-issue. People were not allowed to take their things with them. Incidentally, there is an entire history of correspondence conducted by people, mostly wives, when they started to return from exile.
This would have been in the 1950s, right?
Yes, and they waged a campaign for the return of some of their property. To be precise, they would first fight for their husbands’ rehabilitation, which was very important for restoring the honour of their names as well as their privileges, pensions and so forth. Next, they fought for their own rehabilitation and, finally, for reinstatement in their old flat or, at least, the return of their furniture. They would write statements such as: ‘I had my mother’s piano. Give it back.’ The furniture had usually been stowed away in the cellar, but its subsequent fate is mostly unknown. Much was stolen during the war. But some things were found and returned to their owners.
You spoke of fear, but of course metaphorically speaking, fear also is a kind of swamp that has a toxic effect on life.
Many of the grown-ups started to purge their libraries, with books belonging to those arrested being disposed of.
What kind of rubbish disposal was there?
Each kitchen had its own chute. There were also service lifts. Incidentally, a woman described how they arrested her husband. They quietly entered the flat at night via the service lift and took him away.
Did the service lift open directly into the flat?
Some did, but not all. Sometimes the arrests were carried out in rather inventive ways. Then the stories would be embellished as they circulated… I think this didn’t happen as often as people say but there certainly were people who had packed their suitcases and waited to be arrested, staying up all night and listening for footsteps on the staircase. But since their children didn’t understand what was happening, their life went on as usual until their parents’ arrest. Yet their faith was not shattered even when their parents were arrested.
But surely the children who had read classic works of literature and were raised by Russian Orthodox or Jewish grannies, had no faith to speak of?
What is important is that they did not realise that their culture differed from that of their parents. They adored their fathers, they were genuine patriots, no doubt about that. Much time had to pass before they came to believe that their system of values and convictions was very different from their parents’. The parents had passed on to them a part of their culture, albeit without the apocalyptic, millenarian faith in the dawn of an entirely new era.
Isn’t that strange? You will remember Mandelstam’s poem about the new age of Pushkin experts studying with guns in their laps, in other words the young guards who would later accompany his own convoy?
By the way, Gefter himself, as a young man, had served as a convoy guard. In the 1930s, as a student in the history department of Moscow University, he was secretary of the Komsomol cell and known as a brutal inquisitor. He didn’t personally torture or arrest anyone, but he did chair meetings, branding people and their children as enemies of the people. He did change, however, and he wasn’t the only one. That’s what is interesting. Usually we hear stories of children who betrayed their parents, or were forced to renounce them. In fact, this was extremely rare. Almost no one renounced their parents, and very few were under pressure to do so. If both parents were arrested, the children would be adopted by their grandmothers, aunties and so on. Only when this didn’t happen would they be sent to children’s homes, and the stunning thing is that although their family life was shattered, they still felt they were living in the best of all worlds. And they don’t describe their life in the children’s homes as a nightmare either, but as the continuation of a happy childhood.
Where were these children’s homes located?
They were scattered all around the country. The children would first be taken to the Danilovsky juvenile detention facility in Moscow and then sent on to various children’s homes. After the terrible first days they usually describe kind teachers who showed them compassion, helping them along and sharing books with them, as well as their friendships with other children. I’ve heard stories of this kind from people who had by the 1960s become anti-communist. What I mean to say is that these are not people who would wish to whitewash history by telling these stories. This comes through in their letters and recollections, and it is quite astonishing: while the terror and arrests shattered the life within the House of Government, it didn’t shatter the children’s allegiance to the country and socialism. Their parents were a different matter. They were genuine, profound believers, loyal to the party to their last breath. But apart from a few rare exceptions, their children had not yet begun to distance themselves from the common cause in the 1930s. That came only later.
Like you, I enjoy working with archival sources and what I find most fascinating about this work is coming across astonishing stories of the kind you could never make up, where you can’t say: I knew this, and the sources just corroborate my knowledge. Do you recall a story relating to the House on the Embankment that managed to astound you even though you had studied the place for a long time?
There is one story which, although it didn’t quite astonish me, left a powerful impression. It is the story of one of the most horrific executioners of those years, Sergei Mironov. His real name was Korol’.
You couldn’t live with a surname like that in the Soviet Union. [Korol’ means king in Russian – trans.]
Exactly, so he took another name.
So he was Jewish?
Yes. He was the NKVD commander of Western Siberia, which was the Soviet Union’s number two region in terms of the number of executions.
What was number one?
The Moscow region. Mironov was the one who proposed to Yezhov that the institution of troikas be brought back to speed up the process of arrest, execution or deportation into exile.
When did the troikas first emerge?
They emerged very early on, and then went out of use, but at the time of quotas and mass arrests he came up with the initiative of reinstating them, and thus played an important role in what is known as the Great Terror. Because he came up with the idea of …
Yes, let’s call it that. And he took a very active part in it. Later he was transferred from Siberia to Mongolia where again he unleashed the Great Terror. Eventually he came to Moscow, moving into the House on the Embankment. He had a loving wife and an adopted daughter whom he adored, by all accounts. If I’m not mistaken, he was appointed head of the East Asian Department at the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs and he was incredibly happy. Everyone around him had perished but he had survived. And all of a sudden, soon after New Year, he and his wife are visiting some friends. The phone rings: it’s a call from the ministry, he’s asked to come in and sign some papers, something to do with a deal with Japan. He insists that everything had been sorted out, but agrees to go in. It’s January, freezing cold. His wife says: ‘Take my scarf!’ Much later, she said that he was not the kind of person to take his wife’s scarf. But on this occasion he did. And she goes on: ‘I have the feeling that he knew where he was going.’ So he takes her scarf and leaves. She remembers him walking down the stairs and looking down. We’re not talking about the House on the Embankment, they are at a friends’ house. The ministry rings again: ‘Where is he?’ There’s another call. Then a man from the ministry arrives and says: he’s late. The man takes a look around and leaves. And their host says, this man doesn’t work at the commissariat for foreign affairs, I know everyone who works there. Mironov’s wife races to the House on the Embankment and by the time she gets there, a search is under way and the man who pretended to be a ministry official screams at her and demands their personal phone books. A few more hours pass, the phone rings, the man picks up the receiver and heaves a sigh of relief: Mironov has turned up. All this lasts some nine hours. It’s January, night, snow. Those were his final hours of freedom. For the rest of her life his wife lived under the shadow of the question: what was he doing for those nine hours? In that terrible, freezing weather, Moscow knee-deep in snow? She assumes that he considered committing suicide. That his driver took him to the House on the Embankment but when he saw the people at the entrance he turned on his heels and started to wander around town, knowing they would do to him the same thing he had done to thousands of other people. An extraordinary story, in that it paints the picture of a man staring in the face of his own death or eternity, whatever you want to call it. A man who spent the last hours of his life roaming the city before turning himself in. An executioner on the eve of his own execution. He was shot after spending a year being interrogated. Unless I’m very much mistaken, he was shot on the same day as Mandelstam.
Near Moscow. Most of the people were shot at a shooting range in the village of Kommunarka or in Butovo.
And then incinerated?
You mentioned national communities – Latvians, Germans, Jews and so on. To what extent does what we might call the ancient Greek concept of a shared fate, apply to the inhabitants of the House on the Embankment?
It depends on your definition of fate. What I had in mind when I spoke of a shared fate was that they lived side by side, had gone through the same stages of – as it was called in the Soviet years – ‘the great journey’. They had dedicated their lives to the same cause, the same ideal and endured the same hardship – imprisonment, exile, underground, emigration, revolution.
That is the widespread sense of a shared fate. But there is also the kind of fate that leaves an invisible mark on you, one that you cannot escape in the end, however hard you might try. In this case it was very often the grave. These people seemed to have marched towards their demise, and the House on the Embankment was the last station in their sojourn in this world. They were drawn to it like moths to the light. What held these people together and drove them together into the abyss?
It was their shared faith. And a particular kind of fate it was. I would define it as millenarian, a word that is not commonly used in Russian. Sometimes it is also called chiliasm, but that has an even uglier ring to it. Generally speaking, these people were part of a very old tradition of apocalyptic sectarianism. To put it bluntly, they expected that the world as we know it would come to an end during their lifetime, or in their children’s lifetime at the latest. And that its collapse would be accompanied by fire, flood, earthquakes, war and blood. As in the Christian prophecy. And that something very different would begin. They had adopted this faith at a very early age. Mironov, by the way, was more likely just an opportunist. There weren’t many people like that in this house, but there were some. However, my main protagonists were genuine, devout believers. Their entire youth passed in anticipation, in anticipation of what they called the revolution. In the hope that the old world with all its injustices would collapse. And, unlike most sectarians, they lived to see this day. The old world started to break down and we can see from documents that this was an incredible revelation for them. They had been waiting all their lives and suddenly – there it was, it had started, and they couldn’t wrap their heads around that fact that it was really happening. The beginning of the end of the old world. The beginning of the construction of something new. But then came the incredible disillusionment of the 1920s, the New Economic Plan, when it started to look as if the prophecy hadn’t come true after all. Everyone suffered in one way or another, people wept, fell ill, spent long spells in sanatoria, everyone had some kind of mental breakdown. All this is documented. They were afflicted with the disease of unfulfilled prophecy, a disease of those who, as Trotsky later said, were ‘betrayed by the revolution’. And suddenly Stalin gives them new hope, and they cling to it with all their might. The first Five Year Plan. Gigantic construction projects. It’s really happening at last, and even those who had their doubts, people like Smilga,1 see that the party is on the right path. The old world will perish, we will finish it off, we’ll drain the swamp, we will change life. It may sound banal, but you might say that this fate had been a godsend to them. As one of my protagonists wrote: ‘Communism is when love shows the full depth of its tenderness without any shame.’ There’s only one way this kind of expectation can end. My book is not a lesson for idealists. It is a tragedy in the Greek sense. With heroes who aimed a blow at the whole world and perished.