With this truly monumental volume, Berkeley historian Yuri Slezkine has masterfully succeeded in offering a comprehensive analysis of the Stalinist political, psychological and intellectual cosmos in the 1930s. We have here a splendid illustration of what we now call total history—superbly written, with a keen eye for the relationship between literature and politics, and almost overwhelmingly detailed (justifiably so, since in this case the devil really is in the detail). The house of government, the biggest apartment building in Europe and probably in the world, was designed by architect Boris Iofan and his team following politburo orders. It was in fact a state within the state—with its communication networks, mores, memories, administration, cultural exploits, favourite books, films and songs, and even a theatre. The house was immortalized in literature by writer Yuri Trifonov, son of a prominent Bolshevik who lived with his family in an apartment of this gigantic compound. It was surreally self-centred and self-enclosed. Between 1932 and 1941, it served as a protective shelter for members of the Soviet elite and their families. As Slezkine luminously shows, the egalitarian ethos of the Bolshevik ideology, in fact a hypocritical pretence, was not at all replicated in the luxurious (by wider and Soviet standards) living standards of the higher- and lower-level magnates. They enjoyed privacy (limited, to be sure) in a country where communal apartments were the rule. Slezkine starts his absorbing story—he is right to call it a saga—with the pre-revolutionary times and the birth of a secular religion, Leninism, claiming to offer ultimate answers to moral dilemmas. This was indeed a chiliastic vision and Slezkine convincingly explores it a as a form of secular millenarianism. Fanaticism merged with apocalyptical visions in this revolutionary gospel. Some of the tenants of the house were old Bolsheviks with formidable credentials in the anti-tsarist struggle. Some, like Aleksandr Arosev, Valerian Osinsky and Aleksandr Voronsky, had known Lenin personally and wished to provide enduring testimonies of such a privileged experience. Yet for Lenin's victorious, apostolic successor, Joseph Stalin, this was a dangerous, and therefore unwelcome, undertaking. After all, many of these veterans had participated in the fierce, factious struggles of the 1920s as real or alleged supporters of Stalin's rivals. Others, like Osip Piatnitsky, who were arrested and executed during the Great Terror, were exponents of an internationalism which Stalin and his clique regarded as foolishly outdated. Loyalty to Stalin meant complete renunciation of one's personal beliefs, unless those were imbued with masochistic adoration for the omniscient despot. Slezkine offers a persuasive interpretation of Nikolai Bukharin's downfall and the causes of his confusion regarding Stalin's merciless attitude towards him. His old friend Koba (Stalin) had vanished—there was no reason for sentimental concessions when the issue was the very survival of the Soviet state. For Stalin, this meant the survival and strengthening of his unlimited power. In his mind, the classless society was achievable only through the sharpening of class struggle. The house was a cobweb of political intrigues, but also a place for forging deep friendships and attachments. Over six hundred apartments, thousands of individuals (infants, teenagers, mature and old people, husbands, wives, ex-wives, nannies) inhabited this secluded space. From furniture to medical care and food, it was all state-provided or state-controlled. Personal tastes were not encouraged. Intimacy was suspect and seditious. The atmosphere in the house reflected the growing regimentation of Soviet society during the years of high Stalinism. Social life was of course always watched, the tenants avoided family visits, except for official holidays. There were some genuine friendships, but one's loyalty belonged to the party, that mystical entity created by Lenin and fostered by Stalin. These residents were the Soviet aristocracy (or the red bourgeoisie) and they knew it. Slezkine chooses a number of main characters and follows them through all the tribulations of the 1930s, from the enthusiasm about the first five-year plan and the Congress of Victors in January–February 1934, through the shock of Sergey Kirov's assassination on 1 December 1934, to the Great Terror with its hundreds of thousands of victims and the imposition of universal terror. One of the most fascinating characters was the Polish-Jewish-Russian revolutionary Karl Radek. A cynical survivor, he served Stalin to indict Bukharin, yet he was to be killed himself in the Gulag. No less interesting a person was Mikhail Koltsov, Stalin's favourite journalist, who plays a crucial role in Slezkine's novel-like narrative. It was Koltsov who initiated the literary and political glorification of Nikolai Ostrovsky and his iconic proletarian novel How the steel was tempered. Stalin admired Koltsov's feverish style and, for some time, he seemed to trust him. As Pravda's correspondent to the Spanish Civil War, he wrote immensely popular reportages. Ernest Hemingway turned him into a character (Kotov) in his classic novel For whom the bell tolls. Then he returned to Moscow and to the house of government, became a member of the Supreme Soviet, was arrested in late 1938 and shot in 1941. His former companion, German communist journalist Maria Osten, shared Koltsov's tragic fate. Political delusions, ideological passions and utopian expectations were the foundation for the abysmal debacle that engulfed the once proud revolutionaries and their offspring during one of the bloodiest periods in the history of a most terrifyingly cruel century. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Royal Institute of International Affairs. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: email@example.com.
International Affairs – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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