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In the tower of Babel of the Soviet utopia


Stalin erected in front of the Kremlin a building of 500 apartments destined to house his political elite. It was called to represent the communist paradise, but it ended up being the prelude to hell for many of its inhabitants. In his monumental 'The Eternal House', Yuri Slezkine traces the history of the USSR through what happened within its walls

With energy and euphoria, the leaders of the young Soviet Union planned to guide their fellow citizens to a new life free from the servitudes and atavisms of a decadent and bourgeois world. One embodiment of that revolutionary dream in the 1930s in Moscow was the Government House (officially, the House of the Central Executive Committee and the Council of People's Commissars), better known as the House of the Malecón, thanks to the narrative of the same name of Yuri Trífonov.

This unprecedented urban complex included apartments, leisure facilities and various services, arranged around several interconnected courtyards. The work had been commissioned in 1927 to the architect Borís Iofán to house the members of the Bolshevik elite, who at that time were temporarily residing in hotels, palaces and buildings requisitioned and dispersed throughout Moscow.

The Government House was located opposite the Kremlin, on a swampy island in the Moskva River, and was the scene of illusions and also of the anguish and agony of the revolutionaries who from 1930 began to move to the sophisticated reinforced concrete complex that was growing in the swamp. The newcomers were a diverse contingent - military, workers, writers, security service agents, among others - and came from various regions of the USSR. A good part were Jews from the western parts of the former tsarist empire. Many had their hands stained with blood - or would be stained while already residents of the House - as it was they who had devised and directed the Gulag's forced labor camp system,who had participated in the expropriations of the peasantry during collectivization and had pulled the trigger against the enemies of the regime.

The architect Boris Iofán, designer of the Government House.Mikulina / Sputnik / ContactPhoto / Mikulina / Sputnik / ContactPhoto

The historian Yuri Slezkine has chosen the symbolic building of the Casa de la Ribera as the axis of a saga of the Russian revolution in the book

The Eternal House

, published in English in 2017 with the title of

The House of Government

and that the Acantilado publishing house ends to draw in Spanish translation by Miguel Temprano García.

Slezkine views the Bolsheviks residing in the House as a religious sect, with their messiahs and prophets (Lenin and Stalin), their promised land (the new world without classes or private property), and their infighting between purifying purges and destructive heresies. “In the history of mankind there have been many different millennial sects, especially in some traditions such as Christianity and Islam, which have been very successful and have survived even though their prophecies have not been fulfilled. Bolshevism, however, died after a single generation of adherents, ”says Slezkine, in an interview by Zoom from Riga (Latvia).

“In its initial phase of enthusiasm, Bolshevism had great success in being able to conquer its symbolic capital (its Rome or its Babylon), but in the longer term it succumbed to the conceptual poverty of Marxism as a philosophy of history and also to human nature itself. ", it states.

“My book deals tangentially with the death of Bolshevism, because it deals with the first generation of converts to the sect, with people who made the revolution and built the Soviet state.

The faith and conviction of these people gradually faded along with their generation, ”he says.

It housed a theater for 1,300 spectators, a cinema for 1,500 and a 24-member fire department

The swamp is Slezkine's central metaphor.

In post-Soviet Moscow it is also the name recovered from the square near the Government House (

Bolótnaia Ploschad

or Swamp Square), a place-name that today is associated with massively repressed protests against electoral fraud in Russia.

"The swamp is human life and the heroes of my book tried to dry up the swamp, clean it of all difficulties, of everything seemingly superfluous, beautiful and unpredictable, they tried to build a symmetrical and artificial universe," says the researcher.

"My heroes lived a tragic and terrible life, but they did so as privileged on an island, separated by gates from a world where others were starving, crowded into barracks and suffered the horrors of collectivization," he explains.

Solar of the Government House (in front of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior).


For decades, Slezkine has studied documents and memoirs and interviewed survivors.

A long list of families residing in the House completes his book.

In it, among others are Mikhail Koltsov (the journalist author of the

Diario de la guerra de España

), Anna Lárina-Bujarina (the widow of the revolutionary leader Nikolai Bukharin), Karl Radek (member of the Executive Committee of the Comintern), Alekséi Rykov (president of the Council of People's Commissars), the relatives of Yakov Sverdlov (the president of the Executive Committee Central Pan-Russian) and the writer Yuri Trífonov (whose father, Valentin, was a commissioner of the Special Expedition Corps in the Don Area). Next to the names are the apartments in which they lived. In number 228 resided Filipp Goloschokin, the one in charge of executing the Tsar's family in 1918.

"Those who spent their childhood in the Casa de la Ribera remember that period of their life as a golden age, of cult of reading, of love, of friendship, of intimate relationships," says Slezkine. The inhabitants of the House danced foxtrot to the sound of records brought from abroad, they prepared traditional Easter sweets and from 1935 they even recovered the Christmas firs (banned at the end of the 1920s) converted into New Year trees.

The Government House had elevators, forklifts, garbage chutes, a theater for 1,300 spectators, a cinema for 1,500, a greengrocer, shops, sports courts, spaces for social activities, an American-style cafeteria and a club.

In November 1932 the number of registered was 2,745, in addition to 128 guards, 24 firefighters, up to 23 janitors in winter and 7 specialists in pest control.

Among the half a thousand available apartments, the majority (179) were four bedrooms.

Moving from one floor to another was common and depended as much on family needs as on promotions and demotions in the ranks of power.

The guards watched all the doors of the compound.

Yuri Trífonov (top right, wearing glasses) with friends at the Literary Institute.

courtesy of Olga Trífonova (EDITORIAL CLIFF)

Along with Lenin's mausoleum, in Red Square, the Government House is one of the two iconic buildings from the era of the First Five-Year Plan (1928-1932) and the great turnaround, known as the “reconstruction period” or of "transition".

In the first building lay the embalmed body of the founder and in the second lived his select disciples, although not Stalin, who resided in the Kremlin.

The third element of the new Moscow was to be the Palace of the Soviets, which was to be built on the site of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, dynamited in December 1931. The rubble of that demolition fell in part on the Government House, according to Slezkine account.

"Seen from the House, Stalin was a god who resided across the river in the Kremlin fortress"

The House was a transitional building both for its architectural style, between constructivism and neoclassicism, and for its life options (traditional private spaces and avant-garde multipurpose spaces). But contrary to utopian forecasts, the bourgeois family did not disappear or dissolve into community structures. Many of the inhabitants of the House used their home in solidarity to shelter and feed relatives who were fleeing the widespread misery. The coexistence in the same precincts of various and successive wives and of the offspring of all of them was the result of problems of space and not of ideological conceptions. The revolutionaries used to be in charge of domestic servants, who were sometimes related to House service personnel and also to the revolutionaries themselves.

From the House, government and party officials traveled on special missions that confronted them — as spectators or protagonists — with the corpses of the famines and the brutal methods of the Gulag.

Returning home, they would take their children for walks in Gorky Park, read to them the works of Charles Dickens, and play chess with them.

They also took care of their health by going to spas in the Crimea, Georgia or the North Caucasus, or to special dachas (country houses) on the outskirts of Moscow.

Floor plan of a three bedroom apartment CLIFF EDITORIAL

The awareness of having themselves become victims of the violence they practiced and in which they lived came suddenly to the inhabitants of the House in December 1934 with the news of the assassination of the Bolshevik leader Sergei Kirov, head of the Communists of the Leningrad region. The crime served Stalin as a motive for the great purges of the 1930s.

“Violence was present in the lives of the inhabitants of the House, many of whom had participated in the civil war or were ideologists and architects of collectivization and knew what they were doing with their own hands and what the State was doing in their own hands. name, ”says Slezkine. "Before Kirov's assassination, information about the terror was communicated in whispers or between the lines, but only afterwards did the privileged members of the sect have the impression that this was the end of their own lives." Stalin "initiated and organized terror within the party, including that of his former associates," but deliberately remains in the background of Slezkine's work. "Seen from the House, Stalin was a person-symbol, an unreal being, a god, who resided on the other side of the river, in the fortress of the Kremlin."

Born in the USSR, in the family of a prestigious specialist in Latin America, Slezkine left his native country in 1982, "partly due to disagreement with a regime that did not allow me to travel abroad, read certain books and watch certain movies." After crossing Europe by train, he landed in Lisbon and later worked as a translator from Portuguese in a port in Mozambique. Later he moved to the United States, and now retired from the University of California at Berkeley, Slezkine is on his way back to his homeland, although the pandemic for the moment prevents him from reaching it. The professor, who has a Portuguese and an American passport, has applied for a Russian passport, which he never got because he left as a citizen of the USSR. From abroad, Slezkine followed Gorbachev's perestroika and came to regret not having stayed in the USSR:“In 1989, when I returned for the first time since my departure, the atmosphere was electrifying. I was a Russian living in America who regretted having missed that fantastic revolution. "

Yuri Slezkine.

Photography: Dmitry Rozhkov (CLIFF EDITORIAL) Dmitry Rozhkov (CLIFF EDITORIAL)

Could the USSR have been transformed into a democratic country 30 years ago?

"The introduction of democracy automatically meant the loss of the Baltic republics and part of the territory, but that was a natural part of the process and a liberation for Russia."

Slezkine does not detect the existence of "an ideology of reestablishment of the empire" in present-day Russia, but of an ideology of opposition to the Western world, together with the rhetoric about fraternal relations with the peoples of Belarus and Ukraine.

“What I detect is the rhetoric of geopolitical opposition to the environment and to NATO.

It seems to me that the annexation of Crimea was improvised in reaction to a certain situation ”, he believes.

"Putin's rhetoric is in opposition to the West, but I don't think he seeks to reestablish the empire."

“After the end of the USSR, Russia went abroad with open arms and was rejected for totally rational reasons.

Then came the disappointment and rivalry between Russia and the West.

I do not sympathize with the current regime, but it is difficult to imagine that a country like Russia would not oppose the expansion of a military bloc directed against it.

There is nothing paranoid about that. "

The scholar does not see parallels between the Bolsheviks and the current leaders: “Bolshevism was an ideology that was based on a doctrine and a faith. The old Bolsheviks were full of that faith and went to the gallows for it. What happens now is a routine authoritarianism convinced that it must also fight with the competitors in its environment. For the West, Russia is an enemy and, with or without Putin, Russia will not be part of the Western world, because it cannot be put into any club: it is too big, it has too many resources, too many nuclear warheads and its own ideas about itself. herself and her history. The West might have been wiser when the USSR disintegrated and Russia tried to join some international structure, but Russia's hopes of joining the US-led club were not justified.Today we have a tough confrontation, perhaps inevitable, leading to a sharp worsening of the situation and repression within Russia. And it is sad to contemplate that ”.

'The eternal house.

Saga of the Russian Revolution '.

Yuri Slezkine.

Translation by Miguel Temprano García.

Cliff, 2021. 1,632 pages.

46 euros.

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Source: elparis

All news articles on 2021-06-23

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