The Making of the Soviet Ruling Class

Yuri Slezkine’s portrait of the Soviet elite under Stalin is an eccentric masterwork. But his portrayal of the Bolsheviks as a religious sect is a travesty of history.

Joseph Stalin, November 1933. Wikimedia Commons

Yuri Slezkine’s The House of Government is certainly one of the most ambitious works on Soviet history to have appeared in many years. A sprawling, eccentric book with clear literary aspirations, it tells the story of the Soviet communist elite and its fate under Stalin, through the prism of the vast apartment complex on Moscow’s Serafimovicha Street — the “House on the Embankment” — where so many of them lived (and from which so many were plucked by Stalin’s secret police to end their days in prisons and labor camps).

By 1935, Moscow’s House of Government had 2,655 tenants — overwhelmingly families of state and party officials: “It was the vanguard’s backyard; a fortress protected by metal gates and armed guards; a dormitory where state officials lived as husbands, wives, parents, and neighbors; a place where revolutionaries came home and the revolution came to die.”

One might expect a thousand-page saga of the Russian Revolution, by one of the most talented and provocative Russian historians alive today, to garner the interest of socialists around the world. Perhaps the lack of serious Left engagement with such an important study is understandable, given the influence of the American academy and its capacity to churn out a seemingly endless stream of anticommunist works on the Revolution.

I first met Yuri Slezkine in the Moscow Party Archive in 2000, where he graciously compared his study of the famous House on the Embankment to my own work on Moscow’s Hammer and Sickle Factory — with the crucial difference that his work was a social history of the elite rather than workers. Slezkine acknowledged the difficulties in his own undertaking: as he knew all too well, Soviet archival collections were organized around the workplace, not the community. Was such an ambitious enterprise even possible?

When Slezkine’s award-winning The Jewish Century appeared in 2004, I assumed, incorrectly, that he had been compelled to abandon the earlier project. The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution did finally appear, however, during the centennial of the Russian Revolution in 2017. A quick perusal of the copious endnotes from seventeen archives reveals Slezkine’s solution to his challenge: the work represents the spectacular culmination of some twenty years of research, including dozens of lengthy interviews with surviving House residents that he conducted in the late 1990s. Its publication brings together half a scholarly lifetime of archival labor, and does indeed merit serious attention from historians of the Left.

Two of The House of Government’s three thematic “strains” deliver impressive insights. The first is the family histories of many “named and unnamed” residents: Slevkine’s sensitive rendering of so many compelling, often tragic residents’ lives forms the centerpiece of this remarkable study. Equally engrossing, at times, is his exploration of the literary foundations of the Bolshevik worldview: “For the Old Bolsheviks, reading the ‘treasures of world literature’ was a crucial part of conversion experiences, courtship rituals, prison ‘universities,’ and House of Government domesticity.”

This third “analytical” strain — Slezkine’s identification of the Bolsheviks as millenarian religious sectarians — is problematic. This is hardly a novel perspective, having appeared repeatedly in Cold War literature, and even in much earlier texts. During the July Days of 1917, the philosopher Nikolai Berdiaev wrote about the supposed “Religious Foundations of Bolshevism”, suggesting that they wanted to “transform stones into bread, to plunge headlong into the revolutionary abyss in the hope of a revolutionary miracle and to found a forever kingdom of this world, replacing the kingdom of God.”

While this depiction of the Bolsheviks as millenarian fanatics has pleased his anticommunist audience, it risks driving away more critical readers, which would be a shame, as there is so much else in the book that is commendable. It is difficult to fathom why not a single senior scholar among the dozens who read the manuscript thought it prudent to warn Slezkine about the obvious pitfalls with this conceptual framework. His bizarre decision to revert to a paradigm drawn from the historiography of the Office of Strategic Services, at precisely the moment postmodernism seems to be losing its grip on Soviet studies, reveals the extent to which the field was and still remains such an intellectual backwater.

Revolutionary Lives

Many of the names of prominent House residents will be familiar to students of the Russian Revolution: Nikita Khrushchev, future leader of the Communist Party after Stalin; Aleksandr Voronsky, oppositionist and editor of the literary journal Red Virgin Soil; Valerian Osinsky, leader of the Democratic Centralist opposition; Maria Shaburova, head of the Women’s Section and editor of Rabotnitsa (Female worker); Karl Radek, Executive Committee of the Comintern, Left and United Oppositionist; Nikolai Podvoisky, chairman of the Military Revolutionary Committee who commanded the storming of the Winter Palace in 1917; Ivar Smilga, Revolutionary Commissar on the Western Front, Left and United Oppositionist.

Some of the family stories are of people we “may not recognize,” but their lives are so engrossing that the reader might feel they deserve a book of their own. Slezkine is a master storyteller, and after he has pulled us in time and again, we are abruptly reminded of the dangerous epoch in which House residents lived. Such was the case for Fedor Fedotov and Roza Marcus and their son Lyova, “diarist, writer, musician,” and artist.

Fedotov was born to a peasant family in 1887, joined a socialist circle as a young man, then spent time in prison for distributing leaflets. Around 1914, he emigrated to the United States, where he met his future wife, Roza Markus, and joined the Bolshevik section in New York. In 1915–16, he became president of the dockworkers’ union and socialist organizer; he was later arrested — presumably during the Palmer raids — and sentenced to ten years in prison.

In his cell, according to Roza, “there was one narrow beam of sunlight coming down from above. He used to follow that beam around with his book and read.” He escaped from Trenton Prison after a year, returning with her to Russia. In the 1920s and early 1930s, he served on party committees in Alma-Ata and Tashkent in Central Asia, and authored fiction and children’s books.

After Fedor died in a hunting accident, Roza moved into the House of Government and her “large, close, upwardly mobile Jewish family” provided Lyova “along with teachers and friends, a vital link between Apt. 262 and the wider world of history, discovery, and socialism.” Roza worked as a costume maker in the Moscow Youth Theater, but her life’s pride was her son Lyova: “I never saw him just sitting and doing nothing. If he was sitting, he was reading. His father was the same way. You would never have guessed it was a child’s desk. It was like the desk of . . . of some kind of professor.”

His childhood friend, Yuri Trifonov described Lyova:

From boyhood on he strove passionately and eagerly to improve himself in every possible way, quickly devouring all the sciences, all the arts, all books, all music, and all the world — as if he were afraid of running out of time. At the age of twelve, he seemed to live with the sense of having very little time and an awful lot to accomplish. He was interested in many sciences, especially mineralogy, paleontology, and oceanography; drew very well — his watercolors were exhibited at art shows and published in the Young Pioneer magazine; loved classical music and wrote novels in thick, cloth-bound notebooks.

Slezkine conveys the impact upon Kazakhstan of Stalin’s war on the peasantry — forced collectivization and the resulting famine — from the perspective of Sergei Moronov’s inspection tour through the region, alongside his mistress Agnessa Argiropulo. They continued to live a lavish lifestyle with party officials, although Argiropulo noticed that “for some reason, Mirosha was becoming gloomier and more withdrawn with each passing day, and even I could not always shake him out of it.” On visiting the ghost town of Karaganda, Mironov found cannibalism being practiced, with an orphaned child eating his two-year old brother — “cutting pieces off and eating them and giving some to his sister until there was nothing left.”

Moronov was “very upset,” Argiropulo noted, but he was “already trying not to think about such things and brush them aside. He always believed everything the Party did was right, he was so loyal.” In Petropavlovsk, they feasted on suckling pig with local party officials in which “all kinds of flunkies and servants and various types of toadies and bootlickers served every kind of food imaginable — even oranges. And I’m not even talking about all the different kinds of ice cream and grapes.”

Poverty and Privilege

Even in relatively privileged Moscow, the famine would intrude on the House of Government, as many residents invited family members to live with them. Most House residents who had arrived from rural areas had relatives who starved during the famine, and many of the House maids were refugees from collectivization. In 1933 at the nearby Big Stone Bridge, beggars stood, “grown-ups and children, who looked like little skeletons, with their hands stretched out.” Although security at the House of Government was very strict, as late as 1935, “skinny children from the nearby houses would slide through the bars of the metal gates and fences, hide beneath the columns, and beg for food.”

Working-class children who lived in nearby dorms, barracks, and tenements were in “awe at the wealth they observed” in the House. Occasionally House girls visited schoolmates outside the gated community, but they were “shocked at the squalor they found and had no wish to see it again,” while boys on their way home from school “risked being ambushed and beaten up.”

During its construction from 1928 to 1931, seasonal workers from the countryside who built the House of Government lived in unheated, unsanitary barracks with more workers than meters of space, worked ten-hour days, and had to consume “spoiled food with maggots in it.” As early as 1928, the district party noted that first among that workers’ political diseases was “a vulgar egalitarianism with regard to the city and the countryside,” while hundreds fled the construction site without working a single day.

House residents vacationed in the Caucasian Riviera during the famine, where at “any time of the day or night a servant may be sent to get piping hot food.” In 1933, the nomenklatura guests were entitled to white and black bread, caviar, smoked fish, ham, or sausage, among other things. At the House of Government, tenants shopped in exclusive food stores and had maids, nannies, and chauffeurs. Most House of Government women, according to Stalin’s niece Kira, had their clothes made to order — “not only dresses and suits, but even overcoats and fur coats.”

The Coming of the Terror

The extravagant lifestyles of some House residents pales in comparison to their proclivity for violence, which, according to Slezkine, was bound to figure prominently in an “apocalyptic movement” like Marxism: “Violence generally made good theoretical sense. All the Bolsheviks expected it as part of the Revolution, and no one could possibly object to it in principle.” Slezkine does not explain why October was so violent in Moscow, yet almost bloodless in Petrograd, or why, as he observes, “the intensity of violence subsided” during the 1920s.

Slezkine is hardly alone in his very selective presentation of violence in Russian history, of course. A full quarter-century after David Foglesong detailed the massive, secret US funding to White counterrevolutionaries in Russia, including some of the twentieth century’s most violent, antisemitic thugs, most academic scholars are still loathe to mention US aspirations to set up a “military dictatorship” amenable to Washington’s interests.

Slezkine provides plenty of background data on the violence of the Terror, but once again his forte and contribution is the intricately woven human story of lives destroyed. As strange as it may seem today, a few decades ago the “revisionists” — apologists for Stalin — could make arguments about the Terror that were taken seriously. As Cold Warriors in the West tried to add as many digits to the death toll as possible, revisionists responded in kind, in an attempt to minimize the scale of repression and Stalin’s role in the mass murder.

In all, from 1936 to 1939, some 800 House of Government residents were arrested and 344 were shot. Slezkine adds to what is already well known about the scope and nature of the Terror by including numerous personal histories of victims and executioners (sometimes the same individual could be both). The secret police, the NKVD, was tasked with a priori arrest quotas and collective lists of the accused, including 335 lists signed by Stalin.

Its agents utilized sleep deprivation, round-the-clock interrogations, and severe beatings to extract forced “confessions” that Stalin often edited himself. In August 1937, the NKVD head Ezhov issued Order No. 00486, mandating the arrest and imprisonment of the “wives of traitors to the motherland,” and “those of their children over fifteen years of age who are socially dangerous and capable of engaging in anti-Soviet activities.”

Slezkine provides a somewhat convincing explanation for the Terror’s ever-widening dynamic. When Bukharin responded to specific charges and pointed out inconsistencies on the part of his accusers, they told him that such “lawyerly behavior” was irrelevant. Bukharin’s judges explained that his guilt was assumed: his role in the proceedings was to confess and repent, not to argue.

What mattered, comments Slezkine, was not whether the defendants had done or said certain things; what mattered was that they had betrayed the party once before and were, therefore, likely to do it again. Everyone, except for Stalin, had sinned against the party at some point, in thought or in deed, and was therefore responsible for the criminal terrorist activity against the party. Slezkine demonstrates that many involved in the gruesome operations actually believed their own rhetoric, convinced that they really were unmasking “enemies of the people.” In their thinking, he posits, there could no longer be unfortunate mistakes, accidents, or natural disasters — any failure was the result of deliberate sabotage.

But he is wrong to suggest that the struggle against alleged saboteurs, spies, and wreckers was “just beginning” to gather strength in April 1937. In the Hammer and Sickle factory, engineers, oppositionists, and alleged kulaks had supposedly been engaged in such activities since the early stages of the First Five-Year Plan. The repression reached its apogee in 1937, but the scapegoating process Slezkine describes was inextricably linked to rapid industrialization and a brutal attempt to remedy the inherent structural problems associated with it.

Victims and Annihilators

Among the many victims of the Terror depicted here were Tania Miakova and her family. Miakova had joined the Bolsheviks in Ukraine during the 1917 Revolution at the age of twenty, graduated from Sverdlov Communist University in Moscow, married Michael Poloz, the head of Ukrainian Planning, and had a daughter, Rada, in 1924. She joined the opposition in 1927 and would spend most of the next ten years of her life in exile, prison, and labor camps, including the infamous Kolyma Gulag in Siberia’s arctic northeast.

In Astrakhan, she collected money for unemployed exiles, organized opposition meetings, and distributed leaflets accusing the party leadership of betraying the working class. As was the case with many Trotskyists, Tania later became obsessed with industrialization: “Generally all I need are the Five-Year Plan and a pair of size 37 sandals.” After her husband finally visited her in Kazakhstan, she signed a collective recantation letter: it is unclear whether this was out of fear for the safety of her family, or because the party was no longer appeasing petty capitalists and kulaks.

After her release, Tania, Poloz, and their daughter moved into the House of Government, but she was arrested again in 1931 for meeting with former oppositionists and, according to the secret police, expressing concerns about complete collectivization. Slezkine provides lengthy, moving letters to her daughter, husband, and mother in which she attempted to remain positive, provide guidance to her daughter’s education from afar, and prove her loyalty to the regime — keenly aware that they were under surveillance.

Ultimately Tania’s roommate in Kolyma betrayed her for being an “unreformed Trotskyite,” and she was executed for “maintaining regular contact with convicted Trotskyites.” Poloz was also executed; one of the charges was “maintaining correspondence with his wife, a Trotskyite.” Rada would later work as a nurse during the War, but was arrested during the 1949 siege against “family members of the traitors to the motherland.”

Meanwhile, those in charge of the struggle against wreckers sometimes had their sanity questioned. Effim Shchadenko’s superior expressed concerns that “at any moment” he might “succumb to a fit of raving madness.” Dispatched to Kiev in July 1937 to “liquidate the consequences of wrecking,” Shchadenko assured an old Civil War comrade that he was “as usual, merciless toward the enemy, hacking at them right and left, annihilating them along with their villainous acts.”

His wife, Maria Denisova (depicted in Mayakovsky’s epic Cloud in the Trousers), conducted her own search for enemies of the people in the House of Government: wearing only a nightshirt and sometimes wielding a gun or a knife, she burst into neighbors’ apartments, making threats and “talking complete gibberish.”

Caricature of Bolshevism

Slezkine’s skillful and extensive foray into contemporary fiction adds texture and depth to each House era. In the 1920s, the Bolsheviks retreated from the radical ambitions of War Communism with the New Economic Policy (NEP), which allowed a certain role for private enterprise and trade. NEP literature, according to Slezkine, “retained the memory and the hope of the last days, but it was, more than anything else, a literature of the great disappointment.” He favorably cites a 1924 work by the economist Lev Kritsman of apartment 186, The Heroic Period of the Russian Revolution, to back up his contention that NEP was simply designed to prepare for “the coming world-historical battle between the proletariat and capital.”

While many authors and even some party leaders may have thought in these terms, Slezkine is quite mistaken about those who mattered the most in the Soviet Politburo. After seven years of war, civil war, and failed European revolutions, Stalin’s vision of “socialism in one country” was a gesture of appeasement to the more conservative sections of the party, offering them stability in contrast to the supposedly adventurous Trotsky, whom Stalin described as the Don Quixote of communism. By the end of 1924, during the disingenuous campaign against Trotskyism, Stalin had deleted his own previous reference to international revolution as a prerequisite for socialism from his textbook Foundations of Leninism.

Slezkine’s repeated characterization of Bolshevism as a “men’s movement” is just as embarrassing. This assertion can only be made if we ignore the 700,000 participants in the proletarian women’s movement during NEP. The majority of women in the Hammer and Sickle factory regularly attended meetings that addressed their grievances on issues such as childcare, managerial harassment, and maternity leave. Slezkine also neglects the opinions of the many Bolshevik women, such as Alexandra Kollontai, who contributed to wide-ranging discussions on the 1926 family code, preferring to focus instead on Yakov Brandenburgsky, whom he calls “the main Bolshevik expert on the marriage problem.”

Slekzine displays a surprisingly uninformed grasp of Bolshevik norms, and how they changed over time under Stalin. He claims that it was “the Party’s tradition to ‘forbid the defense of certain views’; the only way for an oppositionist to remain in the Party was to formally ‘recant the views’ rejected by the Party.” In fact, when Zinoviev demanded that Trotsky recant at the 13th Party Congress in May 1924, it was the first time such an abjuration had ever been demanded; Krupskaya, who was not a supporter of the opposition, challenged Zinoviev’s “psychologically impossible demand.”

While Slezkine occasionally recognizes the profound contradiction between the wealthy lifestyles, power and privilege of House residents and the idea of “building socialism,” it is unfortunate that he chose to frame his narrative within the antiquated, simplistic sect paradigm, and the associated assertion that Stalinism was socialism.

For Slezkine, sects need unrivaled leaders, and “Lenin was both the creature and the guarantee of the unity of the like-minded.” During NEP, as the Soviet regime “settled down to wait,” by far its most important task was to “discipline the faithful.” He quotes Bukharin reminding the party in 1922, soon after the introduction of NEP and the ban on inner-party factions, that “unity of will” had always been key for Bolshevism. As early as 1924, argues Slezkine, “when the Party was gathering strength before the final battle, the challenge was all the greater.”

Slezkine’s clumsy attempt to project Stalinism as the most logical continuation of 1917 is hardly new. In fact, as Stephen Cohen has argued, Bolshevism was really “a diverse political movement — ideologically, programatically, generationally . . . far larger and more diverse than Lenin and Leninism.” Cohen rejected the dominant academic view which held that there was “no meaningful differences or discontinuity between Bolshevism and Stalinism,” and which presented Bolshevik history before 1929 as no more than a precursor to the inevitable outcome, “the antechamber of Stalinism.” Cohen’s arguments against the ubiquitous Cold War “continuity thesis” were made as long ago as 1984, but the same discredited framework is still predominant in the field.

In his caricature of Bolshevik history, Slezkine fails to mention the often-profound Bolshevik differences of opinion on major issues. Parsing out such disputes may help reinforce the image of party uniformity, but it is a sloppy and irresponsible approach to history. Lenin’s Bolshevik adversaries are often not even mentioned, still less what they stood for. In his seminal study on Bolshevism in 1917, Alexander Rabinowitch emphasized “the party’s internally relatively democratic, tolerant, and decentralized structure and method of operation, as well as its essentially open and mass character — in striking contrast to the traditional Leninist model.”

Half a century ago, Roy Medvedev showed that Bolshevik factions such as the Left Communists, Democratic Centralists, and Workers’ Opposition elected delegates to Congresses based on their platforms, and that the 1921 ban on factions was intended to be a temporary measure. And despite falsification of the results by Stalin’s lieutenants, we now know that the 1923 Left Opposition won the support of the majority of the Moscow Party membership. Surely Slezkine knows all of this, or at least he should.

Mangling Marx and Trotsky

Slezkine avoids coming to terms with a much larger problem in his rather simplistic attempt to join the dots. Nothing that has come to light from the archives of the former Soviet Union over the past thirty years suggests that Stalin ever had a master plan for collectivization and industrialization that he was ready to hatch when “the wait” was over and the moment was ripe.

In fact Stalin was a staunch advocate of NEP: as Michal Reiman has argued, it was only during the deep crisis of late NEP that a ruling social stratum “separated from the people and hostilely disposed toward it” came together to implement “extremist solutions” to the economic logjam. Slezkine claimed that the program of violent, wholesale collectivization launched by Stalin in 1929 had “been predicted (mandated) by Marx, Engels and Lenin” long in advance. But he offers no citations to their work that could justify this claim, since there are none available.

Indeed, Slezkine could simply have read the adulation addressed by Preobrazhensky to Stalin in 1934, quoted in his own book, in which the former Left Oppositionist said the following: “You know that neither Marx nor Engels, who wrote a great deal about the question of socialism in the countryside, knew the specifics of how the rural transformation was going to occur.”

Slezkine also mangles Trotsky’s analysis of Stalinism. He quotes Trotsky’s 1928 statement that Stalin’s move against Bukharin was “undoubtedly, an attempt to approach our position,” before going on to assert that Trotsky later believed socialism was “finally being built” under Stalin’s direction, but “could not rejoin the ranks.” In reality, Trotsky’s flawed “Bonapartist” analysis of Stalinism suggested that it was a force wavering between the interests of the working class and the petty bourgeoisie which would continue to do so.

At times Slezkine lapses into sheer absurdity, claiming that both the Bolsheviks and Nazis followed Marx, “but Hitler did not know it (and the Bolsheviks did not know it about Hitler and did not usually read Marx’s Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right and ‘On the Jewish Question’).”

Birth of a Ruling Class

Despite such serious flaws, as a prosopographical study of how an important part of the party apparatus converted itself into a new ruling class, The House of Government fills a huge gap in the history of Stalinism, even if the author himself doesn’t view it in such terms. Unfortunately, Slezkine’s depiction of the Bolsheviks as a millenarian sect obscures rather than clarifies this process. Throughout the 1920s, a significant section of party members still took the cause and condition of the working class and peasantry very seriously, and leading members expressed that concern in many different forums. Slezkine would have us believe otherwise.

During the 1920s, residents in several Houses of Soviets buildings lived privileged lifestyles, yet also worked long hours to the point of exhaustion. Sixty-five percent of Soviet leaders at the Lenin Rest Home in 1927 complained of some form of emotional distress. Slezkine does convey their sense of dedication and collective self-importance as “the chief builders of the new world” when they started moving into the House of Government in 1931. But what’s particularly striking is how far the new rulers had moved away from the idea of the working class achieving emancipation through its own efforts, substituting themselves as the force of change.

Celebrating their bludgeoning of the countryside at the “Congress of Victors” in 1934, Preobrazhensky praised the “leadership of Comrade Stalin” for accomplishing “the greatest transformation in the history of the world.” In the 1930s, few House residents even referenced the working class or the proletariat; when they did so, it was almost invariably as a mere rhetorical device. Any attempt to square the prevailing barrack socialism with the ideas of Marxism was rarer still, even in private. Slezkine recognizes this contradiction, but offers only the occasional ironic barb, instead of probing it more deeply.

This is the most frustrating analytical aspect of Slezkine’s study. We repeatedly get glimpses into the self-perception of the House residents as the new rulers, and of their changing conception of Marxism. This evolved from the emancipatory socialism of 1917 into a more distorted and paternalistic version in the 1920s, by which time the Bolsheviks had substituted their own rule for that of the working class.

By the 1930s, Stalinism represented a completely bastardized version of Marxist ideology in which productivity became the omnipresent mantra of the system, combined with silence or even contempt for ordinary workers and peasants. Instead of analyzing this reversal, Slezkine feels compelled to insist upon continuity, but early Soviet history is characterized by sharp discontinuity, as the “chief builders” replaced the working class as the transformative agency.

Whatever doubts or dissident opinions these chief builders may have had, the productivist ethos of Stalinism pervaded their worldview. Slezkine insists that “most Bolsheviks, orthodox and non-orthodox, believed that socialism was finally being built and that the end was near,” and he does convincingly demonstrate that this perspective was the consensus among House residents by presenting a formidable dossier of their actions and comments — although he certainly does not do the same for working-class party members in the factories; the revisionists (and a few postmodernists) never did find their happy Stalinist worker bees.

The commitment of House residents to the Stalinist project and their own social function in the process mattered. As Aleksandr Voronsky put it, “the determination of what was good for the building of socialism was the job of the Party leadership.” That leadership determined that rapid industrialization was good, and woe betide those who weren’t on board. The crucial thing, as Stalin told his industrial managers in 1931, was closing within a decade the fifty- or hundred-year gap separating the USSR from the advanced capitalist states, “or we will be crushed.”

Such frantic industrialization necessitated a “tribute” from peasants in the countryside, as Slezkine notes, but also from workers in the cities, something which he does not mention. Implementing such policies required a vast and coercive state machine of loyalists committed to the draconian process of primitive accumulation. “Classes are such groups of people,” argued Lenin, “one of which can appropriate the labour of another owing to the difference in their position in a given system of social economy.” Read from this perspective, The House of Government is a fascinating study of Stalinist rulers and their project.

A Flawed Masterwork

The House of Government is the most contradictory, eclectic study of the Russian Revolution ever published. Brilliant, captivating, and often heart-wrenching, in many ways it is social history at its very best. Some of Yuri Slezkine’s harshest academic critics, who have only published obscure dust-collecting volumes, should realize that nothing comparable has been published in half a century. Slezkine should be commended for dedicating so many years of his life to producing an indispensable read for every serious student of the Russian Revolution.

But we also need to be honest about its flaws. The House of Government is a conceptual dumpster fire, framing what could easily have been an epic masterpiece into a predictable story that we’ve heard so many times before by putting forward a “continuity” thesis that relies upon a plethora of factual errors and omissions. Readers who can tune out the often exasperating analysis and treat it as unfortunate background noise will enjoy the ride.