An Interview with Yuri Slezkine, author of The House of Government.
What is the House of Government?
It is a huge apartment building in central Moscow where most top members of the Soviet government (People’s Commissars, Red Army commanders, Marxist scholars, Gulag officials, industrial managers, foreign communists, socialist-realist writers, Stalin’s relatives, and many others) lived in the 1930s before being arrested in the Great Terror.
It tells the story of the Bolshevik Revolution through the family histories of prominent revolutionaries, from their conversion to Communism as adolescents to their children’s loss of faith in the aftermath of Khrushchev’s Secret Speech.
What’s the most controversial claim you make?
I argue that the Bolsheviks were apocalyptic sectarians who expected the end of the world in their lifetimes, confronted the failure of the prophecy in the privacy of their apartments, failed to raise their children as future Communists, and were, at the time of their trials, guilty of betraying the cause.
Why do you call it a saga?
Because it is a historical epic with multiple characters, motifs, and planes of reality intersecting and coexisting in time (and stretching over the lives of several generations). It is a work of history, but it is structured as a novel.
Who is your favorite “character”?
Nikolai Bukharin is hard to resist as he slowly thinks himself to death, but my particular favorites are Tania Miagkova, who, in her letters from prison, tries to reconcile her devotion to the Party with her love for her husband, mother, and daughter; Agnessa Argiropulo, who may or may not suspect that the love of her life is one of the most prolific executioners in Russian history; Lyova Fedotov, a boy who, on the night train to Leningrad, dreams of conducting Aida; and Yuri Trifonov, Fedotov’s friend, who grows up to become the revolution’s heir and chronicler.
How do you want readers to read your book?
From beginning to end. The characters who move out for a while will come back to haunt the reader, sooner or later.