To Dream the Impossible Dream: Yuri Slezkine’s The House of Government
A different song, a better song,
will get the subject straighter:
let’s make heaven on earth, my friends,
instead of waiting till later.
—Heinrich Heine (quoted in Yuri Slezkine’s The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution)
It is difficult to adequately describe the overwhelming scope of UC Berkeley Professor of History Yuri Slezkine’s new book The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution (Princeton University Press, 2017). Coming in at slightly under 1,000 pages, Slezkine’s book portrays the early years of the Soviet Union through the lens of the families of the ruling elite who lived in the “House of Government,” a massive multi-building apartment complex in Moscow. Examining the letters, diaries, novels, plays, and official documents of the early Soviet elite, Slezkine leaves no stone unturned in his exposition of the total life experience under a Marxist regime.
From this complex picture, a strong pattern emerges of a system consistently undermined by its own citizens and its own spurious ideology. Slezkine claims that Bolshevism, and ultimately the Soviet Union, collapsed for three basic reasons: ideology, art, and nationalism.
Ideologically, the Bolsheviks revered Marx with a religious fervor: “Marx and Engels were not utopians—they were prophets. They did not talk about what a perfect system of social order should be and how and why it should be adopted or tested; they knew with absolute certainty that it was coming—right now, all by itself, and thanks to their words and deeds.” Lenin and the Bolsheviks took this prophecy of historical inevitability and adapted it to emphasize the necessity of violent revolution—and in so doing, replaced Marx with a new prophet, Lenin himself. While he overgeneralizes a bit, Slezkine is able to clearly show how closely the words and thoughts expressed in revolutionaries’ letters, diaries, and speeches resembled those of religious sects waiting for the end of the world and the reestablishment of a millennial state.
This apocalyptic mindset led the Bolsheviks to question each and every political and social tradition. One fascinating example is their attempt to completely remake the family unit. Immediately after the Russian Revolution, the chairman of the newly-formed Family Law Commission, Yakov Brandenburgsky, stated that the old bourgeois notion of a legally-binding marriage would eventually cease to exist and new rules of cohabitation and child-bearing would spring forth organically. Marx and Engels had specifically written that marriage was a bourgeois idea created to reduce wives and children to property and would wither and die in the face of the communist utopia.
Unsurprisingly, the new system of relations didn’t play out quite as the Bolsheviks had hoped, and it was often women who suffered at the hands of unfaithful and uncommitted lovers. Slezkine writes: “Bolshevism was aggressively and unabashedly masculine.” After only a few years of the new family dynamic, the ruling elite began to carefully reemphasize the importance of family units. The new Soviet family was to be entirely devoted to Marx and Lenin. Brandenburgsky wrote that a family was to be “a small Communist cell… it must be a collectivity of comrades in which one lives in the family the same way as outside the family, and in which the members of the family must, in all their work and life, represent a unit of assistance to the Party.” New laws were set in place to govern “masturbation, drunkenness, and other expressions of free feelings” that threatened to “distract Communists form the task of building Communism.”
This quick turnaround from ecstatic revolution to conservative backtracking and retrenchment cast Russia into a universal depression. The long-awaited paradise had finally arrived, but it was anything but rosy. The revolutionaries suddenly become the conservative defenders of their faith against increasing national and international problems in agriculture, leadership, and economics. New messages had to be fashioned to justify the failure of the utopian state envisioned by Marx. Vast bureaucratic agencies popped up to oversee every aspect of life and public consciousness. Authors and books were banned as counterrevolutionary by committees—which were themselves banned as counterrevolutionary by other committees. Peasants, artists, the middle class, and the veterans of the Civil War waited in vain for the fruits of the new regime, while the ruling elite had their every desire fulfilled. The new world wasn’t at all that Marx and his followers had promised, and when many began to question the ruling apparatus, it took a drastic and brutal restructuring by Stalin to force the country into obedience. Ultimately, the sons and daughters of the revolutionary Bolsheviks grew alienated from the promises of Marxism and ceased to believe in the communist “miracle.”
An important part of any society is its art. Before the Revolution, the Bolsheviks created art idolizing the reality of what Slezkine calls “the real day” (the day socialism would finally be realized). The Revolution was an intellectual movement and most of the leading Bolsheviks had never actually worked manual labor jobs—making them completely unqualified proletarians. They weren’t part of Marx’s savior class, so they used their pens, typewriters, paintbrushes, and movie cameras to usher in the workers’ utopia. Bolshevik and Soviet leadership employed art in all its forms in an attempt to persuade the masses of the glorious future. However, as Slezkine thoroughly shows, art created dialogues and thoughts that undermined the Marxist doctrine so vital to the continued existence of the Soviet Union.
The Bolsheviks employed and encouraged pamphleteers and novel writers to educate the masses on the correct way to live, think, and work. They quickly formed committees to review every published word to ensure congruence with the regime. However, almost as soon as the committees were formed, they descended to political infighting. Intra- and inter-committee denunciations provoked expulsions from the party, public humiliations, and even suicides. As Stalin began to consolidate his power, both artists and writers quickly realized that their new utopia, with all of its promised freedoms, was anything but.
While the Soviet education system was originally centered around Marx and Lenin, particularly in economics and political science courses, it also relied heavily on non-Marxist literary classics. Russian masters like Tolstoy, Gogol, and Pushkin were avidly read and studied, alongside non-Russian authors such as Dickens, Cervantes, Balzac, and Shakespeare. The children of the revolutionary generation found these classics engrossing because they were asking questions about human nature that the Marxists had forbidden. Altruism, spirituality, honor, and love—the classics spoke to the reality of the human condition, and as such were far more fascinating and illuminating than the unrealistic propaganda of the new “Soviet Man.” Slezkine writes, “The children of the Revolution did not only live in the past—they loved it for being past, and, like most readers and writers of historical fiction, tended to focus on lost causes.” The Bolsheviks’ list of “approved” classics proved far more attractive than post-Revolutionary books. Literary culture was just one more area in which the Bolsheviks “were particularly proficient in creating their own gravediggers.”
Communism was always an internationalist ideology, and many of the original Bolsheviks were non-Russians who had grown up in the shadow of the Russian tsar: they were, per Slezkine, “a cosmopolitan sect with a strong overrepresentation of rebellious borderlands (especially Jews, Latvians, Georgians, and Poles).” The promise of a Marxist Soviet Union for those marginalized groups became “a form of retribution for the humiliations of the Russian Empire.” But once the Revolution was realized and the Russian Civil War was over, the Party’s personnel and leadership became heavily Russian, both ethnically and culturally. Instead of a wholly new Marxist government devoid of borders or nationalities, the Revolution produced a Russocentric totalitarianism that valued Russian tradition, language, and culture above all else, to the dismay of the Soviet Union’s outlying nationalities. One of the reasons the Soviet Union collapsed, argues Slezkine, was that it was both too Russian for the outsiders and not Russian enough for the ethnic Russians: “There was little doubt that most Russians still drew a rigid line between themselves and authority.” In a convincing aside, he writes that “homegrown communism” always has a distinctly nativist fervor. International socialism, ironically enough, never seems capable of shaking its nationalistic characteristics.
Slezkine’s examination of the early years of the Soviet Union teaches distinct lessons about the problems inherent to communism itself, and why it will never last, no matter where it seizes power. Wherever communism takes power, it is in the form of a “massive missionary campaign mounted by a sect that proved strong enough to conquer an empire,” not by a popular movement. And, as Slezkine demonstrates, communism in power tends to undermine itself: it is “not resourceful enough to either convert the barbarians or reproduce itself at home.” A communist society, after a generation or two, tends to implode: “The Soviet Age,” Slezkine notes, “did not last beyond one human lifetime.” If Slezkine is to be taken seriously, and he should be, the end is always approaching for communist governments throughout the world.