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  • Millenarian Bolshevism?
  • Joshua Rubenstein
Yuri Slezkine, The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution. 1,128 pp. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017. ISBN-13 978-0691176949. $39.95.

In early 1976, the Soviet writer Iurii Trifonov published The House on the Embankment in Moscow. The novel tells the story of an academic opportunist who advances his career by using and betraying others. As the novel moves among various decades, from the late 1930s through the unsettling years of war and Cold War, with a beginning and conclusion in the early 1970s, Trifonov explores Stalin’s long legacy of fear and moral capitulation. Much of the story unfolds either inside or in the shadows of the most famous apartment house in Moscow—the House of Government—where the Soviet party, military, and intellectual elite resides in large, well-appointed apartments. As for the building, it symbolizes “the intimidating power of the state,” which can pamper or torture you depending on the Kremlin’s whims.1

Readers understood that Trifonov was raising a fundamental question about what it meant to live a life of moral integrity in a country that penalized independent thought and action. While The House on the Embankment passed official censorship, as an expression of anti-Stalinist attitudes it marked the high point of what could appear in a Soviet literary journal at that time. Although it was immensely popular, the critics were silent, at least those who might have praised the book, “because somewhere someone … ‘on high’ was displeased” to see it in print.2 But its shortcomings could be criticized. No less a figure than Georgii Markov, the first secretary of the Board of the USSR Writers’ Union, publicly chastised Trifonov’s novel in a widely published speech at the Sixth [End Page 877] Writers’ Congress that June. “The novella’s plot and structural foundation are essentially so enclosed within the author’s chosen form,” Markov declared, “that neither the protagonists nor the reader is always able to sense as completely as necessary the presence of forces capable of changing the seeming irremediability of certain lives and situations.” Trifonov, in other words, failed to point out the supposed ability of Soviet society to correct its shortcomings.3 The longtime head of the Soviet secret police Iurii Andropov, who became general secretary of the Communist Party in 1982 following the death of Leonid Brezhnev, once remarked: “Talented artists should be granted a certain amount of freedom of expression. But at the same time, Trifonov and others devote too much concern for the minutiae of daily life without sufficient regard for the good of the Party, for whom they are not doing their bit.”4

Trifonov benefited from this condescending forbearance. He himself was not ostracized or compelled, like so many others, either to write “for the drawer” or go into exile in the West. In the fall of 1976, he was even invited to contribute a column to Literaturnaia gazeta, the official newspaper of the Writers’ Union. Trifonov called his interview “The Books that Choose Us.” Not holding back, he expressed admiration for several writers who had experienced official repression, among them Isaak Babel´, who was shot in 1940; Marina Tsvetaeva, who committed suicide in 1941; Mikhail Zoshchenko, who had endured withering official criticism in 1946; and Boris Pasternak, who had been mercilessly attacked for Doctor Zhivago in the late 1950s.5 By 1976, they had all been officially rehabilitated and much of their work made available to Soviet readers—although not, of course, Doctor Zhivago, which had to wait for Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost to be published in Moscow. The next year, in keeping with his outspoken beliefs, Trifonov admitted that The House on the Embankment “was written precisely in condemnation, perhaps more purposely than my other pieces.”6

By centering his novel on the most prominent apartment building in the Soviet capital, whose history encapsulated the awe-inspiring hopes and terrifying fate of the Bolshevik revolution, Trifonov was challenging the official narrative of his country. As his readers knew, he had lived there as a child, in Apartment no. 137, among hundreds of other privileged Soviet families. Then Stalin’s Great Terror...


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