A requiem for a good book

The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution, Yuri Slezkine, Princeton, 1096 pp, £29.95, ISBN 978 0 691 17694 9

The eponymous house was built in 1931 across the river from the Kremlin. It provided home for 2,665 tenants, of whom 700 were high officials who fell just short of rating apartments in the Kremlin itself.

The rest were members of their families extended in every possible direction, including previous wives with their new husbands, several generations of in-laws, and children sired by all of them on either side of the blanket.

Those trusted comrades didn’t remain trusted for long. When Stalin decided to do a little Government House cleaning, 800 of them were imprisoned or shot. The subsequent war put paid to another 300 or so.

Slezkine set out to produce a chronicle of most of those families. That part of the intent is commendable, but alas it isn’t the only part.

The book has two other thrusts, analytical and literary. The analytical part explains Slezkine’s explanation of Bolshevism; the literary part provides illustrative quotations from the Soviet literature of the time.

One thing that amazes me about this book is the universally laudatory reviews it has received. Some reviewers compare it to War and Peace and Slezkine to its author, some others claim that the book opened their eyes on this and that.

Well, it certainly opened my eyes: on the plight of bricklayers. For The House is the size and weight of an average brick, thereby placing inordinate demands on the reader’s muscles, especially in the upper arms and wrists. Just to think that some poor people have to handle hundreds of bricks every… But I digress.

Anyway, on the book’s subject matter, my eyes are open already and, when they aren’t, they are better off staying shut. However, as a wise friend of mine suggested, the book wasn’t written for me.

After all, I grew up a mile from the eponymous House and I know a fair amount about most of its residents. A few of them I even knew personally. I’ve also read most of the Soviet books Slezkine cites, or at least other books by the same authors.

Both the protagonists and the books formed part of my life for the first quarter-century of it, and since then I’ve read just about everything about the world that begat them. However, even though I’m attracted to the subject personally, emotionally and intellectually, I had to skip many pages of The House that added nothing to my knowledge and little to the narrative.

So fine, the book wasn’t written for me. But I’d be curious to know what reader Slezkine saw in his mind’s eye. An academic like him? But the book is aimed at a general audience. (If it weren’t, it would cost much more. For example, my slim volume on Tolstoy, inexplicably published as an academic tome, goes for £80 or more.)

Now I can’t for the life of me imagine a general reader, no matter how keenly he’s interested in Russian history, wading his way through the 1,096-page deluge of names, biographies and events most of which mean nothing to him. At my most jaundiced, I’d bet that even most of the reviewers didn’t read the book cover to cover.

Yet within those 1,096 pages, there’s a good 400-page book, buried alive. It suffocates, trying to scratch its way out of the rubble piled up on top, but never quite succeeds.

If exhumed, it would be interesting and enjoyable to read. For Slezkine is a lucid and elegant writer. Comparing him to Tolstoy in this regard is ludicrous, but he writes better than most historians this side of Gibbon.

Much as I appreciate his style, I admire his industry even more. Under no circumstances could I match the amount of painstaking research that fills The House to the brim. In fact, one often feels that Slezkine would be better off if he were a bit lazier.

It’s hard for any writer to activate the check valve controlling the flow of information, but Slezkine doesn’t even try. The same stories about the same people could have been told in half the space, and they would have been the better for it.

In the literary part of the book, Slezkine doesn’t seem to believe in quoting a paragraph or two when a full page can do as well. Show me a man who says he read every quotation in its entirety, and I’ll show you a liar – or else a critic.

However, excessive length is a minor quibble, especially if the reader’s biceps are strong enough to handle the book’s weight. It’s the analytical part that I find objectionable, and there parallels with Tolstoy are amply justified.

For Tolstoy almost succeeded in ruining the sublime prose of War and Peace with inane philosophical asides, mostly dealing with the determinist theory of history. The great writer thus taught subsequent generations a valuable lesson, which Slezkine didn’t heed.

Tolstoy’s sublime narrative survived the silly asides because it didn’t depend on them. But Slezkine’s philosophy is a peg on which his whole story hangs, and it’s too weak to support it.

To Slezkine, Bolshevism is another millenarian religion, just like Christianity was until believers realised that Jesus had misled them about the end of the world being nigh.

Hence Lenin is, mutatis mutandis, a modern answer to Jesus; the Bolshevik concept of sin is identical to Christ’s, as interpreted by Augustine; the Tenth Congress of the Party (which banned all opposition) is akin to the first Council of Nicaea; the CheKa isn’t unlike the Inquisition. Most important, the ghoulish residents of the House are like early Christians, fervent in their faith and prepared to do all it takes to spread it.

Slezkine doesn’t quite say that the sincerity of their faith justifies what they did on its behalf: murdering tens of millions and enslaving hundreds of millions. But, judging by his sympathetic treatment of some of the personages, this is an impression one could get.

Slezkine is an obvious atheist, as are some of my best friends. But, unlike him, they have enough self-awareness not to tread the terrain where they’re guaranteed to get lost. They also have the taste not to indulge in the waffle popular among the flower children of the ‘60s, along the lines of Jesus being a sort of Che Guevara of Galilee.

That’s exactly what Slezkine does, except that he pads the waffle with much intellectualising. However, in essence he’s no different on this score from those pimply vulgarians.

As a hard-working historian and good writer, Slezkine accurately describes the evil deeds perpetrated by the House’s residents. But as an atheist, he doesn’t understand the nature of evil.

Dostoyevsky, on the other hand, understood the true animus of Russian revolutionaries: they were demons, possessed by the devil. Had he lived to see their triumph, he would have observed that the only real purpose of mass murder is to murder masses.

Everything else is a self-vindicating cocoon. Few evil people realise they are evil ontologically, even though they’ll readily acknowledge the wicked nature of what they do. But they’ll try to deceive others and often themselves by claiming that what they do is necessary to achieve a higher, redemptive purpose.

Thus Lenin, Christ’s typological equivalent according to Slezkine, said that he didn’t care if 90 per cent of all Russians perished, as long as the remaining 10 per cent lived to see communism. Not quite Matthew 5-10, is it?

Slezkine should ponder the difference between religion and ideology. Religion, especially Christianity, teaches good. Ideology, especially Bolshevism, justifies evil. If he understood that, he wouldn’t sound like, to quote Chesterton, “the village atheist talking to the village idiot”.

I grieve for the good book buried under prolixity and inanity. Slezkine’s erudition and cultured pen deserve better.

4 thoughts on “A requiem for a good book”

  1. Along with the associated advantages, it has always been dangerous to be near the seat of absolute power. Since medieval times, and perhaps earlier, certain influential people were commanded to attend court in order to keep them under surveillance and it was even more dangerous to ignore that command. An apartment in the Tower of London was often a perk of office with room for your servants and some relatives and wonderful views along the river as real estate spivs would say today. It was also conveniently close to the chopping yard if things went sour.

    The book described above describes a monstrous development of this practice. The bloodstained agents of the bloodstained government were housed together along with their extended families in an essentially hostage situation. It appears that most of them met the same fate as their victims. The passive acceptance of this is portrayed by the protagonist in Koestler’s novel ‘Darkness at Noon’. It is as if it was expected as most likely from the beginning just as a soldier accepts the likelihood of his own demise when on active service.

    Prolixity today is a computer borne disease for which there is no technological fix. It is now so easy to keep all the waffle and paste in all sorts of stuff within the limits of copyright restrictions. The only way for a publisher to stop it is to employ good editors – a dying breed. Authors could keep their work shorter but, as Pascal said, it takes longer.

    1. When Jerome K Jerome’s three men realised they were trying to pack their boat with more stuff than it could handle, one of them said: “Let’s just take things we couldn’t do without, rather than those we could do with.” Not a bad piece of advice for writers, although my publishers always bitch (for fiscal reasons) that my books are too long anyway. Yet the longest one is about a third of Slezjine’s length.

  2. True. But a lot depends on the kind of a book. In this case we’re looking at a detailed biographical account of hundreds of people few readers would have heard about – that, plus some rather vulgar philosophy. However, some long books can hold one’s interest throughout. For example, I bet I could write a million-word book, and you’ll read every one of them. To win the bet, all I have to do is give you the title: Every Word in This Book Is About HJ Osbourne.

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