Slezkine's book revels in an overload of details. He has traced the 2,655 registered tenants through every stage of their occupancy; he follows them as they change apartments; he has read – at crushingly impressive length – from their personal letters and diaries; perhaps most amazingly, in the case of all those in-house fiction-writers (and all of their colleagues living elsewhere), he has read all of their writings, and he relates them all with generous sympathy and insight in these pages. Among the many other things it is, The House of Government is also one of the greatest extended appreciations of prewar Russian literature ever to appear in English ... regardless of its size and complexity – and despite some of its grim tidings, this book is an absolute delight to read, a masterpiece of the odd, almost unclassifiable kind that Russian literature is so adept at producing ... thanks to Yuri Slezkine, the House of Government is now immortal in literature as well.
[The] chapters on the Stalinist Terror are the most vivid. Over all, Slezkine’s writing is sharp, fresh, sometimes playful, often undisciplined. The momentum suffers from the narrative’s overpopulation; and Slezkine falls into digressions about the Exodus, Armageddon and repressed memory theory. Despite meandering, he makes certain arguments clearly: Bolshevism was a millenarian sect with an insatiable desire for utopia struggling to reconcile predestination with free will — that is, working ceaselessly to bring about what was supposedly inevitable.
Constructed on what feels like a lifetime of research and reflection, The House of Government offers a virtuosic weaving of novelistic storytelling, social anthropology, intellectual history, and literary criticism. It moves effortlessly (though the copious sources cited in the endnotes suggest otherwise) across different historical scales, joining a millennia-spanning, pattern-seeking master narrative to acute readings of diaries, letters, novels, and other such documents, often quoted at luxurious length … The House of Government signals its ultimate aim: to grasp the meaning of the Russian Revolution sub specie aeternitatis, to suggest an abiding element in human history, something very old of which we have not freed and may never free ourselves, precisely because we are human.
...[a] brilliant and suitably monumental book ... Vivid, engaging and omnivorous in its deployment of anthropological and sociological ideas, The House of Government has a Tolstoyan cast of characters ... as we struggle to balance the benefits of industrial modernity with its huge costs — both human and environmental — Slezkine’s gripping history of these latter-day Fausts is especially relevant, even if their mental world seems so remote from our own.
While Slezkine’s narrative traces the emergence of a new society and its eventual betrayal, his chief theme is the religious nature of Soviet communism. The House of Government was not merely a place for the anointed but a monastery for true believers. And as Slezkine shows, like so many communities of messianic faith, this order succumbed to a witch hunt and the purging of those whose conviction was in doubt ... Slezkine exposes a vast multinational social network, based in Moscow but stretching to Siberia, Kiev, Berlin, and beyond. The lives of those involved and their myriad connections are described in such abundant detail that one can be both overwhelmed and inspired, as one often is by a classic Russian novel.
In his colossal new book, The House of Government, Slezkine has turned this metaphor inside out, using the real history of a single building and its residents as a guide to understanding the triumph and tragedy of the Russian Revolution ...is often fascinating, moving, and profound, but also at times exasperatingly excessive ...he mined a wealth of sources, from state archives to personal diaries, letters, and memoirs. Throughout, he often lets the residents speak for themselves, reproducing long verbatim quotations from their correspondence or private journals ...an in-depth anthropological study, a cascade of conversations with the dead ... The dominant, and most successful, book-within-the-book unearths and retells the stories of the House of Government and its residents ...offers a distinctive angle on the Stalin era, a kind of social history of the 'mass elite.'
Slezkine illuminates myriad aspects of these lives, including fashion choices and intellectual schisms. He also analyzes Bolshevism’s failure so soon after its apparent triumph, inviting controversy by describing the Bolsheviks as 'millenarian sectarians preparing for the apocalypse.' Slezkine asserts that the cosmopolitanism and humanism of postrevolutionary culture undermined the single-mindedness necessary to maintain their ideology. It’s a work begging to be debated; Slezkine aggregates mountains of detail for an enthralling account of the rise and fall of the revolutionary generation.