June 16th 2018

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Reflections on the bicentenary of the birth of Karl Marx

EDITORIAL Significance of report into shooting down of MH17

CANBERRA OBSERVED Lee Rhiannon: too Bolshie or not Bolshie enough?

POLITICS Wading further through the Greens party bilge

ECONOMICS Vatican document nails some of the causes of the GFC

POLITICS Greens promise to keep Australia legally stoned and welfare dependent

ENVIRONMENT Scientist sacked for challenging claims of demise of Great Barrier Reef

REDEFINITION OF MARRIAGE Humpty Dumpty has his way with words

CHRISTIANITY AND SOCIETY Tradition, Christianity and the law in contemporary Australia

EDUCATION Ladybird, ladybird: adventures in literacy

OFFICE LAUNCH NCC Sydney: a new chapter in a continuing story

ASIAN AFFAIRS Indonesia takes religious syncretism to the nth degree

WA RALLY FOR LIFE 3300 crosses in Perth poignant reminders of abortions

HUMOUR News snippets

PHILOSOPHY Bendigo initiative

MUSIC Gain is loss: Where is there left to discover?

CINEMA 2001: A Space Odyssey: Unsurpassed 50 years on

BOOK REVIEW The house that could not stand

BOOK REVIEW Australia's first official war historian


EDITORIAL China's pivotal role in Trump-Kim summit

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The house that could not stand

News Weekly, June 16, 2018

THE HOUSE OF GOVERNMENT: A Saga of the Russian Revolution

by Yuri Slezkine

Princeton UP, Princeton
Hardcover: 1128 pages
Price: AUD$74.98

Reviewed by Jeffry Babb

A long time ago I helped escort a group of “Russian youth” who were visiting Australia. They were very curious about life in Australia. Their favourite food was Kentucky Fried Chicken, which they devoured ravenously at every opportunity.

Not all the escorts were of my social democrat persuasion. Some were leftists, who took the group to a housing commission area to show the Russians that not all Australians lived in mansions. Did they realise that, by Soviet standards, these humble commission dwellings were mansions?

I had two particular friends. One was Mikhail, who insisted on being called Mike. He spoke good English, but he was a scholar of Spanish. I was a bit puzzled as to why he was learning Spanish. Apart from Cuba, what were the Soviets’ interests? This was before the Soviets’ intentions in Latin America became more evident. We talked about literature, in particular Dostoyevsky.

Eventually, Mike said “Sorry Jeffry, I can’t talk to you anymore, I have been told that you are damaging my career prospects.”

My other friend was Tatiana. She was a pretty brunette, who also spoke very good English. I was surprised that when I mentioned that Macbeth was one of my favourite Shakespeare plays she said: “Oh, I love Macbeth too, Lady Macbeth is such a schemer. But my favourite play is The Merchant of Venice, Portia is such a strong woman.”

We then moved on to Dickens. I said I was surprised she had such a broad knowledge of English literature. Tatiana said: “I love the classics.”

I must say that until I read The House of Government, I had been puzzled by my brief encounters with these young Russians, who, common sense would dictate, had all been handpicked for ideological reliability. All the same, next year I was told that the “young people” were all a lot older.

In a recent overseas trip, I befriended a young Russian “reporter” named Gleb. He did a lot of writing, but I am not sure to whom he was reporting. Russia doesn’t change much, whichever government is in power.

Bolshevik luxury

The House of Government was a luxurious apartment block situated across the river from the Kremlin, the seat of Soviet power. This massive building housed the top echelon of the Soviet government. The House of Government serves as the narrative foundation for the history of the Old Bolsheviks in power.

The key question that Yuri Slezkine asks is not the usual, “why did the Bolsheviks gain power?” but, “why did the Soviet experiment fail to last even one lifetime?” The answer is that young people like Mikhail and Tatiana were civilised. Their parents were civilised.

The Bolsheviks believed that the motivating force in history, as dictated by Marx and Lenin, was the industrial working class. But very few of the Old Bolsheviks were industrial workers. Most were students from well-off families. A disproportionate number of the Old Bolsheviks were Jewish or Latvians, Poles and other non-Russian nationalities. Stalin, known to his comrades as “Koba,” was Georgian.

The Jews were attracted to the Bolsheviks for two reasons. First, the Messianic creed of the inevitable triumph of “scientific socialism” appealed to those who held the Jewish worldview. Second, the czarist regime actively discriminated against the Jews. For many years, they had been restricted to the Pale of Settlement. It was possible to collaborate informally with the czarist regime, but official recognition was extremely difficult.

This left the Jews with three alternatives: join the Bund, a Jewish socialist organisation, opposed to the Bolsheviks; join the Zionists and attempt to “make Aliyah” and emigrate to Palestine; or join the Bolsheviks, who did not discriminate on the basis of ethnicity and welcomed the Jews’ love of scholarship. Karl Marx, was, after all Jewish. The Old Bolsheviks valued literacy.

The worker Bolsheviks were a bunch of uneducated peasants. The “student” Bolsheviks and the “worker” Bolsheviks rarely mixed socially.

The Bolsheviks promoted proletarian literature and then rarely read it. Apart from Gorki, who was a reluctant participant in the Bolshevik cultural charade, only How the Steel Was Tempered by Nicolai Ostrovski gained popularity as a socialist realist novel.

Classical tastes trump ideology

The Old Bolsheviks and their children were brought up on the classics. Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace was a favourite. Tolstoy could hardly be described as a proletarian; he was a count. Many other works favoured by the Bolsheviks had aristocratic origins. Alexander Herzen, who had an aristocratic background, was an influential promoter of agrarian populism.

The top echelon of the Old Bolsheviks congregated in the House of Government. This massive building was the largest apartment block in Europe. It had everything, including a cavernous movie theatre and a full-sized tennis court. Initially, the House of Government was intended to be Spartan, but the inhabitants soon found room for nannies, maids, lace and crocheted doilies. The Bolsheviks could not resist the comforts of armchairs and extensive bookcases, which the “student Bolsheviks”, as opposed to the “working Bolsheviks”, found essential.

Family members often read to each other from the international classics of adolescent and adult literature. Dickens was very popular with all ages, as were Robert Louis Stephenson and James Fenimore Cooper for younger family members. The Bolsheviks, thwarted by edicts banning Christmas trees, promoted “New Year trees”.

Socialism was a goal. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” as Marx said; the Soviet equivalent of the Promised Land. Bolshevism was a Messianic creed.

In the West, Christians prayed for the conversion of Russia. Orthodox Christianity in Russia has undergone an astonishing revival. The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour near the Kremlin in Moscow had been demolished by the Bolsheviks. The marshy site defied all attempts at rebuilding, until the church was reconstructed following the collapse of the Soviet regime.

The new Cathedral of Christ the Saviour is now the tallest Orthodox Christian church in the world. The Russian Orthodox Church outlasted the Bolsheviks.

The Bolsheviks mainly married each other. The nomenklatura (those who worked in government and industry) was a class apart. They played chess together, went to the theatre together, sat in the royal box at the Bolshoi together, swapped wives and apartments. But mainly they were happy when they were at work or with their families.

They often failed in one job, and were then sent to another job, where they failed again; their status as Old Bolsheviks saved them. They bonded together in the Civil War and the mass famine following the collectivisation of agriculture. The Holodomor, the Ukrainian terror famine, resulted in some 10 million deaths.

The nomenklatura stuck together. They had not created a new Soviet man, but Stalin’s Five Year Plan to industrialise the Soviet Union was completed in four years. The nomenklatura could delude themselves that socialism was achievable. The population was, after all, content.

Saturn starts eating his children

Then Kirov was assassinated.

“On December 1, 1934, Khrushchev was in his office in the Moscow City Party Committee when the telephone rang. It was Kaganovich. ‘I am calling from the Politburo, please come immediately.’ I arrived at the Kremlin and walked into the hall. I was met by Kaganovich. He had a terrible, frightened look on his face, seemed badly shaken, and had tears in his eyes. He said: ‘Something awful has happened. Kirov has been murdered in Leningrad’” (p699).

Sergei Mironovich Kirov was head of the Party organisation in Leningrad. He was an Old Bolshevik. He was regarded as being reliable, perhaps a bit of a plodder. His assassin, named Nikolaev according to the NKVD (secret police), was allegedly a Trotskyite. He appeared to be mentally unhinged, with delusions of grandeur.

Kirov’s death was the justification Stalin claimed for unleashing the NKVD in the Great Purge. As far as anyone can see into the dark recesses of the mind of one of history’s most vile dictators, Stalin’s aim was to consolidate power in his hands. Most of those killed were Party members, frequently both husbands and wives. Children were sent to orphanages.

Where the parents survived the camps or exile, they were sometimes reunited with their children. Frequently, they lost all contact. Those who survived the Gulag were often shadows of their former selves.

Kirov’s death is usually held to be the starting point of the Great Terror. According to Soviet archives, some 750,000 people were executed by the NKVD. This figure, though, is disputed by Robert Conquest, (The Great Terror: A Reassessment, OUP, 2008), who says that the NKVD and its successors are covering their tracks. Some 75 per cent of victims were shot in the back of the head. Conquest says the real figure for deaths is in the region of 1,750,000.

Initially, the NKVD went to great lengths to conceal the scale of the killings. Most of the victims were Party members, though intellectuals, kulaks (rich peasants), former White Guards and NEP (New Economic Policy) men, allegedly connected with Nicolai Ivanovich Bukharin, were also targets.

The executioners usually got blind drunk after the executions. Recent archival research has confirmed that Stalin was intimately connected with the direction of the Purge and that the Purge did not “spontaneously combust”. Stalin had, literally, blood on his hands.

The House of Government was in turmoil. Many tenants disappeared in the middle of the night. “Good people”, at the risk of their own safety, took in family members and the children of those who had disappeared. A sentence to the Gulag “without right of correspondence” almost certainly meant that the prisoner had been executed.

The life of a zek in a labour camp, as described in Nobel Laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Novy Mir, Moscow, 1962) was hard, but life as an exile could even be almost pleasant. The Old Bolsheviks, many of whom had been exiled in czarist times, counted their time in internal exile as the best years of their life.

Stalin’s determination to exterminate his old comrades and any potential rivals was given a veneer of justification through the notorious show trials. Bukharin was centre of the Right Opposition in the 1920s when dissent within the Party was still possible. Bukharin was a theoretician.

Following the suicide of another Right Oppositionist, Mikhail Pavlovich Tomsky, “Bukharin did not want to commit suicide. His strategy was to produce more words: words addressed to the Party leadership as a whole and to particular individuals who were both Party leaders and intimate friends” (p721).

The case of Bukharin is interesting. Bukharin is said to be the Old Bolshevik who confesses to blood-curding crimes in his trial in Arthur Koestler’s anti-totalitarian classic, Darkness at Noon (London, 1940). The crimes he confesses to are ludicrous and unbelievable.

In real life, the show trials, particularly that of Bukharin, helped alienate support for the Soviets by intellectuals in the West. As for Bukharin, he was playing the scapegoat, taking the sins of the world upon himself, “bending his knees before the giant steps of the historical process” (p852).

At the end of his last plea, Bukharin said: “I am kneeling before the country, before the Party, before the whole people. The monstrousness of my crimes is immeasurable, especially in the new stage of the struggle of the USSR. May this trial be the last severe lesson, and may the great might of the USSR become clear to all.

“Let it be clear to all that the counterrevolutionary thesis of the national limitedness of the USSR has remained suspended in the air like a wretched rag. Everyone perceives the wise leadership of the country that is ensured by Stalin.

“It is in the consciousness of this that I await the verdict. What matters is not the personal feelings of a repentant enemy, but the flourishing progress of the USSR and its international importance” (p852).

Bukharin was found guilty. Three days later he was executed.

Most books about the Bolsheviks ask, “why did the Bolsheviks take power?” The classic in this genre is Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station (New York, 1940).

Yuri Slezkine here asks, “why did the Bolshevik regime, which attracted such single-minded loyalty, collapse within a single lifetime?”

The answer? Scientific socialism was a fraud. The Bolsheviks were unable to replace the classics of Western civilisation, even in their own minds, with socialist realism, a form of corrupted modernism.

This book has many rare photographs, which help put faces to the Old Bolsheviks, some of whom survived the Great Terror, and the many that didn’t.

According to one Australian scholar of Eastern European history, after you have read The House of Government, you need read nothing more about the Old Bolsheviks.

Purchase this book at the bookshop:


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Last Modified:
April 4, 2018, 6:45 pm