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By John Helmer, Moscow

“I consider myself a person from here” Yuri Slezkine, a US historian, told a Russian interviewer  in May.  “I feel at home in the elements of the Russian language and within the Russian cultural tradition. I live and work in America, but it is incredibly important to me that my local colleagues and interested readers learn about this book and take it as part of Russian scientific and literary life.”

The book he’s produced is, however, for Americans. Titled, The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution”, the work was published by Princeton University Press, and released for sale a year ago. Russian press reports of the book started in February of this year. Pushkin House, a Russian exile operation in London, short-listed the book for its annual prize in June. The BBC Russian Service broadcast and published a lengthy interview with Slezkine and promotion of his book in August.  A Russian translation is still in the works, according to Slezkine.

For those at Russia Insider, Unz Review, The Saker and others in the American agitprop literature, which is Orthodox Christian and Romanov royalist, the book does much to support their line that the evils of the Russian Revolution, not to mention all left-wing thought in Russian, are by origin and cause, Jewish. Also, for those Americans, the Clintonites and Deep Staters who have been propagating a theory of Russian global conspiracy in order to advance their careers and businesses and support wars to destroy Russia’s capacity to function as international economy and defend its frontiers and people, Slezkine provides graduate-level accreditation. .

Slezkine acts as if he is unaware of or indifferent to the context in which he’s been scribbling away, paid by three state-financed entities – the National Endowment for the Humanities,  the American Council of Learned Societies,  and the National Council for Eurasian and East European Research. Look carefully at the funding and administration of these agencies for he who pays for the tune Slezkine is piping.     

But then it’s not quite a history Slezkine claims to have produced; rather a work of literature (aka novel). That it’s the latter ought to be obvious from four of his facts. According to Slezkine, the number of registered tenants of the building in 1935 was 2,655.  Turnover by October 1941, when the German military advance on Moscow triggered evacuation and Slezkine’s story stops, added about 100 more. Between 600 and 800 workers were employed at the House of Government over the decade. The number of subjects of his history whom Slezkine identifies in an appendix comes to precisely 66.   You don’t need to be a professor to realize this is a study sample of between 1.5% and 2.5%; that’s less than the standard measure of sampling error.   

So Slezkine has fashioned a history fake. It’s one more demonizing nail for driving into the coffin of the demon, as the US Government, the mass media, and the stipendiary American intelligentsia characterize Russia and Russians. A fresh item on the reading list for aspiring war-fighters on why Russia deserves to be destroyed.

For a historian of relatively modern university training  – Moscow State University in philology (Portuguese), University of Texas ((history) – Slezkine (right) is unusual in starting his book with his theory that Marxism, Bolshevism, communism, socialism, and almost everything the Russian Revolution stood for in 1917, or later,  was a form of religion, like Christianity or Judaism;  except that it was also, Slezkine insists, a millenarial sect; that’s a group-think that the world as they or we know it, will end. 

Slezkine doesn’t just start with a theory. He starts with his certainty, so there’s no pretence at collecting his historical material to see whether the evidence substantiates the hypothesis. Slezkine’s 2.5% isn’t a professional sample at all; Slezkine isn’t that kind of a professional.  He’s a sectarian of another type: the world will end, he says — that’s the Marxist, Bolshevik, communist, socialist world will end. No doubt the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Council of Learned Societies expect their grantees to teach that in Texas; California too. 

Slezkine is firm in expressing his view that his targets were no different from the Jim Jones sect, the American cult from California which ended in mass suicide and murder in Guyana; except that Slezkine concedes the Bolsheviks and communists were better educated and lived longer.  “The most important difference between Jim Jones and the Bolsheviks,” Slezkine said in Moscow, “ is that the members of the People’s Temple died at the peak of their millenarist enthusiasm and confrontation with the outside world, not having to attend to the problem of continuity and routine. Unlike the followers of Jim Jones, the Bolsheviks died a quiet death – it took perhaps a generation and a half for the true believers [to die].”

The Slezkine book runs to 1,104 pages of this. He ignores the nineteenth-century history of Russian politics; tsarist policy and practice; the political, military and commercial forces of the pre-revolutionary period or its aftermath. For a serious new history of that, by the old fashioned method of seeing what evidence substantiates what hypothesis, read this work by Oxford historian, Robert Service.  Service, who is British and not Jewish, debunks the Judaeo-centric version of the downfall of the Romanovs; he also debunks the Orthodox canonization of the tsar and his family as passion-bearers – that’s one saintly rank below martyr for Christ.

Slezkine spends an inordinate amount of space repeating the details of Tsar Nicholas II’s execution in July 1918, ten years before the House of Government started construction, reproducing, as if true, the White Army and White-in-exile prosecution accounts. “The killings were ordered by Sverdlov, presumably in consultation with Lenin” – the adverb gives Slezkine’s professional historian judgement away. His purpose was another. It was, he declared in a chapter he called “The Preachers”, to show that “the revolutionaries were going to prevail because of the sheer power of their hatred. It cleansed the soul…”

Now that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is to be autocephalous, Russian Orthodox believers will sin if they pray at holy places not under Russian Church control. But will they sin if they pray at the icons of St. Nikolai  (right) in Kiev, Constantinople, Jerusalem, or Washington, DC?  According to Slezkine, they may fight like Bolsheviks. According to  Metropolitan Ilarion, head of foreign policy for the Moscow Patriarchate, “of course, Orthodox believers will defend their holy places, and there could be bloodshed.” 

Service is quoted by Slezkine’s publisher as describing the book as a “tour de force”. The phrase may be an irony; the last word may be a typo.  The other historians whose names appear on the book’s dust jacket, blurbing in endorsement of Slezkine, are of the same religious stripe and conviction as his. Arch Getty, from another California university, claims “Slezkine’s unique narrative becomes a history of the Soviet Union itself. Nobody interested in Soviet history can afford to miss it.” Getty describes himself as a millenarist devotee himself: “Professor Getty eagerly awaits the final collapses of socialism, capitalism, and all other political systems.”  For his incompetence at evidence, read this.  

The academic to which Slezkine says he owes his career promotion, Sheila Fitzpatrick, was assigned by a London periodical to review his book.   She describes Slezkine as a “master stylist as well as a first-class historian, is the least predictable of scholars. Still, it comes as a surprise to find that the book he has now produced, after long gestation, is a Soviet War and Peace.” Her review, Fitzpatrick admits, is “my homage to Slezkine”

Slezkine acknowledges (almost) that he’s Jewish; that most of his informants are or were Jewish; and that most of his selection of 66 residents of the House of Government were Jewish. Apart from identifying their occupations or the occupations of their fathers, there’s insufficient evidence about them, their families, income and consciousness for applying Marxism as a method of investigation of these individuals or their families. As a method, Slezkine missed his big chance of understanding why the House of Government as a construction project went ten times over its initial budget because he wasn’t interested in discovering where the money went, and into whose pockets.  Slezkine doesn’t understand economics, warfare, business, corruption.

The House of Government, aka the House on the Embankment (Дом на набережной) – left, in November 1931, displaying XIV to mark the fourteenth anniversary of the revolution; right, the building began advertising Mercedes in 2001. Then in November 2011 the Mercedes logo was removed on the order of the Moscow city mayor, Sergei Sobyanin. The order applied to all advertising signs atop Moscow city buildings whose contracts had expired. Read the story here.

He does, however, hold strong views about Russian poetry. He detests Vladimir Mayakovsky, especially for his sex life; he’s unsure what line to take on Sergei Yesenin; he is sweet on Boris Pasternak.  That’s been the CIA line and the American academic line since 1956; for details, read this.

Slezkine’s method consisted, first of all, of repeating over and over his theory that the Bolsheviks were a religious sect.  As a building or as a Soviet project, the House of Government was Slezkine’s excuse for his diatribe. “The government portion of the house”, he reports, accounted for about 60 percent, or if one includes personal pensioners, 70 percent of all apartments. Most nomenklatura leaseholders had been sect members since before the real day… They were almost all men in keeping with the original sectarian practice”.

Another of Slezkine’s rhetorical tricks was to use similes and metaphors saying (repeating) the same thing.  For example:  “the new [Stalin] creed adopted in 1934 followed St. Augustine…in proclaiming the millennium to be a spiritual and political allegory”; “[the Lenin Mausoleum] represented the center of New Jerusalem”; “the general Bolshevik conception of sin was identical to St. Augustine’s” – Slezkine, professor of modern Russian and Jewish history turns out to be such an expert on Christian theology, he repeats this line twice – once at page 273, again at page 844.  Research reporting by repetitive figure of speech isn’t research – it’s obsessive compulsive disorder.   

Academic reviewers who don’t notice, not to mention the fans of the BBC Russian Service, share the obsession; or to turn Slezkine’s metaphor on its head, this is one thousand pages of preaching to the converted.

Slezkine’s second method is derogation by snide put-downs.  Snide is a 19th century word which in England means derogatory of persons or counterfeit of things. In the US, it means devious or underhand. Slezkine writes snide when he wants to disparage his target without having to produce the evidence for the judgement. Here is a short sample:

  • “[Yakov] Sverdlov wrote many intimate letters, especially when there was noone else around”.
  • “Revolution was inseparable from love.”
  • “[Mayakovsky] did write a letter [to Maria Denisova] – not at all like the one from Tatiana to Onegin (‘I am writing to you, what more can I say’), but a love letter nonetheless…Its addressee was God, among many others…”
  • “The most obvious question about Sverdlov’s, Osinsky’s and Mayakovsky’s luminous faith is whether it is a religion. The most sensible answer is that it does not matter.”
  • “The question of why Marx, of all the cocks heralding the German resurrection, ended up conquering much of the world is just as impossible and irresistible as the question of why Jesus, of all the Jewish prophets…ended up founding one of the world’s most owl-resistant civilizations.”
  • “Moses was luckier [than an ‘old populist’ at a street demonstration], but not by much: he was shown the promised land from a distance…”
  • “Babel, too, gains his share of immortality by failing to get a firm grip on the sacred.”
  • “The same was true of masturbation, promiscuity, drunkenness and other expressions of free feelings that might distract Communists from the task of building Communism.”
  • “The fact that socialism was inevitable meant that it needed to be built”.
  • “The House of Government resembled a Timurid mausoleum, with a tall, flat façade both shielding and advertising the tomb’s sacred contents.”
  • “The eternal house was to become a refuge where Moses could make his home and raise a family until the wolf moved in with the lamb and the leopard lay down with the goat.”
  • “The House of Government did not have special blue bags for dirty linen or magnifying mirrors for shaving, but it did offer laundry services…and it did provide a large number of accessories, including lampshades, doorbells and raisable oak toilet seats.”

This sample is from the first 500 pages. Slezkine still had double the number to go before reaching his end.

In 1993 I visited the House of Government’s private apartments as the guest of one of the residents;  that was before the Communist Party nomenklatura had lost their privileges,  and before the rise of the oligarchs created an entirely new palatial style for Russians to aspire to. My hosts at the time were a Canadian communist in exile as a reporter and the granddaughter of the leader of the Baku Soviet Commune, Stepan Shaumian. He was one of the 26 Baku Commissars executed at British orders on September 20, 1918; the place in the House of Government was Joseph Stalin’s compensation for his family.  It was Shaumian’s apartment my hostess had inherited, and she was keen to show it off before she leased it to a foreign company.  She lived off the rent during the hard days to come, and then went to work for the British Council in Moscow.

Shaumian’s family, which was ethnic Armenian not Jewish, was one of the 98% excluded by Slezkine, so his book’s detailed description of the interior decoration preferred by his selection of apartment residents can’t be verified. I didn’t see what Slezkine describes as the dining room of “most nomenklatura apartments…at the center would be a large table surrounded by chairs and with a burnt-orange silk-fringed lampshade hanging over it. The other required piece was a piano. (Most of the girls and some of the boys had private music tutors.)”

Slezkine intends the reader to understand the House of Government’s accommodations reflected a system of privilege and inequality by which the old Bolsheviks and their successors enriched themselves, and which they kept secret from their countrymen. Inequality, however, is a socialist concept which Slezkine doesn’t want to bring out in the open, neither to make a historical contrast  with the tsarist regime, nor a sociological comparison with the current one.  

Slezkine ends his book where he started, not with an apartment building, nor with a keyhole glimpse of the lives of a tiny fraction of its residents, but with this: “the core of Marxism may, therefore,  be seen as supernatural – incapable of empirical verification… A Christian who misses an end-of the-world deadline may escape into mysticism or to heaven ; a Marxist stuck inside the hollow statue of Comrade Stalin has fewer resources. The problem is not so much that the original claims were false; it is that they cannot be explained away as riddles or allegories.”

Taken down from their public pedestals in Moscow in 1991, statues of Feliks Dzerzhinsky and Joseph Stalin preserved for public display at the “graveyard of fallen monuments”, New Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

This is a case of digging up the corpse to execute it again and exhibit it in public.  

After the collapse of the English Civil War’s Commonwealth period, that’s what the royalists and restorationists did to the corpse of Oliver Cromwell in 1661, three years after he had died.  “But there are monuments to him all over Britain,” then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin reminded an uneducated reporter from the London Times in 2010. “Everything in its season,” Putin went on. “When time comes, the Russian people will decide what to do. History is something that avoids hassle.” For the story of Putin and Cromwell’s head, read this.

In the meantime Slezkine is doing what collectors, antiquaries and reliquary sellers were doing with Cromwell’s head, with a spike through it, for several hundred years. Selling it for sensation, and for money.

Oh, and for one other reason, a religious one. In his epitaph on Karl Radek, convicted in the trial of the 17 members of the “Anti-Soviet Trotskyite Center”  in January 1937, sent to prison, and then killed for making jokes about  Stalin, Slezkine writes: “He may not have murdered  anybody or even conspired with any murderers, but in Bolshevism , as in Christianity or any other ideology of undivided devotion, it was the thought that counted.”

Think of another ideology of undivided devotion, the ruling one on the boards of those organs which have been financing Slezkine’s research;  substitute its name for Bolshevism and  Christianity in Slezkine’s formulation, and what do you have? The gospel of American Exceptionalism, America First! and Make America Great Again!

It’s the thought that counts.

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