Skip to main content


Revolutionaries dug a pit and fell in

How a prestigious Moscow address became the antechamber to death row

Revolutionaries dug a pit and fell in

Revolutionaries take aim during the Russian Revolution in 1917. (Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Work your fingers to the bone, what do you get? In Russian history, not just bony fingers, as in the old American country song, but a bullet in the back of your head.

Nov. 7, 2017, is the 100th anniversary of a tragic event: If you read only one new book about it, read Sean McMeekin’s The Russian Revolution (Basic, 2017). McMeekin documents what’s been rumored for a century: The German government gave Vladimir Lenin’s party more than $1 billion (in current dollars). That funding enabled the Bolsheviks to propagandize the Russian army with millions of copies of newspapers and flyers, leading to mass desertion and German victory on World War I’s eastern front.

McMeekin tells the colorful story of ensign A.Y. Semashko, “a Typhoid Mary of mutiny,” who recruited into a Communist collective 500 men from the 1st Machine Gun Regiment alone. He describes “Bolshevik bagmen” passing out 10-ruble notes (compliments of Germany) to sailors who would carry “Down with the war” and “Beat the bourgeois” signs. He shows how “the ineffectual, hand-wringing phase of Russian social democracy gave way to the unscrupulous will to power of the Bolsheviks.”

The Revolution itself was more of a coup, as Bolsheviks seized government offices defended at the end only by the Women’s Death Battalion, several members of which were raped by Red Guards. Once the German money ran out just before Christmas 1917, Lenin “launched the novel policy of mass armed robbery of the citizenry,” seizing bank accounts and safe deposit boxes before moving on to churches.

Four other new books about revolutionary ups and downs, and one old one, deserve mention (see sidebar below). But 2017 is also the 80th anniversary of the height of the Great Terror in which Josef Stalin murdered most of his comrades from 20 years before—usually after trials with predetermined outcomes followed rapidly by 9 grams of lead shot into the brain.

Some authors don’t connect the events of 1917 and 1937, yet it’s no accident that every major revolution (except the American one) has resulted in dictatorship and mass murder. Since the French Revolution ended with radicals murdering each other within five years, the only surprise is that it took the Russians two decades to eat their own: Declassified Soviet archives show secret police shot nearly 700,000 persons, an average of 1,000 per day during the 1936-1938 Great Terror, but some say the number was 2.5 times greater.

Many not only died but dishonored themselves. Stalin and Co. first purged real opponents, then imagined opponents, then anyone who did not denounce the opponents, then the denouncers, and then their executioners. The single address from which the largest number of the executed came was the most prestigious address in Moscow outside the Kremlin itself: The House of Government—and to really understand what 1917 wrought, lose no time reading Yuri Slezkine’s The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution (Princeton, 2017).

Actually, you could lose lots of time, because Slezkine has given us 1,100 pages of awesome research. Since I suspect most WORLD readers don’t want to spend many evenings delving into miserable history, I’ll give you some lowlights—but first I need to set the scene.

The House of Government, across the Moskva River from the Kremlin, was the largest residential building in Europe when completed in 1931. It had 550 fully furnished family apartments that were luxurious by Moscow standards: Most Muscovites lived in communal apartments with each family crammed into one room, but the family of a government official privileged to live in the House of Government had several rooms to itself with central heating, high ceilings, and a telephone.

The House of Government also sported a cafeteria, grocery store, walk-in medical clinic, child care center, hairdresser salon, post office, gym, library, tennis court, 1,500-seat movie theater, and more. Because government and Communist Party officials living there had so much “brain work” to do, they of course could not be expected to do mundane tasks, so 600 to 800 waiters, gardeners, plumbers, janitors, laundresses, floor polishers, and others were available to serve them.

The House of Government, in short, was a residence of honor as befitted People’s Commissars, Red Army commanders, Marxist scholars, and propagandists. Location, location, location—but an address dreamed of, and fought for, became the place that made arrests easy.

Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

The House of Government under construction in 1931 (Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

I can feel the pain of Alexandr Arosev, military leader of the Bolshevik uprising in Moscow in 1917, as he paced the floor of his apartment 20 years later, waiting to be arrested. His daughter quoted him saying, “I’ve escaped from exile and prison so many times, but there’s no escaping this place. Why did I have to choose an apartment on the tenth floor? I can’t even jump out a window, it’s so high.”

Arosev received a bullet to the brain on Feb. 8, 1938.

Sometimes the turnover was rapid. Konstantin Butenko, a steel plant director, was excited to become Deputy Commissar of Heavy Industry and move into a luxury apartment at the House of Government. He lived there for 1½ months, at which point officials arrested him, shoved out his family, and gave the apartment to a new appointee.

Slezkine’s book is not all pathos. He sees the come-on of communism in 1917 as a religious experience and has chapter and section titles like “The Preachers,” “The Faith,” “The Second Coming,” and “The Reign of the Saints.” But the last third is the most gripping, as Slezkine shows Soviet officials executing at least 344 House of Government residents and giving lengthy prison terms to more than 400.

Some left-behind family members chose to believe the Communist Party rather than their own experiences of love. Comintern (Communist International) executive Osip Piatnitsky and his wife Yulia had a loving marriage; but as she read the made-up charges against him, she began to wonder, “What if he actually is a monster in human form?” Their propagandized 12-year-old son, who wanted to be a sniper or a border guard, said, “It’s too bad Dad hasn’t been shot, since he’s an enemy of the people.”

Other family members remained faithful. They did not know where their husbands or fathers (the overwhelming number of prisoners were men) were, so they traveled from one prison to another until a jailer accepted parcels of food and warm clothes, which might get to a prisoner. If no one accepted them, that meant the accused was “without the right of correspondence,” which meant he was dead.

Anatoly Granovsky, 15, wrote about his father Mikhail, director of the Berezniki Chemical Plant: “On November 5, 1937, my father returned from his office at about 11 o’clock at night, earlier than he usually did. He had with him our pass cards for attendance at the parades as well as an invitation to the celebrations at the Bolshoi Theater commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the Revolution. This was to be on the morrow, which would coincide with my father’s birthday.”

But at 4 a.m. on Granovsky’s birthday, guards came to the House of Government, arrested him, and told his wife and children to move to a different apartment that they would share with several other families of recently arrested officials. So on Nov. 7, with sounds of Revolution Day festivities coming from outside, they had to move. Anatoly wrote, “My mother, who had always been beautiful and had always appeared young, now grew suddenly old and pathetic. She sat all day quite still on a hard chair with her hands in her lap and said nothing. … In her silence and immobility [she was] like the cocoon when a caterpillar becomes a butterfly. Only, she had been the butterfly first.”

Another daughter, Dina Osinsky, remembered what happened to her father, Valerian Osinsky, who was chairman of the Supreme Council of the National Economy: “My father was arrested in the middle of the night on October 14, 1937.” She woke up and heard her father’s last words to her and his wife: “Farewell. Sell the books, sell everything.” Soon he was dead.


Valerian Osinsky (Handout)

Maybe we can understand the desperation of Pavel Postyshev, who—ousted from his party leadership position and given a second chance at a provincial post—tried to impress those watching him by (according to his deputy) “going around yelling that there were no decent people left.” His diligence was such that he imagined “fascist symbols on cookies, candy, and other items” and had food distributors expelled from the Communist Party and arrested.

Nevertheless, and despite Postyshev’s insistence that he “always fought against the enemies of the people alongside the Party with all my Bolshevik soul,” officials arrested him. Then they arrested his wife and his two brothers. Postyshev’s son Leonid appealed to a public prosecutor, who said he could not help because he would soon be arrested. He was, and then Leonid also went to prison.

Ecclesiastes 10:8 tells us, “He who digs a pit will fall into it.” Grigory Moroz, who had pledged to “snip off the heads” of Stalin’s opponents, had his head snipped off. Andrei Bubnov, the People’s Commissar of Enlightenment, repeatedly proclaimed that Stalin’s opponents should be “squashed like vile vermin”: Then he was squashed. Officials arrested for treason one Communist speaker as soon as he finished a harangue about the need to shoot traitors.

A century ago Soviet revolutionaries had high hopes. Twenty years later some of them, imprisoned, used bits of broken glass to write on the walls of prison trains and cells, “Why? What for?”

Five more Revolution reads

Catherine Merridale’s well-written Lenin on the Train (Metropolitan, 2017) shows how Germany gained temporary benefit but long-term trouble by transporting Lenin from Switzerland back to Russia in 1917. In her last chapter she connects the dots: Ten years after the revolution, Stalin is in charge and Karl Radek, Lenin’s train companion, fumes, “We’ve been absolute idiots.” Twenty years after, Stalin orders the shooting of Stefan Zinoviev, “who as a little boy in Switzerland had enchanted Lenin so much that the leader once attempted to adopt him.”

Merridale rightly concludes that Lenin “sent tens of thousands to their deaths; the system he created was a stifling, cruel, sterile one, a workshop for decades of tyranny.” That’s what the best old book on the Bolshevik coup, The Russian Revolution by Richard Pipes (Knopf, 1990), also shows. A new book, The Reformer by Stephen Williams (Encounter, 2017), tells how Vasily Maklakov, an honest moderate, was unable to forestall revolution.

Another well-written new book, October: The Story of the Russian Revolution (Verso, 2017), by China Miéville, misses the complexity. Miéville does show how the fecklessness of those who overthrew Czar Nicholas II in the spring of 1917 led to yearnings like that expressed in a letter from a soldier named Kuchlavok: “Now another Savior of the world must be born, to save the people from all the calamities in the making here on earth and put an end to these bloody days.” Tragically, instead of remembering Christ, some Russians worshipped Lenin, and the result was Bolshevik victory in the fall.

Communists wanted that victory to lead to a worldwide win: A. James McAdams tells the exciting story of their defeat in a thorough but stuffy book, Vanguard of the Revolution: The Global Idea of the Communist Party (Princeton, 2017). McAdams concludes rightly that communist economies could not compete successfully with capitalist ones, but the regimes collapsed through “a loss of faith among the communists themselves. … The party was not defeated; it lost the will to stay alive.” —M.O.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. His latest book is Reforming Journalism. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


You must be a WORLD Member and logged in to the website to comment.
  • RC
    Posted: Tue, 10/31/2017 01:03 pm

    Without God, all that is left is evil, destruction and death.

  •  Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Tue, 10/31/2017 08:29 pm

    Russia was defeated, not Communism.  Communism's spirit lives on worldwide.  North Korea is its ugliest current manifestation, and China has retained much from Mao's era, but it also lurks wherever covetousness resides.