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.