On a recent research trip to Tbilisi, I stayed with a retired math professor and master storyteller named Tsiala in the communal apartment she’d remade into an elegant B&B for foreigners on the city’s main drag. Evenings over tea, she told me stories about her life in Soviet Georgia. The one I remember best was about her pregnancy with twins in the early 1970s. Certain she’d lose her job at the university if she took maternity leave, she decided to hide the pregnancy. She bought a long fur coat and wore it whenever she left the house. Heavily pregnant by summer, she looked ridiculous in the coat and thought she might die in the 90-degree heat of the outdoor fruit market. Still, in late August, she managed to give birth to two girls and return to work four days later, leaving the infants in the care of a nanny, as though nothing big had happened.
Tsiala’s story gets at a central failure of Soviet communism. For all their radical rhetoric about equality, and notwithstanding new social insurance laws passed after 1917 to ensure women’s equal rights—including the world’s first state-funded maternity leave policy—and ambitious plans in the 1920s for public day care centers, laundries, and cafeterias that would liberate women from the “crushing drudgery” (Lenin’s phrase) of housework and release them into the workforce, the Soviets left bourgeois family structures and traditional gender roles largely in place, and laws on the books to support women did little to undermine patriarchy.1
Lots has been written about the position of women in the Soviet Union, and about how prominent visions and plans for a sexual revolution—mainly put forth by prominent Bolshevik women—were sabotaged and suppressed from the start.2 In a new book about the Bolsheviks and the world they made, The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution, historian Yuri Slezkine has some new things to say on the subject. Bolshevism was a “men’s movement,” and this contributed to its demise. By failing to liberate women from the domestic sphere, Slezkine argues, the Bolsheviks inadvertently and fatally preserved capitalism and the bourgeois system they wanted to destroy. For, “women produced children; women and children formed families; and families ‘engendered capitalism and the bourgeoisie continuously, daily, hourly, spontaneously, and on a massive scale.’”3 In this #MeToo moment, of working to identify and dismantle the structures that have long disadvantaged and hurt women and denied them equal rights, it makes sense to turn to history for models of attempted radical social change. The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia was one of the great egalitarian social experiments of the 20th century and so would seem a good place to look, and yet Slezkine’s story seems to offer little in the way of models, never mind reasons for hope.
Just shy of a thousand pages, The House of Government is more than one thing. It’s a history of the Bolshevik Revolution told, like War and Peace, through a domestic lens, an effect that—to quote Lewis Siegelbaum, one of the nine male historians who blurbed the book—“heightens the tragedy of the revolution.” Slezkine wants to show that Bolshevism was a messianic-apocalyptic movement that failed to convert the masses because its leaders neglected family life. By allowing its children to be raised by “God-fearing nannies,” and to read bourgeois novels, he argues, the movement created its own gravediggers.
But if you squint past the introduction and stop short of the conclusion, where Slezkine mainly lays out his messianic-apocalyptic argument, his book is also a very sad portrait of how Bolshevism betrayed women. A sham egalitarian movement, Bolshevism was, Slezkine tells us, “aggressively and unabashedly masculine.” Prominent women existed in the ranks of the Bolsheviks and helped make the revolution, but they were pushed aside after 1917. Having it all was not an option: “Most female Old Bolsheviks had to choose between family and revolution.” Men took full control of the new government and rarely promoted women to power positions outside the short-lived Women’s Section (founded in 1919 by well-known Bolshevik feminists Alexandra Kollontai and Inessa Armand, Stalin disbanded it in 1930, declaring women’s problems “solved”).4
The subject and main physical setting of Slezkine’s book is Moscow’s House of Government (later renamed House on the Embankment), an enormous building made to lodge the Old Bolsheviks who worked for the new Soviet government. Designed by architect Boris Iofan (1891–1976) and opened in 1931, it was the city’s largest residential complex. Construction of the building began in 1928, with the launch of Stalin’s first Five-Year Plan (1928–1932).
Like most experimental housing built in this period, the House of Government was a compromise, “transitional type” design: a cross between “bourgeois individualism and communist collectivism,” in which residents were temporarily allowed to live as individual families in their own apartments, and also provided with various collective services. A self-contained world, it had 505 furnished apartments and public spaces, a cafeteria, grocery store, clinic, childcare center, hair salon, post office, telegraph, bank, gym, laundry, library, tennis court, activity rooms (for billiards, painting, orchestra rehearsals), a theater that seated 1,300, and a movie theater for 1,500. Not surprisingly, given women’s exclusion from the building’s design—and despite repeated requests—the complex’s kindergarten never got its own building, but was instead cobbled together from four apartments.
By failing to liberate women from the domestic sphere, Slezkine argues, the Bolsheviks inadvertently and fatally preserved capitalism and the bourgeois system they wanted to destroy.
More radically redesigned housing—with things like separate barracks to isolate children from their parents and break up nuclear families, and open designs to make solitude (a sin) impossible—was expected to train people to think and behave communally. Critics objected that the “transitional” House of Government, on the other hand, functioned just like bourgeois apartment buildings being built in other, capitalist cities of the time. This was true, as Slezkine reveals in a fascinating comparison. Most luxury apartment buildings built in New York City around this time had public kitchens, restaurants, and laundries, and many had communal playrooms and dining rooms for children. The iconic Dakota, on Central Park West in the 70s, “had all those things plus croquet lawns and tennis courts.”
Why wasn’t the design of the House of Government more radical? Soviet officials had been adapting Marxist ideas all along to ground-level realities, but Bolsheviks’ deep attachments to traditional family structures also played a part. Slezkine notes that those involved in its design were also its future residents and speculates that they “were not quite ready to part with their children or live in individual cells.” But others, good Marxists, didn’t see the need for the radical transformation of domestic life. For instance, prominent Bolshevik Gleb Krzhizhanovsky—who was in charge of the “electrification of the whole country,” and the first head of Gosplan (the advisory board for the planned economy)—believed that “industrialization alone was capable of creating the true material conditions for a radical transformation of everyday life.”
By 1935, the House of Government was full of Bolshevik families. Of the 2,655 registered tenants, about 700 were state and Party officials. The rest were dependents (including 588 children), and an army of service people who kept the place running (plumbers, waiters, painters, gardeners, janitors, laundresses, floor polishers, etc.).
Slezkine’s portrait of Bolshevik family life—which is anchored in the House of Government but extends liberally beyond, as many of its residents spent lots of time elsewhere, spreading socialism and creating the new country—is one in which men help themselves to the opportunities of free love, and women’s suffering is legion. There are a few good men in his story, in the sense of being strong in their egalitarian convictions and decent husbands and fathers. Yakov Sverdlov—who would later order the execution of Tsar Nicholas II and his family—stands out.
Exiled by the tsar for revolutionary activities, Sverdlov spent his time in Siberia before 1917 as part of a close-knit community of socialist revolutionaries who were “radically opposed to a corrupt world.” Slezkine describes this as a very happy time in his family life, spent skiing outdoors, writing (including a not very convincing theory about the pain of childbirth), and enjoying the pleasures of his children. He comes off as a champion childcare provider and superb reindeer-dumpling-maker.
But Slezkine includes far more bad husbands in his Bolshevik family drama, in great detail. He provides a page-turning account of how Valentin Trifonov—the leader of the Cossack revolutionary forces and important to the creation of the Red Army—pulled a Woody Allen on his common-law wife Tatiana Slovatinskaia, seducing her daughter from a previous marriage, Evgenia, and eventually marrying and impregnating her. This unusual blended family ended up living together in one apartment. An accompanying photograph (reproduced at the head of this article) shows an absolutely miserable Evgenia.
Slezkine’s portrait of Bolshevik family life is one in which men help themselves to the opportunities of free love, and women’s suffering is legion.
Alexander Arosev—who headed the Military Revolutionary Committee after the Bolshevik seizure of power, and would go on to lead Soviet diplomatic and cultural propaganda efforts abroad—is depicted as a cruel husband, and possibly a rapist. Slezkine tells us how he stole an 18-year-old Kazan housemaid named Olga Goppen from her husband, “against her will,” and forced her to marry him. Only after bearing him three children did she manage to escape with a new husband to faraway Sakhalin Island. As a final act of cruelty against her, Arosev (in an Alexei Karenin move) refused to let her take the children, and quickly replaced her with a new wife half his age (his eldest daughter’s 22-year-old music teacher).
Of all the womanizers in Slezkine’s portrait of family life, Nikolai Bukharin—who would be purged by Stalin in 1938 for his role in the “Right Opposition”—is perhaps the worst. We learn that he cheated on his sick wife, Nadezhda, with a woman named Esfir, whom he impregnated and strung along with false promises of marriage until she fled. Next, he began an affair with a woman he met on a train, Sasha, and his refusal to choose between his wife and her drove both women mad: Nadezhda tried to poison herself, and Sasha developed “nervous paralysis.” After Sasha finally left him, he took up with a friend’s daughter, Anna, whom he brought home to live with him and his wife in their apartment. A defeated Nadhezhda put up a partition, having accepted her fate and “calmed down,” and Bukharin lived in peace with his “Aniuta,” until he was purged.
As wives and mothers, women in this book sacrifice terribly for man-made Soviet society. Widows of Bolsheviks purged by Stalin live wretched final years of their lives. In several well-known memoirs, the widows of communists who died in Stalinist purges have described the superhuman efforts it took for them to survive as single mothers, ostracized and stripped of all former privileges, income, and a place to live.5 Here, we see the widows who completely fell apart. Unforgettably, Slezkine quotes Anatoly Granovsky—son of Mikhail Granovsky, named director in 1929 of the Berezniki Chemical Plant, a chief source of chemical fertilizers for the new Soviet agriculture—on his mother’s deterioration after his father’s 1937 arrest:
[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. There was something terrifying about her. In her silence and immobility, as though hypnotized, she yet gave the impression of something slowly happening, like the cocoon when a caterpillar becomes a butterfly. Only, she had been the butterfly first.
For their association with guilty husbands and sons, and their own alleged political deviance, wives and mothers and grandmothers are arrested too, and made to suffer unspeakably. Their greatest torture is worrying about children they’ve left behind. One grandmother, Sofia Mikhailovna Averbakh—the sister of Yakov Sverdlov, long since dead in 1919 from the flu—is allowed to receive letters in exile in the 1930s from her eight-year-old grandson Garik, which surely destroyed her. She gets just two, written from his orphanage. They read:
Dear Grandma, again I didn’t die! You’re the only one I’ve got in the world, and I’m the only one you’ve got. If I don’t die, when I get big, and you’re already very, very old, I’ll work and take care of you. Your Garik
Dear Grandma, I didn’t die this time, either. I don’t mean the time I already wrote you about. I keep on not dying. Your grandson.
One of the most tragic cases—whose story Slezkine threads through the book—is Tania Miagkova, an earnest, ordinary, devoted revolutionary and true martyr to the cause. Expelled from the Party and exiled in 1927, she left behind her beloved daughter, Rada, to begin her sentence in Astrakhan, the first in an archipelago of exile sites. By age 31, she’s sacrificed terribly for the regime: she has no teeth, her hair is failing out, she’s living in a house with no roof, and yet in spite of it all she marvels “at her own buoyancy.”
A true believer or deeply in denial—Slezkine leaves it to the reader to decide—Miagkova doesn’t let exile dampen her passion for the revolution or the Soviet regime. She spends her time reading obsessively about the First Five-Year-Plan and learning Kazakh, hoping to make herself useful in the collectivization efforts in Kazakhstan when she’s finally released. In letters to her mother, she’s grateful for rain, because “it’s good for the Soviet state.”
When Miagkova’s husband, too, is arrested, she’s certain it’s just a misunderstanding. She keeps hoping she’ll be permitted a visit with her daughter. “I am indestructible,” she writes to her mother after years in exile, and we know that she is not. Her end in 1937 is predictable and banal: accused of maintaining contacts with Trotskyists, she’s executed one night in a routine execution of convicts at her camp. But it’s heartbreaking, because Slezkine has made us love and root for her.
Not just an account of a failed revolutionary movement, The House of Government offers lessons on how to avoid failure in our own time. To achieve true social and economic change, women’s (traditional and imposed) work at home and with children must be valued. This support needs to be built into the places where they live and work. To allow women full participation in life and in work and to release their talents, domestic work needs to be shared with the community, including and especially with men. These are lessons relevant to today. #MeToo has temporarily disrupted habits of thinking, disabled strong powers of denial, and created an opening to reimagine life on better, not to say utopian, terms. It is not enough to topple powerful men who rape and harass. To achieve women’s security, we must also reenvision how domesticity is valued, and build from this vision a world of sexual equality.
This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom.
- See, for instance, Barbara Alpern Engel, “Women in Russia and the Soviet Union,” Signs, vol. 12, no. 4 (1987); Barbara Alpern Engel and Anastasia Posadskaya-Vanderbeck, eds., A Revolution of Their Own: Voices of Women in Soviet History (Westview, 1997). On ambitious Bolshevik plans from the 1920s for public communal services to liberate women from housework, see William G. Rosenberg, ed., Bolshevik Visions: First Phase of the Cultural Revolution in Soviet Russia, Part 1 (1984; University of Michigan Press, 1990). On the 1917 social insurance laws relevant to women, mothers, and children, see Alexandra Kollontai, The Autobiography of a Sexually Emancipated Communist Woman (Herder and Herder, 1971), p. 20. While a law was on the books as early as 1917, many women in the USSR didn’t get access to paid maternity leave until the 1980s. See Sergei Zakharov, “Russian Federation: From the First to Second Demographic Transition,” Demographic Research, vol. 19, no. 24 (2008); and Olga Issoupova, “From Duty to Pleasure? Motherhood in Soviet and Post-Soviet Russia,” in Gender, State, and Society in Soviet and Post-Soviet Russia, edited by Sarah Ashwin (Routledge, 2000). ↩
- On how female Bolsheviks who pushed for sexual equality were mocked, ignored, and pushed aside, see Kollontai’s Autobiography. See also Beatrice Farnsworth, Aleksandra Kollontai: Socialism, Feminism, and the Bolshevik Revolution (Stanford University Press, 1980). ↩
- The source of the internal quotation here is Lenin, who said, in “‘Left-Wing’ Communism: An Infantile Disorder” (April-May 1920), “Small-scale production engenders capitalism and the bourgeoisie continuously, daily, hourly, spontaneously, and on a massive scale.” Slezkine apparently assumes his reader will know this is Lenin and has cleverly adapted his words to be about families. ↩
- Wendy Z. Goldman, Women, the State, and Revolution: Soviet Family Policy and Social Life, 1917–1936 (Cambridge University Press, 1993). On the Women’s Section, or Zhenotdel, see also Goldman, Women at the Gates: Gender and Industry in Stalin’s Russia (Cambridge University Press, 2002). ↩
- An outstanding account is Heda Margolius Kovály, Under a Cruel Star: A Life in Prague, 1941–1968 (Plunkett Lake, 1986). ↩