My apartment building was made to house the first generation of Soviet élite. Instead, it was where the revolution went to die.
A few years ago, after looking at half a dozen apartments all over Moscow, I visited a rental in a vast building across the river from the Kremlin, known as the House on the Embankment. In 1931, when tenants began to move in, it was the largest residential complex in Europe, a self-contained world the size of several city blocks. The House of Government, as it was initially called, was a mishmash of the blocky geometry of Constructivism and the soaring pomposity of neoclassicism, and had five hundred and five apartments that housed the Soviet Union’s governing élite—commissars and Red Army generals and vaunted Marxist scholars.
On the day that I visited, the apartment’s owner, Marina, a cheerful woman in her forties who works for a multinational oil-and-gas company, met me in a courtyard. She took me up to the apartment, which had been in her family for four generations. It was a two-bedroom with a small balcony. Successive renovations had left the place without much of the original architectural detail, but as a result it was airy and open: less apparatchik, more IKEA. Tall windows in the living room looked out over the imperious spires of the Kremlin. I decided to move in.
By that time, the House on the Embankment was popular with expats, and was known for its proximity to a stretch of bars and night clubs in a renovated industrial space that once belonged to the Red October candy factory. A design-and-architecture institute had just opened down the road; I often took my laptop and worked in its café, which was decorated with vintage furniture. I quickly made friends in the building: there was Olaf, a Dutch journalist, and his wife, Anya, who worked at the design school; and Dasha, the owner of a popular pétanque café in Gorky Park. With time, I also became close to Anatoly Golubovsky, a historian and documentary filmmaker who goes by Tolya. He is sixty years old, with a gray beard and wavy hair, and is one of the most reliably fascinating storytellers I know. He and his wife live in an apartment not far from mine that was originally occupied by his grandfather, who was the Soviet Union’s chief literary censor under Stalin.
The most striking thing about the building was, and is, its history. In the nineteen-thirties, during Stalin’s purges, the House of Government earned the ghoulish reputation of having the highest per-capita number of arrests and executions of any apartment building in Moscow. No other address in the city offers such a compelling portal into the world of Soviet-era bureaucratic privilege, and the horror and murder to which this privilege often led. The popular mania about the building today holds it to be a kind of phantasmagoric, haunted museum of Russia’s past century. I asked Tolya what he made of our building’s notoriety. “Why does this house have such a heavy, difficult aura?” he said. “This is why: on the one hand, its residents lived like a new class of nobility, and on the other they knew that at any second they could get their guts ripped out.”
A hundred years ago, in the turbulent autumn of 1917, the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, took advantage of a moment of political chaos in Russia. The empire had grown weak and feckless, and, the previous February, Tsar Nicholas II had left his throne, bringing to a close the era of the Romanovs, a royal dynasty of more than three hundred years. That October, Lenin and the Bolsheviks overturned the interim government, seizing power and setting in motion the dictatorship of the proletariat. At the time, the Bolsheviks were not the country’s largest or most popular socialist party, but they were the most fervently certain of their own prophecies. They were, in essence, the first faith-based apocalyptic sect to take charge of a country.
This is the opening argument of a magisterial new book by Yuri Slezkine, a Soviet-born historian who immigrated to the United States in 1983, and has been a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, for many years. His book, “The House of Government,” is a twelve-hundred-page epic that recounts the multigenerational story of the famed building and its inhabitants—and, at least as interesting, the rise and fall of Bolshevist faith. In Slezkine’s telling, the Bolsheviks were essentially a millenarian cult, a small tribe radically opposed to a corrupt world. With Lenin’s urging, they sought to bring about the promised revolution, or revelation, which would give rise to a more noble and just era. Of course, that didn’t happen. Slezkine’s book is a tale of “failed prophecy,” and the building itself—my home for the past several years—is “a place where revolutionaries came home and the revolution went to die.”
In the years following the Great October Socialist Revolution, as it would be called in Soviet literature, Bolshevik leaders found themselves refashioned as Communist Party officials. They faced the conundrum of how to turn their sect into a church—that is, how to transcend the end-of-days rhetoric and create a stable system of governance. Lenin died in 1924, and Stalin, after maneuvering into power, proclaimed that global revolution was not necessary, and that the socialist utopia could be established in one country, the U.S.S.R. The “building” of socialism was the operative metaphor for what became known as the Stalin Revolution, which was defined by rapid urbanization and industrialization. The fury of construction was meant as a kind of creation myth: on the first day, the Communist Party built the Magnitogorsk steel mill; on the second, the Kharkiv tractor factory. In Moscow, citizens were amazed by the metro, which began operation in the mid-thirties; its cavernous stations, with their chandeliers and marble, felt like palaces for the new Communist era.
Inevitably, the builders of this new state needed a home of their own. After the revolution, top Party officials had taken rooms in the city’s most storied addresses, occupying the Kremlin, the National and Metropol Hotels, and a prominent Orthodox seminary. Such housing was thought to be a temporary necessity that would quickly give way to collective living arrangements. The early post-revolutionary years were a time of utopian experimentation, in architecture as well as in social engineering; the Constructivist Konstantin Melnikov drew up blueprints for giant “sleep laboratories,” in which hundreds of workers could simultaneously drift off to mechanically produced scents and calming sounds. By the late twenties, however, Stalin had dampened the freewheeling spirit in the arts, and, anyway, top Party officials had grown used to the comforts of their hotel suites and noble mansions. Construction on the House of Government began in 1928, with a design, by Boris Iofan, of the “transitional type”—that is, a building with communal services but which, for the moment, allowed residents to live in traditional family apartments. When it opened, in the spring of 1931, Slezkine writes, it boasted
a cafeteria capable of serving all House residents, a theater for 1300 spectators, a library, several dozen rooms for various activities (from pool-playing to symphony orchestra rehearsals), and above the theater, both tennis and basketball courts, two gyms, and several shower rooms. There was also a bank, laundry, telegraph, post office, daycare center, walk-in clinic, hairdresser’s salon, grocery store, department store, and movie theater for 1500 spectators . . . with cafe, reading room, and band stage.
Apartments were distributed among those in charge of the nascent Communist project. Nikolai Podvoisky, a former seminarian who led the storming of the Tsar’s Winter Palace, in 1917, moved into Apartment 280. Boris Zbarsky, a chemist who presided over the embalming and maintenance of Lenin’s body inside its mausoleum, on Red Square, was given Apartment 28. Nikita Khrushchev, then the forty-year-old head of the Moscow Party Committee, moved into No. 206. Iofan himself took a penthouse.
My apartment, in a less desirable wing of the building, was occupied by the family of Mikhail Sergushev, who was born to a peasant family in 1886 and became interested in socialist politics while working in a porcelain factory in Riga. My landlady, Marina, Sergushev’s great-granddaughter, told me that, in the years following the revolution, Sergushev travelled around half a dozen regions, helping to establish Communism across the Soviet domain. His word alone could decide the fate of local officials, even of entire villages and farming coöperatives. At first, Sergushev moved into a seven-room apartment in a mansion that once belonged to a count, where his son would ride a bike from room to room. Yet Sergushev’s health was poor, and in 1930 he died of tuberculosis. The next year, his wife and son moved into the House of Government.
The “transition” that the building was meant to bring about never came to pass. Instead, its residents moved further from collectivist ideals, and adopted life styles that looked suspiciously bourgeois. Residents had their laundry pressed and their meals prepared for them, so that they could spend all day and much of the night at work and their children could busy themselves reading Shakespeare and Goethe. There was a large staff, with one employee for every four residents. Slezkine compares the House of Government to the Dakota, in New York City—a palace of capitalism along Central Park, where residents could eat at an on-site restaurant and play tennis and croquet on private courts. A report prepared for the Soviet Union’s Central Committee in 1935 showed that the cost of running the House of Government exceeded the Moscow norm by six hundred and seventy per cent. To the extent that the House of Government facilitated a transition, it was the metamorphosis of a sect of ascetics into a priesthood of pampered élites.
Just as the building fell short of its promise, so, too, did the early Soviet Union fail to deliver on its prophecies of a just, classless society. Food shortages, cramped housing, and life’s many other indignities continued. All millenarian movements face this moment sooner or later: this is the “Great Disappointment,” a term Slezkine borrows from the story of William Miller, a farmer in Massachusetts who prophesied that the apocalypse would occur in 1843, and, when it didn’t, shifted the date to October 22, 1844. The Soviet Union had experienced two revolutions, Lenin’s and Stalin’s, and yet, in the lofty imagery of Slezkine, the “world does not end, the blue bird does not return, love does not reveal itself in all of its profound tenderness and charity, and death and mourning and crying and pain do not disappear.” What to do then?
The answer was human sacrifice, “one of history’s oldest locomotives,” Slezkine writes. The “more intense the expectation, the more implacable the enemies; the more implacable the enemies, the greater the need for internal cohesion; the greater the need for internal cohesion, the more urgent the search for scapegoats.” Soon, in Stalin’s Soviet Union, the purges began. There would be no such thing as an accident or an error—any deviation from virtue and promised achievements was the result of deliberate sabotage. This is the logic of black magic, of spirits and witches, and of the witch hunt. It was only natural that the hunt’s victims be found among those who set the original prophecy in motion.
It is hard to imagine now, with a children’s playground in one of its courtyards and a pan-Asian noodle bar on the ground floor, but throughout 1937 and 1938 the House of Government was a vortex of disappearances, arrests, and deaths. Arrest lists were prepared by the N.K.V.D., the Soviet secret police, which later became the K.G.B., and were approved by Stalin and his close associates. Arrests occurred in the middle of the night. A group of N.K.V.D. officers would pull up to the building in a Black Raven, the standard-issue secret-police automobile, which had the silhouette of a bird of prey. A story I have heard many times, but which seems apocryphal, is that N.K.V.D. agents would sometimes use the garbage chutes that ran like large tubes through many apartments, popping out inside a suspect’s home without having to knock on the door. After a perfunctory trial, which could last all of three to five minutes, prisoners were taken to the left or to the right: imprisonment or execution. “Most House of Government leaseholders were taken to the right,” Slezkine writes.
No one publicly mentioned the accused or spoke of their plight to surviving family members. On the whole, Slezkine writes, those who lived in the House of Government “believed that enemies were in fact everywhere,” and that any innocent victims were isolated mistakes in an otherwise virtuous bloodletting. He quotes a diary entry of Yulia Piatnitskaya, whose husband, a Comintern official, was arrested, along with their seventeen-year-old son, at the House of Government in 1937. Piatnitskaya is in anguish over her son, and torn between two opposing images of her husband: an honest revolutionary and a purported enemy of the people. When she thinks of the first, she writes, “I feel so sorry for him and want to die or fight for him.” But when she ponders the second: “I feel tainted and disgusted, and I want to live in order to see them all caught and have no pity for them.” In total, according to Slezkine, eight hundred residents of the House of Government were arrested or evicted during the purges, thirty per cent of the building’s population. Three hundred and forty-four were shot.
Before long, the arrests spread from the tenants to their nannies, guards, laundresses, and stairwell cleaners. The commandant of the house was arrested as an enemy of the people, and so was the head of the Communist Party’s housekeeping department. So many enemies of the people were being uncovered that individual apartments were turning over with darkly absurd speed. In April, 1938, the director of the Kuznetsk steel plant, Konstantin Butenko, moved into Apartment 141, which had become vacant after the arrest of its previous tenant, a deputy commissar from the Health Ministry. Butenko occupied the four rooms for six weeks before he himself was arrested, and his family evicted. Matvei Berman, one of the founders of the Gulag, took over the space. Berman was arrested six months later, and shot the next year.
One afternoon not long ago, I visited a woman named Anna Borisova, whose apartment is across a courtyard from mine. Borisova is an amateur artist and poet, and her photographs cover the walls of her living room, alongside faded family portraits. The space has the feel of an airy salon. Borisova put out a pot of tea, and slices of salty cheese and cake. She told me about her grandfather Sergey Malyshev, who was a Soviet official in charge of food markets and trade. Borisova explained that he spent 1937 in a fit of anxiety. “He felt a premonition,” she said. “He was always waiting, never sleeping at night.” One evening, Malyshev heard footsteps coming up the corridor—and dropped dead of a heart attack. In a way, his death saved the family: there was no arrest, and thus no reason to kick his relatives out of the apartment. “Since he died his own death, it all stayed with our family—the apartment, everything,” Borisova said. “And after that no one ever touched us.”
My friend Tolya, the documentary filmmaker, told me how his grandfather, born Iosif Fradkin, survived those years. Before the revolution, he gave himself the nom de guerre of Boris Volin, a play on the Russian word volya, which connotes both will power and freedom. (Renaming was a popular Bolshevist fashion. Vladimir Ulyanov called himself Vladimir Lenin; Iosif Dzhugashvili took the name Joseph Stalin.) Volin could be a harsh, combative man. He took a post at Glavlit, the Soviet Union’s censorship organization, and announced a “decisive turn toward extreme class vigilance.” By the mid-thirties, Volin was a deputy head at the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment, an early Soviet propaganda and education body. One day in the fall of 1937, after fighting with his boss, a mean-spirited man named Andrei Bubnov, Volin had a heart attack. He spent the next several months in and out of state hospitals and rest homes. After his recovery, he found that Bubnov, along with all but one other deputy from the ministry, had been arrested and shot.
I remarked to Tolya that it must have been terrifying to learn that many of your colleagues and friends had been liquidated in your absence. We were sitting in his apartment, surrounded by stacks of antique books and family artifacts. The center of the apartment is his grandfather’s old study, a stately room with a heavy desk and a dramatic wall of floor-to-ceiling wood-and-glass shelves. “The thing is,” Tolya said, “before this awful discovery were many others.” One of Volin’s brothers was a Soviet intelligence officer who worked in the United States under the cover of a military attaché. He was called back, arrested, and shot. One of Volin’s sisters was married to an N.K.V.D. officer, and they lived in the House of Government, in a nearby apartment. When the husband’s colleagues came to arrest him, he jumped out of the apartment window to his death.
Volin, I learned, kept a suitcase packed with warm clothes behind the couch, ready in case of arrest and sentence to the Gulag. His wife burned an archive of papers dating from his time as a Bolshevik emissary in Paris, fearing that the work would brand him a foreign spy. They gave their daughter, Tolya’s mother, a peculiar set of instructions. Every day after school, she was to take the elevator to the ninth floor—not the eighth, where the family lived—and look down the stairwell. If she saw an N.K.V.D. agent outside the apartment, she was supposed to get back on the elevator, go downstairs, and run to a friend’s house.
We spoke about the atmosphere in the building back then, what Tolya’s grandparents must have been thinking as the bright and just world they thought they had built began to cannibalize itself. “They could only think about one thing: how to survive. I am profoundly certain of that,” he said. “They weren’t able to intervene, to control things in the slightest. The forces they were up against were Biblical, like fighting nature itself.”
Like the passing of a black and furious storm, the arrests ended. The last people killed were officers in the N.K.V.D. “Having waked up after the orgy, Stalin and the surviving members of the inner circle needed to get rid of those who had administered it,” Slezkine writes. It was not long before a new tragedy befell the residents of the building, and the country: the invasion by Nazi Germany, in June, 1941. The House of Government was evacuated, its residents scattered to towns across the Soviet Union. Slezkine reports that around five hundred people from the building went off to the war; a hundred and thirteen of them were killed. In the Soviet consciousness, the war was an event as powerful as the revolution. The conflict, Slezkine writes, “justified all the previous sacrifices, both voluntary and involuntary, and offered the children of the original revolutionaries the opportunity to prove, through one more sacrifice, that their childhood had been happy, that their fathers had been pure, that their country was their family, and that their life was indeed beautiful even in death.”
After the war, residents of the House of Government trickled back, but the early spirit of the building was gone. During the forties, as new residents mingled with the old, and furniture moved in and out, the place was, according to Slezkine, “busier, noisier, messier, less exclusive.” New élite apartment blocks went up around town, including the Stalin-era “wedding cake” skyscrapers, and the House of Government ceased to be Moscow’s only prestigious address.
The cult of Stalin and, by extension, the myth of Soviet virtue and exceptionalism—the “bond that had held the scattered survivors of the House of Government together,” Slezkine writes—began to be dismantled in 1956, when Khrushchev, once a resident of the building, now the Soviet First Secretary, delivered a secret speech on Stalin’s crimes to the twentieth Party Congress. This puncturing of the U.S.S.R.’s infallibility was heartbreaking to the generation of original Bolshevik revolutionaries. Tolya’s grandfather, by then a lecturer at the Marxism-Leninism Institute, was devastated by the speech. His wife had died not long before, and Tolya told me that those two events “sent him to the grave.” He died within the year, at the age of seventy-one.
Tolya’s parents were typical members of the next generation of Soviet intelligentsia: successful and outwardly unquestioning of the Communist system, but privately harboring doubts and frustrations. Tolya, like many of his friends, grew up in the protective shadow of the Soviet Union’s postwar might and good cheer. One of his earliest memories is of Yuri Gagarin’s first spaceflight, in 1961, which his family watched on a television—a device in extraordinarily short supply in Moscow in those days. “Gagarin made his flight, and now we, the U.S.S.R., were on top of the world,” Tolya said, describing the mood at the time. “I felt at the very center of the universe.”
In those years, the House of Government residents were still de-facto members of the Soviet élite, even if they were no longer all high-ranking bureaucrats. A “special dispensary” was tucked into one of the courtyards, a quasi-secret food shop and cafeteria that offered otherwise impossible-to-find groceries and various delicacies at subsidized prices. Tolya said that, as a matter of principle, no one in his family took advantage of the shop, but that on several occasions a group of young people would throw an impromptu party, send one of his friends into the shop, and, suddenly, the “table would be set for twenty people.”
In the apartment I now rent, Sergushev’s son, Vladimir, lived with his mother and his wife, Nonna, a glamorous beauty. She had a tense relationship with her mother-in-law, who found the younger woman’s interest in lipstick and lace gloves and nights at the theatre to be gauchely bourgeois. The Sergushev name helped Vladimir get a job at the K.G.B. He was an intelligent and thoughtful man, but with weak nerves. In the fifties, he lost an attaché case filled with top-secret documents while on assignment in Germany, and was quietly removed from the secret services. He got a job as a professor and economist, with access to treats like sturgeon and bananas. He had a son, who, in 1975, had a daughter—my landlady, Marina. She told me that, when she was a child, the building’s history was largely forgotten or purposefully ignored. Growing up, she knew that her great-grandfather had his own entry in the Soviet encyclopedia, but she didn’t think of him as someone who had helped shape history.
Perhaps the defining event in the building’s postwar life came in 1976, when Yuri Trifonov, a former resident, published his novella “The House on the Embankment,” a loosely fictionalized account of his boyhood there. Trifonov, who was six years old when his family moved in, describes the building as a “huge grey block with its thousand windows giving it a look of a whole town.” His father had a high-ranking job at the Council of People’s Commissars; his mother was an economist at the Commissariat of Agriculture.
Trifonov’s father was arrested as an enemy of the people in June, 1937, when Trifonov was eleven. The next April, N.K.V.D. agents came for his mother. They took her out wearing thin canvas sneakers and a gray jacket—clothes she would wear all through the first winter at a Gulag camp in the frozen steppes of Kazakhstan. She paused for a moment on the landing, her arms held behind her, and looked up toward her children. She did not offer the usual words of comfort about her innocence or her imminent return, but instead a piece of advice, which Trifonov remembered for the rest of his life: “Children, no matter what happens, don’t ever lose your sense of humor.” What Trifonov did not know then was that his father was already dead, and he would not see his mother until eight years later, when she returned, weakened and sick, from the camps. Trifonov wrote “The House on the Embankment” when he was fifty-one years old, and the book’s characters are children of his generation, but he alludes to the trauma of the purges only through supporting characters who suddenly vanish, and the narrator’s passing remark that “people who leave the house cease to exist.”
The book was an immediate sensation among Soviet readers, and it gave the building a new life: from then on, it was known as the House on the Embankment. Trifonov died in 1981, but his widow, Olga, who is seventy-eight, is a proud chronicler of her husband’s life and work. We spoke this summer at the small museum dedicated to the House on the Embankment, where Olga is the director. The museum, an apartment on a courtyard of the building, is full of original artifacts, like the custom wooden furniture that Iofan, the building’s architect, designed for tenants. A stuffed penguin sits near the entrance; it was brought back, alive, from the North Pole by Ilya Mazuruk, a famed polar explorer, who lived in the building in the thirties and forties and, legend has it, took the penguin for evening walks along the embankment. Trifonov and his siblings were evicted from the building after his mother’s arrest, and he never returned. As Olga told me, he rarely spoke of his years there. “He was not a man who loved to talk about the past,” she said. “He saved that for his literature.”
In the early eighties, Olga said, the couple lived in a run-down apartment above a food store. Trifonov’s popularity was immense. His name had been floated for a Nobel Prize nomination. One day, a high-ranking Soviet official approached Olga and proposed that the couple move to a four-bedroom apartment in the House on the Embankment. It seemed a fantastic stroke of good fortune. “I came back upstairs with this silly smile, and right in the hallway I told him, ‘We are being offered to move into the House on the Embankment!’ ” Trifonov recoiled: “Do you really think that I want to move back there?” Needless to say, they declined the offer. “For him,” Olga said, “this building contained his most cheerful memories from childhood, the bitterest, and the most tragic, all of that mixed up together.”
Tolya told me that as he grew older he became curious not just about the story of his grandfather, whose medals and Orders of Lenin were displayed in the family bookcase, but also about the many periods of Soviet history that were never discussed. When he was around ten, he read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” a tale of existence in Stalin’s camps. Later, he made his way through Solzhenitsyn’s “Gulag Archipelago,” a three-volume opus that appeared only in samizdat. By his university years, he, like many of his peers, was an anti-Sovietchik—not fully a dissident, but thoroughly disillusioned with official ideology. He developed a split consciousness toward the house. “Of course, on a rational level, I know this building’s history, who lived here, and all about the repressions,” he said. “But there is also a more personal experience: I was born here, grew up here, and have spent a large part of my conscious life here.”
In 1991, the fall of the Soviet Union was treated with excitement and relief by many of those who lived in the House on the Embankment. Its residents were no longer true believers in Communism; by then, it seemed that there was hardly a true believer left in the empire. The nineties in the building, as in Russia as a whole, were a time of anarchic opportunity, exhilarating and terrifying in equal measure. Pensioners moved out, their apartments snapped up by Russia’s nouveau riche. Gangsters from across the former Soviet expanse bought apartments at the city’s most central address, which, for many, still carried a whiff of privilege and power. Underground casinos popped up in some apartments; others were turned into cramped hostels for migrant workers. My apartment was rented to an American oilman, then to an investment banker, after which came a professor from France, and finally, before me, a young socialite who threw raucous parties that upset the neighbors.
The most visible symbol of the era was a Mercedes logo mounted on the roof, an advertisement several stories tall that towered over the building. The logo had been placed there in a murky deal that wasn’t discussed with, let alone approved by, the building’s residents. A rental fee of a million rubles a month was paid to the city-owned company in charge of maintaining the building. When the sign finally came down, after ten years, the company suddenly threatened bankruptcy and said that the cash was gone.
If the nineties were defined by untrammelled commerce and the collapse of authority, then the early Putin years, beginning with Putin’s ascension to the Presidency, in 2000, were a time of increasingly centralized state power. The Kremlin subsumed other centers of authority, including the Orthodox Church, under its control. In 2012, these forces came together with symbolic absurdity in a nasty and protracted lawsuit between neighbors in the House on the Embankment. A woman living in an apartment that belonged to Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Orthodox Church, sued her neighbor, a high-profile surgeon named Yuri Shevchenko, for six million dollars, to cover damage, she said, that was caused by construction dust emanating from Shevchenko’s apartment, which was being renovated. For his part, Kirill—who at the time was facing corruption allegations tied to a luxury Breguet watch—said that the apartment was a gift from Moscow’s former mayor, and that he used it only to store his extensive collection of antique books. A Moscow court ruled against Shevchenko, who, in order to come up with the money, sold the apartment and left the building. In a final twist, the Patriarch’s apartment looks out onto the Church of Christ the Savior, the city’s main Orthodox cathedral, which, that same year, became the site of Pussy Riot’s punk-art protest—a performance meant to satirize the Church’s intimacy with politics under Kirill.
When I called Shevchenko, he didn’t want to talk about the details of the case, but did offer thoughts on his former home. “The building was dreamed up as a little piece of heaven for the chosen,” he told me. “But this house stands on mournful ground, and its residents are doomed to carry a very difficult sorrow.” Without a doubt, he added, the building is “cursed.”
I, like many of my acquaintances in the building, don’t necessarily feel the burden of such heavy symbolism. A friend of mine, Nina Zavrieva, a consultant and tech entrepreneur, grew up in an apartment that first belonged to her grandfather, a lawyer who worked in the Politburo secretariat. Nina, who is thirty, told me that from a young age she was familiar with the building’s rich history. “I knew all this in theory, but I never really felt it,” she said. “I never internalized it.” I asked her if anything about the building felt different after all these years. She said that she wasn’t sure, then remembered something: the color of the façade had changed. “At some point, it was pink, then it became bright gray, but really I don’t think I notice anymore.”
Another friend, Shakri Amirkhanova, a thirty-eight-year-old magazine publisher, had a similar view of the building. Her grandfather was a revered Soviet-era poet who secured an apartment in the House on the Embankment for Shakri’s parents. Now Shakri lives there with her boyfriend and five-year-old daughter. She told me that she was wary of the scale and intensity of the building’s history crowding out her own experience. “It’s my space, with my childhood memories—playing cards with my sister at night, listening to Beatles tapes, taking piano lessons in the living room,” she said. “And now it will be home to my daughter’s memories.”
Tolya told me that he was not a “mystic” about the House on the Embankment. Yet he saw a satisfying parallel in the fact that the square across the road had become the central location for a series of large-scale anti-Kremlin demonstrations in 2011 and 2012. Protesters were angry about election fraud—observers had documented ballot stuffing and other irregularities during the country’s recent elections—but also about the cynicism and corruption that had come to define the Putin state. Tolya and his wife participated in the marches and protests. He said that, in a way, this political consciousness might be the truest inheritance from his grandfather, even though his grandfather’s prescription for change was wildly different from his own. “It seems to me that this yearning, this energy, which ultimately threw itself into revolution, is definitely passed along,” he said. “It’s a natural process. The revolutionary furor softens and adapts, becomes bourgeois, part of the system—and appears again in new forms.”
Over the years, Putin has had a difficult time articulating a coherent position on the events of 1917, and on the revolutionaries who eventually occupied the House on the Embankment. His logic, however contradictory, seems to be that fomenting revolution is bad, but being a superpower is good. He sees the Bolshevik revolutionaries as forerunners to those who might challenge his power today. “Someone decided to shake Russia from inside, and rocked things so much that the Russian state crumbled,” he told a gathering of students and young teachers. “A complete betrayal of national interests! We have such people today as well.” Earlier this year, in a rare comment on the revolution’s upcoming hundred-year anniversary, he said that Russians must study their history to “fully understand and give purpose to the lessons of the past,” but he didn’t say what those lessons might be.
Not long ago, I spoke to Gleb Pavlovsky, a member of underground literary circles in the nineteen-eighties, who, in the two-thousands, became one of the chief architects of Putin’s political messaging—the dark art of packaging and spin known in Russia as “political technology.” What attracted him to Putin, he told me, was that he represented neither “revolution nor counterrevolution—all of that was left in the past.” Instead, with Pavlovsky’s guidance, Putin cultivated the image of a nonideological father figure, stern and decisive, but pragmatic and without sweeping philosophical passions.
In 2004, Pavlovsky returned to Moscow from Kiev, where he had overseen an unsuccessful Kremlin effort to install a Russia-friendly candidate as President. He decided to buy an apartment in the House on the Embankment. It was a large, sunny place on the ninth floor, with a wall of windows and an expansive balcony, where he would often sit in an armchair and work. Pavlovsky’s colleagues laughed at his choice of address: by then, fashionable Kremlin apparatchiks lived in walled-off mansions outside town. But Pavlovsky enjoyed the gravitas of his new home. “I felt like a participant in history, and I must say I liked it.” The apartment was home to the “years of my most fierce Putinism,” he said.
Eventually, Pavlovsky soured on the political machine he had helped construct. In 2011, when Putin decided to return to the Presidency for a third term, Pavlovsky disagreed with the decision. He left the Kremlin, and became an outspoken critic of the Putin government. Like Tolya, he attended the protests across the street. At a certain point, he decided that he no longer liked living in the House on the Embankment and the connotations that came with it. For a decade, he had been part of the country’s political establishment, and, as he put it, lived in a building that served as an “external confirmation” of that status. But he began to think of that as something “unpleasant, even embarrassing—that I was connected to the part of the establishment in that building who were guilty, the ones who had allowed, or at least not prevented, the evil of the past.” As Pavlovsky told me, the Bolshevik revolutionaries who first inhabited the House on the Embankment “thought that they were smarter, that they could outwit the system they created. But they lost control, became marionettes of something much bigger and more powerful than any individual, and, by the time that system had started to devour people, it was too late.” He sold his apartment in 2015, and now rents a place in a different part of town. On the whole, he said, he’s relieved to be gone. “But I do miss the views.”