Joshua Yaffa‘s latest in The New Yorker looks at the fascinating history of the House on the Embankment, a massive Moscow apartment complex built in the 1930s to house high-level Soviet officials. Along with apartments, the building was home to theaters, a bank, gyms, a post office, a grocery store, and more — all kinds of community services meant to help tenants bridge from individual apartment life to a communal existence.
Spoiler alert: like a lot of things about the Soviet Union, it didn’t really work out.
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.
After several years, life took a sharp turn for residents; the purge-ridden building had the “highest per-capita number of arrests and executions of any apartment building in Moscow.”
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.
Many apartments are inhabited by descendants of the original tenants; many others now house expats who enjoy its proximity to bars and restaurants. The weight of history sits very differently on the shoulders of these two populations.