Tag Archives: Soviet Union

The House Where Revolution Went to Die

the house on the embankment, a massive apartment complex on the banks of the moscow river

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.

Read the story

How to Get Away with Spying for the Enemy

Sarah Laskow | Topic | July 2017 | 14 minutes (3,700 words)

This story is co-funded by Longreads Members and published in collaboration with Topic, which publishes an original story, every other week. Sign up for Topic’s newsletter now. Sarah Laskow’s story is part of Topic’s State of the Union issue.

Ronald Rewald and Richard Craig Smith did not appear to have much in common. The founder of an investment firm in Hawai’i, Rewald lived like a Master of the Universe, traveling the world in expensive cars, staying in expensive hotels and throwing expensive parties. Smith, by contrast, lived in Utah, with a wife and four children. A former case officer in intelligence with the United States Army, he had resigned from his job at the start of the 1980s to spend more time with his family. He sought to make a new life for himself as an entrepreneur;  when VHS tapes were still cutting-edge, he began a service to make video diaries and testimonials for families to pass down from one generation to the next.

What brought Rewald and Smith together was espionage. In the early 1980s, legal troubles tangled the two men in a similar narrative of spying and betrayal. First charged in August 1983 in state court with two counts of theft, Rewald was eventually indicted, a year later, on 100 counts of fraud, tax evasion, perjury and other federal crimes. In April 1984, Smith was accused of much more serious offenses—conspiracy, espionage, and transmission of secret material, charges that, were he convicted, could lead to a death sentence. The two men were represented the same lawyer, the bombastic Brent Carruth, and they had the same defense for their alleged crimes: The CIA made me them do it.

Rewald and Smith’s assertions sometimes seemed preposterous, as if lifted from a convoluted spy novel. The cartoonish stories they told involved fake names, fear of assassination, and envelopes full of cash. (They certainly seemed fictional to government prosecutors, who dismissed the tales as fabrications.) But in the Reagan era, as now, the news was full of undisclosed meetings and clandestine plots to swing elections. Americans were being inundated with reports about the secrets of the intelligence community: the Watergate revelations about the CIA’s domestic surveillance, the assassination attempts on foreign leaders, and the Iran-Contra scandal, for starters.

Suddenly, anything seemed possible.

On paper, the government’s success in Smith’s case was all but assured. Americans have little tolerance for disloyalty. There have been more than 110 Americans arrested on espionage charges since the 1950s and those who didn’t defect before they were sentenced to years, sometimes decades, in prison.

But though Rewald and Smith’s stories sounded wild, their juries weren’t entirely willing to trust the veracity of the government’s narrative, either. In the end, one of the two men would be sent to jail, the other set free. Read more…

The Re-Kazakhification of Kazakhstan, On Horseback

In the summer issue of VQR, Will Boast has a fascinating piece on kokpar, a traditional Kazakh sport in which in two teams of men on horseback “compete over a headless, freshly slaughtered goat, wrestling control back and forth in an attempt to score by flinging it into the opponent’s goal.” At the end of the game, the goat is dinner.

While many young Kazakhs would rather watch soccer than kokpar, the state is committed to promoting all things Kazakh after years of Soviet control that saw ethnic Kazakhs become a minority in their own country.

Despite these gestures toward a more global profile, Kazakhstan remains, for many, a huge blank on the map somewhere between Russia and China, essentially a hinterland. (During my visit, one young Kazakh educated in the US briskly summarized the typical Western conception of his country as, “Oil, dictator, Borat.”) In part to remedy its global anonymity, Kazakhstan is in the middle of a quixotic identity-building project, an attempt not only to define itself to the world but to reclaim and remake the past, and thus reckon with the realities of self-determination. After coming dangerously close to disappearing into history, ethnic Kazakhs are once again a majority, today making up about 65 percent of the nation’s population, with ethnic Russians at about 25 percent (the total population is just under 18 million, in a country larger than all of western Europe). A nationwide program of Kazakhification has gradually taken hold—replacing Russian with Kazakh as the language of business and politics, rewriting Soviet-era schoolbooks to include an honest account of Stalin’s brutal policies, and emphasizing the pre-tsarist history of the khanates.

The pre-Russian period has also been employed to provide the foundation of Kazakh cultural identity in the new century. The signifiers of a nomadic past are everywhere, often commodified and romanticized: placards in Almaty’s airport that showcase eagle hunting; documentaries on yurt living on state-run Kazakh TV; yurt-themed restaurants; and, of course, countless totems of the beloved horse—in snacks made of dried mare’s milk, in horse-themed techno on the radio, and in miniature riding crops given away as party favors, to name just a few examples.

Read the story

The Hidden Truth About the Cold War Roomba

Over at Paleofuture, Matt Novak looks back at the 1959 Cold War cultural exhibitions hosted by both the United States and the Soviet Union. For the United States, the Moscow exhibition was a chance to show off the newest products and technology from companies like IBM, Sears and Kodak—and perhaps the most important innovation of all when it came to highlighting America’s high-tech future:

Today the autonomous robot vacuum cleaner is passé. Or at the very least, no longer representative of something terribly futuristic. iRobot, the Boston-based company that makes the Roomba, has been churning those things out for over a decade. But in 1959, there was nothing more techno-utopian. The Exhibition had one, thanks to RCA/Whirlpool and a little bit of trickery.

The Exhibition had four demonstration kitchens, but the RCA/Whirlpool Miracle Kitchen was by far the most futuristic. It promised super-fast meal preparation, push-button everything, and automatic robot cleaners. There were even large TV monitors for monitoring different parts of the home, which reportedly impressed Khrushchev. But not everything worked exactly as the exhibitors claimed.

“They had a two-way mirror with a person sitting behind it that could see the room,” Joe Maxwell told me over the phone in his light southern drawl. “And they radio-controlled the vacuum cleaner and the dishwasher.”

Read the story

Photo: Library of Congress, via Shorpy