12 March 2007

The House on the Embankment

Last week I visited a Moscow landmark that is well known to students of Soviet history: the so-called "House on the Embankment." Seated on the bank of the Moscow River, opposite what was to be the location for a massive "Palace of Soviets" topped by a 300-foot statue of Lenin, the building complex was built in the early 1930s as a residence for the upper crust of the Soviet elite: high-ranking party leaders, government ministers and other officials, military leaders, actors, writers, artists, and other heroes of the Soviet regime. It was not just an apartment complex; it was practically a city within a city, containing a post office, a telegraph office, a bank, a laundry, a supermarket, a beauty salon, a restaurant, a school, a medical center, a gymnasium, and even a movie theater. It was, with just a touch of irony, the not-so-grand palace of the Stalinist nobility.

And this, of course, is why the bulky and rather unattractive building is so well know to historians of those infamous years. The Great Terror of 1937-38 took an enormous toll on the upper echelons of the Soviet hierarchy, and nowhere was that toll more apparent than at the House on the Embankment. It is estimated that one-third of the building's residents (about 700 individuals) were victims of Stalin's repressions. The Stalinist system of elite career advancement in that era has been described as a terrible escalator: rising stars rode it higher and higher until they reached the top, by which point it was too late to turn around; into the churning meat grinder they fell. Just as they had clawed their way to the top, so too were others now beginning that deadly ascent, perhaps unaware or perhaps in denial about the fate that awaited them. It is said that on most nights one could see the apartments of that night's unfortunate crop of arrestees lit up in the darkness, signaling to the city and the world that the time had come for the occupants to pay the fiddler's bill. For them it was the beginning of a journey that had one of two likely outcomes: a sentence to the GULAG with years of hunger, starvation, and exhaustion to follow. Or, perhaps the more merciful outcome: a charge of lead in the back of the head.

Upon learning that a small museum dedicated to the building's history occupied a former guard's apartment on the ground floor, I immediately made plans to visit the house with an infamous past. As the museum is only open in the late afternoon on certain days of the week, I caught it in the haze of twilight. Dusk's soft blue light, enveloping the building in my photo above, belies the unrepentantly gray nature of the building. Apparently early plans called for the building being painted pink or white. When the designers realized that the building's location next to a smoke-vomiting factory would quickly sully its pastel appearance, a quintissentially socialist compromise was found: the building would be painted gray, thereby blending in with the Soviet landscape around it.

Today the building still has its theater, its post office, its restaurant. Its grocery store has weathered the transition to capitalism and is now run by a high-class western operation. Observant Muscovites and Muscovites at heart will notice in my picture above that the massive Mercedes hood ornament that now rotates on top of the building is missing. No, this post-Soviet clash of communism's past and capitalism's future hasn't actually been removed: I couldn't fit it into the shot, and besides, I think the building looks better without it. Thanks to a little Photoshop, it's gone, at least in my world.

Walking through the building's courtyards and under its archways the weight of history is palpable. How many lords and ladies of Stalin's court had walked this very path every day until being pushed into the back seat of a black sedan, never to walk the path again?

I followed the slushy walkway up a short flight of stairs and entered the tiny two-room museum. It is a small, unassuming place. This does not come as a surprise in a country which is reluctant to dredge up some of the more unpleasant aspects of its history and put them on display. One room contains a small exhibit about the architect and the building's construction, along with displays for some of the building's illustrious residents, including the family of Stalin's in-laws. It is said that they were a constantly painful reminder of his wife's suicide in 1932, which is why they too had to be swept away eventually. Hanging on the walls are lists of the famous residents of the building, along with a framed list of the names of residents who fell victim to Stalin's purges.

The second room consists of a recreation of an apartment, containing an original bed designed by the building's architect himself, as well as a collection of furniture and other objects donated by the families of former residents. The museum's staff, a collection of aging ladies gathered in the adjoining office watching television, were very proud of the museum's new wood flooring. Personally, I preferred the quintessentially Russian parquet floors that were visible in photos taken before the rennovation, but I kept this opinion to myself.

I had come to the museum to be moved. I had come to the museum seeking a familiar feeling for those who ponder history at monuments to her greatest tragedies: it is at once a feeling of emptiness for what was lost and can never be undone, and simultaneously a feeling of fullness, a fullness of blackened sorrow, as if one's heart is being weighed down by a fistfull of iron nails inside. It is a feeling that I have at the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C. It is a feeling that I have at the WWII museum in Minsk as the museum employee, a weary and ancient woman with tears in her eyes, tells me of the children the Nazis strung up in Minsk's central square to serve as an example of those who would resit. It is a feeling that I have as I stand before the statue of the weeping mother cradling her dead soldier son in Volgograd at the monument to the battle of Stalingrad. This is what I hoped for; this is what I sought. It is painful but it is necessary, for the pain forces us to remember.

As I prepared to gather my belongings and leave the museum I was disappointed that I had not found this feeling there. Perhaps it is because it is hard to convey the gravity of historic events in two small rooms. Perhaps it requires not faded photographs but bronze monuments. Perhaps it requires not a list of names printed on computer paper and pasted together, but names carved in stone.

Or perhaps it is hard to empathize with the victimized residents of that building. After all, they were destroyed by the regime that they built, the regime that they glorified. It reminds me of a scene from Arthur Koestler's classic novel, from which this blog takes its title and I my nom de plume. When a former monarchist learns that his neighbor in the adjoining cell is none other than the illustrious Comrade Rubashov, he responds with vicious delight by tapping on the wall: "Bravo! The wolves devour each other!" I can't help but think that part of my lack of feeling for this place is because in the back of my head I know the monarchist is right: the residents carried away from the House on the Embankment in the middle of the night may have been victims and probably were innocent of the crimes for which they were accused. But many of them were wolves nonetheless.

Of course, it is not fair to say that they all had blood on their hands, that they had all signed arrest warrents, or had all denounced a neighbor. They had not. Nor did they all work for the government or the party, as artists, writers, academicians, and journalists were also resident victims. But what they all had in common was that they were all builders of the regime. Whether writing a poem extolling the achievements of collectivization of agriculture or printing Stalin's recent speech to the Central Committee, there is no doubt that the elite residents of that building were supporting the hand that wielded the knife, a hand that without question was covered in blood.

This brings up the delicate question of collective guilt, responsibility, and repentance, one which Russian society has largely failed to come to terms with. How far down the chain does responsibility go? How far down does the blood drip? Does guilt lie solely with Mandelstam's "Kremlin mountaineer?" Most would agree that it extends farther down, to the Molotovs, the Kaganoviches, the Yezhovs, Yagodas, and Berias of the regime. Even Nikita Khrushchev, the eventual champion of de-Stalinization, was said to have been up to his elbows in blood during the Stalin era. But what about the functionary stamping papers in the Ministry of Heavy Industry? What about the schoolteacher proclaiming the correctness of Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist thought to her charges? Even more difficult, what about the millions of individuals who stood by, waiting silently in the dark while their neighbors were taken away? Are they too guilty for not having stood against the regime?

It is an excruciatingly difficult question to answer, one which I will not attempt. It is clear that those at the top are guilty; on that we can agree. I would also suggest that those at the bottom - those who remained silent - can be forgiven for their silence, for opening one's mouth in this era was certain suicide. I have a hard time blaming those who were terrified into quiescence. But between those two extremes, where one draws the line between guilt and innocence I have no idea.

And so, it may be this vast moral gray area containing both the guilty and the innocent that left me wanting to feel moved, wanting to feel sorrow, but ultimately unable to do so.

As I was putting on my coat, one of the volunteer staff members thanked me for visiting. I told her that it was an extremely interesting museum and that their work was very important. She told me that the other staff members felt the same way, as most had personal ties to the building.

"I, after all, grew up in this building," she told me. "My father was in the military and was arrested in 1949 when I was twelve, so I was sent to live with relatives."

With that I felt a familiar pain in my chest, as if my heart were being pulled down through my feet, through the floor and into the dirt below. That feeling had materialized. I had forgotten about the children.

Of all the building's residents during those nightmarish years, it was the children that were free of any guilt, innocent of the sins of the father. Yet they too suffered mightily when the knock on the door came. They truly suffered unjustly. In the best of all scenarios, the wives of the arrested officials were left untouched, able to care for their children, though in admittedly difficult circumstances, as marriage to an "enemy of the people" made one an immediate outcast. However, wives were often arrested with their husbands, leaving their children without parents. The luckiest were sent to live with relatives, as in the case of the woman at the museum. Not so lucky were those that were sent into official orphanages, where they were told to forget their past lives and the "enemy" parents they had left behind. The most tragic were those who ended up in prison for petty crimes such as stealing a bit of grain or a piece of bread. Eventually these children might filter into the GULAG themselves, where they quickly became animals in nearly every sense of the word. Anne Applebaum's powerful history of the GULAG quotes one camp memoirist's recollections of the juveniles who entered the hellish world of the prison system:

"Hunger and the horror of what had happened had deprived them of all defenses... They feared nothing and no one. The guards and camp bosses were scared to enter the separate barracks where the juveniles lived. It was there that the vilest, most cynical and cruel acts that took place in the camps occurred...[T]he boys would kill [someone] for a day's bread ration or simply 'for the fun of it.' The girls boasted that they could satisfy an entire team of tree-fellers. There was nothing human left in these children and it was impossible that they might return to the normal world and become ordinary human beings again"(Applebaum, GULAG, p. 332).

Regardless of what their parents may have been guilty of, no child deserved this horrific fate, transformed from human into beast.

And so, I would suggest that it was the children of the House on the Embankment who were its true victims, and those to whom Russia's collective conscience must still answer.


Anonymous said...

As I was reading your post I was just about to leave a comment on the fate of the children when I came to the part about running into a survivor. Thought you might be interested in my translation project, here:


They are taken from a book called Deti Gulaga, portions of which will be appearing in a volume about children of the Great Terror and the remainder of which I'm hoping to get published separately.

Anonymous said...

I lived in the house for a couple of years in the 90's (Top Floor facing the river ) My flat had hand painted ceilings ( that I managed to save the American remont guys from whitewashing over ) the factory you talk about is the chocolate factory between the house and the statue of Peter the Great. I was there when they last painted the building. It was done completely by women !

Anonymous said...

I read your post with very great interest & I too am familiar with that "feeling" you described. At present, I'm doing some preliminary research for a project revolving around "The House" but have not yet had a chance to visit (that's an odd word, isn't it, if you consider the context). I just cannot even imagine living in that building; my imagination is far too vivid. I'm afraid I'd be lying in the bed, trying to fall asleep. Then, I'd hear hurried, booted footsteps, followed by the sound of someone pounding on a door... then I'd most likely wet the bed! To me, it would be like trying to set up housekeeping in Hitler's bunker.

I look forward to reading more on your Blog!

TjB 11. Nov. 2008

amgoich said...

When I was 10 years old My father got a job in Moscow and we actually lived for 4 years in this house. it was a creepy experience but an interesting one.

Kelly said...

As a student of Soviet history, I can appreciate your article. It shows the pain inflicted on the people, but yet shows what animals they were as well.

Babak said...

Im actually sitting in an office in the chocolate factory looking at the House on The Embankment as i'm writing this. I visited the little museum last time I came and the experience hasn't left me, i have been thinking about it a lot since then. Im reading a great biog on Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore called at the Court of the Red Tsar, which describes through letters vividly telling of the story of Stalin and his cronies, and just how ruthless and often flippantly the terror was implemented, I am a film maker and I think Its a story that need to be told, but frankly I haven't thought of the right angle to do it it justice.

Unknown said...

A very touching and perceptive article. I've just watched a filmed piece on this house, its previous residents and the museum on Russia Today. It is to be hoped that what happened here is never glossed over. I plan to read the book by Iurii Trifonov 'the House on the Embankment'. A relative of his runs the museum. Many thanks for this. Vic

Mark said...

Great article! Very well written and interesting. Still, it's hard to get emotionally attached. I have come to call it "the Ethiopia syndrome." When we were kids, our mother tried to make us eat the entire lunch by saying that we should be grateful for the food on our table because there are children in Ethiopia that are starving. The lesson had an unintended effect: it made us realize we care nothing for people we don't know.