The Communist party elite and their families eschewed Soviet texts on their bedside tables for the works of western writers such as Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling and even Oscar Wilde, according to an in-depth study by the historian Yuri Slezkine.
Researching Moscow’s House of Government, a huge apartment block where hundreds of top communist officials lived with their families in the 1930s before Stalin’s Great Purges, Slezkine conducted dozens of interviews, as well as delving through archive diaries and letters. He discovered that far from focusing on the writings of Marx and Engels for their reading, the Bolsheviks and their children preferred expressly anti-revolutionary works by western authors such as Dickens, Defoe, Shakespeare, Hugo, Balzac, Flaubert, Goethe, Kipling and Wilde.
Slezkine, who has published his history of the apartment building, The House of Government, to tie in with the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution, said he was less surprised by what the revolutionaries were reading, than by what they were not.
“They were not reading the Marxist texts,” he said. “The parents, my main subjects, the old Bolsheviks, the original revolutionaries, spent most of their lives reading – in exile, in prison, in the various apartments in which they lived as nomads before the revolution. They were reading 19th-century Russian and European fiction, but also a great deal of Marxist literature – the original texts by Marx and Engels and lots of economics, as well as contemporary symbolist literature.”
“The difference between what they used to read and what their children were reading in the House of Government was that the European and Russian classical canon had remained intact, but they dropped the Marxist and symbolist texts. And that happened not only within these families, but in the Soviet education system (which was run by the House residents).”
In The House of Government, Slezkine writes that “most of the House children read more or less ‘nonstop’ (the same Russian term is used for ‘binge drinking’), but they did not read indiscriminately”.
The author, who is a professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley, continued: “The children of the Bolshevik millenarians never read Marx-Engels-Lenin-Stalin at home, and, after the educational system was rebuilt around Pushkin, Gogol and Tolstoy, all Soviet children stopped reading them in school. At home, the children of the Bolshevik millenarians read the ‘treasures of world literature’, with an emphasis on the golden ages (the Renaissance, Romanticism and the realist novel, especially Balzac, Dickens, and Tolstoy) and modern historical novels.
“The books proclaimed as models at the first Congress of Soviet Writers, and imbibed religiously by the children of the original Bolsheviks, were profoundly anti-Bolshevik, none more so than the one routinely described as the best of them all: Tolstoy’s War and Peace. All rules, plans, grand theories, and historical explanations were vanity, stupidity, or deception. [Tolstoy’s character] Natasha Rostova ‘did not deign to be intelligent’. The meaning of life was in living it.”
Dickens, he said, was “everyone’s favourite writer”. One leading party member even published an introduction to a new translation of The Pickwick Papers, writing that “our country’s youth will embrace everything that is useful and exciting in Dickens, while criticising his weak points. The pedagogical role of Dickens as an artist is far from being exhausted. Our descendants will be reading him with profit and pleasure.”
Slezkine said he believed the parents in the House stopped giving their children Marxist texts to read because “they did not see any contradiction between their goals as revolutionaries and the fact that their children were reading non-Bolshevik books. It does not seem to have ever occurred to them that the ‘ideological superstructure’ might affect the foundations of their state.”
“In the short term, I think they were not totalitarian enough. They raised their children as heretics and apostates and ended up being the gravediggers of their own revolution,” he said, adding: “Books are extremely powerful. They were powerful in the education of the young revolutionaries and also in the education of their children, the non-radicals and eventually counterrevolutionaries. Partly as a result of all that reading, the children of the Soviet elite grew up resigned to the messiness of human existence – something their parents had rebelled against.”