Russia’s house of shadows

Joshua Yaffa writes: 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.” [Continue reading…]

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