Karl Schlögel’s Moscow 1937 (Polity Press, £25) is a dazzling 650-page feat of historical reconstruction, writes Benjamin Schwarz in The Atlantic, and a portrait of a great city “as it consumed itself in an orgy of fear, paranoia, denunciations, mass arrests, suicides, and executions”. The book in fact covers the period from summer 1936 to the end of 1938 when Russia’s Bolshevik regime purged, in waves, “all levels of society, from the nomenklatura, the highest echelons of administrative, cultural, and scientific life, through the high command of the Red Army, to the engineers and apparatchiks, down to the factory workers and peasants”. Schlögel has produced, Schwarz writes, an almost impossibly rich masterpiece.
In Moscow 1937, Schlögel uses as a leitmotif the themes and settings of Mikhail Bulgakov’s great allegorical 1937 novel of the city under the Terror, The Master and Margarita. He opens with an exegesis of Margarita’s fantastical flight over the city in the 1930s, which allows him to establish the scene and dissect Moscow’s cultural and social geography. For the remainder of the book, he continues to take the reader on a tour of the urban center ‑ the late the late-19th-century townhouses built by the nobility and later appropriated by the party; the hundreds of theaters that littered the still-drama-mad city; the communal apartments crammed with recent migrants from the countryside; the fancy shops selling sturgeon and czarist antiques to the Soviet elite and the endless flow of visiting progressives from the West; the just-completed marvel of Soviet engineering that brought the five seas to Moscow, the Moscow-Volga Canal (whose opening celebration coincided with the arrest, persecution, and execution of the overseers of its construction); Spaso House, the American ambassador’s residence, site of incongruously clinquant balls and receptions; the spacious, refined apartments where the new Soviet upper class held glittering salons, at which the likes of Shostakovich and Isaac Babel mixed with the high officials of the NKVD, the secret police (a group that deeply prized its literary and artistic connections); the NKVD’s immense network of offices, garages, shooting ranges, isolation cells, interrogation chambers, and execution cellars, metastasizing from the citadel-like headquarters at the Lubyanka and devoted to the investigation, arrest, incarceration, deportation, and slaughter of enemies of the people.
Schlögel mines an array of sources, analysing the occupancy records of the most exclusive apartment block of the party elite, the fortress-like House on the Embankment ‑ made famous by Yuri Trifonov’s eponymous novel ‑ to disclose the terrible history of a building almost entirely depopulated in the space of a year as its nearly 2,500 occupants were imprisoned, executed, or driven to kill themselves. He analyses the 1936 Moscow Directory, which listed 280 “Clubs and Houses of Culture”, 540 magazines, and at least three jazz bands, and reveals the dense web of libraries that covered the city. The directory, however, is brimming with the names of people destined for the abattoir; the 1936 edition was the final one: “No editorial board could have kept pace with the frantic rate at which people were driven from their posts and destroyed while their places were taken by others.” Completed on the eve of the Terror, this last directory “encapsulates a moment in time in which the accusers and the accused, the perpetrators and the victims, the executioners and the executed of the morrow, still sit side by side”.