In this dazzling 650-page feat of historical reconstruction, Karl Schlögel, a professor at the European University Viadrina Frankfurt (Oder), has summoned up a great city—what was once the New Jerusalem for much of the world’s intelligentsia and downtrodden—as it consumed itself in an orgy of fear, paranoia, denunciations, mass arrests, suicides, and executions.
Schlögel’s book is a fragmentary yet meticulous social history of Moscow in the grip of the Great Terror—the period from the summer of 1936 to the end of 1938, when the already sanguinary Bolshevik regime let loose on itself its apparatus of suppression, purging, in waves, all Soviet institutions and at 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. It is 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-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.