'House on Embankment' a Study in Russian History

There are many buildings in the Russian capital located along the Moscow River, but only one is known as the house on the embankment. The vast compound, built for Joseph Stalin's ruling elite, lies just across from the Kremlin. It mirrors the turbulent history of Russia over the past 70 years. Anne Garrels reports.

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Many buildings line the Moscow River, which runs through the Russian capital, but only one is known as the House on the Embankment. Built for Josef Stalin's ruling elite, the vast compound is just across the river from the Kremlin. NPR's Anne Garrels recently visited the House on the Embankment and she found that nowhere better mirrors the turbulent history of Russia over the past 70 years.

(Soundbite of ringing bell)

ANNE GARRELS reporting:

The ring of a bell or the knock at the door was once the harbinger of terror. Now it merely signifies the arrival of another guest at the tiny museum tucked away in a corner of the infamous House on the Embankment. Seventy-four-year-old Ina Lebonava(ph), who grew up here, helps guard the memories.

Ms. INA LEBONAVA (Curator, House on the Embankment): (Through Translator) The museum must remember all those who lived here, the good and the bad, those who survived and those who were killed. We need to acknowledge everything.

GARRELS: In the '30s, the constructivist-style gray building was the height of modernity. Ina recalls the luxuries offered when the house opened in 1931 to take in Stalin's nomenclatura.

Ms. LEBONAVA: (Through Translator) Unlike others, we had all the conveniences, hot running water, even a telephone.

GARRELS: But it was a gilded cage where residents lived in fear.

Ms. LEBONAVA: (Through Translator) We knew about everything, but everybody kept silent. It was impossible to talk about what was going on, because people were listening in. People reported on each other and we swallowed it all. People disappeared and we said nothing.

GARRELS: Seven hundred and sixty-six people, one-third of the building's residents, many of them the country's top officials, scientists, writers and military officers, disappeared during the height of Josef Stalin's purges in 1937. The secret police arrested people in droves, whole families at a time.

Ms. OLGA TRIFONOVA (Curator, House on the Embankment): (Russian spoken)

GARRELS: Sixty-six-year-old Olga Trifonova, another curator, squints at the long list they've compiled searching for the name of her father-in-law, who was shot, and her mother-in-law, who was sent to a labor camp. Her husband, Yuri, was only 12 at the time. He went on to write a novella about the house, an analysis of fear and treachery. It's now in school curriculums. But Olga says there are still people who justify the past. An elderly woman living in the house came to the museum recently to denounce it.

Ms. TRIFONOVA: (Through Translator) She said, `It's all a lie. The people used to live very well in this house.' She said, `We used to have fountains and flowers.' When I suggested that people sometimes fell on those flowers when they threw themselves out of their windows rather than be arrested, she said, `It amazing thing, yes, but we avoided those places.'

GARRELS: One of those residents was Maxim Litvinov, Stalin's foreign minister, who fell out of favor. His son, Misha, now 88, recalls that his father slept with a gun under his pillow, waiting for the knock in the middle of the night.

Mr. MISHA LITVINOV (Son of Resident): Yes, he was expecting, you know, to be arrested, and we also would be--and, of course, we were afraid--you know, in the night when I wasn't asleep, I listened to all the ...(unintelligible) coming up and down people. I suppose they expected anything could happen.

GARRELS: His wife, Flora, also in her 80s, says the family had two housemaids assigned to them.

Ms. FLORA LITVINOV(ph) (Wife): (Through Translator) They were all lieutenants in the KGB. Their job was to listen and write down everything we did.

GARRELS: After a party in the late '40s, even after the worst of the purges, all the guests were followed and their 12-year-old son Pavel was asked to squeal on his family.

Ms. LITVINOV: (Through Translator) One day, when they put him to bed, I saw that he was crying. When I asked what was wrong, he said, `I give my word. I can't tell.'

GARRELS: But in his anguish, he did. He had promised to save the country from enemies by revealing everything he knew about the family's comings and goings. He broke the promise, and years later Pavel Litvinov became one of the first dissidents to publicly denounce the Soviet government.

(Soundbite of music)

GARRELS: Curators Olga and Ina have collected furniture to re-create a typical apartment from the '30s, seemingly so benign, and with it they have thousands of documents to illustrate the fate of those who lived here. But after security services readily provided information in the '90s, she says they have once again started to hide everything away.

The building is still prime real estate, with apartments selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Moscow's new elite and affluent Westerners are among the owners. For some, it's a source of pride to find out a particularly hideous person lived in their apartment. For others, it's a reason to call in priests to cleanse the place of evil. Some schoolteachers bring their classes to the museum. But Olga's often astonished by how little the students know.

Ms. TRIFONOVA: (Through Translator) Our horrible television kills off their brains. The generation raised by this TV doesn't care a bit. They're indifferent.

GARRELS: Ina sees it a little differently.

Ms. LEBONAVA: (Through Translator) The young generation is touched by nothing and fears nothing, neither war nor repressions. That's good, but if something happens, they're not prepared for it.

(Soundbite of traffic)

GARRELS: Atop the building dominating the skyline is a gigantic revolving emblem of the Mercedes carmaker, a sign of how times have changed. In one of the entrances, a young couple is necking.

Ms. IRA CESANEVA(ph): (Foreign language spoken)

GARRELS: Eighteen-year-old Ira Cesaneva has heard the stories. She isn't interested in the history of the building where she lives. She's interested in fashion, she says. She's not afraid of the ghosts. She's afraid of her upcoming exams. Anne Garrels, NPR News, Moscow.

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