Tales, Old and New, From a Legendary Dom

By Stephen Boykewich
Staff Writer

When the windows sparkled through the night at the monumental apartment block across the river from the Kremlin, it once meant that the Great Terror had struck another member of the Communist Party elite. Now it may mean that a party of wealthy Russians is starting on a second case of champagne.

Still, as many times as the population of Dom na Naberezhnoi has changed — from the days of Josef Stalin’s rule to today’s real estate boom — its walls continue to hold a vital history of Russian life in the 20th century.

A key repository of that history is a museum hidden behind one of the 24 entryways at 2 Ulitsa Serafimovicha. It opens its doors only six hours per week. The converted apartment inside is uncannily quiet after the sound and fury of the city center.

Tamara Ter-Egizaryan, a lifelong resident of the House on the Embankment, opened the museum in 1989, decorating it with original 1930s furniture designed by the building’s chief architect, Boris Iofan. She also collected thousands of pages of material about the lives and fates of past residents — a virtual who’s who of Soviet nomenklatura.

Museum curator Tatyana Shmidt was born in the building in 1932. The building, as she tells it, had been conceived five years earlier as a solution to the massive housing crisis facing Moscow’s bureaucrats. When Vladimir Lenin moved the capital from St. Petersburg to Moscow in 1918, Communist Party officials flooded into the city. They crowded into prestigious hotels such as the Metropol and the National and overflowed the halls of the Kremlin.

“When the Dom began taking residents in 1931, the nomenklatura were waiting in line,” Shmidt said.

The building was intended to exemplify “the communist home of the future,” which meant its 505 apartments came with conveniences unheard of at the time: telephones, garbage chutes, elevators, a tennis court. The water pumped from the power station next door stayed hot all year long — a luxury by today’s Moscow standards.

The fine living had a heavy cost. Residents were under constant supervision by the NKVD, the predecessor to the KGB. One apartment was specially wired to let agents monitor every phone line in the building. Over the course of Stalin’s purges of the Soviet leadership, more than 550 of the building’s residents were killed.

Shmidt’s own most vivid memories date from World War II. Then 9, she was part of a small group of residents not evacuated in the first months of the war.

“I remember the bombing raids,” Shmidt said. “My mother was sick at the time, but my aunt had the duty of patrolling the roof. There were boxes of sand there and in the entryways. When bombs fell still burning, the people on duty threw sand on them to put them out.

“To this day, when I hear sirens, I get chills,” she said.

When the German army threatened to take the city, the remaining residents were evacuated. Stalin had the building rigged with mines, preferring to see it destroyed rather than in German hands. Shmidt remembers the scene at Kazansky Station as she and her family left.

“There was a terrible panic, everyone was fleeing,” she said. “The German planes were flying at the trains as they arrived. You could hear the bullets hitting the iron of the wheels and the tracks. Children were leaving without their parents; parents were leaving their children behind.”

The evacuees returned to the building after the war to find their apartment doors unlocked. Word circulated that the NKVD had searched every centimeter of the building while they were gone. Decades later, Shmidt said, “I looked in the archives and found out they truly had.”

Across the courtyard, in an apartment nine floors up, Lenin’s right-hand man still paces the halls and speculates about the fate of his nation — in name if not in person.

Television producer Yakov Sverdlov, 48, was named after his grandfather, who was, before his death in 1918, the de facto general secretary of the Russian Communist Party and Lenin’s likely successor. The apartment of the younger Sverdlov is filled with photographs and paintings of his grandfather and Lenin side by side. Sverdlov pointed to one poster-sized photograph of the two looking skyward with identical expressions of pride. “That was on Red Square,” Sverdlov said. “The first Soviet airplane was flying above them.”

Sverdlov recited family stories that sounded like Soviet history as performed by the Marx brothers. His father, at the age of 8, crashed his bicycle into Leon Trotsky. His mother, heavily pregnant, once slipped in a Kremlin hall and had her fall broken by someone who had been following close behind.

“She heard a voice with a heavy Georgian accent say, ‘Ay-ay-ay, how did we wind up in this position?'” Sverdlov said, referring to Stalin.

“For us there aren’t any purely historical figures; they’re all people who were part of our lives,” he added.

Such acquaintanceships did not keep Sverdlov’s father, a sometime NKVD agent, from being arrested three times. But they did allow Sverdlov’s grandmother to sit down with Stalin and ask for her son’s release.

“It wasn’t a formal meeting of any kind,” Sverdlov said. “Just a visit.”

Sverdlov remembers riding on his father’s shoulders during the parade celebrating cosmonaut Yury Gagarin’s successful space flight in 1961. “I was only 3 years old, so maybe I’ve taken some of it from what people told me later on, but I can still remember the feeling of so many people celebrating together,” he said. “Of course, all the talk about collectivism then was pure stupidity. But at that moment everyone was truly united, and Krushchev was right there among us. It was an unbelievable feeling.”

After a pause, he added, “But maybe it was no more than a feeling.”

Sergei Novikov may not be up drinking champagne through the night, but the 35-year-old Internet projects manager is one of an increasing number of residents who grew up with neither a tie to the place nor a sense of its historical significance. “My wife and I were looking for an apartment, and the priority was a good view,” Novikov said. The shimmering Moscow River vista at his back showed that he had found it.

The financial crisis of 1998 unexpectedly put a Dom apartment in their price range, and the first time Novikov and his wife looked through the windows, they were sold.

Novikov soon met Ter-Egizaryan, who sparked his interest in the building’s past. He opened a web site about it, www.domna.ru, and designed a book she was writing at the time.

“I was very inspired when I made the site. I hoped it would help build the community here,” he said.

But the demands of his job and his concern for his new daughter have caused him to spend less and less time in the building. “We’re nearly always at the dacha now,” he said. “It’s very bad for kids here. We hardly ever open the windows. It’s so dusty we can’t walk around outside during the day.”

The population of the Dom will continue to change, said Olga Trifonova, who took over for Ter-Egizaryan as museum director several years ago. But she does not expect the place fade into obscurity anytime soon.

“As long as there is interest in Russian history, there will be interest in this building,” she said.

Published June 29, 2005. Issue 3197. Page 1.