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'Moscow 1956' and the Beginning of the End of Soviet Rule

Arresting and weighty, Moscow 1956 recreates the triumph and tragedy of a society recovering from the ravages of despotism but still ensconced in the throes of an authoritarian political system.

Moscow 1956: The Silenced Spring

Publisher: Harvard University Press
Price: $29.95
Author: Kathleen E. Smith
Length: 433 pages
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2017-04

In the context of the communist bloc, 1956 may be one of those turning points when history budged -- but refused to turn. The colossal figure of Joseph Stalin, supremo, generalissimo, and caudillo all in one, who could not be defeated by monarchism or fascism, succumbed to a stroke in 1953. Stalin loomed so large over international communism that his death shook the very foundations of Soviet power. As the fallen titan collapsed upon the Soviet empire, crevices formed. Slipping through these tiny fissures, the initial palpitations for change soon grew into convulsions deep within very the heart of Soviet Russia. While the forces of orthodoxy frustrated these aspirations for reform, it nevertheless provided a glimpse of socialism’s human face.

As Stalin’s successors walked the political tightrope between trying to step out of the shadow of an imperious predecessor, the past became a contested site. At stake were not just the genealogies of communist leaders and the interpretation of the legacies bequeathed but also the fates of ordinary Russians who had suffered incarceration, separation, displacement, or deprivation during the Stalinist terror; many intellectuals were completely severed from their previous lives. Many of those who survived wanted to end the nightmare of autocracy without undermining the ideological edifices of Marxism-Leninism and the achievements of Stalinism -- the proverbial not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. However, a regime habitually inclined to cutting off the nose to spite the face would react likewise to limited liberalization, creating a recurring pattern in Soviet history.

Kathleen E. Smith’s Moscow 1956: The Silenced Spring is the provocative political history of a year in the capital of the Soviet Union when General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev made his “Secret Speech” denouncing the totalitarian excesses of Stalinism at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Arresting and weighty, Smith successfully recreates the triumph and tragedy of a society recovering from the ravages of despotism but still ensconced in the throes of an authoritarian political system. The meticulously researched and highly readable book takes us on a stimulating encounter with the members of the elites and intelligentsia in Soviet Russia who were both hopeful and fearful about the Post-Stalinist future. With great temerity Smith challenges conventional wisdom about communism in the aftermath of the Cold War, to show us that the road to the collapse of the Soviet Union was also paved with good intentions.

The book’s thesis is that the narrative arch of political upheaval in Moscow 1956 would recur throughout Soviet history. The top down reform process met with unencumbered enthusiasm from an inchoate civil society turns out to be a mere interregnum. The excitement accompanying the Post-Stalinist “thaw” among the intelligentsia and some sympathetic members of the bureaucracy was soon silenced by heavy-handed measures imposed from above as a result of developments in the satellites near west of Soviet Russia. We are reminded that this sequence of “change from above sparking intellectuals especially to push the bounds of ‘permitted dissent’ only to instigate a new freeze” would become a reappearing tendency right up till the final dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Needless to say, Moscow 1956 is methodologically sound. As far as primary research is concerned, Smith turns to declassified material from Soviet party archives, and Russian language memoirs about the '50s, as well as the oral testimonies of people who “came of age” at that time. She corroborates this with secondary documents from Russian and Western historians. The result is a narrative constructed from multifarious perspectives, adroitly alternating between critical vantage points: that of Soviet statesmen as well as the apparatchik, and private citizens interested in shaping political discourse. She structures her chapters chronologically based on calendar months to provide highlights of a watershed year. A convincing treatment of political life in Moscow emerges but one that is also “tilted” towards the intelligentsia in particular. Meticulous research allows the author to achieve her objective of revealing “the drama that marked the lives of ordinary and extraordinary Russians.”

Since the struggle to define the imperfect recent past is central to the story, it should come as no surprise that one of the most engaging sections of the book looks at a historian tasked with making sense of the crimes of Soviet history. After we are introduced to the struggle for power within the communist party of the Soviet Union in Chapter One and provided access to the workings of the 20th Party Congress of the CPSU, the immediate aftermath of the “Secret Speech” follows. In chapter three set in March, we meet Anna Mikhailovna Pankratova, a “supremely conscientious” party historian who had to prepare responses to the questions of party members and scholars about the “Secret Speech”.

Pankratova does this through a series of nine lectures with diverse audiences “from fifty of the city’s historians to two thousand members of the Leningrad party organization.” Like Khrushchev, she too had to strike a fine balance between the recent denunciations of Stalinism’s worst crimes and his accomplishments in the fields of agriculture, industrialization, security, and foreign policy as the people in Soviet Russia who lived in reverent fear of Stalin saw them. However, Pankratova too averred that for continued progress to be sustained, there had to be a “great psychological perestroika [restructuring]” -- a term that would be later closely associated with the reform programme of the last General Secretary of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev.

In the same chapter, the scientist Yuri Orlov and the mathematician Revol’t Pemenov, later political dissidents, were among those intellectuals who appropriated the political discourse in the aftermath of the “Secret Speech” to challenge the very legitimacy of Soviet power. They would do the very thing that Pankratova feared: making “Khrushchev’s criticism of Stalin the basis for tearing down the whole system of Soviet rule and discarding the core narrative of party history.” Smith compellingly reconstructs the Soviet struggle for history in the weeks after Khrushchev’s speech.

The middle chapters carry remarkable insights. The fourth chapter provides shocking statistics as well as procedurals about the rehabilitation process for the victims of Stalinist terror, some of them dedicated cadre of the communist party charged on spurious allegations. The fifth chapter is a poignant and unforgettable section of the lives of some private citizens, members of the intelligentsia and former political prisoners struggling to fulfil their dreams and to return to their former careers.

We meet a rebel poet, Anna Barkova, imprisoned for a total of more than 20 years in the gulag for ‘crimes’ such as an offhand politically incorrect comment the first time and “negative phrases” in her collection of writing the second time. Despite being in a labour camp, Barkova found an audience for her poetry but her return to normalcy was never fulfilled. Writer Varlam Shalamov, like Barkova, had also completed two “tours”, to use Smith’s euphemistic characterization, in the gulag. Shalamov had written some 700 to 800 poems and a dozen short stories in March 1955 and would have a complicated relationship with Boris Pasternak, author of the controversial Dr. Zhivago (1957), which would be banned in the Soviet Union. Shalamov had a happier trajectory than Barkova, he was able to mend his relationship with his wife and found a new job as a contributor for a journal as well as a forthcoming publication of several of his poems when we last read about him in 1956.

The last characters we meet in this intriguing chapter are two aspiring screenwriters, in love with cinema, Iulii Dunskii and Valerii Frid, who were arrested at the age of 21 and so lost their prime years to the labour camps but used their prior connections to return to the world of filmmaking upon release. The screenplay that Dunskii and Frid wrote, which became the film The Incident at Mine 8 (1956), is elaborated in greater detail in chapter eight about members of the communist youth organization, Komsomol. Komsomol volunteers provided the labour in projects like the disastrous Virgin Lands campaign to turn areas in Siberia and Kazakhstan into productive agricultural collectives. We see the Virgin Lands project go awry, much to the dismay of the Russian students who would sacrifice their time and energies to dramatically boost Soviet agricultural production. The romanticism of the idealistic youth who sought to bring the modernizing benefits of socialist development to the peripheries of the Soviet Union would soon be tarnished by the “corruption and callousness” of the apparatchik.

However, anyone used to reading Soviet history in the context of the global Cold War, international history of the 20th century, or diplomatic history, may be slightly disappointed. The Cold War merely provides a backdrop and does not dominate the narrative as much as one would expect. After all, a book named after the political capital of one of the superpowers set at the height of the Cold War is likely to raise expectations that bipolarity would feature prominently. Nevertheless, the final chapters compensate for this absence. Chapter nine tells of Nikita Khrushchev’s travels around the world, including a visit to Britain, with Khrushchev aiming to impress his hosts and the curious West sizing up the new leader of the Soviet Union. Chapter ten is based on the visit by Yugoslavia’s supremo Josip Broz Tito, and developments in November in the Soviet Union’s ‘near abroad’.

News and discussions about the Poznan protests in Poland leading to the Polish October, a thaw from the era of high Stalinism, together with the uprising in Hungary in the same month, “swept relentlessly through intellectual circles and university campuses.” However, the “new atmosphere of candor at home and of a fresh opening to the outside world” did not last very long. The limited liberalization in the Soviet Union met the same fate as the protests in Poland put down by local authorities and the revolt in Hungary crushed by the intervention of the Red Army. Concerned that the “thaw” may unleash forces that would destabilize the Soviet empire and the Soviet Union, the establishment in Moscow precipitated a crackdown in December on public intellectuals in Russia who had pushed the limits of dissent too far. While Smith reminds us that the pushback was not as merciless as the era of high Stalinism, it was nevertheless a crushing defeat for those who anticipated greater political liberties.

Yet, while the book is an intensive treatment of how the “Secret Speech” not only created disquiet within the communist party but also impacted Russian intelligentsia, questions remain. While Smith concedes that hers is “not a comprehensive account of Soviet society or politics”, one wonders whether it is really possible to divorce a history of the Soviet Union and the impact of the “Secret Speech” without considering its affect on sectors of society like the rural areas and relations with communist China. In the context of the latter, the decay in the Sino-Soviet alliance leading up to an acrimonious split in 1964 and even military conflict in 1969, had its foundations in China’s response to the revelations made during the 20th Congress of the Communist Party.

Notwithstanding that, Moscow 1956 goes a long way to reveal how the experience of discourse making, conversation, and debate had transformed an entire generation of Soviet intelligentsia and educated youth. The emergence of a public sphere within Soviet Russia would be filled with consumers of culture, literature, and the arts, especially among the young, constituted a defining moment in Soviet history. These encounters of like-minded individuals within an albeit limited marketplace of ideas would ensure that Soviet Russia would never allow another leader to resurrect a cult of personality and achieve complete monopoly over thought and speech the way Stalin had.

We also receive a sympathetic treatment of Khrushchev who was at once both politically opportunistic and ideologically well meaning in trying to redeem Soviet communism from the brutality of Stalinism. Yet, even he appeared too afraid to push the boundaries of acceptable political behavior. Still, as Smith states, “Moscow’s silenced spring of 1956 was the beginning of the end of Soviet rule, but only the beginning.” Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” would have lasting unforeseen and unintended consequences for the Soviet Union.


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