PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Books

'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
Affiliate
Amazon

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.

7

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Music

Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.

Music

Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.

Music

Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.

Music

Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.

Music

Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.

Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Film

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.

Music

​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.

Music

The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.

Music

Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.

Television

How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.

Music

Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.

Music

CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.

Music

Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.

Music

While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.