Uncertainty and Anxiety: On Khrushchev's Thaw | The Nation


Uncertainty and Anxiety: On Khrushchev's Thaw

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

In his bestselling novel Fatherland, published in 1992, the British writer Robert Harris imagined a postwar Europe in which a victorious Germany prepares to celebrate Hitler’s seventy-fifth birthday. It’s the early 1960s, and the Third Reich, having annexed vast territories from the defeated Soviet Union, is engaged in a protracted cold war with the United States, even as rock ‘n’ roll and other corrupting Western influences are seeping into German society and a younger generation of Germans are starting to question the brutal silence surrounding the darker aspects of the country’s Nazi past. Harris’s stunning counterfactual history asked its many readers to ponder what Europe might have become had the fortunes of war turned in another direction—as they very nearly did, especially on Germany’s eastern front.

Khrushchev’s Cold Summer
Gulag Returnees, Crime, and the Fate of Reform After Stalin.
By Miriam Dobson.
Buy this book.

Zhivago’s Children
The Last Russian Intelligentsia.
By Vladislav Zubok.
Buy this book.


About the Author

Benjamin Nathans
Benjamin Nathans teaches at the University of Pennsylvania and is the author of Beyond the Pale: The Jewish Encounter...

Also by the Author

Gal Beckerman's When They Come for Us We'll Be Gone is an engaging account of the exodus of Jews from the Soviet Union.

Fatherland could also serve as a mirror to a history that wasn’t virtual: the post-Stalin era of the Soviet Union, the sole totalitarian power to emerge intact from World War II. As British historian Miriam Dobson writes of Stalin’s successors in Khrushchev’s Cold Summer, “unlike many other countries embarking on the process of transitional justice theirs was not a new regime, but a continuation of the party-state system which had been responsible for the atrocities they now sought to rectify.” Imagining a post-Hitler Germany run by Rudolf Hess or Albert Speer helps to cast in sharp relief the quandaries faced by Nikita Khrushchev and other Communist Party leaders as they confronted a lethal legacy of state-sponsored terror in which they too were deeply complicit. Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” at the Twentieth Party Congress in February 1956 may have instigated Stalin’s oedipal dethronement (in effect, his second death) by revealing a portion of the mass murder committed on orders signed by the dictator’s own hand. Yet as Khrushchev privately confessed near the end of his life, he was himself “up to the elbows in blood” shed by the victims of communist purges and forced collectivization.

The Khrushchev era ended in 1964 (the year that would have marked Hitler’s seventy-fifth birthday), and it was the first great attempt to stabilize the Soviet project and make it a going concern fully competitive with the capitalist West. For Vladislav Zubok, the author of Zhivago’s Children, Khrushchev’s “Thaw” inaugurated a period of tremendous optimism, a Soviet-style New Deal following the deep freeze of postwar Stalinism. Surveying a vast array of published and unpublished sources with an exquisite eye for telling detail, Zubok shows how the optimism of the era drew deeply on the classical inheritance of Marxism-Leninism. Contrary to assessments by foreign observers eager for signs of anticommunist ferment, the ’60s intellectuals of the USSR were inspired by the dream of fulfilling, not transcending, the ideals of 1917.

As the title of her book suggests, Miriam Dobson keeps her distance from the thaw metaphor, and for good reason: optimism didn’t brighten her protagonists’ experience of the Khrushchev years. Unlike Zubok, who is primarily interested in the intelligentsia, Dobson has mined from Soviet archives the fragmented voices of a wide range of Soviet citizens, for many of whom Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin provoked feelings of profound uncertainty and anxiety. It was not just a matter of waking up to the news that the man previously heralded as “The Lenin of Today” and “Generalissimo” had defiled Lenin’s sacred legacy and nearly botched the war against Hitler. Even more upsetting was the Soviet leadership’s decision to reduce Stalin’s Gulag population by roughly 80 percent, thereby releasing into Soviet society some 4 million concentration camp prisoners, including people who only yesterday had been branded “enemies of the people.” That mass amnesties of Gulag inmates were followed by a dramatic spike in crime only served to stoke the fears of ordinary citizens: for them, what was melting under Khrushchev’s Thaw was not only the received moral order of things, but public order itself.

How are we to make sense of these starkly opposed views of the post-Stalin era? Khrushchev was famous for his zigzagging domestic and foreign policies, but it would be a mistake to reduce the tensions of the Thaw to the temperament of one man, or even to the volatility of competing interest groups within the closed world of the Communist Party leadership. Rather, the tensions are best understood as hints of something that was supposed to have long since vanished from the Soviet landscape: the hierarchy of class.

Just over half a century ago, on the eve of the Khrushchev era, a group of Harvard scholars undertook a large-scale study of Soviet society, which at the time was nearly as opaque to the outside world beyond its borders as North Korea is today, but of exponentially greater consequence. Based on hundreds of interviews with Soviet citizens who found themselves in the West after the war—former POWs, slave laborers from Nazi Germany, émigrés—the Harvard Refugee Interview Project marked the first social-scientific attempt to analyze public opinion and the structures of daily life inside the socialist superpower. A key item on the research agenda was to determine whether one of Moscow’s proudest claims was true: had the abolition of private property succeeded in eliminating the division of society into antagonistic classes, as Marx had predicted? Was the USSR a fundamentally new kind of society, in which social origins no longer governed life chances, lifestyle and attitudes? Was the Soviet world truly “flat,” perhaps marking the end of social history?

The answer from Cambridge: not really. While it’s true that conventional Western hierarchies of income and occupational status carried far less weight in the USSR, and that the dream of a propertyless egalitarianism still held sway over much of the population, differences in cultural capital, and specifically in levels of education, still acted as an enduring social classifier within the Soviet populace. Such differences helped preserve the intelligentsia not just as an “imagined community” but as an actual stratum of society, and they help explain why different segments of the Soviet population experienced Khrushchev’s Thaw in radically contrasting ways.

* * *

Vladislav Zubok began his academic career in Moscow as a specialist in American political history, only to move to the United States in the mid-1980s, where he became an internationally renowned scholar of Soviet cold war foreign policy. With Zhivago’s Children Zubok has reinvented himself yet again, this time as an accomplished cultural historian of his native land. His book is an elegiac account of the final chapter in the history of the Russian intelligentsia, a group that survived revolution, civil war, Nazi onslaught and Stalinist repression, only to succumb to the supreme solvent of its life-ways: the free market. Driven by a vision of itself as “a civic community that could become a moral and cultural vanguard for society,” the post-Stalin intelligentsia combined a “profound hunger for personal freedom” with unquestioned faith in “the Holy Grail of collectivism.” There was good reason to believe in its collective strength: by the time the Sputnik satellite was thrust into orbit from a launching pad in the Soviet republic of Kazakhstan in October 1957, the USSR could boast over a million university graduates, marking a roughly tenfold increase during the preceding three decades. Having emerged from the Armageddon of the Great Fatherland War, the postwar generation was aglow with youthful revolutionary romanticism, and poised to play a key role in Khrushchev’s plan to move the country from socialism into the bright future of communism—if not in his lifetime, then surely in theirs.

The alliance of optimists, however, never materialized. Conservatives in the party elite, Iagos eager to exploit the anxieties of their Othello, preyed on Khrushchev’s inferiority complex about intellectuals, which because Khrushchev had never attended university was acute. In one memorable encounter in the fall of 1962, Khrushchev berated a group of abstract artists during a special tour of their paintings and sculptures, calling them “faggots” and their work “dog shit” and “asshole art.” A year later, at a gathering of the “creative intelligentsia” inside the Kremlin, Khrushchev denounced members of the audience: “They think that Stalin is dead and anything is allowed.” Barely hidden beneath such outbursts was the simmering resentment of what Zubok calls “simple, popular, working-class Russia” against the “young, cosmopolitan, elitist, and Westernized cultural vanguard.”

A series of sham trials against members of the vanguard in the mid-1960s carried out by Khrushchev’s successors signaled the Thaw’s approaching end. Lingering hopes for the flowering of a Moscow Spring were crushed when Soviet tanks rumbled into Prague in August 1968 and put a halt to a popular program of political liberalization. This was the moment that “set in motion the group defection of many intellectuals and cultural figures from the Soviet communist project,” writes Zubok. But the splintering of the intelligentsia was by no means the result of external pressures alone. Well before the end of the Thaw, Zubok argues, fault lines had begun to appear within the intelligentsia, particularly with regard to the “Jewish Question” and its pertinence to the identity of the intelligentsia itself. As a xenophobic Russian nationalism percolated just below the surface of Soviet public discourse, the educated class increasingly split into a philo-Semitic “left” and an anti-Semitic “right” (insofar as traditional spatial metaphors of political contestation still made sense in the Soviet context). The resulting schism, according to Zubok, made it difficult for the intelligentsia to find “an acceptable ‘national’ form and acquire a mass following among Russian people.”

While it certainly is true that a remarkable proportion of the leading representatives of the intelligentsia were of Jewish origin, it is doubtful that antagonisms over the Jewish Question were primarily responsible for disagreements within their ranks. For one thing, disenchantment with revolutionary romanticism all but guaranteed the turn to a wide range of alternative worldviews. Andrei Sakharov and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, iconic figures of the emerging “Westernizing” and “Slavophile” opposition (neither of whom was Jewish), did cross pens over the fate of Soviet Jewry, but they quarreled over many other issues too—from democracy and relations with the West to technology and the Russian Orthodox Church. None of this, incidentally, deterred the KGB from planting rumors that Sakharov’s and Solzhenitsyn’s real names were Tsukerman (a play on “sakhar,” Russian for “sugar”) and Solzhenitsker, or from issuing visas to Israel to non-Jewish dissidents who sought to leave the USSR.

Whatever the sources of the growing rifts among Soviet intellectuals, and despite his unmistakable admiration for their high ideals and civic engagement, Zubok finds their collective endeavor deficient, a conclusion that reflects his stark neoliberal skepticism. “The dream of socialism with a human face,” he writes, represented an attempt “to marry the Soviet project to freedom without a return to private property and capitalism,” and was therefore fatally marked by “political and moral sterility.” If measured by its unintended consequences, of course, that dream was anything but sterile: the belated attempt by Mikhail Gorbachev, Alexander Yakovlev and other perestroika-era reformers to bring it to fruition led the Soviet superpower to a miraculously peaceful demise.

* * *

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size