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


Uncertainty and Anxiety: On Khrushchev's Thaw

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The contrast between Zubok’s warm (and repeated) evocation of the “intelligentsia ethos” and his chilly verdict on its utter lack of historical viability comes to a head in his discussion of the ethos’s ultimate avatars: Soviet dissidents. They were “living the intelligentsia’s ideals,” he tells us, but those same ideals, he argues, led them to cloak themselves in the mantle of civic virtue, forming an elitist milieu detached not only from the Soviet state but from Soviet society. Their vocal support for oppressed minorities (Crimean Tatars, Jews, Volga Germans, Western Ukrainians, Catholics and evangelical Christians), along with their reliance on Western media to spread their message (including shortwave radio stations like the Voice of America), certainly stoked suspicion among the majority Russian population. Zubok’s claim, however, that by 1975 “the struggle for the right to emigrate from the Soviet Union had become the primary goal of human rights activists” falls wide of the mark. It was Western observers who greatly magnified the issue of emigration, especially with regard to the plight of Soviet Jews, even as the Soviet dissident movement continued to champion a wide range of civil and human rights. And while there is considerable truth in Zubok’s observation that dissidents became a self-marginalizing community, much the same could be said of various subgroups in late Soviet society, from artists and writers who took jobs as boiler-room operators and night watchmen in order to escape the ritual obligations of Soviet public life, to “in-system reformers” who sequestered themselves in “oases” of progressive thought within the Communist Party apparatus. Beyond its highly uniform official public sphere, late Soviet society was a vast patchwork of face-to-face micro-communities, each bound by unusually close ties of adult friendship.

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.

Zubok refers to his protagonists as “Zhivago’s children,” the spiritual heirs of the hero of Boris Pasternak’s novel, whose name stems from the Russian word for “living.” It is an odd choice, given how frequently Zubok’s own evidence points to the stark differences between Zhivago’s pre-revolutionary sensibilities—“frozen music,” as Pasternak put it—and those of the Thaw-era intelligentsia. Even figures like Andrei Siniavsky, a Pasternak scholar and a pall-bearer at his funeral in 1960, drew a clear distinction between old-school “heretics” such as Pasternak (and Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam) and younger dissident writers such as himself, offspring of the Soviet system and its revolutionary values. More than a few of the people Zubok artfully brings to life referred to themselves and their generation as children not of Zhivago but of the Twentieth Party Congress, that historic moment when Khrushchev attempted to cleanse the USSR of the father’s sins—without revealing his own. The postwar episode of Soviet history is haunted by a kind of paternity suit, as if a generation metaphorically (and often literally) orphaned by purges and war were asking itself: Who’s our daddy? The lineages they cultivated matter, and more so than ever today, as Russians and their leaders struggle to fashion a usable past from their country’s bloodstained twentieth century. They also matter insofar as the human drama of the post-Stalin intelligentsia involved men and women who were fed, clothed and housed by the socialist fatherland, but who yearned not to be treated like children, to be considered just as mature as the “mature socialism” they had helped build. They were adults in search of their own voices.

* * *

In Khrushchev’s Cold Summer, Miriam Dobson unearths the voices of hundreds of otherwise anonymous Soviet citizens, Zubok’s “simple, popular, working-class Russia,” and with them a very different sense of the dynamics of the Thaw. Drawing on multiple archival troves of letters to Soviet leaders, she reconstructs the ambivalence of the popular response to Khrushchev’s Secret Speech, which hardly remained secret once its contents were transmitted to millions of party members. “What’s to be done with portraits of Stalin?” asked one correspondent, sensitive to the sacral qualities of Soviet iconography. Other letter-writers, unable to shed the Manichaean instincts honed by Stalin’s purges, were keen to learn whether their onetime Ozymandias should now be considered an “enemy of the people.” Among the most poignant documents are petitions from Gulag inmates amnestied after Stalin’s death. By 1960 the Gulag population had shrunk to a fifth of its former size, with millions of zeks (slang for zakliuchennye, or prisoners) spilling back into Soviet society and facing enormous barriers to reintegration, not to mention former acquaintances whose (sometimes false) testimony had helped send them to the camps in the first place.

Many ex-zeks were determined to tell their story, not only to come to terms with the trauma they had experienced but also to assert their innocence and possibly improve their chances of rehabilitation. Dobson analyzes in fascinating detail the emergence of an officially privileged narrative of Gulag survival, in which loyal communists unjustly sent to the camps nonetheless keep faith with the party and, after years of suffering, are rewarded with reinstatement into the party’s sacred mission. Some versions of this script were genuinely moving—the first volume of Eugenia Ginzburg’s memoir Journey Into the Whirlwind offers unforgettable accounts of the intense relationships forged among the zeks as well as of belief systems sustained under extraordinary mental pressure.

But of the hundreds of Gulag memoirs written by survivors during the Thaw, when memories were still fresh, only a tiny fraction were approved for publication in the USSR. Ginzburg’s, smuggled out of the country and published in English in the United States in 1967, was not among them. The rest languished in desk drawers, gathered dust in the file cabinets of journals like Novyi mir (New World) or accompanied petitions to party officials. As Dobson shows, those with a redemptive plotline played a significant role in the delicate balancing act undertaken by Khrushchev as he sought to expose selectively the monstrous crimes of his predecessor (and his living rivals like Molotov) while reaffirming the innocence of the party and the glory of its historical mission. What better way to damn the father but preserve the family than to recount the patient triumph of dutiful sons and daughters who had been unjustly punished? And so some of the earliest stories of the camps, attached to petitions read by Khrushchev and other Soviet leaders, were knitted into the Secret Speech, thereby establishing a template for other survivors to follow when arranging their Gulag memories.

Many ex-zeks, of course, had never joined the party; if they had, they did not leave the camps with renewed faith in the Soviet system. Some of their stories would eventually make their way to Western readers on the wings of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago (1973) or Varlam Shalamov’s less well-known but far more subtly crafted Kolyma Tales (1980). (These and other masterpieces of literary testimony, every bit as powerful as their Holocaust counterparts, are superbly analyzed in Leona Toker’s Return From the Archipelago: Narratives of Gulag Survivors.) Unlike the handful of officially sanctioned accounts of redemptive suffering by loyal communists, they offer an unflinching portrait of the Gulag’s moral chaos: lethal physical deprivation, wanton cruelty and sexual exploitation.

Official censorship as well as unofficial social taboos kept contemporary Soviet readers largely quarantined from such texts—but not from the returning inmates. The most original aspect of Dobson’s book is her account of the reactions of ordinary citizens to the influx of ex-zeks, the “politicals” as well as those convicted of crimes like murder, rape, robbery and assault. The Soviet system rarely made formal distinctions between the two groups, because antisocial behavior of all kinds was thought to be proof of ideological deviance. For much of the Soviet population, the Gulag amnesties were the first and most visible effect of the Thaw, and they hardly inspired the kind of hopes for revolutionary renewal championed by Zubok’s intellectuals. On the contrary; one Moscow trolley-car driver wrote in her letter to party leaders, “We conquered Germany when it was armed to the teeth, can it really be that our state is without the strength to conquer these parasites?” A worker in a car factory in Kalinin, contemptuous of the humanism he assumed to be behind the decision to amnesty so many of Stalin’s prisoners, noted, “For the working man, it certainly doesn’t make things easier that there are these swinish gangs of bandits who commit hooligan acts and refuse to contribute to our enormous work.”

Dobson argues that, far more than the regime’s fear of a too rapidly liberalizing intelligentsia, the harsh popular reaction to the amnesties helped curtail the attempt to reform the Soviet legal system in the late 1950s, thereby derailing the effort to create safeguards against the state-sponsored terrorism of the Stalin era. One of the strengths of Dobson’s explanation of the Thaw era’s zigzags is that it incorporates influences from below, much as the Russian historian Vladimir Kozlov has done in his work on how food riots and other popular disturbances paved the way for the unsustainable terms of the Brezhnev-era welfare state. By the time Gorbachev came to power, reducing the USSR’s costly cradle-to-grave entitlements proved even more difficult than containing its bloated military budget.

It took Germany—or rather, West Germany—nearly a quarter-century after its crushing military defeat to begin in earnest the job of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, mastering or coming to terms with the Nazi past. In an extraordinary but deeply flawed act, Nikita Khrushchev attempted to undertake a limited version of that process long before his country’s self-induced implosion, only to panic at the Pandora’s box he had opened regarding the Soviet Union’s history, and his own. For the next thirty years, the Communist Party kept a close eye on the box, responding to periodic attempts to pry open its lid by tightening the screws yet again, until the threads had all but eaten away the wood housing them. Today, nearly a quarter-century after the Soviet Union began to come apart, the box is mostly open, despite President Dmitri Medvedev’s creation in May 2009 of an ominous Commission to Counter Attempts to Falsify History to the Detriment of Russia’s Interests. Russians now watch excellent TV dramas based on Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag novels, along with documentaries glorifying Stalin’s role as an “effective manager” of the Soviet Union’s industrial revolution and the Great Fatherland War against Hitler’s Germany. The process of coming to terms with its contents has only just begun.

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