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.
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 Surveying a vast array of published and unpublished sources with an exquisite eye for telling detail, Zubok shows how the optimism of the era drew deeply on the classical inheritance of Marxism-Leninism.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.