The Thaw describes the loosening of restrictions over the arts when Nikita Khrushchev served as general secretary of the Communist Party, after the death of Josef Stalin in 1953 until the mid-1960s. Although associated with the Secret Speech at the Twentieth Congress in 1956 when Khrushchev denounced some of Stalin's dictatorial activities, the name derives from Ilya Ehrenburg's 1954 book The Thaw. The novel hinted that Stalin's death signaled an end to the long winter of sacrifice and persecution, and that a new era for socialism was emerging in which individuals' private lives were valued as much as industrial productivity. Censorship eased, but its intensity varied as party leaders struggled to redefine the priorities of Soviet society.
During the Thaw, all artistic media offered new themes and stylistic innovation that had been banned under Stalin. Literary magazines, called "thick" journals, published a wide array of new works. Most notably, in 1961 Novy mir, edited by Alexander, published Alexander Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a portrayal of a labor camp inmate's efforts to survive and maintain his dignity over the course of one day. Theater also flourished, especially with the 1956 creation of the Sovremennik, a troupe of recent graduates of the School of the Moscow Art Theater led by Oleg Efremov. The company championed the work of Viktor Rozov and young dramatists. Yuri Lyubimov directed Shchukin Theater School students in a watershed production of Bertolt Brecht's The Good Person of Sechuan and in 1964 assumed the leadership of the Taganka Theater, which subsequently premiered several controversial plays.
Theaters were increasingly able to stage synthetic theater, a movement that uses lights, sets, and music to evoke meaning rather than the rigid naturalist approach of accurate historical detail. Amateur student troupes, both traditional dramatic and sketch comedy, thrived. A new generation of poets emerged, including those whose works were later staged as poetic theater by Lyubimov. One of those poets, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, penned "Babi Yar" (1961), which commemorated the Nazi slaughter of Jews and alluded to ongoing Soviet anti-Semitism. The poem became the basis of Dmitri Shostakovich's Thirteenth Symphony, which premiered in late 1962 and was sharply criticized in the press. A new musical genre, with performers known as bards, performed private concerts of their guitar poetry. Films also appeared that focused on the difficulties of private lives, often with respect to the enormous losses of World War II: Mikhail Kalatozov's Cranes are Flying (1957), Georgi Chukhrai's Ballad of a Soldier (1958), and Andrei Tarkovsky's Ivan's Childhood (1961).
There were definite limits to the party's toleration of this expression. Boris Pasternak's novel Dr. Zhivago was published in Italy in 1957 after it was banned at home. Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958, Pasternak declined the aware after he was attacked in the press and expelled from the Writers' Union. In 1964 poet Joseph Brodsky was charged with parasitism, spent over two years in an Arctic labor camp, and later emigrated. When young painters and sculptors, including Ernst Neizvestny, showed their abstract works at the Manezh exhibition hall in late 1962, Khrushchev and other leaders expressed their acute dislike. On various occasions, Pasternak, Shostakovich, Neizvestny, Yevtushenko, and others apologized for works that were deemed unacceptable.
In spite of the expanded opportunities, the absence of freedom of expression and other civil liberties led some intellectuals, labeled "dissidents" by the Party, to more direct opposition to the status quo. Beginning in this era, they circulated essays, memoirs of labor camps, and literature in manuscript form, known as samizdat, rather than submit their work to censors. They smuggled other works, referred to as tamizdat, abroad for publication. Although this group of intellectuals was small in number, it included scientist Andrei Sakharov, who called for an end to nuclear testing in the late 1950s and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1968. When it became clear that the Thaw had been temporary, these individuals grew increasingly active and were persecuted and sometimes imprisoned by the KGB.
Scholars disagree on the end date of the Thaw. Some argue that it was 1964, when Khrushchev was ousted. Others maintain that the 1966 trial of dissidents Andrey Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel marks its end. A third interpretation suggests 1968, when Soviet-led troops invaded Czechoslovakia, where the Thaw threatened the hegemony of its Communist Party.
Alexeyeva, Ludmilla, and Goldberg, Paul. (1993). The Thaw Generation: Coming of Age in the Post-Stalin Era. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.
Brown, Deming. (1978). Soviet Russian Literature since Stalin. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.
Johnson, Priscilla, and Leopold Labedz, eds. (1965). Khrushchev and the Arts: The Politics of Soviet Culture, 1962 - 1964. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Rothberg, Abraham. (1972). The Heirs of Stalin: Dissidence and the Soviet Regime, 1953 - 1970. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Spechler, Dina R. (1982). Permitted Dissent in the USSR: Novy mir and the Soviet Regime. New York: Praeger Publishers.
Taubman, William. (2003). Khrushchev: The Man and His Era. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.
Woll, Josephine. (2000). Reel Images: Soviet Cinema and the Thaw. London: I. B. Tauris and Company.
Khrushchev's Thaw refers to the period from the mid 1950s to the early 1960s, when repression and censorship in the Soviet Union were partially reversed, and millions of Soviet political prisoners were released from Gulaglabor camps, because Nikita Khrushchev initiated de-Stalinisation of Soviet life and the policy of peaceful coexistence with other nations.
The "Thaw" became possible after the death of Joseph Stalin in March 1953. Khrushchev denounced Stalin, in a secret speech at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party, then ousted the pro-Stalinists during his power struggle in Kremlin. The term was coined after Ilya Ehrenburg's 1954 novel The Thaw, "Оттепель" (text in original Russian), sensational for its time. The Khrushchev Thaw was highlighted internationally by his 1954 visit to Peking, China, and 1955 visit to Belgrade; continued with Khrushchev's 1955 meeting with Dwight Eisenhower, and culminated with Khrushchev's 1959 visit to America.
The Thaw initiated irreversible transformation of the entire Soviet nation by opening up for some economic reforms and international trade, educational and cultural contacts, festivals, books by foreign authors, foreign movies, art shows, popular music, dances and new fashions, massive involvement in international sport competitions, it was a chain of unprecedented steps to free people from fear and dictatorship that culminated in the removal of Stalin's body from Lenin's Mausoleum. Although the power struggle between liberals and conservative pro-Stalinists never stopped, it eventually weakened the Soviet Communist Party.
Khrushchev's Thaw allowed some freedom of information in the media, arts and culture; international festival, foreign movies, uncensored books, and new forms of entertainment on the emerging national TV, ranging from massive parades and celebrations to popular music and variety shows, satire and comedies, and all-star shows, like "Goluboy Ogonek." Such political and cultural updates all together helped liberate minds of millions and changed public consciousness of several generations of people in the Soviet Union.
Khrushchev's Thaw had its genesis in the concealed power struggle among Stalin's lieutenants. Several major leaders among the Red Army commanders, such as Marshall Georgy Zhukov and his loyal officers, had some serious tensions with Stalin's secret service. On the surface the Red Army and the Soviet leadership seemed united after their victory in the Second World War. However, the hidden ambitions of the top people around Stalin, as well as Stalin's own suspiciousness and paranoia, had prompted Khrushchev that he could rely only on those few, who would stay with him through the entire political power struggle. That power struggle was surreptitiously prepared by Khrushchev while Stalin was alive, and came to surface after the death of Joseph Stalin in March 1953. By the time of Stalin's death, Khrushchev's people were planted everywhere in the Soviet hierarchy, which allowed Khrushchev to execute, or remove his main opponents, and then introduce some changes in the rigid Soviet ideology and hierarchy.
Stalin's dictatorship had reached new extremes in abusing people at all levels, such as the deportations of nationalities, the Leningrad Affair, the Doctors' Plot, and official attacks on writers and other intellectuals. At the same time, millions of soldiers and officers had seen Europe after World War II, and had become aware of better ways of life than that in the Soviet Union. Upon Stalin's orders many were arrested and punished again, including the attacks on the popular Marshall Georgy Zhukov and other top generals, who had exceeded the limits on taking trophies when they looted the defeated Germany. The loot was confiscated by Stalin's security apparatus, and Marshall Zhukov was demoted, humiliated and exiled; he became a staunch anti-Stalinist. Zhukov waited until the death of Stalin, which allowed Khrushchev to bring Zhukov back for a new political battle.
The temporary union between Nikita Khrushchev and Marshall Georgy Zhukov was founded on their similar backgrounds, interests and weaknesses: both were peasants, both were ambitious, both were abused by Stalin, both feared the Stalinists, and both wanted to change these things. Khrushchev and Zhukov needed one another to eliminate their mutual enemies in the Soviet political elite.
In 1953, Zhukov helped Khrushchev to eliminate Lavrenty Beria, then a Vice-Prime Minister, who was executed in Moscow, as well as several other figures of Stalin's circle. Soon Khrushchev ordered the release of millions of political prisoners from the Gulag camps. Under Khrushchev's rule the number of prisoners in the Soviet Union was decreased from 13 million to 5 million people.
Khrushchev also promoted and groomed Leonid Brezhnev, whom he brought to Kremlin and introduced to Stalin in 1952. Then Khrushchev promoted Brezhnev to Presidium (Politburo) and made Head of Political Directorate Of the Red Army and Navy, and moved him up to several other powerful positions. Brezhnev in return helped Khrushchev by tipping the balance of power during several critical confrontations with the conservative hard-liners, including the ouster of pro-Stalinists headed by Molotov and Malenkov.
1956 Khrushchev's speech denouncing Stalin
Stalin was denounced by Khrushchev in his speech On the Personality Cult and its Consequences, delivered at the closed session of the 20th Party Congress, behind closed doors, after midnight on February 25, 1956. In this speech, Khrushchev described the damages done by Stalin's Personality Cult, and the repressions, known as Great Purges that killed millions and traumatized all people in the Soviet Union. After the delivery of the speech, it was officially disseminated in a shorter form among members of the Soviet Communist Party across the USSR starting March 5, 1956. Then Khrushchev initiated a wave of rehabilitations that officially restored the reputations of many millions of innocent victims, who were killed or imprisoned in the Great Purges under Stalin. Further, tentative moves were made through official and unofficial channels to relax restrictions on freedom of speech that had been held over from the rule of Stalin.
Khrushchev's 1956 speech was the strongest effort ever in the USSR to bring reconciliation and healing to the people, at that time, after several decades of fear of Stalin's Terror, that took millions of innocent lives. Khrushchev's speech was published internationally within a few months, and his initiatives to open and liberalise the USSR had surprised the world. Khrushchev's speech had angered many of his powerful enemies, thus igniting another round of ruthless power struggle within the Soviet Communist Party. At that time, Moshe Dayan said that the USSR will disappear in 30 years, and he was only 5 years off predicting the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Khrushchev's problems during the Thaw
Main article: 1956 Georgian demonstrations
Khruschev's denouncement of Stalin came as a shock to the Soviet society. Many in the Georgian SSR, Stalin's homeland, especially the young generation, bred on the panegyrics and permanent praise of the "genius" of Stalin, perceived it as a national insult. In March 1956, a series of spontaneous rallies to mark the third anniversary of Stalin's death quickly evolved into an uncontrollable mass demonstration and political demands such as the change of the central government in Moscow and calls for the independence of Georgia from the Soviet Union appeared, leading to the Soviet army intervention and bloodshed in the streets of Tbilisi.
Polish and Hungarian Revolutions of 1956
The first big international failure of Khrushchev's politics came in October-November 1956.
The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was brutally suppressed by the massive invasion of the Soviet tanks and the Red Army troops in Budapest. The street fighting against the invading Red Army caused thousands of casualties among Hungarian civilians and militia, as well as hundreds of the Soviet military personnel killed. The disastrous attack of the Soviet Red Army also caused massive emigration from Hungary, as hundreds of thousands of Hungarians had fled as refugees.
At the same time, the Polish October emerged as the political and social climax in Poland. Such democratic changes in the internal life of Poland were also perceived with fear and anger in Moscow, where the hard-line "Stalinists" did not want to lose control, fearing the political threat to the Soviet strength and power in Eastern Europe.
1957 plot against Khrushchev
The conservative hard-line "Stalinist" elite of the Soviet communist party was enraged by Khrushchev's speech in 1956, and rejected Khrushchev's de-Stalinization and liberalisation of Soviet society. One year after Khrushchev's secret speech, the "Stalinists" attempted to oust Khrushchev from the leadership position in the Soviet Communist Party.
Khrushchev's enemies considered him hypocritical as well as ideologically wrong, given Khrushchev's involvement in Stalin's Great Purges, and other similar events as one of Stalin's favourites. They believed that Khrushchev's policy of peaceful coexistence would leave the Soviet Union open to attack. Vyacheslav Molotov, Lazar Kaganovich, Georgy Malenkov and joined by Dmitri Shepilov at the last minute after Kaganovich convinced him the group had a majority, attempted to depose Khrushchev as First Secretary of the Party in May 1957.
But Khrushchev had used Marshall Georgy Zhukov again. Khrushchev was saved by several strong appearances in his support, especially powerful was support from both Zhukov and Brezhnev. At the extraordinary session of the Central Committee held in late June 1957, Khrushchev labeled his opponents as Anti-Party Group and won a vote which reaffirmed his position as First Secretary. Then he expelled Molotov, Kaganovich and Malenkov from the Secretariat and ultimately from the Communist Party itself.
Economy and political tensions
Khrushchev's attempts in reforming the Soviet industrial infrastructure led to his clashes with professionals in most branches of the Soviet economy. His reform of administrative organization created him more problems. In a politically motivated move to weaken the central state bureaucracy in 1957, Khrushchev replaced the industrial ministries in Moscow with regional Councils of People's Economy, sovnarkhozes, causing himself many new enemies among the ranks in Soviet government.
Eventually Khrushchev's power, although indisputable, was slowly eroding and never became comparable to that of Stalin's. Some of the new people who came into the Soviet hierarchy, like Mikhail Gorbachev were younger, better educated and more independent thinkers.
In 1956, Khrushchev introduced the concept of a minimum wage. While initially a good idea, it was implemented with the typical Soviet manner: the minimum wage was so small, that most people were still underpaid in reality. The next step was a contemplated financial reform. However, Khrushchev stopped short of the real monetary reform, when he ordered to replace the old money with portraits of Stalin, and made a simple redenomination of the ruble 10:1 in 1961.
In 1961, Khrushchev finalized his battle against Stalin: the body of dictator was removed from the Lenin's Mausoleum on the Red Square and then buried outside the walls of the Kremlin. The removal of Stalin's body out of the Lenin's Mausoleum was arguably among the most provocative moves made by Khrushchev during the Thaw. Stalin's body removal consolidated pro-Stalinists against Khrushchev, and alienated even his loyal apprentices, such as Leonid Brezhnev.
Openness and liberalisation in the Thaw
The shift to liberalisation and openness was needed by people, and it became possible after the death of Stalin.
After 1953, the Soviet society enjoyed a series of cultural and sports events and entertainment of unprecedented scale, such as the first Spartakiad, as well as several innovative film comedies, such as The Carnival Night, and several popular music festivals. Some classical musicians, filmmakers and ballet stars were allowed to make appearances outside the Soviet Union in order to better represent its culture and society to the world.
In the summer of 1956, just a few months after Khrushchev's secret speech, Moscow became the center of the first Spartakiada of the Peoples of the USSR. The event was made pompous and loud in the Soviet style: Moscow hosted large sports teams and groups of fans in national costumes who came from all republics of the USSR. Khrushchev used the event to accentuate his new political and social goals, and to show himself as a new leader who was completely different from Stalin.
In July 1957, the 6th World Festival of Youth and Students (Russian: Всемирный фестиваль молодёжи и студентов) was held in Moscow. This became possible after the bold political changes initiated by Nikita Khrushchev. It was the first World Festival of Youth and Students held in the Soviet Russia, which was opening its doors for the first time to the world. The festival attracted 34 thousand people from 130 countries.
In 1958, the first International Tchaikovsky Competition was held in Moscow. The winner was AmericanpianistVan Cliburn, who gave sensational performances of Russian music. Khrushchev personally approved giving the top award to the American musician.
Khrushchev's Thaw opened the Soviet society to a degree that allowed some foreign movies, books, art and music. Some previously banned writers and composers, such as Dmitri Shostakovich, Sergei Prokofiev, Anna Akhmatova, Mikhail Zoshchenko, among others, were brought back to public life, as the official Soviet censorship policies had changed. Books by some internationally recognised authors, such as Ernest Hemingway, were published in millions of copies to satisfy the interest of readers in the USSR.
In 1962, Khrushchev personally approved the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's story One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which became a sensation, and made history as the first uncensored publication about the Stalin's Gulag labor camps.
Despite the new freedoms in the Soviet Union, there was still a lot of persecution of religion that had temporarily halted during the war effort and the years after toward the end of Stalin's rule.
Khrushchev's Thaw in the World
In the West, Khrushchev's Thaw is known as a temporary thaw in the icy tension between the United States and the USSR during the Cold War. The tensions were able to thaw because of Khrushchev's de-Stalinization of the USSR and peaceful co-existence theory and also because of US President Eisenhower's cautious attitude and peace attempts. For example, both leaders attempted to achieve peace by attending the 1955 Geneva International Peace Summit and developing the Open Skies Policy and Quest for Arms Agreement. The leaders’ attitudes allowed them to, as Khrushchev put it, "break the ice."
Khrushchev's Thaw developed largely as a result of Khrushchev's theory of peaceful co-existence which believed the two superpowers (USA and USSR) and their ideologies could co-exist together, without war (peacefully). Khrushchev had created the theory of peaceful existence in an attempt to reduce hostility between the two superpowers. He tried to prove peaceful coexistence by attending international peace conferences, such as the Geneva Summit, and by traveling internationally, such as his trip to America’s Camp David in 1959.
This spirit of cooperation was severely damaged by the U-2 spy plane incident. The Soviet presentation of downed pilot Gary Powers at the May 1960 Paris Peace Summit and Eisenhower's refusal to apologize ended much of the progress of this era. Then Khrushchev approved the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961.
Further deterioration of the Thaw and decay of Khrushchev's international political standing happened during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. At that time the Soviet and international media were making two completely opposite pictures of reality, while the world was at the brink of a Nuclear war. Although, direct communication between Khrushchev and the US president John Kennedy helped to end the crisis, Khrushchev's political image was damaged.
Social, cultural and economic reforms
The "Khrushchev's Thaw" caused unprecedented social, cultural and economic transformations in the Soviet Union. The 60s generation actually started in the 1950s, with their uncensored poetry, songs and books publications.
The 6th World Festival of Youth and Students had opened many eyes and ears in the Soviet Union. Many new social trends stemmed from that festival. Many Russian women became involved in love affairs with handsome men from all over the world, what resulted in the so-called "inter-baby boom" in Moscow and Leningrad. The festival also brought new styles and fashions that caused the movement among the upper class called "stilyagi" and the 60s generation. The festival also "revolutionized" the underground currency trade and boosted the black market, causing headaches for the Soviet KGB.
Emergence of such popular stars as Bulat Okudzhava, Edita Piekha, Evgeny Evtushenko, Bella Akhmadulina, and the superstar Vladimir Vysotsky had changed the popular culture forever in the USSR. Their poetry and songs liberated the public consciousness of the Soviet people and pushed guitars and tape recorders to masses, so the Soviet people became exposed to independent channels of information and public mentality was eventually updated in many ways.
Khrushchev finally liberated millions of peasants; by his order the Soviet government gave them identifications, passports, and thus allowed them to move out of poor villages to big cities. Massive housing construction, known as khrushchevkas, was undertaken during the 1950s and 1960s. Millions of cheap and basic residential blocks of low-end flats were built all over the Soviet Union to accommodate the largest migration ever in the Soviet history, when masses of landless peasants moved to Soviet cities. The move caused a dramatic change of the demographic picture in the USSR, and eventually finalized the decay of peasantry in Russia.
Economic reforms were contemplated by Alexey Kosygin, a staunch ally of Nikita Khrushchev, who was chairman of the USSR State Committee for Planning in 1959 and then a full member of the Presidium (also known as Politburo after 1966) in 1960.
Both the cultural and the political thaws were effectively ended with the removal of Krushchev as Soviet leader in October 1964, and the installment of Leonid Brezhnev as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1964. When Khrushchev was dismissed, Kosygin took over Khrushchev's position as Soviet Premier, but Kosygin's reforms were replaced with stagnation and military-industrial development which eventually ruined the Soviet economy and caused the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Brezhnev begun his career as the General Secretary with the Sinyavsky-Daniel trial in 1965. Then Brezhnev re-established "Stalinist" authoritarian ideology, ignoring the letter by the leading Soviet intellectuals, asking not to restore Stalinism. After that, Brezhnev approved the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 (Prague Spring) and ended with the Soviet war in Afghanistan which lasted until his death; he installed an authoritarian regime lasted through his life and the lives of his two successors, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko.
Timeline of the Khrushchev's Thaw
1953: Stalin died. Beria eliminated by Zhukov. Khrushchev became leader of the Soviet Communist Party.
1954: Khrushchev visited Bejing, China, met Mao Zedong. Started rehabilitation and release of Soviet political prisoners. Allowed uncensored public performances of poets and songwriters in the Soviet Union.
1955: Khrushchev met with US President Eisenhower. NATO formed, the Warsaw Pact established. Khrushchev reconciled with Tito. Zhukov appointed Minister of Defence. Brezhnev appointed to run Virgin Lands Campaign.
1956: Khrushchev denounced Stalin in his Secret Speech. Hungarian Revolution crushed by the Soviet Army. Polish revolution suppressed.
1957: Coup against Khrushchev. Pro-Stalinists ousted from Kremlin. World Festival of Youth and Students in Moscow. Tape recorders spread popular music all over the Soviet Russia. Sputnik orbited the Earth. Introduced sovnarkhozes.
1958: Khrushchev named premier of the Soviet Union, ousted Zhukov from Minister of Defence, cut military spending, (Councils of People's Economy). 1st International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow.
1959: Khrushchev visited the USA. unsuccessful introduction of maize during agricultural crisis in the Soviet Union caused serious food crisis. Sino-Soviet split started.
1960: Kennedy elected President of the USA. Vietnam War escalated. American U–2 spy plane shot down over the Soviet Union. Pilot Powers pleaded guilty. Khrushchev cancelled the summit with Eisenhower.
1961: Stalin's body removed from Lenin's mausoleum. Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. Khrushchev approved the Berlin Wall. The Soviet ruble redenominated 10:1, food crisis continued.
1962: Krushchev and Kennedy struggled through the Cuban Missile Crisis. Food crisis caused the Novocherkassk massacre. First publication about the "Gulag" camps by Solzhenitsyn.
1963: Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space. Ostankino TV tower construction started. Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests signed. Kennedy assassinated. Khrushchev hosted Fidel Castro in Moscow.
1964: Beatlemania came to the Soviet Union, music bands formed at many Russian schools. 40 bugs found in the US Embassy in Moscow. Brezhnev ousted Khrushchev, and placed him under house arrest.
Many historians compare the Khrushchev's Thaw and his massive efforts to change the Soviet society and move away from its past, with the Gorbachev's perestroika and glasnost during the 1980s. Although they led the Soviet Union in different eras, both Khrushchev and Gorbachev had initiated dramatic reforms. Both efforts lasted only a few years, and both efforts were supported by the people, while being opposed by the hard-liners. Both leaders were dismissed, albeit with completely different results for their country.
Mikhail Gorbachev has been calling Khrushchev's achievements remarkable, he praised the Khrushchev's 1956 speech, but stated that Khrushchev did not succeed in his reforms.
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