Joseph Stalin had been dead for three years when his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, stunned a closed gathering of Communist officials with a litany of his predecessor’s abuses. Meant to clear the way for reform from above, Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” of February 25, 1956, shattered the myth of Stalin’s infallibility. In a bid to rejuvenate the Party, Khrushchev had his report read out loud to members across the Soviet Union that spring. However, its message sparked popular demands for more information and greater freedom to debate.
Moscow 1956: The Silenced Spring brings this first brief season of thaw into fresh focus. Drawing on newly declassified Russian archives, Kathleen Smith offers a month-by-month reconstruction of events as the official process of de-Stalinization unfolded and political and cultural experimentation flourished. Smith looks at writers, students, scientists, former gulag prisoners, and free-thinkers who took Khrushchev’s promise of liberalization seriously, testing the limits of a more open Soviet system.
But when anti-Stalin sentiment morphed into calls for democratic reform and eventually erupted in dissent within the Soviet bloc—notably in the Hungarian uprising—the Party balked and attacked critics. Yet Khrushchev had irreversibly opened his compatriots’ eyes to the flaws of monopolistic rule. Citizens took the Secret Speech as inspiration and permission to opine on how to restore justice and build a better society, and the new crackdown only reinforced their discontent. The events of 1956 set in motion a cycle of reform and retrenchment that would recur until the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991.
A beautifully written work by a gifted historian. Many passages, where Smith creates what might be described as a daybook of seemingly disparate events, are nothing less than masterful.
1956 was a watershed year in Russian political history, as important as 1917. Kathleen Smith’s account of this year is the most empathetic and complete I know. For anyone who wonders why Russia never did or will turn into North Korea, read this book for a clear answer.
This fascinating book recounts how Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin let loose a torrent of change in the Soviet Union. Filled with inspiring, poignant stories of writers, scientists, students, and others who dared to speak out, Smith’s account also illuminates the kind of resistance that thwarted liberalization then and continues to do so in Russia today.
In this fluent and engaging account, Smith describes the unfolding events of 1956—the early bewilderment, as details of [Khrushchev’s] speech filtered out to Party members and society at large, press responses as they began to explore ‘acceptable’ criticism, and the exhilaration of the younger generation at the new atmosphere.
Nineteen fifty-six was an important year in Russian history, not because a war or a revolution began that year but because that is when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev gave a speech to a Communist Party congress in which he unmasked the monstrous crimes and mistakes of his predecessor, Joseph Stalin. The content of the ‘secret speech,’ the motivations behind it, and in broad terms the waves it created are all familiar. But until this book, the intricate and fraught ways that the confession played out in the Soviet Union were not… The thoroughness with which [Smith] introduces her characters lends the account a riveting immediacy.
[A] provocative political history…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.
[An] eloquent account…Smith draws persuasive comparisons between the failed reforms of the Khrushchev years and the post-2000 Russian government, which has also prioritized its own survival over citizens’ democratic rights.
- 448 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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