What by Stalin’s former ‘close friend’ Nikolai Bukharin,

What was the „Thaw”?

The following essay will illustrate what the ‘Thaw’ was and how it affected
Soviet Russia. To do so, the first chapter will provide historical context,
primarily focused on Stalin’s ‘career’. The second chapter will examine the end
of Stalin’s leadership, and the rise of Khrushchev up to the ‘Secret Speech’.
The final chapter will examine the positive and negatives aspects of the ‘Thaw.

Stalin’s Rule – Historical Context

As early as 1922, Stalin carefully manoeuvred himself into a position in
which it would be likely that he would eventually become the head of the party.
When Lenin suffered his first stroke, it set off an immense struggle for power
inside the Party; Stalin being named General Secretary, a post only created
shortly before, enabled him to place his allies in various powerful positions
within the Party, effectively suppressing any potential opposition. (Merriman,
2010:954) This ‘first taste’ of totalitarian rule did not go by unnoticed. In
1924, Trotsky wrote that Stalin, having been hooked by the dialectics of
history, would become the dictator of the USSR. (Trotsky in Davies, 1997:960)
Similarly, Lenin wrote down his thoughts in December of 1923, a day after
having suffered his second stroke:

“Comrade Stalin, on becoming general secretary,
concentrated boundless power in his hand, and I am not sure whether he will
always know how to use this power with caution.” (Merriman, 2010:954)

 As soon as Lenin was out of the
picture, having succumbed to the effects of his second stroke in January 1924,
Stalin proceeded to install his men on all levels of the Party; in addition, he
insured that he could portray himself as having always been Lenin’s logical
‘pick’ as the next head of the party, going as far as to forge evidence in the
form of pictures that supposedly always portrayed him by Lenin’s side.
(Merriman, 2010:954) These proved to be compelling points. Stalin finalised his
power establishment through a serious of Central Committee meetings in 1928 and
1929; mobilising enough votes to defeat the rightist opposition that had
emerged, led by Stalin’s former ‘close friend’ Nikolai Bukharin, the Stalinists
were effectively unchallenged in their power by 1930. (Getty & Naumov,

Another important element in Stalinism and the Rule of Terror was the
Party’s treatment of the general population. To fulfil his plan of forging a
‘first-class industrial and military power within a decade’ (Davies, 1997:960),
Stalin used ‘States of Emergency’ to justify his extraordinary measures. One
such extraordinary measure was the Collectivisation of Soviet agriculture.
While the official reasoning was to end private farming and private property,
the collectivisation turned out to be a planned campaign against the slightly wealthier
peasant families (kulaks) to strip them off their belongings and deport them.
(Getty & Naumov, 2010:28) Linked to the systematic elimination of
unfavourable groups of people was the establishment of the new Commissariat of
the Interior (NKVD), which had been merged with the Secret Police in 1934 (and
was effectively led by the latter). Used as Stalin’s main instrument of terror,
the NKVD is responsible the largest acts of mass repression in Russian history.
The main functions of the NKVD can be summarised in two orders of its
directive, to get an idea of why it was Stalin’s main instrument of terror.

The content of the first order, 00192, displays just how much the definition
of ‘socially dangerous elements’ has changed to fit Stalin’s ideology. In the
1920s these elements were defined as someone with a criminal record; Order
00192, however, defined anyone as a ‘socially dangerous element’ who fit the
following description:

criminal convictions and ‘continuing uncorrected ties’ to the criminal world

criminal convictions, but with no definite place of work, and ties with the
criminal world



over the age of 12 caught in a criminal act

(Shearer, 2001:523)

These descriptions show just how arbitrary people were arrested. The
second was Order 00447, Concerning the Punishment of former Kulaks, Criminals,
and other anti-Soviet Elements. Called the ‘task of mercilessly crushing …
anti-Soviet elements, … defending the working Soviet people … and, finally,
putting an end … to their base undermining of the foundations of the Soviet
state’ (Engl. Translation, Getty & Naumov, 2010:186-7), Order 00447 existed
to authorise large-scale offenses against what the regime deemed ‘anti-Soviet
elements. In addition to the authorisation of these offenses, the order also
describes the procedure for caught ‘elements’: it is instructed that
investigations should be of a ‘swift and simplified manner’ and that all
‘kulaks, criminals, and other anti-Soviet elements’ are broken down into two
categories, of which the first, ‘the most active elements’, are to be
immediately arrested and potentially shot. (Engl. Translation, Getty &
Naumov, 2010:187) Based on these two orders alone, it can be stated that
Stalin’s policy of removing unwanted elements to secure his power worked.

End of Stalin Era and the Rise of Nikita Khrushchev

After the Second World War the United States supported initiatives such
as the Marshall Plan to restore a war-damaged Europe, having felt the
consequences of the war and intent on restoring amicable relations. The USSR on
the other side had no interest in restoring a functioning world economy; its
main interest was to establish an economically-independent sphere, at the heart
of which would lie the USSR, surrounded by its satellite states. (Nekrich,
1985:145) However, Stalin’s actual intentions were broader than that. In
January 1951, half a year after the begin of the Korean war, a meeting of the
leaders of socialist countries took place in the Kremlin. Stalin, representing
Russia with Vyacheslav Molotov, claimed that the war had shown the weakness of
the United States military, and that it was time to strike decisively against
capitalist Europe. (Nekrich, 1985:190)

Clearly intent on eventually initiating a war against the ‘Capitalist
West’, Stalin’s plan was cut short when, during the final stages of planning
yet another purge for fabricated reasons, the ‘Doctor’s Plot’, he suffered a
stroke in late February 1952, and died on the 5th of March the
following year.

Stalin’s death meant change. The passing of an authoritarian ruler
usually leaves a ruling elite behind that is often divided. One of the few
similarities among the ‘inner circle’ was a general sense of relief; during the
Rule of Terror, not even the highest-ranking members were safe from Stalin, as
even Lavrenti Beria, then Secretary of the Interior, had apparently feared for
his life. (Nekrich, 1985:191) What followed were three years of political
manoeuvring among the ruling elite, namely Khrushchev, Malenkov, and Beria,
each intent on establishing themselves as the successor to Stalin. Though
Malenkov was appointed Chairman of the Council of Ministers, and Khrushchev was
released from his responsibilities as First Secretary to ‘concentrate on work
at the Central Committee’, the latter proved to be equal in terms of political
manoeuvres, and by late Summer of 1953 Khrushchev had strengthened his roots
within the Central Committee (Gorlizki, 1995:17-22); when the 20th
Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in 1956 took place, he was the First
Party Secretary.

The Secret Speech – ‘Kick-Off’ for the Thaw

It was Khrushchev’s secret speech, delivered behind closed doors after
all the elections had taken place, that shook the audience. Aimed directly at
Stalin’s failures and all the atrocities the NKVD committed in his name, the
secret speech was Khrushchev’s attempt at tearing down Stalin’s legacy and the
cult of personality he had established around himself, mentioning the harmful
consequences a cult of the individual leader in the very first sentence.
(Whitney in Suny, 2013:393) He exposed Stalin’s claim for absolute submission
among his ruling elite at the threat of ‘moral and physical annihilation’, claiming
that Stalin ‘originated the concept “enemy of the people”‘. (Whitney in Suny,
2013:394-5) Khrushchev frequently compares Stalin’s behaviour to that of Lenin,
stating that Lenin would only use severe measure in the most necessary cases
(“struggle for survival of the revolution” was one such case); Stalin would
also ignore and trample on Leninist principles with regards to collective
leadership. (Whitney in Suny, 2013:396) The most crucial part with regards to
the future came at the end of his speech, when Khrushchev, backed by the party,
denounced any cult of an individual leader and called for a return to
Marxist-Leninist ideals and a revival of the Communist Party:

“We are absolutely certain that our party,
armed with the historic resolutions of the 20th Congress, will lead
the Soviet people along the Leninist path to new successes, to new victories.

                Long live the
victorious banner of our party – Leninism!”

(Whitney in Suny, 2013:403)

This significant speech, which spread to all regional communist governments
and beyond, can be considered the final event which would initiate the Thaw and
forever change the USSR.

The Thaw – What it was and how it affected Soviet Society

The ‘Thaw’ had its first appearance in the short novel of the same name
written by Ilya Ehrenburg in 1954. Since then it has become a metaphor for
de-Stalinisation. It describes the metaphorical thawing of a Soviet Russia that
had lived under the authoritarian and absolute rule of Joseph Stalin for 24
years of ‘winter’. This ‘Thaw’ brought with it wide-spreading positive changes
within Soviet Russia, economically, culturally, and politically; it was,
however, also an attempt of Khrushchev’s to stabilise the regime. The following
chapter will examine some of the most important changes the ‘Thaw’ brought with
it, split up into the positive and the negative, to determine what this
bilateral period in Soviet history represents.

Positive Aspects of the ‘Thaw’

One of the biggest changes the ‘Thaw’ brought with it was the treatment
of gulag prisoners incarcerated during Stalin’s rule; the number of prisoners
in the gulag system grew from 179k in 1929 to almost 2.5m in 1953. (nps.gov,
2018) Many of these prisoners had no reason to be in a high-security prison
camp other than having the bad luck of being sent there during the Stalin
regime’s various waves of repression. (nps.gov, 2018) However, their luck
turned as the Khrushchev regime scaled back the usage of gulags, and by March
of 1953, shortly after Stalin’s death, more than a million prisoners were
released; by 1956 over 500k prisoners were pardoned of their crimes or at least
‘rehabilitated’. (nps.gov, 2018)

The release and pardoning of many of Stalin’s ‘victims’ was an important
step in the direction of complete de-Stalinisation. Less politically impactful,
but just as symbolically important were the measures taken to display the
symbolic aspect of de-Stalinisation. One important change was the renaming of
some major cities in Soviet Russia: the most famous example was the city of
Stalingrad, known as the ‘Hero City’ for its defeat of Nazi German infantry
during World War 2; it was renamed Volgograd. (New York Times, 1961) In
addition to that, Stalin’s body, previously buried next to Lenin’s, was removed
from the mausoleum in the same year, and buried closer to the Kremlin in a
bleakly marked grave. (edition.cnn.com, 2000)

This symbolic de-Stalinisation is compatible with Khrushchev’s idea to
enhance the relationship between a regime and its people. He ‘argued that the
regime could no longer afford to base its relationship with the peasant on
forced exploitation, confiscation, and neglect.’; his argument was that the
general population could be trusted now that it no longer stood for the threat
of restoration, so it should also be questioned why then the same population
should be mobilised through methods of the past. (Breslauer, 2000:53) This
‘openness’ towards the peasantry strung like a red thread through Khrushchev’s
policies. He integrated the scientific and technical intelligentsia into the political machine, allowing specialists to
attend even high-level Central Committee and actively asked for their council.
(Breslauer, 2000:53-4) Ultimately Khrushchev’s plan was to generate a society
in which every individual had a purpose to accelerate the domestic economy and
further the cause of communism; however, it inevitably led to some of the more
negative elements the ‘Thaw’ produced, among of which are the ‘Parasite Laws’,
which will be discussed in the other section of this chapter.

Closely linked to the outreach to the general population with economical
intentions was ‘cultural liberation’ which took place during the years of the
‘Thaw’. One of the most impactful event was World Youth Festival of 1957, organised
by the Soviet leaders and taking place in Moscow. It attracted over 34.000
people from more than 130 countries, bringing not only new fashion and
lifestyles to the Russian people, but also introducing a completely different
way of thinking. (russiatoday.ru, 2007) Though its intent was unquestionably to
portray the Russian lifestyle to Western youth, possibly to win them over for
the cause of communism, the reverse took place, as the colourful and varied
culture of the West simply offered more than anything Russian youth had
experience until that point.

Not only did Soviet Russia open its doors to the world’s youth, but also
to a widened frame of international relations, in stark contrast to Stalin’s
approach to International Relations. Nikita Khrushchev firmly believed that a
form of peaceful co-existence was possible, even among two seemingly opposite
systems like capitalism and communism. In an interview he is quoted as saying
that social systems change as society develops; feudalism evolved, to be
replaced by capitalism, which in turn would be replaced by communism:

                “You may disagree
with me. I disagree with you. What are we to do? We have to co-exist.”

(Document 137 in Acton & Stableford, 2007:224)

While having a somewhat threatening subtext, the general message was one
of peace. This can be seen in accordance with the events of the 1959 American
National Exhibition in Moscow. Though Russia was technologically ahead, having
launched Sputnik in October 1957, the image of the common Russian household was
seen as an embarrassment, as the image of ‘downtrodden women engaged in manual
labour’ persisted. (Martens & Casey, 2016) Seen as an embarrassment by
Khrushchev and as an opportunity by then Vice-President Richard Nixon to challenge
Soviet state socialism, Soviet Russia was convinced that the key to the global
victory of socialism would be achieved through superior living standards rather
than military might. (Reid, 2005:290) The back and forth between Nixon and
Khrushchev, largely improvisational, was televised and became later known as
the ‘Kitchen Debate’.

In conclusion of this section, the ‘Thaw’ stands for many positive
changes in the Soviet system. It drastically changed the gulag system and
released many wrongfully convicted, reached out to the people to a certain
degree, and opened its doors to the outside world. In the last years of his
rule Khrushchev even approved the stark anti-Stalinist short novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,
written by World War 2 veteran and 8-year gulag prisoner Alexander
Solzhenitsyn. (reuters.com, 2008) However, as mentioned before, the ‘Thaw’ was
somewhat of a bilateral affair, as it brought with it negative aspects, some of
which will be examined in the following section.

Negative Aspects of the ‘Thaw’

While the ‘Thaw’ is generally associated more with the improvements it
brought to Soviet Russia, one must not forget that, even though he was a more
benevolent ruler, Khrushchev was not elected by a democracy and Soviet Russia
was therefore still an authoritarian state. The idea behind de-Stalinisation
was to strengthen the regime under a new banner, a strategy that was
compromised from the beginning. An immediate repercussion to the beginning of
the ‘Thaw’ (the secret speech to be more precise) was the revolt in Georgia.
Originally just a demonstration against Khrushchev’s de-Stalinisation policy,
it quickly escalated into massive protests with the city in complete anarchy.
(Kozlov, 2002:124)

These reactions were the result of an idealistic image of Stalin
preserved in the minds of even the people that he and his regime actively
oppressed, Georgia as his birth country being the most liable to such notions.
The more crucial negative aspects brought by the ‘Thaw’ occurred inside Soviet
Russia. Not unlike the NKVD orders, a 1951 law allowed people’s courts to
sentence ‘social parasites’. While this law in 1951 focused strictly on
‘beggars, tramps, and prostitutes’, by 1957 the definition had expanded
immensely. (Fitzpatrick, 2006:377) To enforce these laws, the regime
established and utilised so-called ‘Comrade Courts’, ‘elected public agencies
charged with actively contributing to the inculcation in citizens of a spirit
of a communist attitude toward labour and socialist property and the observance
of the rules of socialist society.’; they were democratically elected and their
main purpose was to keep order within the limits of their influence sphere,
such as companies, farm complexes, and schools. (Matthews, 1974:305) Though in
theory the concept seems to work, in an authoritarian system like Soviet Russia
the ‘Comrade Courts’ were a clever shift of blame by the regime, as it was now
up to the population (especially activists in support of the communist cause)
to repress itself. In addition to that one would not be mistaken to draw a line
between the terms ‘social parasite’ and ‘enemy of the people’. If the former is
a remnant, almost a revival, of the latter cannot be said with absolute
certainty; however, in one form or the other many authoritarian regimes have
implemented such terms to divide the general population, as a split people is
easier to rule.

A massive impact on US-Soviet relations and the ‘beginning of the end’
of the ‘Thaw’ arrived with the (events leading up to the) Cuban Missile Crisis
of 1962. Even though he argued in 1957 that socialist victory would emerge
through domestic success, Khrushchev was eager to level the military and
diplomatic playing field; after the failure of the US operation in Cuba,
Castro’s regime sought assistance from the USSR, an opportunity that Khrushchev
saw as a chance to reduce the superiority of the US nuclear arsenal. (Acton
& Stableford, 2007:225) The plan backfired and brought the world as to
nuclear war as it has ever been. This immense humiliation of the USSR
permanently weakened Khrushchev’s position. Two years later, in October of 1964
he was replaced by Leonid Brezhnev; while the planning of Khrushchev’s ousting
certainly bared resemblance to a coup, the calm and orderly fashion of the
transfer of power, even by party statutes. (Tompson, 1991:1116)

To conclude this section, the ‘Thaw’ also brought with it negative
aspects, some of which, like the ‘Parasite Laws’, were the result of an
authoritarian regime giving itself the façade of liberalisation even though (as
most authoritarian regimes) it wanted to maintain its control. While these
negative aspects must not be overlooked when answering the question of what the
‘Thaw’ was, it is reasonable to say that the positive outweighed the negative,
at least at the time. It can only be theorised what the Soviet Union would have
turned into, if it was not for the historical circumstances and the ousting of
Nikita Khrushchev in 1964.


Comparing the aspects of the ‘Thaw’, the question ‘what was the Thaw?’
can be answered by saying that it was a breath of fresh air for the general
population of Soviet Russia. It brought with it many great changes and could
have turned into a massive liberalisation movement of the Eastern bloc.
However, the modal verbs ‘could have’ need to be used as history shows; the
main issue preventing the liberalisation from truly taking place was the fact
that Soviet Russia did not cease to be an authoritarian state after the death
of Stalin. As such the people were still ruled by the unelected Khrushchev, who
only made as many concessions as he saw necessary to stay in power, albeit
these concessions became part of his legacy.  


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