What was the „Thaw”?The following essay will illustrate what the ‘Thaw’ was and how it affectedSoviet Russia. To do so, the first chapter will provide historical context,primarily focused on Stalin’s ‘career’. The second chapter will examine the endof 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 ContextAs early as 1922, Stalin carefully manoeuvred himself into a position inwhich 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 powerinside the Party; Stalin being named General Secretary, a post only createdshortly before, enabled him to place his allies in various powerful positionswithin the Party, effectively suppressing any potential opposition. (Merriman,2010:954) This ‘first taste’ of totalitarian rule did not go by unnoticed.
In1924, Trotsky wrote that Stalin, having been hooked by the dialectics ofhistory, would become the dictator of the USSR. (Trotsky in Davies, 1997:960)Similarly, Lenin wrote down his thoughts in December of 1923, a day afterhaving suffered his second stroke: “Comrade Stalin, on becoming general secretary,concentrated boundless power in his hand, and I am not sure whether he willalways know how to use this power with caution.” (Merriman, 2010:954) As soon as Lenin was out of thepicture, 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, heinsured 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 theform of pictures that supposedly always portrayed him by Lenin’s side.(Merriman, 2010:954) These proved to be compelling points.
Stalin finalised hispower establishment through a serious of Central Committee meetings in 1928 and1929; mobilising enough votes to defeat the rightist opposition that hademerged, led by Stalin’s former ‘close friend’ Nikolai Bukharin, the Stalinistswere effectively unchallenged in their power by 1930. (Getty & Naumov,2010:27-9)Another important element in Stalinism and the Rule of Terror was theParty’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.
Onesuch 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 wealthierpeasant families (kulaks) to strip them off their belongings and deport them.(Getty & Naumov, 2010:28) Linked to the systematic elimination ofunfavourable groups of people was the establishment of the new Commissariat ofthe Interior (NKVD), which had been merged with the Secret Police in 1934 (andwas 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 itsdirective, 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 definitionof ‘socially dangerous elements’ has changed to fit Stalin’s ideology. In the1920s these elements were defined as someone with a criminal record; Order00192, however, defined anyone as a ‘socially dangerous element’ who fit thefollowing description:- previouscriminal convictions and ‘continuing uncorrected ties’ to the criminal world- nocriminal convictions, but with no definite place of work, and ties with thecriminal world- ‘professional’beggars- loiterers – childrenover the age of 12 caught in a criminal act(Shearer, 2001:523)These descriptions show just how arbitrary people were arrested. Thesecond 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 Sovietstate’ (Engl. Translation, Getty & Naumov, 2010:186-7), Order 00447 existedto authorise large-scale offenses against what the regime deemed ‘anti-Sovietelements. In addition to the authorisation of these offenses, the order alsodescribes the procedure for caught ‘elements’: it is instructed thatinvestigations should be of a ‘swift and simplified manner’ and that all’kulaks, criminals, and other anti-Soviet elements’ are broken down into twocategories, of which the first, ‘the most active elements’, are to beimmediately arrested and potentially shot. (Engl. Translation, Getty &Naumov, 2010:187) Based on these two orders alone, it can be stated thatStalin’s policy of removing unwanted elements to secure his power worked. End of Stalin Era and the Rise of Nikita KhrushchevAfter the Second World War the United States supported initiatives suchas the Marshall Plan to restore a war-damaged Europe, having felt theconsequences of the war and intent on restoring amicable relations.
The USSR onthe other side had no interest in restoring a functioning world economy; itsmain interest was to establish an economically-independent sphere, at the heartof which would lie the USSR, surrounded by its satellite states. (Nekrich,1985:145) However, Stalin’s actual intentions were broader than that. InJanuary 1951, half a year after the begin of the Korean war, a meeting of theleaders of socialist countries took place in the Kremlin. Stalin, representingRussia with Vyacheslav Molotov, claimed that the war had shown the weakness ofthe United States military, and that it was time to strike decisively againstcapitalist Europe. (Nekrich, 1985:190) Clearly intent on eventually initiating a war against the ‘CapitalistWest’, Stalin’s plan was cut short when, during the final stages of planningyet another purge for fabricated reasons, the ‘Doctor’s Plot’, he suffered astroke in late February 1952, and died on the 5th of March thefollowing year. Stalin’s death meant change.
The passing of an authoritarian rulerusually leaves a ruling elite behind that is often divided. One of the fewsimilarities among the ‘inner circle’ was a general sense of relief; during theRule of Terror, not even the highest-ranking members were safe from Stalin, aseven Lavrenti Beria, then Secretary of the Interior, had apparently feared forhis life. (Nekrich, 1985:191) What followed were three years of politicalmanoeuvring among the ruling elite, namely Khrushchev, Malenkov, and Beria,each intent on establishing themselves as the successor to Stalin. ThoughMalenkov was appointed Chairman of the Council of Ministers, and Khrushchev wasreleased from his responsibilities as First Secretary to ‘concentrate on workat the Central Committee’, the latter proved to be equal in terms of politicalmanoeuvres, and by late Summer of 1953 Khrushchev had strengthened his rootswithin the Central Committee (Gorlizki, 1995:17-22); when the 20thCongress of the Soviet Communist Party in 1956 took place, he was the FirstParty Secretary.
The Secret Speech – ‘Kick-Off’ for the ThawIt was Khrushchev’s secret speech, delivered behind closed doors afterall the elections had taken place, that shook the audience. Aimed directly atStalin’s failures and all the atrocities the NKVD committed in his name, thesecret speech was Khrushchev’s attempt at tearing down Stalin’s legacy and thecult of personality he had established around himself, mentioning the harmfulconsequences a cult of the individual leader in the very first sentence.(Whitney in Suny, 2013:393) He exposed Stalin’s claim for absolute submissionamong his ruling elite at the threat of ‘moral and physical annihilation’, claimingthat 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 wouldalso ignore and trample on Leninist principles with regards to collectiveleadership. (Whitney in Suny, 2013:396) The most crucial part with regards tothe 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 toMarxist-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 leadthe Soviet people along the Leninist path to new successes, to new victories.
Long live thevictorious banner of our party – Leninism!”(Whitney in Suny, 2013:403)This significant speech, which spread to all regional communist governmentsand beyond, can be considered the final event which would initiate the Thaw andforever change the USSR. The Thaw – What it was and how it affected Soviet SocietyThe ‘Thaw’ had its first appearance in the short novel of the same namewritten by Ilya Ehrenburg in 1954. Since then it has become a metaphor forde-Stalinisation. It describes the metaphorical thawing of a Soviet Russia thathad lived under the authoritarian and absolute rule of Joseph Stalin for 24years of ‘winter’. This ‘Thaw’ brought with it wide-spreading positive changeswithin Soviet Russia, economically, culturally, and politically; it was,however, also an attempt of Khrushchev’s to stabilise the regime.
The followingchapter will examine some of the most important changes the ‘Thaw’ brought withit, split up into the positive and the negative, to determine what thisbilateral period in Soviet history represents. Positive Aspects of the ‘Thaw’One of the biggest changes the ‘Thaw’ brought with it was the treatmentof gulag prisoners incarcerated during Stalin’s rule; the number of prisonersin 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 prisoncamp other than having the bad luck of being sent there during the Stalinregime’s various waves of repression. (nps.
gov, 2018) However, their luckturned as the Khrushchev regime scaled back the usage of gulags, and by Marchof 1953, shortly after Stalin’s death, more than a million prisoners werereleased; 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 importantstep in the direction of complete de-Stalinisation. Less politically impactful,but just as symbolically important were the measures taken to display thesymbolic aspect of de-Stalinisation. One important change was the renaming ofsome major cities in Soviet Russia: the most famous example was the city ofStalingrad, known as the ‘Hero City’ for its defeat of Nazi German infantryduring World War 2; it was renamed Volgograd. (New York Times, 1961) Inaddition to that, Stalin’s body, previously buried next to Lenin’s, was removedfrom the mausoleum in the same year, and buried closer to the Kremlin in ableakly marked grave.
(edition.cnn.com, 2000)This symbolic de-Stalinisation is compatible with Khrushchev’s idea toenhance the relationship between a regime and its people. He ‘argued that theregime could no longer afford to base its relationship with the peasant onforced exploitation, confiscation, and neglect.
‘; his argument was that thegeneral population could be trusted now that it no longer stood for the threatof restoration, so it should also be questioned why then the same populationshould be mobilised through methods of the past. (Breslauer, 2000:53) This’openness’ towards the peasantry strung like a red thread through Khrushchev’spolicies. He integrated the scientific and technical intelligentsia into the political machine, allowing specialists toattend even high-level Central Committee and actively asked for their council.(Breslauer, 2000:53-4) Ultimately Khrushchev’s plan was to generate a societyin which every individual had a purpose to accelerate the domestic economy andfurther the cause of communism; however, it inevitably led to some of the morenegative 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 economicalintentions was ‘cultural liberation’ which took place during the years of the’Thaw’.
One of the most impactful event was World Youth Festival of 1957, organisedby the Soviet leaders and taking place in Moscow. It attracted over 34.000people from more than 130 countries, bringing not only new fashion andlifestyles to the Russian people, but also introducing a completely differentway of thinking.
(russiatoday.ru, 2007) Though its intent was unquestionably toportray the Russian lifestyle to Western youth, possibly to win them over forthe cause of communism, the reverse took place, as the colourful and variedculture of the West simply offered more than anything Russian youth hadexperience until that point. Not only did Soviet Russia open its doors to the world’s youth, but alsoto a widened frame of international relations, in stark contrast to Stalin’sapproach to International Relations. Nikita Khrushchev firmly believed that aform of peaceful co-existence was possible, even among two seemingly oppositesystems like capitalism and communism. In an interview he is quoted as sayingthat social systems change as society develops; feudalism evolved, to bereplaced by capitalism, which in turn would be replaced by communism: “You may disagreewith 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 oneof peace. This can be seen in accordance with the events of the 1959 AmericanNational Exhibition in Moscow. Though Russia was technologically ahead, havinglaunched Sputnik in October 1957, the image of the common Russian household wasseen as an embarrassment, as the image of ‘downtrodden women engaged in manuallabour’ persisted. (Martens & Casey, 2016) Seen as an embarrassment byKhrushchev and as an opportunity by then Vice-President Richard Nixon to challengeSoviet state socialism, Soviet Russia was convinced that the key to the globalvictory of socialism would be achieved through superior living standards ratherthan military might. (Reid, 2005:290) The back and forth between Nixon andKhrushchev, largely improvisational, was televised and became later known asthe ‘Kitchen Debate’.
In conclusion of this section, the ‘Thaw’ stands for many positivechanges in the Soviet system. It drastically changed the gulag system andreleased many wrongfully convicted, reached out to the people to a certaindegree, and opened its doors to the outside world. In the last years of hisrule 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 AlexanderSolzhenitsyn. (reuters.
com, 2008) However, as mentioned before, the ‘Thaw’ wassomewhat of a bilateral affair, as it brought with it negative aspects, some ofwhich will be examined in the following section.Negative Aspects of the ‘Thaw’While the ‘Thaw’ is generally associated more with the improvements itbrought to Soviet Russia, one must not forget that, even though he was a morebenevolent ruler, Khrushchev was not elected by a democracy and Soviet Russiawas therefore still an authoritarian state. The idea behind de-Stalinisationwas to strengthen the regime under a new banner, a strategy that wascompromised from the beginning. An immediate repercussion to the beginning ofthe ‘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 Stalinpreserved in the minds of even the people that he and his regime activelyoppressed, Georgia as his birth country being the most liable to such notions.The more crucial negative aspects brought by the ‘Thaw’ occurred inside SovietRussia. Not unlike the NKVD orders, a 1951 law allowed people’s courts tosentence ‘social parasites’. While this law in 1951 focused strictly on’beggars, tramps, and prostitutes’, by 1957 the definition had expandedimmensely. (Fitzpatrick, 2006:377) To enforce these laws, the regimeestablished and utilised so-called ‘Comrade Courts’, ‘elected public agenciescharged with actively contributing to the inculcation in citizens of a spiritof a communist attitude toward labour and socialist property and the observanceof the rules of socialist society.
‘; they were democratically elected and theirmain purpose was to keep order within the limits of their influence sphere,such as companies, farm complexes, and schools. (Matthews, 1974:305) Though intheory the concept seems to work, in an authoritarian system like Soviet Russiathe ‘Comrade Courts’ were a clever shift of blame by the regime, as it was nowup 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 linebetween the terms ‘social parasite’ and ‘enemy of the people’. If the former isa remnant, almost a revival, of the latter cannot be said with absolutecertainty; however, in one form or the other many authoritarian regimes haveimplemented such terms to divide the general population, as a split people iseasier 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 Crisisof 1962. Even though he argued in 1957 that socialist victory would emergethrough domestic success, Khrushchev was eager to level the military anddiplomatic playing field; after the failure of the US operation in Cuba,Castro’s regime sought assistance from the USSR, an opportunity that Khrushchevsaw as a chance to reduce the superiority of the US nuclear arsenal. (Acton& Stableford, 2007:225) The plan backfired and brought the world as tonuclear war as it has ever been. This immense humiliation of the USSRpermanently weakened Khrushchev’s position. Two years later, in October of 1964he was replaced by Leonid Brezhnev; while the planning of Khrushchev’s oustingcertainly bared resemblance to a coup, the calm and orderly fashion of thetransfer of power, even by party statutes. (Tompson, 1991:1116)To conclude this section, the ‘Thaw’ also brought with it negativeaspects, some of which, like the ‘Parasite Laws’, were the result of anauthoritarian regime giving itself the façade of liberalisation even though (asmost authoritarian regimes) it wanted to maintain its control.
While thesenegative 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 haveturned into, if it was not for the historical circumstances and the ousting ofNikita Khrushchev in 1964.ConclusionComparing 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 generalpopulation of Soviet Russia.
It brought with it many great changes and couldhave turned into a massive liberalisation movement of the Eastern bloc.However, the modal verbs ‘could have’ need to be used as history shows; themain issue preventing the liberalisation from truly taking place was the factthat Soviet Russia did not cease to be an authoritarian state after the deathof Stalin. As such the people were still ruled by the unelected Khrushchev, whoonly made as many concessions as he saw necessary to stay in power, albeitthese concessions became part of his legacy.