Khrushchev’s Cold Summer

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co-written with Maya Haber

Miriam Dobson, Khrushchev’s Cold Summer: Gulag Returnees, Crime, and the Fate of Reform After Stalin, Cornell University Press, 2009.

Studies of the Soviet gulag encompass a cottage industry of its own in Russian historiography.  Since 1991, a torrent of studies have been published examining the gulag’s construction, management, memory, and legacy.  Few, however, have delved into how Soviet citizens reacted to the return of over 4 million prisoners from labor camps and colonies to society between 1953 and 1958.  It is for this reason that Miriam Dobson‘s Khrushchev’s Cold Summer: Gulag Returnees, Crime, and the Fate of Reform After Stalin is a welcomed and refreshing edition to so-called “Gulag Studies.”

In it we don’t find the heroic gulag returnee (“Khrushchev’s zeks,” as Stephen Cohen affectionately calls them), who was unjustly persecuted under Stalin for his political views, but more a tragic figure whose finds himself indelibly marked by his years in exile.  For Soviet citizens, whether the returnee was a political or an ordinary criminal, innocent or guilty, matters little for his gulag slang, prison tattoos, and coarse and rugged appearance flies in the face of the norms of Soviet life.  For Dobson, it is the effort to make sense of the gulag prisoners’ return that serves as a larger metaphor for Khrushchev’s Destalinization and its meaning for Soviet society at large.

Ultimately, Dobson’s book is about the search for a new moral order in light of Destalinization.  Stalin was the spine that united Soviet society.  He stood above Soviet discourse, as Alexei Yurchak suggests, and served as the ethical axis that defined the boundaries of good and evil.  When the demigod finally succumbed to mortality in 1953, all hell broke loose.  Fear permeated the body politic as letter writers sent missives to the center calling for vigilance.  “Until 1953,” Dobson writes, “the figure of Stalin had functioned as a source for absolute knowledge and truth, a divinity who need obey no rules exterior to him; as one letter writer put it, in complete admiration, “his word was law.””

The new ruling clan headed by Khrushchev attempted to solidify its legitimacy by immediately decreeing an amnesty of mostly criminal gulag inmates on 27 March, releasing the doctors on 4 April, and then a kind of purge of the purger with Beria’s arrest on 26 June 1953.  But rather than stabilizing the new order, the acts only added to the confusion because they questioned Stalin’s judgment.  For example, if Stalin thought the doctors were guilty, who was the new leadership to reverse his orders?  A young railway worker named Anna Karob, for example, voiced her concern that “the nation’s new leaders were not on their guard.” Karob wrote:

“And so when it was announced that the doctor-professors were released and that the government had fully acquitted them of the slander the people had cast on them no one could get their head around it.  Seeing as I read a lot of literature, the girls in our group-twelve of them-came to me for explanations.  But I couldn’t help them, when I myself had lost my head. . . We lost our great friend and father, our beloved and dear Iosif Vissarionovich, and the tears on our faces were still not dry, the trepidation in the people’s hearts over our children’s future had not calmed, when the stunning news spread, and the terrible thought pierced people’s brains-enemies of the people are free.  They once more have the right to commit their dark acts, to wreck mankind’s peaceful work and to receive praise and rewards for their deeds from their American-English bosses.”

For Dobson, people’s reactions to Khrushchev’s Destalinization serves as a way to examine the boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable behavior.  Ultimately, 1953 to 1964 represented a truly unique opportunity for society to have a real discussion about ethics. In their letters to newspapers and the leadership and in Party cell meetings, people debated whether Jews should be accepted in society or not (i.e. the release of the Doctors), whether criminals can reform, and if society should forgive them.  The overarching question in this period was what the new moral and ethical order would be now that the Stalinist one was tabooed.  The return of gulag prisoners only made this question more difficult to answer.  One example of this was the public’s reaction to Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, published in November 1962. While ordinary readers responded positively to the narrative, they nonetheless expressed outrage at its liberal use of “convict slang” (blatnaia muzyka).  A certain Grinberg, a purge victim himself, was incensed with the fact that Solzhenitsyn’s tale was riddled with the jargon of the “thief, the recidivist, and the bandit.’ He cited various examples of this slang, which, he claimed, ‘makes you sick.'” Another letter writer named Mel’nikov echoed Grinberg’s sentiment in a letter to the Chairman of the Supreme Court:

“This kind of vulgarity is clearly only permissible abroad, but here in the USSR the man of the future is being raised, and not the man of the obsolete past, when the older children taught the younger ones to say disgusting swear words to their own mothers . . .Why then is the journal Novyi Mir not pulling the reader toward the good but instead dragging him toward the mire?”

The disgust many readers felt toward One Day in the Life was a metaphor of their attitudes toward gulag returnees in general.  Soviet society did not welcome “Khrushchev’s zeks,” or the reforms that sought to rehabilitate them.  Rather it was preoccupied with the rising crime and the influence of criminal culture on youth.  As Dobson notes, like most “moral panics,” Soviet citizens’ anxiety about crime and gulag returnees did not originate from the media.  Rather, “in the late 1950s,” she writes, “Soviet newspapers tried to convince their readers that criminals could be saved and returnees from the Gulag were not the dangerous enemies feared.”  Readers, however, were not convinced, and in their letters directly noted that the problem of crime lied “with those released from the camps.”  They labeled criminals with terms like “bandits,” “enemies,” and “parasites” and disparaged what one letter writer called the “humaneness” of the new laws that stressed rehabilitation over punishment. Given this, Khrushchev’s move to increase the role of the Soviet public in monitoring social norms and criminality through comrade courts, citizens’ patrols (druzhiny), Komsomol raids, and the increased obsession with “deviant” behavior and youth hooliganism was more a response to pressures from below rather than a crackdown from above.

Interestingly, throughout Dobson’s study, Khrushchev and the other leaders (at least until 1961) are shown to offer no real guidelines to define the borders of the new ethical order. Letter writers expected the them to define the “good” and the “evil” in the starkest black and white terms.  After Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech,” the public was confused about Stalin’s new status, why he was still lying next to Lenin in the mausoleum, and what to do with his statues and portraits.  Left to their own devises, citizens employed the old standby of “enemy of the people” as they saw fit.  Some labeled Khrushchev an “enemy of the people,” while others deployed it against Stalin.  One letter writer who felt that Khrushchev’s speech “poured dirt” on Stalin, called him a “cunning beast,” and wished “the world would come crashing down on his ‘bald head.'” Others offered some rather unique solutions to the question of the vozhd‘s corpse.  For example, one Stalin supporter wrote to Molotov saying, “It’s clear now that Khrushchev’s band is getting ready to liquidate Stalin’s body.  Speak with Mao Zedong, and ask whether, if this should happen, he would take the body to his country on a temporary basis.”  In contrast, in some factories and institutions, citizens were reported ripping portraits of Stalin off the walls during the reading of the “Secret Speech.”  In some cases, fisticuffs broke out in factories over whether to keep or remove Stalin’s visage.  It was only in 1961 that the Party leadership gave some signal as to where Stalin should be put in the historical pantheon.  His body was quietly removed and buried in the Kremlin wall.  According Dobson, Stalin’s final resting place sent an important symbolic message:

“Stalin’s body was not cast out entirely but relegated to a site symbolically on the margins of Red Square’s sacred space.  This move went at least some way to resolving the confusion of 1956.  Stalin’s new location came closer to what Khrushchev was trying to say: Stalin was not an enemy of the people, but was by no means a hero of Lenin’s ilk.”

Where Stalin stands in the current pantheon of history continues in post-Soviet Russia.  It is here that Dobson’s book is quite timely.  Once again the Russian government refuses to give a definitive statement about Stalin’s legacy, leaving the question, to many people’s chagrin, up to public discussion.  So much so that the Stalin question came up in Prime Minister Putin’s recent live call-in show when someone asked him: “Do you consider Stalin’s role on the whole to be positive or negative?”  Though taken in the West as yet another sign of “Stalin’s rehabilitation,” Putin was far more circumspect:

I have left that question in because I am aware how sensitive it is. There is much debate in society, and I see “an ambush” here: If I say “positive” some people will get angry, and if I say “negative” other people will be angry. But because the subject of Stalin and Stalinism is still mooted, I left that question in deliberately.

I don’t think it would be right to give a blanket assessment. Obviously, between 1924 and 1953, when Stalin led the country, it changed dramatically: It turned from an agrarian country into an industrialized one. True, there were no peasants left and we all remember well the problems, especially in the final period, with agriculture, the food queues, etc. All that happened in the rural areas had no positive impact. But industrialization was accomplished.

We won the Great Patriotic War. Whoever and whatever might say, victory had been won. Even if we go back to the question of casualties, you know, nobody can today throw stones at those who organised and led us to victory because if we had lost that war, the consequences to our country would have been far more catastrophic. They are hard to imagine.

All the undeniable positive things, however, had been accomplished at an unacceptable price. Repressions did take place. It is a fact. Millions of our fellow citizens suffered from them. Such a method of running the state, of achieving results is unacceptable. It is impossible. Undoubtedly, during that period we were confronted not only with a personality cult, but with massive crimes against our own people. That is a fact too. We must not forget about it either.

Any historical event should be analysed in its entirety. That is what I would like to say.

Putin’s response seems to echo Khrushchev’s own thoughts of Stalin.  He refuses to vilify or exalt him.  Russian citizens, like in the 1950s, expect their leadership to provide them with a moral compass; a definitive binary through which to evaluate the morality of the past, and thus the present.  And much like Khrushchev, Putin refused.  Perhaps this constant refusal to give a binaried statement about Stalin has more meaning than some are willing to recognize: whether Stalin should be castigated or rehabilitated isn’t for the government to decide.  No one leader should give a definitive signal.  Rather the resolution of that debate belongs to the Russian public as a whole.