What did Khrushchev say?

Miriam Dobson

  • Moscow 1956: The Silenced Spring by Kathleen E. Smith
    Harvard, 448 pp, £23.95, April 2017, ISBN 978 0 674 97200 1

Dressed in a shapeless black skirt and blouse and shod in ageing boots she might have worn since her days in the revolutionary underground, the 82-year-old Old Bolshevik Elena Stasova clutches the arm of Mátyás Rákosi, leader of the Hungarian Communist Party. She leans in as if whispering the latest political gossip. The pair stand in a Kremlin hallway waiting for the next session of the 20th Party Congress to begin, other delegates smoking nearby. Rákosi, his own dark suit to a contemporary eye baggy and ill-fitting, seems fascinated. Perhaps Stasova was telling this inveterate Stalinist about her work helping victims of terror gain rehabilitation.

Mátyás Rákosi and Elena Stasova in 1956
Mátyás Rákosi and Elena Stasova in 1956

This striking photograph, unearthed from the Russian archives by Kathleen Smith and presented in Moscow 1956, offers a glimpse behind the scenes at the congress, which brought together leading figures from the international communist movement and high-profile figures from the Soviet Union, many of whom had known one another for decades. As they convened in Moscow in February 1956, three years after Stalin’s death, most had little real sense of the new political course on which the party had embarked. Delegates attended long sessions in the Kremlin each day, visited factories and sampled the capital’s cultural life. They heard speeches, many about the triumphs of Soviet industry and agriculture. Most of the foreign guests travelled home with no idea of what Nikita Khrushchev had revealed to the Soviet delegates summoned to a special session on Saturday, 25 February, as the congress ended. It was a moment of high drama: a dozen prison camp survivors, recently rehabilitated, sat alongside their former colleagues as Khrushchev gave a radically revisionist account of Soviet history. He read his audience excerpts from ‘Lenin’s testament’ (in which, far from appointing the young Georgian his successor, Lenin had warned of his personal inadequacies), and harrowing testimony from the victims. Not all the information he presented was entirely new to his listeners, but the party had never admitted to the scale of the terror or attributed responsibility to Stalin before. In the weeks that followed, rumours leaked out to the West; communist leaders denied them; more rumours circulated and in June the full text was published. The sense of crisis deepened in November when the Soviet Union invaded Hungary, putting an end to the experiment with reform that had followed the ousting of the hardliner Rákosi earlier in the summer.

Western intellectuals’ disillusionment with the Soviet Union following the revelations of February and its military aggression in November is well documented, but what was 1956 like inside the USSR? Did Khrushchev’s revelations create a similar crisis at home? Or did he manage, as he hoped, to inject a new kind of revolutionary spirit into domestic life? In her eloquent account, Smith charts the course of 1956, a year she calls ‘the brightest moment of hope in a decade of unstable reform’. The cast of largely likeable characters whose stories are told in Moscow 1956 includes writers, academics, students and victims of the terror. As well as writing about some familiar figures, she discovers new heroes, including several fascinating women. Most of them had good reason to welcome the new political direction taken by Khrushchev. At the start of the year, Russian intellectuals were – in Smith’s words – on the lookout for ‘traces of melting of the harsh dictatorship’, daring to believe that an era of greater political and artistic freedom was imminent. Like many before her, Smith finds the metaphor of the ‘thaw’ (established by Ilya Ehrenburg in his 1954 novel) a tempting paradigm for the period. She observes that it is an open-ended image: does it suggest the ending of an ice age, leaving a ‘distorted, scarred landscape’ in its wake? Or is the thaw something more cyclical – a spell of warmth, of new life, before winter’s inevitable return? Subtitled ‘The Silenced Spring’, her book rather points to the second interpretation. It describes the way Khrushchev’s actions in February launched a season of ‘free thinking’ that ultimately proved short-lived.

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