The Structure of Soviet History: Essays and Documents

By Ronald Grigor Suny | Go to book overview

CHAPTER SIX
FROM AUTOCRACY TO OLIGARCHY

When Stalin died, people in the Soviet Union looked anxiously to the future, fearful about what might happen next. An infallible deity had shown himself to be mortal, and he had left behind underlings who appeared all the more fallible. Almost immediately the new leadership dismantled much of the apparatus of terror, releasing over a million prisoners (including common criminals), rehabilitating those convicted in the Doctors' Plot, and emphasizing the need for “socialist legality.” Without the authority of Stalin, and hesitant to use the police in the arbitrary way he had, the new governors of the USSR needed to find new sources of legitimacy for their continuance in power. They proposed revised social and economic policies that emphasized consumer goods, the improvement of material comfort for Soviet citizens, greater opening to the West, and more freedom of expression—at least outside public spaces. Writers and artists seized the new opportunities to call for a “struggle with bureaucratism” and the need for truthfulness in literature and art. A public social conscience and a somewhat broader arena for public opinion became possible.

Ye t for all their reforms, Stalin's successors did not touch the foundations of the system that Stalin built. They maintained the “command economy” entirely controlled by the state and run by bureaucrats. The monopoly of political decisionmaking remained within the Communist party. Censorship, if not as strict as before, continued, and periodically the regime cracked down on the bolder intellectuals, forcing the most courageous into the so-called dissident movement. In 1956 Khrushchev, now the most powerful leader in the USSR, gave his famous “secret speech” on the crimes of Stalin, but within months his government sent tanks into Hungary to crush a popular revolution that took the end of Stalinism too seriously. The years 1953–1964, the so-called “Khrushchev era” (as if an era covers only eleven years), can be seen as a period of gradual, hesitant reform within the contours of an authoritarian regime, with short lurches forward and long, slow retrenchments. After Khrushchev was overthrown and Leonid Brezhnev emerged as paramount leader (1964–1982), reform slowed down even more, and the party limped into the future holding tightly to the reins of power.

Until recently, scholarship on the Khrushchev period was largely the prerogative of contemporary political scientists. Like archaeologists, they read the shards of evidence from the press or the positioning of leaders in photographs. In time, this Kremlinological approach broadened to include studies of policy and its effects, the social transformations taking place in the new urban USSR, and the fluctuations in post

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