Intelligentsia Self-Fashioning in the Postwar Soviet Union: Revol't Pimenov's Political Struggle, 1949-57

By Tromly, Benjamin | Kritika, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

Intelligentsia Self-Fashioning in the Postwar Soviet Union: Revol't Pimenov's Political Struggle, 1949-57


Tromly, Benjamin, Kritika


At the 20th Party Congress in 1956, Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin for developing a kul't lichnosti, a "cult of personality" or "cult of the individual." Less often noticed but equally important was a very different cult of personality that developed in the same years. A cult-like belief in the liberation of the personality was a central principle of the Thaw, the post-Stalin liberalization spearheaded by intellectuals and artists. According to autobiographical writing on the Thaw, the distinct conjunction after Stalin's death--characterized by the dismantling of the terror apparatus, the slow opening of the country to the outside world, and the stumbling efforts of the post-Stalin leadership to address the place of dictatorship in the communist project--encouraged educated citizens to claim a more autonomous and hence authentic understanding of the self. (1) Furthermore, discovery of self was synonymous with a rebirth of the moral and cultural bearings of society after Stalinism. "Our generation had a psychological, spiritual, perhaps even a physiological need to discover our country, our history, and ourselves," writes the dissident Liudmila Alekseeva with regard to the milieu of young Moscow intellectuals after Stalin's death. (2) As this statement suggests, generational divisions are highly interconnected with the theme of renewed post-Stalin selfhood. In the generally accepted view, it was precisely a need for self-expression and individuality among postwar youth that spurred the creation of a critical, liberal, and Western-minded intelligentsia in the USSR. (3)

The personality narrative of the Thaw has become complicated by recent work that questions the tidy division between late Stalinism and post-Stalinism in the realm of social and cultural life. (4) It is now clear that many activists of the Thaw, especially critically minded educated youth, opposed Stalinism in the name of ideas firmly within the Soviet ideological world such as an idealized Leninist democracy, the struggle against bureaucracy, or the creation of a cultured society. (5) Indeed, some young intellectuals repressed by the Krushchev leadership saw themselves as facilitators and would-be allies of the post-Stalin party-state. But despite this emergent picture of ideological flux, the underlying theme of the attainment of genuine and natural selfhood continues to inform writing on the intellectual life of post-Stalinism and particularly on the young intellectuals and students who constituted one of the Thaw's essential social bases. (6) The personality narrative of the Thaw is so widespread that it figures in scholarly explanations for several key developments in late Soviet history, such as the decline of ideological conformity in Soviet society during the Brezhnev years, the coalescence of movements of intellectual dissent, and the emergence of Gorbachev's team of reformers within the party-state apparatus. (7)

The construct of the Thaw as the liberation of personality needs to be questioned. To be sure, the dismantling of Stalinism created a less regimented and more ideologically diverse environment that allowed citizens and especially impressionable youth to pursue more independent intellectual agendas. Yet the construct of the organic, liberated, and progressive Thaw personality--a narrative that reflects the considerable sympathy of Western and post-Soviet interlocutors for reformist intellectuals in the Soviet Union-is overdetermined and too simplistic. (8) By providing the period with a clear and collective hero, it threatens to obscure the specific contours of change during this time. Ironically, by emphasizing personality as an explanatory category, it obscures the diverse trajectories and motivations of participants in the Thaw and their complex origins. This article treats the role of personality in the Thaw differently by exploring a single activist of the period in microcosm. (9) The Leningrad mathematician Revol't Pimenov clashed with party authorities while a student in Leningrad in the late Stalin years, then emerged as a key figure in the nascent oppositional politics of 1956. …

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