Seminal Years and the Long Arc of the Moral Universe

By Gilburd, Eleonory | Kritika, Summer 2019 | Go to article overview

Seminal Years and the Long Arc of the Moral Universe


Gilburd, Eleonory, Kritika


Kathleen E. Smith, Moscow 1956: The Silenced Spring. 434 pp. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017. ISBN-13 978-0674972001. $29.95.

Behind the story of a single year lie different premises. One year can be seen as representing many others. It can encapsulate subterranean ideas, generations, styles, or sensibilities at the moment when they come to prominence. (1) It can differ from all the other years and generate interest for its uniqueness, rather than its representativeness. (2) A single year can constitute a seminal point, a break, a beginning: such are revolutionary years, founding moments, and zero hours. (3) They abound in possibilities (salutary or calamitous); they are the future rendered in the present tense. (4) In book titles, a year's very precision and singularity--as opposed to chronological boundaries--imply an eruption of changes. Or, most radically, a year can serve to resist diachronic assumptions, pointing up simultaneity and randomness. A year can be seen as an environment for fragmented, everyday occurrences united by what appears to be an accident of time, without autonomous actors, events, or causes. (5)

Kathleen Smith's book about 1956 works with the first three premises, but the spirit of the fourth--experiencing daily life in a kaleidoscopic swirl--motivates many pages as well. Traditionally, this has been a threshold year, the Soviet Union's Stunde Null and year of protest folded into one. Recent scholarship has challenged the divide between the Stalin period and everything that came after, whether one uses 1953, 1956, or some other date as a turning point. In line with such arguments, Smith distances herself from treating 1956 as a "simple turning point" or "a sharply drawn line" in the opening pages (4). Instead, she sees 1956 as a particularly intense expression of long-term trends and the beginning of processes that continue to define Russian politics--such as "a long and unresolved tug of war over the boundaries of accepted criticism within the Soviet system" and beyond (5). Smith highlights the ideological and political structures that endured across seven decades. Yet even as Smith rejects the turning-point vision of singular years, she reinstates the significance of 1956, which has been downplayed in recent years. While she shows the government's inconsistencies, its desperate attempts to maintain a monopoly on discourse, and the return of repression by the end of the year, she reminds readers that "nothing would be the same" (54). It was a year of "political awakening" (80) and burning, unanswered questions for everyone, Smith says, but especially for educated young people. They took seriously Soviet civic ethics and the possibility of change from within. Indeed, one of Smith's key themes emphasizes the prospects and limits of such change. Another, and related, theme woven into every chapter is what Smith sees as a major impediment to change: the bureaucracy. The year 1956, Smith argues, constituted "a mental threshold" (5) that forever constrained party leadership and forever altered how Soviet audiences would receive its celebratory narratives. The year 1956 would not and could not be undone.

The book's sequential structure, with chapters devoted to every month, insists on intentionality, causality, and narrative progression. Smith tells the story of the Thaw largely through the biographies of poets, writers, filmmakers, scientists, idealists and cynics, people exuberant and disenchanted, budding young dissidents and old communist believers. These lives personify and humanize--even amplify--political events and social policies. The biographical plot works against the chance simultaneity of a year. But the book also embraces an episodic arrangement that encompasses student volunteers going east to till the land in inhospitable terrains, privileged travelers heading west on a luxury cruise, and Gulag returnees trying to come to Moscow illegally and finding themselves shut out. …

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