When Stalin died, the stage seemed set for a full-scale anti-Semitic drive. But fear of the West and hatred of Zionism alone did not explain Soviet anti-Semitism. Despite long years of preaching cultural autonomy for nationalities, many Soviet leaders were personally antiSemitic and perhaps recognized the latent anti-Semitism of the population at large.
Official Soviet anti-Semitism would continue into the 1980s, and the door would be periodically opened, then closed, to emigration to the West or to Israel. The Soviet Union viewed Israel as a client state of the United States, and therefore Soviet foreign policy was generally pro-Arab.
In March 1953 Georgi Malenkov (1902-1993), personally close to Stalin, succeeded him as premier but surrendered the party secretaryship to Nikita Khrushchev. It was thus made clear that no one person would immediately inherit all of Stalin’s power. Soon the regime began to denounce the “cult of personality” (Stalin’s despotic oneman rule) and proclaimed a “collegial” system (government by committee).
The dreaded chief of the secret police, Presidium member Lavrenty Beria (1899-1953), was executed for treason. At a party congress early in 1956 Khrushchev denounced Stalin, emotionally detailing the acts of personal cruelty to which the psychopathic nature of the late dictator had given rise. As the details of the speech leaked out to the Soviet public, there was some distress at the smashing of the idol they had worshiped for so long, but the widespread disorder that some observers were predicting failed to materialize.
Abroad, however, the speech produced turmoil in the Soviet satellites in Europe and so gave Khrushchev’s opponents at home an opportunity to unite against his policies. Within the Presidium they had a majority, but Khrushchev was able to rally to his support the Central Committee of the Communist party. Khrushchev emerged from this test in 1957 with his powers immeasurably enhanced.
Already in his sixties, Khrushchev could hardly hope for a quarter-century of dictatorship such as Stalin had known. Moreover, in making himself supreme he had deprived himself of some of the instruments available to Stalin. After 1953 he had released millions of captives from prisons and slave-labor camps. Almost everyone in the Soviet Union had a relative or friend now freed.
Within a year or two Soviet society at every level except at the very top of the bureaucracy had absorbed these sufferers from tyranny. The secret police no longer enjoyed independent power in the state, a power that might challenge the party or the army; Khrushchev himself had emotionally denounced police terror. It was still possible to prosecute people by terroristic means, but Stalin’s mass terror as a system of government had disappeared.
In October 1964 Khrushchev was removed from power and succeeded by two members of the Presidium. Leonid Brezhnev (1906-1982) replaced him as first secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist party, and Alexis Kosygin (1904-1980) as premier. Both were “Khrushchev men.” The two, but especially Brezhnev, would provide the Soviet government with stability until Brezhnev became increasingly ill and, in the early 1980s, virtually a figurehead. Khrushchev was denounced for his failures in agricultural policy, for departures from conventional wisdom on foreign affairs, and for “commandism”—rule by fiat. He was not, however, executed, and no large-scale purge followed his removal.
Most spectacular during these years were the successes achieved in rocketry and space. The Soviet successfully launched the first earth satellite (Sputnik, 1957) and first reached the moon with a rocket (1959). The first manned orbital flight by Yuri Gagarin (1934-1968), in April 1961, was followed in less than a month by the first American flight, by Alan B. Shepard, Jr. (1923– ), and in February 1962 by the first American orbit, by John H. Glenn, Jr. (1921– ). By the mid-1960s the United States had caught up in most aspects of space technology, and American landings of manned space vehicles on the moon beginning in 1969 overshadowed Soviet accomplishments in space.
The exciting race in outer space commanded the world’s imagination, though for both the Soviet Union and the United States it diverted millions of dollars from domestic programs. In the 1970s both nations cut back on their space programs, placing greater emphasis on satellites for monitoring the activities of other nations. The Soviets set a new space endurance record of 175 days in 1979, while the two countries engaged in a joint flight, including a link-up between their respective crews in space, in 1975. In the mid-1980s both nations had decreased their space programs substantially in the face of economic pressures.
But it was agriculture that presented the Soviet planners with apparently insoluble problems. In 1953 Khrushchev had embarked on a crash program to plow under more than 100 million acres of prairie in the Urals region, Kazakhstan, and Siberia. Drought and poor planning and performance led to a clear failure by 1963.
By the following year, the number of collective farms was down to about 40,000 from an original 250,000 and the average size of the new units was far larger. Soviet economic performance continued to fail to meet its goals. The Soviet standard of living remained low by Western measurements, and by the mid-1970s general stagnation set in, followed by crop failures and the need to purchase grain from the United States.
De-Stalinization extended to arts and letters the same partial relaxation that occurred in other fields. Two outstanding Soviet composers with followings in the West, Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978) and Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), spoke out for boldness, and in mid-1954 Ilia Ehrenburg (1890-1967), veteran propagandist for the regime, hailed the relaxation of coercive measures over artists in The Thaw, which gave a name to the entire period.
Boris Pasternak (1890-1960) took advantage of the “thaw” to offer for publication Dr. Zhivago, his novel about a doctor who, through all the agonies of World War I and the Russian Revolution, affirmed the freedom of the human soul. Accepted for publication in the Soviet Union, the novel was also sent to Italy to be published. Then the Soviet censors changed their minds and also forced Pasternak to ask that the manuscript in Italy be returned to him.
The Italian publisher refused, and versions in Russian, Italian, English, and other languages appeared abroad, arousing great admiration. In 1958 the Nobel Prize Committee offered Pasternak the prize for literature and he accepted. But Pasternak’s follow writers reviled him as a traitor, and the government threatened him with exile if he accepted the prize. As a patriotic Soviet, he then declined it. Pasternak’s Jewish origins, his intellectualism, his proclamation of individualism had offended Khrushchev, making it impossible to publish Dr. Zhivago in the land in which it was written.
But the spirit of individualism found more vigorous expression among the younger poets and novelists who had grown up since the World War II. A young Ukrainian poet, Evgeny Yevtushenko (1933– ), denounced Soviet anti-Semitism in his Babi Yar (the name of the ravine near Kiev in which the Nazis, with the help of the Soviets, had massacred thousands of Jews). When Yevtushenko recited his verses, the halls were crowded with eager, excited, contentious young people.
The Pasternak affair had shown the limits of the new freedom; the case of Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918– ) would be even more instructive to the new readership. A former army officer, Solzhenitsyn had been interned for eight years in a forced labor camp.
When he published his autobiographical novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in 1963, he described for the first time in print the camps of which all Soviets knew but did not speak. Solzhenitsyn was immediately attacked for being concerned with “marginal aspects” of Soviet life, and the censor refused to pass his next important novel, The First Circle. After his expulsion from the Soviet Union in 1974, his best-known work, The Gulag Archipelago, revealed extensive knowledge of the Terror and the great camps of Siberia. In 1970, to the embarrassment of Soviet leaders, Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
In 1968 the repression of young writers fed a dissident movement that continued to grow thereafter. Soviet citizens accused their own government of violating the human rights provisions of the Helsinki accords of 1975. A Nobel Prize physicist, Andrei Sakharov (1921-1989), joined the dissidents, and in the late 1970s and early 1980s the Soviet leadership attacked those who sought to criticize cultural policy, or to emigrate to Israel, or to speak favorably of the outcast Solzhenitsyn, who had settled in the United States.
Despite the reversion to repression in literature, film, and art, the communist bloc was no longer monolithic, for the Soviet leaders were unable to prevent a drift toward polycentrism (the existence of independent centers of power in the satellites). Warsaw Pact members remained more uniformly aligned than those in NATO, but nonetheless cracks began to appear in the Iron Curtain.
So long as the satellite countries pursued a foreign policy in common with the Soviet Union, they gained some freedom to make their own economic decisions. Hungary and Romania struck out on paths of their own—Hungary toward a consumer economy, and both countries toward heavier industry, tourism, and trade with the West. Though the Soviet Union crushed liberalization in Czechoslovakia in 1968, it had to accept a declaration by Communist parties in 1976 that there could be several separate paths to the socialist state.
This loosening of the Soviet hold was only marginal, however, as events in Poland made clear. The Polish Solidarity movement, an independent labor-led movement under the leadership of Lech Walesa (1943– ), led the challenge against both the Polish Communist party and the hegemony of the Soviet Union. Under pressure from Moscow, the Polish army suspended Solidarity and took control of Poland in 1981. Nonetheless the movement survived underground, and in 1989 Poland was permitted its first free election in forty years.
With the death of Brezhnev late in 1982 and the selection of Yuri Andropov (1914-1985) as his successor, the Soviet Union appeared poised for renewed confrontation and repression. Andropov had presided over the crushing of Hungary in 1956; he had been head of the Committee for State Security (KGB) from 1967 to 1982 and demonstrated a willingness to silence dissent.
But Andropov’s death appeared to set the Soviet Union on another course as a younger man, Mikhail S. Gorbachev (1931– ), took over leadership of the party. Tough, resolute, and Westernized, Gorbachev embarked in 1985 on a dangerous, highly delicate modernization of the Soviet state, and though he challenged neither the party nor the military directly, it was clear that he favored a more open society. He allowed dissidents who had been exiled to Siberia and elsewhere to return home, he called for extensive industrial and agricultural reforms, and he moved to extricate the nation from the costly war in which it was mired in Afghanistan.
Severely criticized in the West for not quickly disclosing the nature and extent of a disastrous nuclear accident at Chernobyl in April 1986, the Soviet Union appeared to have decided upon the course of openness, with most newspaper, radio, and television censorship abolished, protesters permitted to gather freely in Soviet cities, and Marxism largely expunged from school curriculums.
Observers debated whether Mikhail Gorbachev was leading the Soviet Union into liberalization or simply riding the back of a tiger unleashed by a declining Soviet economy. Decades of failed production schedules, declining harvests, and inefficient management had made Russia and most of the socialist republics ripe for change. Gorbachev’s sense of urgency, his frequent trips to the West, and his relative youthfulness made him especially attractive from abroad.
In April 1985, Gorbachev announced a series of reforms intended to reshape the economy and to reduce the rigidity of the Soviet system, calling the process perestroika. He admitted his nation’s need for Western expertise, and his policy of glasnost, or “openness,” brought thousands of Westerners into the Soviet Union to promote trade, display industrial skills, exchange educational programs and artists, and reshape administrations.
In 1987 voters were given a choice of candidates in local elections, and in the first free elections since 1917, held in March 1989, parry officials were roundly defeated and the new national legislature, the Congress of People’s Deputies, was filled with new faces.
Gorbachev faced opposition from both the left and the right. Those who advocated even swifter change rallied behind Boris N. Yeltsin (1931– ), an engineer who was first secretary of the Moscow city party committee. Yeltsin emerged victorious in the 1989 elections, winning massive popular support for sweeping changes within the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic. Throughout this period of rapid change, the Soviet army remained resolutely on the sidelines, despite widespread fears that it would come to the support of the conservatives, and for the time even the hated KGB appeared to have maintained neutrality.
But Gorbachev, despite enormous popularity in the West and genuinely major concessions with respect to issues of arms control (in part recognized by the award of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990), was walking a tightrope. In July 1989, with conservatives openly concerned that the Communist party would lose control, Gorbachev called from sweeping reforms and purged the party ranks; then, in November, in an attempt to retain moderate conservative support, he published a manifesto declaring that Marxism would be revived under his leadership, to show a “humane socialist” face. In December Lithuania broke with Moscow and declared its intention to reestablish separate nationhood for the first time since 1940. In 1991 Russia recognized the independence of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.
In 1990 Gorbachev was able to persuade the Communist party’s Central Committee to end the party’s constitutionally guaranteed monopoly on power, and the right turned increasingly from him. In March, elections in the Russian, Ukrainian, and Byelorussian republics placed them out in front of Gorbachev in their demands for democracy, while local government in several cities, including Moscow and Leningrad, was in the hands of even more insistent reformers.
Under Yeltsin the Russian Republic declared its sovereignty, and twelve other republics followed suit; Yeltsin then announced a “five hundred-day” program for transition to open markets, and Gorbachev was forced to accept it. Still Gorbachev held on, moving first to conciliate those who wished to break up the Soviet Union, promising to consider readjustments in the distribution of powers between Moscow and the republics, then tilting toward the hard-liners, putting soldiers onto the streets of Soviet cities allegedly to patrol against a rising crime rate, and reinstituting forms of censorship.
These events were, in part, the result of the disintegration of communism in eastern Europe, a disintegration set in motion by Gorbachev’s own reforms.