The Many Lives of Khrushchev's Thaw

The Many Lives of Khrushchev's Thaw: Experience and Memory in Moscow's Arbat

Stephen V. Bittner
Copyright Date: 2008
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    The Many Lives of Khrushchev's Thaw
    Book Description:

    The Arbat neighborhood in central Moscow has long been home to many of Russia's most famous artists, writers, and scholars, as well as several of its leading cultural establishments. In an elegantly written and evocative portrait of a unique urban space at a time of transition, Stephen V. Bittner explores how the neighborhood changed during the period of ideological relaxation under Khrushchev that came to be known as the thaw.

    The thaw is typically remembered as a golden age, a period of artistic rebirth and of relatively free expression after decades of Stalinist repression. By considering events at the Vakhtangov Theater, the Gnesin Music-Pedagogy Institute, the Union of Architects, and the Institute of World Literature, Bittner finds that the thaw was instead characterized by much confusion and contestation. As political strictures loosened after Stalin's death, cultural figures in the Arbat split-often along generational lines-over the parameters of reform and over the amount of freedom of expression now permitted.

    De-Stalinization provoked great anxiety because its scope was often unclear. Particularly in debates about Khrushchev's urban-planning initiatives, which involved demolishing a part of the historical Arbat to build an ensemble of concrete-and-steel high rises, a conflict emerged over what aspects of the Russian past should be prized in memory: the late tsarist city, the utopian modernism of the early Soviet period, or the neoclassical and gothic structures of Stalinism. Bittner's book is a window onto the complex beginning of a process that is not yet complete: deciding what to jettison and what to retain from the pre-Soviet and Soviet pasts as a new Russia moves to the future.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6043-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xiii)
    Stephen V. Bittner
  4. [Map]
    (pp. xiv-xiv)
  5. INTRODUCTION: History of a Metaphor
    (pp. 1-18)

    On March 5, 1953, the day Joseph Stalin died of a cerebral hemorrhage at his dacha on the outskirts of Moscow, few Soviet citizens could have imagined the stunning events that would follow. Within weeks of Stalin’s funeral, newspapers carried reports that prosecutors had dropped outlandish charges against a group of mostly Jewish doctors, alleged conspirators in a plot to murder Kremlin leaders. By early summer, the gaunt faces and shabby clothes of newly released gulag prisoners could be seen in queues at train stations and bakeries. In the years that followed, Nikita Khrushchev, the principal victor in the succession...

  6. CHAPTER ONE History and Myth of the Arbat
    (pp. 19-39)

    West of the Kremlin, beyond the leafy boulevard where the white stone wall of medieval Moscow once stood, is the Arbat, part of a centuries-old road between Moscow, Smolensk, and Warsaw. The Arbat stretches a kilometer southwest from Arbat Square, where the busy Novyi Arbat radial street intersects the quiet pedestrian paths on the Boulevard Circle, to Smolensk Square on the Garden Circle, the ring artery that defines central Moscow. The oldest buildings on the Arbat date from the early nineteenth century; they were built atop the cinders of the fire that engulfed Moscow before Napoleon occupied the city in...

  7. CHAPTER TWO A Cult of Personality and a “Rhapsody in Blue”
    (pp. 40-74)

    In 1895, the sisters Evgeniia and Mariia Gnesina, recent graduates of the Moscow Conservatory, opened a children’s music school a few blocks north of the Arbat on Gagarinskii Lane, near Sobachʹe Square. Their idea originated in the social circles of pre-revolutionary Arbat. Evgeniia Gnesina regularly hosted a group of friends that included the composers Alexander Scriabin and Sergei Rachmaninov, and the director of the Moscow Conservatory, Vasilii Safonov. They played chamber music and discussed the latest in culture and politics. With the encouragement of Konstantin Stanislavsky, a lifelong friend who later became the cofounder of the Moscow Art Theater, Evgeniia...

  8. CHAPTER THREE Raining on Turandot
    (pp. 75-104)

    Nostalgia for the 1920s was a central component of thaw culture. It was fueled by the generational schism that the previous chapter explored: cultural figures who felt complicit in the injustices of Stalinism naturally looked at the 1920s as a more innocent age, devoid of the moral complexities of the recent past and present. If they were in their thirties and forties at the time of Stalinʹs death, of the same generation as Rybakov and Okudzhava, the 1920s corresponded with their childhood and teenage years, which helped reinforce the perception that it was an age of innocence. But even for...

  9. CHAPTER FOUR Remembering the Avant-garde
    (pp. 105-140)

    In the early 1960s, bulldozers and wrecking cranes cleared a vast, kilometer-long corridor in the densely built alleys between Arbat Square in the east and the Moscow River in the west. By 1968, nine shiny glass and concrete skyscrapers, each more than twenty stories tall, lined the void that had been carved out of the Arbat neighborhood. The four towers on the south side were designed to look like open books that had been propped upright; they sat atop a two-story gallery of stores and offices that ran nearly the entire length of the corridor. The more conventional towers on...

  10. CHAPTER FIVE Preserving the Past, Empowering the Public
    (pp. 141-173)

    One of the most beloved casualties of the Novyi Arbat demolition was Sobachʹe Square, a small triangle created by the intersection of three lanes a few blocks north of Arbat Street. Before its destruction, Sobachʹe Square was the site of a nineteenth-century fountain commemorating the ʺLordʹs Dogs,ʺ a reference to the tsarʹs kennel that once stood on the spot. The fountain sat in a small park, fenced with wrought-iron, which had been built for the Sixth International Festival of Youth and Students in 1957. The one and two-story buildings that surrounded the square were some of the best examples in...

  11. CHAPTER SIX Dissidence and the End of the Thaw
    (pp. 174-210)

    For more than a century, the building at 25a Vorovskii (Povarskaia) Street has been associated with a tragedy. Designed in the 1820s by the Ticinese architect Domenico Ghilardi, a protégé of the Russian master Matvei Kazakov, the building is a relic of the wealth that congregated in priarbatʹe after the Napoleonic Wars. Consistent with the tastes of the empire school, it is distinguished by three classical arches that cap the windows above the entranceway. The vaulted areas within the arches are decorated with altorelievo wreaths and supported by Doric columns. Ghilardiʹs initial client was Sergei Gagarin, an aristocrat whose father...

  12. CONCLUSION: The Arbat and the Thaw
    (pp. 211-220)

    The Arbat emerged from the thaw a very different place from what it had been fifteen years earlier. Its transformation was most evident in the Novyi Arbat project, which split the neighborhood in half, and whose skyscrapers cast long shadows over the low-rise, pre-revolutionary buildings that lined the narrow alleys north of the thoroughfare. But there were other changes—evident in the trajectory of the Arbatʹs experienced thaw—that were more subtle and important. During the early and mid-1950s, teachers and administrators at the Gnesin Institute wondered whether the thaw was anything more than a temporary reprieve from Stalinism. Their...

  13. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 221-222)
  14. Index
    (pp. 223-236)