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.
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