Khrushchev’s Cold Summer

Khrushchev’s Cold Summer: Gulag Returnees, Crime, and the Fate of Reform after Stalin

Miriam Dobson
Copyright Date: 2009
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 280
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  • Book Info
    Khrushchev’s Cold Summer
    Book Description:

    Between Stalin's death in 1953 and 1960, the government of the Soviet Union released hundreds of thousands of prisoners from the Gulag as part of a wide-ranging effort to reverse the worst excesses and abuses of the previous two decades and revive the spirit of the revolution. This exodus included not only victims of past purges but also those sentenced for criminal offenses.

    In Khrushchev's Cold Summer, Miriam Dobson explores the impact of these returnees on communities and, more broadly, Soviet attempts to come to terms with the traumatic legacies of Stalin's terror. Confusion and disorientation undermined the regime's efforts at recovery. In the wake of Stalin's death, ordinary citizens and political leaders alike struggled to make sense of the country's recent bloody past and to cope with the complex social dynamics caused by attempts to reintegrate the large influx of returning prisoners, a number of whom were hardened criminals alienated and embittered by their experiences within the brutal camp system.

    Drawing on private letters as well as official reports on the party and popular mood, Dobson probes social attitudes toward the changes occurring in the first post-Stalin decade. Throughout, she features personal stories as articulated in the words of ordinary citizens, prisoners, and former prisoners. At the same time, she explores Soviet society's contradictory responses to the returnees and shows that for many the immediate post-Stalin years were anything but a breath of spring air after the long Stalinist winter.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-5851-4
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-18)

    Cold Summer of’53, a film of the perestroika era, opens in an isolated fishing hamlet. Under the boundless expanse of the northern skies, an unkempt man flirts with a pretty young girl washing the family laundry at the edge of a river.¹ Her mother, a mute, opposes the friendship between the two, at one point throwing a bucket of cold water over them both. Her reasons soon become clear: having served a prison sentence for “treachery” during the Second World War, the man lives in the hamlet as an exile and, although the villagers know him, he remains an outsider...

  5. Part I. Re-imagining the Soviet World after Stalin, 1953–1956

    • 1 1953: “The Most Painful Year”
      (pp. 21-49)

      When Stalin died, the most pressing matter for the country’s leaders was to lay his body to rest in a meaningful yet orderly manner. It was a daunting task. The new Kremlin bosses drafted every media resource, instructing photographers, writers, and journalists to produce images, poems, and articles for the radio and press. The Hall of Columns where Stalin’s body lay in state was transformed into a site for collective displays of grief, reproduced in grainy newspaper images for all those citizens far from Moscow. On the day of Stalin’s funeral, Muscovites and visitors to the capital thronged on the...

    • 2 Prisoners and the Art of Petitioning, 1953–1956
      (pp. 50-78)

      In March 1956, in the wake of Nikita Khrushchev’s Secret Speech, the poet Anna Akhmatova said: “Now those who were arrested will return, and two Russias will look each other in the eye: the one that sent people to the camps and the one that was sent away.”¹ This image of two nations “eyeball to eyeball” has been used frequently in western literature to evoke the difficulties Soviet society faced when huge armies of prisoners exited the camps.² Although evocative, Akhmatova’s suggestion in the spring of 1956 that this uneasy encounter (or series of encounters) still lay ahead was misleading,...

    • 3 Heroes, Enemies, and the Secret Speech
      (pp. 79-106)

      Looking back on his political career, Khrushchev suggested that one of the driving forces behind his most notorious speech, delivered on 25 February 1956 at the close of the Twentieth Party Congress, was the fate of Stalin’s victims. In his account of the February days, he describes how, during a recess between sessions, he had desperately sought to convince his colleagues in the Presidium of the need to talk openly about the purges and the fate of Stalin’s victims. In his memoirs he quoted his speech verbatim: “‘We now know that the people who suffered during the repressions were innocent....

  6. Part II. Stalin’s Outcasts Return:: Moral Panic and the Cult of Criminality

    • 4 Returnees, Crime, and the Gulag Subculture
      (pp. 109-132)

      In the first five years after Stalin’s death, approximately four million prisoners were released from the corrective-labor camps and colonies.² Even though new persons were sentenced in these years, the Gulag’s release rate significantly exceeded its intake, and the population of the camps and colonies continued to shrink dramatically. By 1960 it was a fifth of its size on the eve of Stalin’s death.³

      For the prisoners released from the camps, the return to civilian life did not always prove as easy as they might have hoped. The authorities continued to place limitations on the movement of many former prisoners....

    • 5 The Redemptive Mission
      (pp. 133-155)

      Fedor Medvedev included the following passage in an anonymous pamphlet he produced in honor of the Twenty-First Party Congress in 1959:

      In our country, the following flourish: hooliganism, banditry, theft, and terribly bad manners. All this is the fruit the “wise” gardener Khrushchev [mudryi sadovnik Khrushchev] has been cultivating. For three and half decades there was none of this, because the country was in the hands of Leninist leaders. When Khrushchev talks of building communism, he’s pulling the wool over people’s eyes, and only the dim-witted can believe in his utopian fantasies [utopicheskie bredni]. The Soviet people know that we...

    • 6 A Return to Weeding
      (pp. 156-186)

      In 1948 Konstantin Slivkin was a twenty-two-year-old from Riazanʹ working in Kamchatka’s fishing industry.¹ He was arrested for theft of state property and sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment. A reinvestigation in 1952 revealed his innocence, however, and he was set free. Upon release, Slivkin decided his experiences must be set to paper and, after acquiring a typewriter, wrote several stories based on his experiences in the camps. In October 1957 he accidentally left a manuscript in a restaurant in the town of Petropavlovsk. In the course of the investigation, both his manuscripts and private correspondence were meticulously scrutinized, and as...

  7. Part III. A Fragile Solution?: From the Twenty-Second Party Congress to Khrushchev’s Ouster

    • 7 1961: Clearing a Path to the Future
      (pp. 189-214)

      In July 1957 a listovka was stuck to a post in a Kursk park. The leaflet read:

      Comrade Communists, Komsomol members, citizens! When they say on the radio that all communists and all the people unanimously approve the Central Committee resolution on the antiparty activities of Comrades Molotov, Malenkov, and Kaganovich, they are lying. The majority of communists and citizens do not believe the plenum’s decree. It is the work of the adventurist [avantiurist] Khrushchev. Communists vote in favor only because they are afraid of being expelled.¹

      On 16 March 1958, on the day elections were being held for the...

    • 8 Literary Hooligans and Parasites
      (pp. 215-236)

      “In Kharkov I have seen all kinds of queues—for the film ‘Tarzan,’ butter, women’s drawers, chicken giblets, and horse-meat sausage,” wrote a certain Mark Konenko, describing urban life under Khrushchev. He continued: “But I cannot remember a queue as long as the one for your book in the libraries. . . . I waited six months on the list and to no avail. By chance I got hold of it for forty-eight hours.”¹ The author he addressed was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn; the book was One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, published in the November 1962 issue of the...

  8. Conclusion
    (pp. 237-240)

    In April 1953 a group of former prisoners serving out a term of exile in Siberia wrote to the Supreme Soviet expressing their gratitude for the amnesty decree. Soon, they said, Muscovites, Leningraders, Kievans, and other city dwellers would go out to the stations with flowers and welcome back the returnees. “The sons of the Motherland are going home!”¹ Yet these were not soldiers returning heroic from war. Their position was far more ambiguous, their service to the nation—which these exiles wished to emphasize—always questionable. The realities of their return doubtless proved quite different from their expectations.


  9. Bibliography
    (pp. 241-256)
  10. Index
    (pp. 257-264)