Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas:  jgo.e-reviews 7 (2017), 3 Rezensionen online / Im Auftrag des Leibniz-Instituts für Ost- und Südosteuropaforschung in Regensburg herausgegeben von Martin Schulze Wessel und Dietmar Neutatz

Verfasst von: Wolfram von Scheliha


De-Stalinization Reconsidered. Persistence and Change in the Soviet Union. Ed. by Thomas M. Bohn / Rayk Einax / Michel Abeißer. Frankfurt a.M., New York: Campus, 2014. 276 S. ISBN: 978-3-593-50166-6.

Table of contents:



At least since Russian President Dmitrii Medvedev called for another Destalinization in 2010, the term has become ambiguous. While Medvedev envisaged rather a Decommunization (a word however not quite as catchy), the term Destalinization originally referred to the Khrushchev era. It was coined in the West and clearly rooted in the theory of totalitarianism; for the contemporaries, the association to Denazification was apparent only a decade after the end of the war. But Destalinization as well as the Soviet terms “Thaw” deriving from Il’ia Erenburg’s novel or the bureaucratic “Overcoming the Personality Cult” also do not cover the variety of changes that took place during the Khrushchev era, as the editors of the volume under review point out. Thus, the volume’s title may mislead those readers who only expect new insights into the Soviet coping with the Stalinist past. The volume has a much broader approach. It comprises fourteen papers read at the conference From a Totalitarian State to an Open Society in Gießen in February 2012. Almost all of them are based on new archival findings.

The first of the volume’s three parts is entitled Destalinization and Politics. It starts with Stephen Bittner’s chapter discussing how destalinization contributed to the breakdown of the Soviet Union in 1991. According to him Khrushchev’s measures led to an economic, societal, and cultural recovery while Gorbachev’s perestroika eventually caused decay and collapse. Bittner therefore suggests comparing the Khrushchev era with the 1920s and the 1990s, with both periods following a regime change. Stefan Plaggenborg argues that only excesses, deficits, and nuisances were “repaired” under Khrushchev and that the underlying Stalinist structures remained untouched until Gorbachev. He also discusses the societal development explaining that people mostly related to small entities (family, workplace, and municipality). The Soviet society, therefore, did not form a unity, but was the sum of these single communities. Stefan Merl focusses on the political communication and he, too, determines strong continuities. Even though Khrush­chev introduced some liberties, what he created was, in Merl’s opinion, more an “illusion of participation”. Informal rules prevented that certain issues like Stalin’s crimes and social inequalities within the Soviet society be discussed. Although destalinization implied a break with Stalin’s violence, repression of dissenters persisted to a certain degree, as Robert Hornsby demonstrates in his chapter. The amnesty of Gulag inmates started already before Khrushchev’s secret speech and was the result of a compromise between the party authorities and the masses. However, especially after the Soviet intervention in Hungary, the notorious article 58–10 of the Russian penal code (anti-Soviet and counter-revolutionary propaganda) was widely used. Nevertheless, the amount of political prisoners significantly dropped to three percent.

The volume’s second part addresses the modernizing aspects of destalinization. Thomas Bohn asserts that Soviet history was a history of urbanization which was part of the modernization project. The Khrushchev era brought some shifts to this development. The construction of monumental city centres was given up in favour of micro-districts. Because of the unintended enormous acceleration of the urbanization process Khrushchev introduced internal migration control and a rigid registration regime which turned cities into a closed system. By the example of Minsk Bohn shows how the restrictions were circumvented. Representatives of the City Soviet and the factory management, which were in need for workforce, collaborated in issuing residence permits, thus furthering the creation of patron-client relationships within the Soviet society. Part of Khrushchev’s modernization program was the expansion of the “socialist welfare state”. Galina Ivanova describes the shift in the economy from the Stalinist focus on heavy industry toward raising the living standards and production of consumer goods. This measure was intended to increase social activity and to incite the workers’ productivity. Social welfare was undoubtedly an inherent part of the socialist agenda. But Ivanova also points to another aspect. Since Khrushchev’s social policy was, in her view, paternalistic, it served as an instrument of social control. How the modernization process under Khrushchev affected the regions is examined by Rayk Einax at the example of Belorussia. The modernization initiated by the Soviets, he argues, led, in addition to migration and urbanization, to a Russification of the local society and to a decline of Belorussian identity. In the final chapter of this part, Nataliya Kibita investigates the effects of destalinization on the economy in Ukraine. Although the economic administration became more decentralized, the newly introduced regional economic councils generated new power conflicts with the state administration.

The third part of the volume examines the impact of destalinization on social communities. Melanie Ilic explores the “woman question”. She emphasizes that although the women employment rate significantly rose in the Khrushchev era due to demographic development, women’s role at home remained almost unchanged. Marina Zezina demonstrates with regard to the literary “Thaw” that only the Twentieth Party Congress brought new impulses to the writers’ community which climaxed in the publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich. Zezina explains that denouncing Stalin’s crimes served as a political campaign for the party leadership, but that it was not intended to actually democratize literary culture in the Soviet Union. The growing liberty of the press after the Twentieth Party Congress is analysed by Simon Huxtable. He exemplifies by the “Torch affair” of 1956 that criticism was tolerated only within certain limitations and concludes that the relations between the press and party authorities were like a cat-and-mouse game. An interesting case study provides Michel Abeßer in his chapter on Soviet Jazz. He shows how jazz music, through the professionalization of the jazz musicians, gradually but slowly became an integral part of Soviet popular culture, thus losing its image of subversive, anti-Soviet propaganda. In the final chapter of this section Yuri Aksyutin offers insights into the actual publics views of the Khrushchev era, based on a survey conducted between 1994 and 2004. Although the poll’s layout seems methodically questionable and its results are by no means representative (as Aksyutin concedes), the paper gives the reader some ideas how the public responded to the changes.

The volume concludes with a summary by Dietmar Neutatz reviewing the book’s chapters and contextualizing them within the state of research. Neutatz’s contribution in its title relates to the Khrushchev era, thus adopting a slightly different accent than the book’s title. This points to the conceptual dilemma in the attempt to grasp the post-Stalin period. None of the traditionally applied terms seem to fully match the variety of changes and the contradictions in Soviet policy of that time. Since most contributors demonstrate the continuity of developments well beyond the Khrushchev era, it seems reasonable to suggest that scholars dismiss structuring Soviet history along the line of the General Secretaries’ terms of office and define different and more expedient periods. The chapters assembled in this volume may serve well as an excellent starting point for such a discussion.

Wolfram von Scheliha, Leipzig

Zitierweise: Wolfram von Scheliha über: De-Stalinization Reconsidered. Persistence and Change in the Soviet Union. Ed. by Thomas M. Bohn / Rayk Einax / Michel Abeißer. Frankfurt a.M., New York: Campus, 2014. 276 S. ISBN: 978-3-593-50166-6, http://www.dokumente.ios-regensburg.de/JGO/erev/von_Scheliha_Bohn_De-Stalinization_Reconsidered.html (Datum des Seitenbesuchs)

© 2018 by Leibniz-Institut für Ost- und Südosteuropastudien in Regensburg and Wolfram von Scheliha. All rights reserved. This work may be copied and redistributed for non-commercial educational purposes, if permission is granted by the author and usage right holders. For permission please contact jahrbuecher@ios-regensburg.de

Die digitalen Rezensionen von „Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas. jgo.e-reviews“ werden nach den gleichen strengen Regeln begutachtet und redigiert wie die Rezensionen, die in den Heften abgedruckt werden.

Digital book reviews published in Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas. jgo.e-reviews are submitted to the same quality control and copy-editing procedure as the reviews published in print.