A leaflet criticizing Nikita Khrushchev, reproduced in four copies. A charter-petition calling for change in Czechoslovakia, signed by several thousand citizens. A 40-page autobiographical letter, sent to a Soviet literary journal with no hope of publication. An obscene curse, shouted at a Stalin statue in Tallinn. These are just some of the critical statements made by Eastern bloc citizens over the three decades after Stalin’s death featured in these four studies. Not all of these were expressions of protest or even complaint, and many [End Page 637] were more private than public, but they all assumed the right to comment on socialist life, and sometimes on the political system as a whole. Some statements, such as the publications of the bloc’s varied dissident movements, were known internationally at the time they were made, but many more have only been discovered in archives since 1989–91.
The collapse of state socialism has not only fueled research into such unofficial—if not necessarily dissident—discourse within post-Stalinist cultures but has also significantly shaped its modes of inquiry: such commentaries and complaints about life under socialism are often analyzed primarily in terms of their role in undermining, eroding, or destroying the system and its ideology. These four studies of post-Stalinist culture and politics all offer plentiful new evidence of the diversity and vitality of such unofficial discourse but at times channel it into teleological narratives of regime collapse, measurements of social and political significance, and binary notions of state and society. By placing these studies in the context of other recent scholarship on post-Stalinism, late socialism, and dissent, this essay proposes some alternative perspectives on their rich and thought-provoking findings.
The four texts under review sketch a rough spectrum from responses to Soviet publications through relatively apolitical but controversial complaint to more theorized and institutionalized dissident activity across the Eastern bloc. At the least dissident end of this spectrum, Denis Kozlov’s impressively exhaustive survey of the huge archive of readers’ letters at the most liberal Soviet thick journal Novyi mir extends older studies of the journal’s “permitted dissent”—its decade and a half of publishing works at the outer limit of regime tolerance—into an examination of how its readership reacted to such publications.1 His intellectual history of the 1950s and 1960s presents this period as a key juncture in the journal’s history but also in the evolution of Soviet culture as a whole, a time when Stalinist dogmas were attacked in print and consequently dissolved in the minds of the Soviet people. Novyi mir, more than any other media outlet and certainly more than “de-Stalinizing” party leaders according to Kozlov, produced a genuine thaw in popular attitudes to the Soviet past and to the Soviet “media language,” which proved impervious to the Soviet authorities’ freeze on the journal and broader cultural politics in the late 1960s.
From Stalin’s death up until this crackdown, the Soviet authorities permitted publications such as Vladimir Pomerantsev’s “On Sincerity in Literature,” Ilya Ehrenburg’s (Il´ia Erenburg’s) memoirs, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and Emil Kardin’s “Legends [End Page 638] and Facts,” but then just as often turned against them, vilifying both their authors and the journal. Meticulously researched and lucidly presented by Kozlov, these cycles of permission and criticism whipped up a perfect storm of thought...