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The Many Lives of Khrushchev's Thaw

Experience and Memory in Moscow's Arbat

Stephen V. Bittner

Publication Year: 2008

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.

Published by: Cornell University Press


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pp. 1-2

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 3-8


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

The title page indicates that I am the sole author of this book, but it has been a collaborative effort throughout. I have benefited in countless ways, both personal and professional, from the input of Sheila Fitzpatrick, Ron Suny, and Richard Hellie, my former mentors at the University of Chicago. ...

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Introduction: History of a Metaphor

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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, ...

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1. History and Myth of the Arbat

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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, ...

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2. A Cult of Personality and a “Rhapsody in Blue”

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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. ...

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3. Raining on Turandot

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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. ...

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4. Remembering the Avant-garde

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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. ...

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5. Preserving the Past, Empowering the Public

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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 “Lord’s Dogs,” ...

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6. Dissidence and the End of the Thaw

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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 priarbat′e after the Napoleonic Wars. ...

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Conclusion: The Arbat and the Thaw

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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. ...

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 221-222


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pp. 223-236

E-ISBN-13: 9780801460432
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801446061

Page Count: 256
Publication Year: 2008

Edition: 1