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  • The Post-Stalin EraDe-Stalinization, Daily Life, and Dissent
  • Miriam Dobson (bio)

In the first decade after the opening of the Soviet archives, scholars’ focus—both east and west of where the “iron curtain” once hung—largely centered on the most dramatic and violent period of Soviet history: the 1930s. Ground-breaking studies of the purges, collectivization, and daily life in both the new industrial cities and the socialized countryside all transformed the way Soviet history was conceived and taught in universities across the world. In contrast, the postwar, and post-Stalin, years seemed relatively virgin territory, at least in terms of archive-based research; and in the late 1990s, historians, particularly graduate students, turned their focus to these later periods. Perhaps in part this younger generation wanted to carve out its own territory, but there was more to the new trend than simple careerism: new interpretations of the 1930s had raised fascinating questions for the decades after 1953. What impact did the leader’s death and his subsequent discrediting have on the life stories of those who had seen their lives transformed in the 1930s (through migration to the city, acquisition of literacy, engagement in mass politics)? How did citizens who had, in Stephen Kotkin’s terms, started to “speak Bolshevik” negotiate the sudden shifts in rhetoric introduced when Khrushchev attacked the “cult of personality”? What impact did the renunciation of terror have on relations between government and society, and how were the legacies of Stalinist violence to be handled? Growing scholarly interest in World War II and its aftermath began to pose additional, and important, questions for the post-1953 period, particularly with regard to veterans’ expectations for a better life, the demographic shortfall and gender imbalance, and the conflicting emotions of pride and grief generated by the victories and losses of 1941–45.

Broader developments within academia also played their part—in particular the “cultural turn,” which dramatically expanded the issues, methodologies, [End Page 905] and sources with which historians engaged. The poetry, paintings, and films of the “thaw” period had long aroused interest abroad (particularly works deemed transgressive or subversive), but now scholars began to explore not only the politics of production and dissemination but also the wider reception of these works. Researchers also turned their attention to the domestic sphere, which under Khrushchev became the focus of architects, designers, and party officials who ushered in what Susan Reid and David Crowley have called a “self-conscious rejuvenation of the material world.”1 The period—once largely the domain of political scientists and literary scholars—became ever more interdisciplinary, with fruitful cross-fertilization among history, art history, film studies, literary criticism, anthropology, and historical sociology.

In this essay I identify three key topics that are emerging as focal points of scholarly interest: popular reactions to various reforms often grouped under the label “de-Stalinization”; the particular significance of byt under Khrushchev; and the nature and scale of dissent in the post-Stalin era. In concentrating on these three themes, this essay is, perhaps inevitably, partial and selective, and a few qualifications are necessary. First, the focus is Russia and the European areas of the Soviet Union, in part because the non-European republics are as yet understudied for the post-Stalin era, particularly in comparison with the recent work on the early decades of Soviet power in Central Asia and the Caucasus.2 Second, my attention centers on social and cultural history rather than high politics. Again this largely reflects the state of the field—and the difficulties of archive access to Presidium/Politburo materials—though it is worth noting William Taubman’s political biography of Khrushchev and Yoram Gorlizki and Oleg Khlevniuk’s project on regional politics, as well as several studies on the foreign policy of this period.3 [End Page 906]

De-Stalinization: Popular Reactions

During the Cold War, many Western commentators focused on the Kremlin power struggles or on the world of high culture, especially the contests among writers, artists, and party leaders over the course of cultural policy. Such works tended to posit the existence of discrete factions: liberals or reformers battled against conservatives, “friends” of change were pitted against...


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