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  • De-Stalinization and Soviet Patriotism:Ukrainian Reactions to East European Unrest in 1956
  • Zbigniew Wojnowski (bio)

The Polish and Hungarian unrest of 1956 could not have caught Moscow at a more fragile time. Khrushchev's not-so-Secret Speech at the 20th Party Congress in February had raised troubling questions about the "cult of personality" and the excesses of Stalinism. With the country unsettled by waves of returning Gulag prisoners and the dramatic shifts in state policy in the years following Stalin's death, the future seemed uncertain.1 As Polly Jones and Cynthia Hooper have demonstrated, citizens argued about the Stalinist past and their post-Stalinist futures, probing thereby the nature and limits of reform.2

The dramatic events of October and November 1956 in the Soviet satellite states had been propelled by Khrushchev's reforms. In Poland, many citizens rejected Khrushchev's rhetoric about the cult of personality and condemned [End Page 799] the entire Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and Stalinist-era Polish communist leaders.3 Top Warsaw apparatchiks sought new sources of legitimacy, especially after the bloody workers' riots in Poznan in June 1956. Elected to serve as the first secretary of the Polish United Workers' Party on 19 October 1956, Wladyslaw Gomulka announced a new Polish "path to socialism," halting collectivization of agriculture and allowing (at least temporarily) a greater degree of freedom of expression. The Soviet army came close to invading, and the Soviet press raised alarm about the rise of "anti-Soviet" moods in Poland, but Khrushchev eventually accepted the new leadership in Warsaw.4

The Secret Speech also triggered heated debates about the need to reform the regime in Hungary. In contrast to the relatively peaceful resolution to the crisis in Poland, fighting broke out on the streets of Budapest on 23 October and, after a brief Soviet military intervention, Imre Nagy took over the reins of the Hungarian Party. As he made chaotic attempts to end the violence and to restore the Party's authority, Moscow grew concerned that his reforms went too far, especially as Hungary announced that it was going to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact. On 4 November, Soviet armies moved into Budapest again to crush the popular uprising, resulting in bloodshed on both sides. Hungarian resistance was crushed by 10 November, and the new Soviet puppet government destroyed all forms of public opposition within the next two months.5

In the Soviet Union itself, these events were seen and judged as a direct consequence of Khrushchev's "liberalization." Many scholars who explore Soviet citizens' attitudes toward reform and de-Stalinization in 1956 focus on reactions to the Secret Speech and changes within the USSR itself. As Mark Kramer and Amir Weiner have shown, however, this story of 1956 is incomplete, for the crises in the "outer empire" also shaped popular perceptions of Khrushchev and his reforms.6 Indeed, inhabitants of the USSR judged Khrushchev as an international leader, widely discussing his policies vis-à-vis the socialist satellites. More important, Poland and Hungary were treated as a testing ground for reform, and observation of the dramatic events [End Page 800] in those countries inspired Soviet citizens to argue about the extent to which it was possible to liberalize Soviet-style regimes without inducing violence and instability.

Because of geographical and linguistic proximity, family ties, and memories of a common history, debates about the outer empire acquired particular resonance in Soviet Ukraine.7 They played into the complex social, regional, and national dynamics of the republic, exposing overlapping fault lines among Russian and Ukrainian speakers, ethnic minorities, and various generational and occupational groups. Helping to mold popular ideas about the role of nations under socialism, perceptions of the "near abroad" also underpinned notions of Soviet patriotism among the population. The republic thus provides an interesting case study in which the monitoring of events in the outer empire shaped a wide range of attitudes toward Soviet foreign and domestic policy. Popular reactions to the unfolding crises throw a particularly interesting light on the role of the western borderlands in Ukraine, which undermines the traditional view of the west as the least "Soviet" part of the republic.8 Western...