restricted access The Thaw: Soviet Society and Culture during the 1950s and 1960s ed. by Denis Kozlov and Eleonory Gilburd (review)
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Reviewed by
Denis Kozlov and Eleonory Gilburd, eds. The Thaw: Soviet Society and Culture during the 1950s and 1960s. 524 pp. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013. ISBN 9781442628649.

Mystifyingly, “the Thaw” has served as metonym for the post-Stalin years even as the term has incompletely explained the social change and vibrant culture that characterized this period of Soviet history. Yet this label, rather than “liberalization” or “de–Stalinization,” captures the tensions between the optimism implied by a sunny spring day and the disorder connoted by slushy debris left over when the snow accumulated during a long Russian winter melts (21). In these terms, co-editors Denis Kozlov and Eleonory Gilburd explain in the introduction of The Thaw that the label doubles as a historical event and as a metaphor constitutive of, rather than reflecting of, the era. For instance, the concept of a “thaw” has shaped the view that I. V. Stalin’s March 1953 death ushered in an unexpected and thorough break with the past, a view scholars have recently challenged.1 Thus Katerina Clark traces to 1939 discussions of “sincerity” and “truth,” hallmarks of literary debate during the Thaw (94).

The tensions between events and myths link the eleven chapters, which the volume’s editors divide into two sections: “Looking Back” and “Looking Forward.” Yet this is just one of many dichotomies woven among the selections from papers given at a May 2005 conference at the University of California, Berkeley. By reassessing the era, The Thaw makes a significant contribution to the field’s pivot toward the postwar and post-Stalin years. It challenges existing scholarship that responded with pessimism about reform to the 1991 dissolution of the USSR (25–26). Doubtlessly useful for scholars, the volume offers an accessible portrait of the field promising to enrich graduate instruction, while individual essays offer analytical rigor and empirical richness potentially engaging to undergraduates in specialized courses on postwar Soviet history.

Here, I want to highlight three more of the volume’s consistent but less heralded themes: local histories, global interconnections, and social history. Regional studies do not simply add “local color” to preexisting histories privileging the center, but instead reveal hitherto unseen elements constituting parts [End Page 351] of the larger whole.2 In this vein, Alan Barenberg’s inquiry contrasts the fate of intelligentsia returnees from the Gulag who struggled to return to Moscow or Leningrad with the stories of workers and specialists who remained and established lives and careers in Vorkuta, their former place of imprisonment (146). Amir Weiner’s essay similarly highlights discord between Moscow’s surprisingly permissive policy of releasing former nationalists from camps and the fears of local officials in western frontier regions about the releasees’ potential for antisystemic activity (313). Challenging earlier accounts that judged N. S. Khrushchev’s Virgin Lands campaign a failure in terms of Moscow’s priorities, Michaela Pohl’s account of development in northern Kazakhstan argues that the decade after 1954 brought significant advances in construction, educational institutions, and economic growth. These gains laid the foundations that allowed Tselinograd (Virgin Lands City, as Akmolinsk was renamed in 1961) to flourish after 1997 as Astana, the capital of post-Soviet Kazakhstan (269–72).

Many essays explore interactions with global developments that belie the notion of Soviet isolation behind the Iron Curtain. Noting the distinctive filmmaking traditions arising in national republics, Oksana Bulgakowa’s piece highlights “cinematic globalization” (439) that saw film develop in dialogue with foreign techniques and new-wave styles of Italy, Great Britain, Czechoslovakia, and beyond. The contributions of Larissa Zakharova on Soviet fashion design (427) and Gilburd on internationalist cultural diplomacy (364–68) further buttress this point.

Although studies of fashion typically cast it as high culture, Zakharova grounds it in social history, a priority in the volume. Even as they grappled with legacies of repression, citizens also witnessed the emergence of a stable, consumer-oriented society. They chose diverse answers to the question of what to wear, running the gamut from Soviet interpretations of Parisian fashion to drab standardized practicality. Pushing the boundaries of the acceptable or demonstrating indifference to style, everyone from elites to workers bought, ordered, or sewed clothing...


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