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Journal of Cold War Studies 3.1 (2001) 138-140

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Book Review

Massovye Besporyadki v SSSR pri Khrushcheve i Brezhneve

Vladimir A. Kozlov, Massovye Besporyadki v SSSR pri Khrushcheve i Brezhneve (Mass Disturbances in the USSR Under Khrushchev and Brezhnev). Novosibirsk: Sibirskii Khronograf, 1999. 413 pp.

During the Cold War most Western scholars assumed that public protest in the Soviet Union was confined to dissidents imprisoned in labor camps for publishing criticism of the Soviet government or for seeking to practice their religious beliefs. The only mass disturbance widely publicized in the West was the June 1962 workers' strike in Novocherkassk. Vladimir Kozlov's important new book on mass protest in the Soviet Union during the 1950s and 1960s sets the record straight. Using newly declassified archival documents, Kozlov demonstrates that mass anti-Soviet unrest was far more common and more violent than previously believed. [End Page 138]

Kozlov argues that most large-scale disturbances in the Soviet Union were not caused by political opposition to Communist rule. Instead the sharp increase in the number of incidents of mass violence in the mid-1950s, he claims, stemmed from the surge of disillusionment and uncertainty that followed the first wave of revelations about excesses and cruelty under Josif Stalin. Kozlov maintains that as belief in Communist ideology began to wane under Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet Union experienced a period of instability and social upheaval. The accompanying disillusionment led to an increase in the number of alcoholics, who were wont to take part in violent clashes among themselves and with police. At the same time, the introduction of excessive penalties for relatively minor crimes led to the criminalization of many elements within Soviet society. According to Kozlov, these criminals were socialized to act violently with little provocation and were crucial in transforming instances of mass discontent into violent disorders.

The mass disturbances described by Kozlov are of four types. In the period immediately after Stalin's death, mass unrest could be characterized primarily as disorganized violence, led by criminals, drunks, and other marginal elements. These riots occurred primarily in Kazakhstan and Siberia and were caused by the extremely rapid industrial and agricultural development of those regions, which brought about large-scale migration and urbanization. Poor living conditions combined with a large number of underemployed young men caused deep resentment against local authorities and occasionally gave rise to the destruction of property, looting, and attacks on neighboring groups. These riots proved difficult to control because the police presence had not kept up with the rapidly growing population. Disorganized riots sometimes grew into violent attacks on police or local government institutions, particularly when resentment focused on perceived abuses of power by the authorities. Both of these types of protests were characterized by a lack of organization and the absence of political demands of any kind.

Rapid migration also played a role in the third kind of mass disturbance: the ethnic riot. Ethnic disturbances resulted from a combination of economic uncertainty and unstable ethnic relations caused by mass deportations during the Stalin period. These riots generally were localized events, taking place primarily in the Caucasus, where returning ethnic minorities were met with resentment by the settlers who had taken over their lands and houses, and in Kazakhstan, where the bulk of the deportees had been forcibly settled in the 1940s. Kazakhstan also had been subject to a new population influx as part of Khrushchev's Virgin Lands campaign in the late 1950s.

Political demonstrations were the most serious form of mass disturbance from the standpoint of the Soviet authorities. Kozlov argues that political demonstrations under Khrushchev were sparked mainly by the leadership's own mistakes. The main cause of the Novocherkassk strike, according to Kozlov, was the poorly timed announcement of a national price increase, which came immediately after the pay of industrial workers had been cut. Similarly, the pro-Stalin demonstrations in Tbilisi and other Georgian towns in March 1956 resulted from the spread of rumors about Khrushchev's "secret speech" denouncing Stalin's personality cult. These events tended to be...