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The Khrushchev Thaw (or Khrushchev's Thaw; in Russian Khrushchovskaya Ottepel or simply Ottepel; , ) refers to the period from the mid 1950s to the early 1960s, when repression and censorship in the Soviet Unionmarker were partially reversed and millions of Soviet political prisoners were released from Gulag labor camps, due to Nikita Khrushchev's policies of de-Stalinisation and peaceful coexistence with other nations.

The Thaw became possible after the death of Joseph Stalin in March 1953. Khrushchev denounced Stalin in a secret speech at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party, then ousted the pro-Stalinists during his power struggle in Kremlin. The term was coined after Ilya Ehrenburg's 1954 novel The Thaw, "Оттепель", sensational for its time. The Khrushchev Thaw was highlighted by Khrushchev's 1954 visit to Beijing, Chinamarker, his 1955 visit to Belgrademarker, and his subsequent meeting with Dwight Eisenhower later that year, culminating in Khrushchev's 1959 visit to the United Statesmarker.

The Thaw initiated irreversible transformation of the entire Soviet society by opening up for some economic reforms and international trade, educational and cultural contacts, festivals, books by foreign authors, foreign movies, art shows, popular music, dances and new fashions, massive involvement in international sport competitions; it was a chain of unprecedented steps to free people from fear and dictatorship that culminated in the removal of Stalin's body from Lenin's Mausoleummarker. Although the power struggle between liberals and conservative pro-Stalinists never stopped, it eventually weakened the Soviet Communist Party.

Khrushchev's Thaw allowed some freedom of information in the media, arts and culture; international festival, foreign movies, uncensored books, and new forms of entertainment on the emerging national TV, ranging from massive parades and celebrations to popular music and variety shows, satire and comedies, and all-star shows, like "Goluboy Ogonek." Such political and cultural updates all together helped liberate minds of millions and changed public consciousness of several generations of people in the Soviet Union.

Khrushchev and Stalin

Khrushchev and Stalin, 1936, Kremlin.
Khrushchev's Thaw had its genesis in the concealed power struggle among Stalin's lieutenants. Several major leaders among the Red Army commanders, such as Marshall Georgy Zhukov and his loyal officers, had some serious tensions with Stalin's secret service. On the surface the Red Army and the Soviet leadership seemed united after their victory in the Second World War. However, the hidden ambitions of the top people around Stalin, as well as Stalin's own suspiciousness and paranoia, had prompted Khrushchev that he could rely only on those few, who would stay with him through the entire political power struggle. That power struggle was surreptitiously prepared by Khrushchev while Stalin was alive, and came to surface after the death of Joseph Stalin in March 1953. By the time of Stalin's death, Khrushchev's people were planted everywhere in the Soviet hierarchy, which allowed Khrushchev to execute, or remove his main opponents, and then introduce some changes in the rigid Soviet ideology and hierarchy.

Stalin's dictatorship had reached new extremes in abusing people at all levels, such as the deportations of nationalities, the Leningrad Affair, the Doctors' plot, and official attacks on writers and other intellectuals. At the same time, millions of soldiers and officers had seen Europe after World War II, and had become aware of better ways of life than that in the Soviet Union. Upon Stalin's orders many were arrested and punished again, including the attacks on the popular Marshall Georgy Zhukov and other top generals, who had exceeded the limits on taking trophies when they looted the defeated Germany. The loot was confiscated by Stalin's security apparatus, and Marshall Zhukov was demoted, humiliated and exiled; he became a staunch anti-Stalinist. Zhukov waited until the death of Stalin, which allowed Khrushchev to bring Zhukov back for a new political battle.

The temporary union between Nikita Khrushchev and Marshall Georgy Zhukov was founded on their similar backgrounds, interests and weaknesses: both were peasants, both were ambitious, both were abused by Stalin, both feared the Stalinists, and both wanted to change these things. Khrushchev and Zhukov needed one another to eliminate their mutual enemies in the Soviet political elite.

In 1953, Zhukov helped Khrushchev to eliminate Lavrenty Beria, then a Vice-Prime Minister, who was executed in Moscow, as well as several other figures of Stalin's circle. Soon Khrushchev ordered the release of millions of political prisoners from the Gulag camps. Under Khrushchev's rule the number of prisoners in the Soviet Union was decreased from 13 million to 5 million people.

Khrushchev also promoted and groomed Leonid Brezhnev, whom he brought to Kremlin and introduced to Stalin in 1952. Then Khrushchev promoted Brezhnev to Presidium (Politburo) and made Head of Political Directorate Of the Red Army and Navy, and moved him up to several other powerful positions. Brezhnev in return helped Khrushchev by tipping the balance of power during several critical confrontations with the conservative hard-liners, including the ouster of pro-Stalinists headed by Molotov and Malenkov.

1956 Khrushchev's speech denouncing Stalin

Khrushchev denounced Stalin in his speech On the Personality Cult and its Consequences, delivered at the closed session of the 20th Party Congress, behind closed doors, after midnight on February 25, 1956. In this speech, Khrushchev described the damages done by Stalin's Personality Cult, and the repressions, known as Great Purges that killed millions and traumatized all people in the Soviet Union.After the delivery of the speech, it was officially disseminated in a shorter form among members of the Soviet Communist Party across the USSR starting March 5, 1956. Then Khrushchev initiated a wave of rehabilitation that officially restored the reputations of many millions of innocent victims, who were killed or imprisoned in the Great Purges under Stalin. Further, tentative moves were made through official and unofficial channels to relax restrictions on freedom of speech that had been held over from the rule of Stalin.

Khrushchev's 1956 speech was the strongest effort ever in the USSR to bring reconciliation and healing to the people, at that time, after several decades of fear of Stalin's Terror, that took millions of innocent lives. Khrushchev's speech was published internationally within a few months, and his initiatives to open and liberalise the USSR had surprised the world. Khrushchev's speech had angered many of his powerful enemies, thus igniting another round of ruthless power struggle within the Soviet Communist Party. At that time, Moshe Dayan said that the USSR will disappear in 30 years, and he was only 5 years off predicting the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Khrushchev's problems during the Thaw

Georgian revolt

Khruschev's denouncement of Stalin came as a shock to the Soviet society. Many in the Georgian SSR, Stalin's homeland, especially the young generation, bred on the panegyrics and permanent praise of the "genius" of Stalin, perceived it as a national insult. In March 1956, a series of spontaneous rallies to mark the third anniversary of Stalin's death quickly evolved into an uncontrollable mass demonstration and political demands such as the change of the central government in Moscowmarker and calls for the independence of Georgia from the Soviet Unionmarker appeared, leading to the Soviet army intervention and bloodshed in the streets of Tbilisimarker.

Polish and Hungarian Revolutions of 1956

The first big international failure of Khrushchev's politics came in October-November 1956.

The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was suppressed by the massive invasion of the Soviet tanks and the Red Army troops in Budapest. The street fighting against the invading Red Army caused thousands of casualties among Hungarian civilians and militia, as well as hundreds of the Soviet military personnel killed. The attack of the Soviet Red Army also caused massive emigration from Hungary, as hundreds of thousands of Hungarians had fled as refugees.

At the same time, the Polish October emerged as the political and social climax in Polandmarker. Such democratic changes in the internal life of Poland were also perceived with fear and anger in Moscow, where the hard-line "Stalinists" did not want to lose control, fearing the political threat to the Soviet strength and power in Eastern Europe.

1957 plot against Khrushchev

The conservative hard-line "Stalinist" elite of the Soviet communist party was enraged by Khrushchev's speech in 1956, and rejected Khrushchev's de-Stalinization and liberalisation of Soviet society. One year after Khrushchev's secret speech, the "Stalinists" attempted to oust Khrushchev from the leadership position in the Soviet Communist Party.

Khrushchev's enemies considered him hypocritical as well as ideologically wrong, given Khrushchev's involvement in Stalin's Great Purges, and other similar events as one of Stalin's favourites. They believed that Khrushchev's policy of peaceful coexistence would leave the Soviet Union open to attack. Vyacheslav Molotov, Lazar Kaganovich, Georgy Malenkov and joined by Dmitri Shepilov at the last minute after Kaganovich convinced him the group had a majority, attempted to depose Khrushchev as First Secretary of the Party in May 1957.

But Khrushchev had used Marshall Georgy Zhukov again. Khrushchev was saved by several strong appearances in his support, especially powerful was support from both Zhukov and Brezhnev. At the extraordinary session of the Central Committee held in late June 1957, Khrushchev labeled his opponents as Anti-Party Group and won a vote which reaffirmed his position as First Secretary. Then he expelled Molotov, Kaganovich and Malenkov from the Secretariat and ultimately from the Communist Party itself.

Economy and political tensions

Khrushchev's attempts in reforming the Soviet industrial infrastructure led to his clashes with professionals in most branches of the Soviet economy. His reform of administrative organization created him more problems. In a politically motivated move to weaken the central state bureaucracy in 1957, Khrushchev replaced the industrial ministries in Moscow with regional Councils of People's Economy, sovnarkhozes, causing himself many new enemies among the ranks in Soviet government.

Eventually Khrushchev's power, although indisputable, was slowly eroding and never became comparable to that of Stalin's. Some of the new people who came into the Soviet hierarchy, like Mikhail Gorbachev were younger, better educated and more independent thinkers.

In 1956, Khrushchev introduced the concept of a minimum wage. While initially a good idea , it was implemented with the typical Soviet manner: the minimum wage was so small, that most people were still underpaid in reality. The next step was a contemplated financial reform. However, Khrushchev stopped short of the real monetary reform, when he ordered to replace the old money with portraits of Stalin, and made a simple redenomination of the ruble 10:1 in 1961.

In 1961, Khrushchev finalized his battle against Stalin: the body of dictator was removed from the Lenin's Mausoleummarker on the Red Squaremarker and then buried outside the walls of the Kremlin. The removal of Stalin's body out of the Lenin's Mausoleum was arguably among the most provocative moves made by Khrushchev during the Thaw. Stalin's body removal consolidated pro-Stalinists against Khrushchev, and alienated even his loyal apprentices, such as Leonid Brezhnev.

Openness and liberalisation in the Thaw

The shift to liberalisation and openness was needed by people, and it became possible after the death of Stalin.

After 1953, the Soviet society enjoyed a series of cultural and sports events and entertainment of unprecedented scale, such as the first Spartakiad, as well as several innovative film comedies, such as The Carnival Night, and several popular music festivals. Some classical musicians, filmmakers and ballet stars were allowed to make appearances outside the Soviet Union in order to better represent its culture and society to the world.

In 1956, an agreement was achieved between the Soviet and US Governments to resume the publication and distribution in the Soviet Union of the US-produced magazine Amerika , and to launch its counterpart, the USSR magazine in the USA.

In the summer of 1956, just a few months after Khrushchev's secret speech, Moscow became the center of the first Spartakiada of the Peoples of the USSR. The event was made pompous and loud in the Soviet style: Moscow hosted large sports teams and groups of fans in national costumes who came from all republics of the USSR. Khrushchev used the event to accentuate his new political and social goals, and to show himself as a new leader who was completely different from Stalin.

In July 1957, the 6th World Festival of Youth and Students (Russian: Всемирный фестиваль молодёжи и студентов) was held in Moscow. This became possible after the bold political changes initiated by Nikita Khrushchev. It was the first World Festival of Youth and Students held in the Soviet Russia, which was opening its doors for the first time to the world. The festival attracted 34 thousand people from 130 countries.

In 1958, the first International Tchaikovsky Competition was held in Moscow. The winner was Americanmarker pianist Van Cliburn, who gave sensational performances of Russian music. Khrushchev personally approved giving the top award to the American musician.

Khrushchev's Thaw opened the Soviet society to a degree that allowed some foreign movies, books, art and music. Some previously banned writers and composers, such as Dmitri Shostakovich, Sergei Prokofiev, Anna Akhmatova, Mikhail Zoshchenko, among others, were brought back to public life, as the official Soviet censorship policies had changed. Books by some internationally recognised authors, such as Ernest Hemingway, were published in millions of copies to satisfy the interest of readers in the USSR.

In 1962, Khrushchev personally approved the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's story One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which became a sensation, and made history as the first uncensored publication about the Stalin's Gulag labor camps.

Despite the new freedoms in the Soviet Union, there was still a lot of persecution of religion that had temporarily halted during the war effort and the years after toward the end of Stalin's rule.

Khrushchev's Thaw in the world

The death of Stalin and the twentieth CPSU congress of February 1956 had a huge impact throughout Eastern Europe. Literary thaws actually preceded the congress in Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, and the GDR and later burgeoned briefly in Czechoslovakia and Mao's China. With the exception of the arch Stalinist and anti-Titoist Albania, Romania was the only country where intellectuals avoided an open clash with the regime, influenced partly by the lack of any earlier revolt in post-war Romania that would have forced the regime to make concessions.

the West, Khrushchev's Thaw is known as a temporary thaw in the icy tension between the United Statesmarker and the USSR during the Cold War. The tensions were able to thaw because of Khrushchev's de-Stalinization of the USSR and peaceful co-existence theory and also because of US President Eisenhower's cautious attitude and peace attempts. For example, both leaders attempted to achieve peace by attending the 1955 Geneva International Peace Summit and developing the Open Skies Policy and Quest for Arms Agreement. The leaders’ attitudes allowed them to, as Khrushchev put it, "break the ice."

Khrushchev's Thaw developed largely as a result of Khrushchev's theory of peaceful co-existence which believed the two superpowers (USA and USSR) and their ideologies could co-exist together, without war (peacefully). Khrushchev had created the theory of peaceful existence in an attempt to reduce hostility between the two superpowers. He tried to prove peaceful coexistence by attending international peace conferences, such as the Geneva Summit, and by traveling internationally, such as his trip to America’s Camp Davidmarker in 1959.

This spirit of cooperation was severely damaged by the U-2 spy plane incident. The Soviet presentation of downed pilot Gary Powers at the May 1960 Paris Peace Summit and Eisenhower's refusal to apologize ended much of the progress of this era. Then Khrushchev approved the construction of the Berlin Wallmarker in 1961.

Further deterioration of the Thaw and decay of Khrushchev's international political standing happened during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. At that time the Soviet and international media were making two completely opposite pictures of reality, while the world was at the brink of a Nuclear war. Although, direct communication between Khrushchev and the US president John Kennedy helped to end the crisis, Khrushchev's political image was damaged.

Social, cultural and economic reforms

The "Khrushchev's Thaw" caused unprecedented social, cultural and economic transformations in the Soviet Union. The 60s generation actually started in the 1950s, with their uncensored poetry, songs and books publications.

The 6th World Festival of Youth and Students had opened many eyes and ears in the Soviet Union. Many new social trends stemmed from that festival. Many Russian women became involved in love affairs with handsome men from all over the world, what resulted in the so-called "inter-baby boom" in Moscowmarker and Leningradmarker. The festival also brought new styles and fashions that caused the movement among the upper class called "stilyagi" and the 60s generation. The festival also "revolutionized" the underground currency trade and boosted the black market, causing headaches for the Soviet KGBmarker.

Emergence of such popular stars as Bulat Okudzhava, Edita Piekha, Evgeny Evtushenko, Bella Akhmadulina, and the superstar Vladimir Vysotsky had changed the popular culture forever in the USSR. Their poetry and songs liberated the public consciousness of the Soviet people and pushed guitars and tape recorders to masses, so the Soviet people became exposed to independent channels of information and public mentality was eventually updated in many ways.

Khrushchev finally liberated millions of peasants; by his order the Soviet government gave them identifications, passports, and thus allowed them to move out of poor villages to big cities. Massive housing construction, known as khrushchevka, was undertaken during the 1950s and 1960s. Millions of cheap and basic residential blocks of low-end flats were built all over the Soviet Union to accommodate the largest migration ever in the Soviet history, when masses of landless peasants moved to Soviet cities. The move caused a dramatic change of the demographic picture in the USSR, and eventually finalized the decay of peasantry in Russiamarker.

Economic reforms were contemplated by a staunch ally of Nikita Khrushchev, Alexey Kosygin, who was chairman of the USSR State Committee for Planning in 1959 and then a full member of the Presidium (also known as Politburo after 1966) in 1960.

Khrushchev's dismissal and the end of reforms

Both the cultural and the political thaws were effectively ended with the removal of Krushchev as Soviet leader in October 1964, and the installment of Leonid Brezhnev as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1964. When Khrushchev was dismissed, Kosygin took over Khrushchev's position as Soviet Premier, but Kosygin's reforms were replaced with stagnation and military-industrial development which eventually ruined the Soviet economy and caused the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Brezhnev begun his career as the General Secretary with the Sinyavsky-Daniel trial in 1965. Then Brezhnev re-established "Stalinist" authoritarian ideology, ignoring the letter by the leading Soviet intellectuals, asking not to restore Stalinism. After that, Brezhnev approved the invasion of Czechoslovakiamarker in 1968 (Prague Spring) and ended with the Soviet war in Afghanistan which continued after his death; he installed an authoritarian regime lasted through his life and the lives of his two successors, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko.

Timeline of the Khrushchev's Thaw

European economic alliances
European military alliances
  • 1953: Stalin died. Beria eliminated by Zhukov. Khrushchev became leader of the Soviet Communist Party.
  • 1954: Khrushchev visited Beijing, China, met Mao Zedong. Started rehabilitation and release of Soviet political prisoners. Allowed uncensored public performances of poets and songwriters in the Soviet Union.
  • 1955: Khrushchev met with US President Eisenhower. NATO formed, the Warsaw Pact established. Khrushchev reconciled with Tito. Zhukov appointed Minister of Defence. Brezhnev appointed to run Virgin Lands Campaign.
  • 1956: Khrushchev denounced Stalin in his Secret Speech. Hungarian Revolution crushed by the Soviet Army. Ended Polish uprising earlier that year by granting some consessions, i.e. removal of some troops.
  • 1957: Coup against Khrushchev. Pro-Stalinists ousted from Kremlin. World Festival of Youth and Students in Moscow. Tape recorders spread popular music all over the Soviet Russia. Sputnik orbited the Earth. Introduced sovnarkhozes.
  • 1958: Khrushchev named premier of the Soviet Union, ousted Zhukov from Minister of Defence, cut military spending, (Councils of People's Economy). 1st International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow.
  • 1959: Khrushchev visited the USA. unsuccessful introduction of maize during agricultural crisis in the Soviet Union caused serious food crisis. Sino-Soviet split started.
  • 1960: Kennedy elected President of the USA. Vietnam War escalated. American U–2 spy plane shot down over the Soviet Union. Pilot Powers pleaded guilty. Khrushchev cancelled the summit with Eisenhower.
  • 1961: Stalin's body removed from Lenin's mausoleum. Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. Khrushchev approved the Berlin Wall. The Soviet ruble redenominated 10:1, food crisis continued.
  • 1962: Krushchev and Kennedy struggled through the Cuban Missile Crisis. Food crisis caused the Novocherkassk massacre. First publication about the "Gulag" camps by Solzhenitsyn.
  • 1963: Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space. Ostankino TV tower construction started. Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests signed. Kennedy assassinated. Khrushchev hosted Fidel Castro in Moscow.
  • 1964: Beatlemania came to the Soviet Union, music bands formed at many Russian schools. 40 bugs found in the US Embassy in Moscow. Brezhnev ousted Khrushchev, and placed him under house arrest.

History repeated

Many historians compare the Khrushchev's Thaw and his massive efforts to change the Soviet society and move away from its past, with the Gorbachev's perestroika and glasnost during the 1980s. Although they led the Soviet Union in different eras, both Khrushchev and Gorbachev had initiated dramatic reforms. Both efforts lasted only a few years, and both efforts were supported by the people, while being opposed by the hard-liners. Both leaders were dismissed, albeit with completely different results for their country.

Mikhail Gorbachev has been calling Khrushchev's achievements remarkable, he praised the Khrushchev's 1956 speech, but stated that Khrushchev did not succeed in his reforms.

See also


  1. William Taubman, Khrushchev: The Man and His Era, London: Free Press, 2004
  2. Joseph Stalin killer file
  3. Tompson, William J. Khrushchev: A Political Life. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995
  4. Khrushchev, Sergei N., translated by William Taubman, Khrushchev on Khrushchev, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1990.
  5. Rettie, John. "How Khrushchev Leaked his Secret Speech to the World", Hist Workshop J. 2006; 62: 187–193.
  6. text in original Russian
  7. Khrushchev, Sergei N., Nikita Khrushchev and the Creation of a Superpower, Penn State Press, 2000.
  8. Schecter, Jerrold L, ed. and trans., Khrushchev Remembers: The Glasnost Tapes, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1990
  9. Dmitri Volkogonov. Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy, 1996, ISBN 0761507183
  10. The most secretive people (in Russian): Зенькович Н. Самые закрытые люди. Энциклопедия биографий. М., изд. ОЛМА-ПРЕСС Звездный мир, 2003 г. ISBN 5-94850-342-9
  11. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Gulag Archipelago.
  12. Georgy Zhukov's Memoirs: Marshal G.K. Zhukov, Memoirs, Moscow, Olma-Press, 2002
  13. Strobe Talbott, ed., Khrushchev Remembers (2 vol., tr. 1970–74)
  14. Vladimir Karpov. (Russian source: Маршал Жуков: Опала, 1994) Moscow, Veche publication.
  15. World Affairs. Leonid Brezhnev.
  16. Russian source: Factbook on the history of the Communist Party and the Soviet Union. Справочник по истории Коммунистической партии и Советского Союза 1898 - 1991.
  17. Stalin's Terror: High Politics and Mass Repression in the Soviet Union by Barry McLoughlin and Kevin McDermott (eds). Palgrave Macmillan, 2002, p. 6
  18. Nahaylo, Bohdan; Swoboda, Victor (1990), Soviet disunion: a history of the nationalities problem in the USSR, p. 120. Free Press, ISBN 0029224012
  19. Suny, Ronald Grigor (1994), The Making of the Georgian Nation, pp. 303-305. Indiana University Press, ISBN 0253209153
  20. Gati, Charles (2006). Failed Illusions: Moscow, Washington, Budapest and the 1956 Hungarian Revolt. Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-8047-5606-6.
  21. Stalinism in Poland, 1944-1956, ed. and tr. by A. Kemp-Welch, St. Martin's Press, New York, 1999, ISBN 0-312-22644-6.
  22. Volkogonov, Dmitri Antonovich (Author); Shukman, Harold (Editor, Translator). Autopsy for an Empire: the Seven Leaders Who Built the Soviet Regime. Free Press, 1998 (Hardcover, ISBN 0684834200); (Paperback, ISBN 0684871122)
  23. Mikhail Gorbachev. The first steps towards a new era. Guardian.
  24. Pipes, Richard. Communism: A History. Modern Library Chronicles, 2001 (hardcover, ISBN 0679640509); (2003 paperback reprint, ISBN 0812968646)
  25. Walter L. Hixson: Parting the Curtain: Propaganda, Culture, and the Cold War, 1945-1961 (McMillan 1997), p.117
  26. Moscow marks 50 years since youth festival.
  27. Johanna Granville, "Dej-a-Vu: Early Roots of Romania's Independence," East European Quarterly, vol. XLII, no. 4 (Winter 2008), pp. 365-404.
  28. Kennedy, Robert F. Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis; ISBN 0-393-31834-6.

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