Khrushchev Thaw

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Khrushchev's Thaw or the Khrushchev Thaw refers to the Soviet period from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s, when repression and censorship in the Soviet Union were eased under the Party Chairmanship of Nikita Khrushchev. In Russian, the term is Khrushchovskaya Ottepel or simply Ottepel (хрущёвская о́ттепель). The term was coined after Ilya Ehrenburg's 1954 novel, The Thaw, "Оттепель," which was published in 1954, a year after Stalin's death, and was sensational for its time. The title anticipated a loosening of control after Stalin's death, and as a result became associated with Khrushchev's policies during the period.

Khrushchev's Thaw allowed some freedom of information in the media, arts, and culture; international festivals, foreign movies, uncensored books, and new forms of entertainment on the emerging national television, ranging from massive parades and celebrations to popular music and variety shows, satire and comedies, and all-star shows, like Goluboy Ogonek.

The Thaw initiated an irreversible transformation of the entire Soviet nation by opening up economic reforms and international trade, educational and cultural contacts, festivals, books by foreign authors, foreign movies, art shows, popular music, dances and new fashions, and 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 Mausoleum. Although the power struggle between liberals and conservative pro-Stalinists never stopped, it eventually weakened the Soviet Communist Party, which collapsed in a failed coup d'etat against Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991, very similar to the one that Khrushchev endured.

The Khrushchev Thaw also had an impact on Western Communist parties. The French Communist Party in particular remained Stalinist until the publication of Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.


Khrushchev and Stalin, 1936, Kremlin.

Khrushchev's Thaw had its genesis in the concealed power struggle among Joseph Stalin's lieutenants.[1] That power struggle was surreptitiously prepared by Khrushchev while Stalin was alive,[2][1] and came to surface after Stalin's death in March 1953.[2] 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.[1]

Stalin was denounced by Khrushchev 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.[3] 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.[4][5]

Millions of Soviet political prisoners were released from Gulag labor camps, due to Khrushchev's policy of de-Stalinization[6] of Soviet life. Under Khrushchev's rule the number of prisoners in the Soviet Union was decreased from 13 million to 5 million people, so eight million people were freed. Then Khrushchev initiated a wave of rehabilitations 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.[1]

Openness and liberalization in the Thaw

After 1953, Soviet society enjoyed a series of cultural and sports events and entertainment on an 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 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.[1]

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 Khrushchev. It was the first World Festival of Youth and Students held in Soviet Russia, which was opening its doors for the first time to the world. The festival attracted 34,000 people from 130 countries.

In 1958, the first International Tchaikovsky Competition was held in Moscow. The winner was American pianist Van Cliburn, who created a sensation with his performances of Russian music. Khrushchev personally approved giving the top award to the American musician.[1]

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 recognized authors, such as Ernest Hemingway, were published in millions of copies to satisfy the interest of readers in the USSR.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

The most significant event of the Thaw—and the one with which the Thaw is most associated—came in 1962, when Khrushchev personally approved the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's story, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. The story became a sensation both inside and outside the Soviet Union. It was the first uncensored publication about the Stalin's Gulag labor camps.[1]

Khrushchev would later state that his purpose in publishing the work was to "let off steam." However, it had the exact opposite effect. Many manuscripts of the horrors of Stalinism had remained stashed away in drawers until the publication of Solzhenitsyn's story. Afterward, many of them were submitted for publication (although Khrushchev never intended to allow others be published). Outside of Russia, Solzhenitsyn's work had the effect of de-legitimizing the Stalinist hardline that still characterized some Communist parties, most notably the French.

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 book 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 men from all over the world, what resulted in the so-called "inter-baby boom" in Moscow and Leningrad. The festival also brought new styles and fashions that caused the movement among the upper class called stilyagi and the 1960s generation. The festival also "revolutionized" the underground currency trade and boosted the black market, causing headaches for the Soviet KGB.

The period saw the emergence of such popular stars, including poets, singers, and songwriters such as Edita Piekha, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Bella Akhmadulina, and perhaps the most popular of artists and spokespeople for the common man, the Bards like Bulat Okudzhava and the superstar Vladimir Vysotsky. They 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 khrushchevkas, 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 Russia.

Economic reforms were contemplated by Alexey Kosygin, a staunch ally of Nikita Khrushchev, 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.

Political consequence of the Thaw

Khrushchev's determination to de-Stalinize Soviet society led to some unforeseen consequences. His policies were tested both abroad and at home.

Polish and Hungarian Revolutions of 1956

The first big international failure of Khrushchev's politics came in October-November 1956. Client states in Eastern Europe attempted to institute some democratic reforms and create greater political autonomy but were suppressed.

The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was brutally 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 disastrous attack of the Soviet Red Army also caused massive emigration from Hungary, as hundreds of thousands of Hungarians had fled as refugees.[7]

At the same time, the Polish October emerged as the political and social climax in Poland. 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.[8]

1957 coup 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 liberalization of Soviet society. One year after Khrushchev's secret speech, the "Stalininsts" attempted to oust Khrushchev from the leadership position in the Soviet Communist Party.[1]

Khrushchev's enemies considered him hypocritical as well as ideologically incorrect, given Khrushchev's involvement in Stalin's Great Purges, and other similar events as one of Stalin's favorites. They believed that Khrushchev's policy of peaceful coexistence would leave the Soviet Union open to attack. Vyacheslav Molotov, Lazar Kaganovich, and Georgy Malenkov attempted to depose Khrushchev as First Secretary of the Party in May 1957. They were joined by Dmitri Shepilov at the last minute after Kaganovich convinced him the group had a majority.[1]

But Khrushchev relied on Marshall Georgy Zhukov just as he had during his original consolidation of power. Khrushchev was saved by several strong appearances in his support, especially powerful was support from both Zhukov and Brezhnev.[9] At the extraordinary session of the Central Committee held in late June 1957, Khrushchev labeled his opponents the Anti-Party Group and won a vote which reaffirmed his position as First Secretary.[1] Then he expelled Molotov, Kaganovich, and Malenkov from the Secretariat and ultimately from the Communist Party itself.

In 1961, Khrushchev finalized his battle against Stalin: the body of the dictator was removed from Lenin's Mausoleum on Red Square and then buried outside the walls of the Kremlin.[2][1][10][9] The removal of Stalin's body from 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.[1]

Timeline of Khrushchev's Thaw

European economic alliances
European military alliances
  • 1953: Stalin died. Lavrentiy Beria eliminated by Zhukov. Khrushchev became leader of the Soviet Communist Party.
  • 1954: Khrushchev visited Peking, 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 U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower. NATO formed, the Warsaw Pact established. Khrushchev reconciled with Josep Tito. Zhukov appointed Minister of Defense. Brezhnev appointed to run Virgin Lands Campaign.
  • 1956: Khrushchev denounced Stalin in his Secret Speech. Hungarian Revolution crushed by the Soviet Army. Polish revolution suppressed.
  • 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.
  • 1958: Khrushchev named premier of the Soviet Union, ousted Zhukov from Minister of Defense, cut military spending, introduced sovnarkhozes, (Councils of People's Economy). 1st International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow.
  • 1959: Khrushchev visited the U.S. 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 U.S. Vietnam War escalated. American U–2 spy plane shot down over the Soviet Union. Pilot Gary Powers pleaded guilty. Khrushchev canceled the summit with Eisenhower.
  • 1961: Stalin's body removed from Lenin's mausoleum. Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. Khrushchev approved construction of the Berlin Wall. The Soviet ruble redenominated 10:1, food crisis continued.
  • 1962: Khrushchev and Kennedy struggled through the Cuban Missile Crisis. Food crisis caused the Novocherkassk massacre. First publication about the "Gulag" camps by Alexander 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 electronic listening devices bugs found in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. Brezhnev ousted Khrushchev, and placed him under house arrest.


Khrushchev's dismissal and the end of reforms

Both the cultural and the political thaws were effectively ended with the removal of Khrushchev 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, Andrei 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 began his career as the General Secretary with the Sinyavsky-Daniel trial in 1965. Then Brezhnev re-established "Stalinist" authoritarian ideology, ignoring a letter by the leading Soviet intellectuals, asking him not to restore Stalinism. After that, Brezhnev approved the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 (Prague Spring) and ended with the Soviet war in Afghanistan which lasted until his death; he installed an authoritarian regime that lasted through the remainder of his life and the terms of his two successors, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko.

Lasting achievements

Many historians compare 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 called Khrushchev's achievements remarkable, and praised Khrushchev's 1956 speech, but stated that he did not succeed in his reforms.

Such political and cultural updates all together helped liberate the minds of millions and changed the public consciousness of several generations of people in the Soviet Union.[11][12]


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 William Taubman, Khrushchev: The Man and His Era. (London: Free Press, 2004, ISBN 0393324842).
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Dmitri Volkogonov, Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1991/1996, ISBN 0761507183).
  3. Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, First Secretary, Communist Party of the Soviet Union, On the Personality Cult and its Consequences. Retrieved December 17, 2008.
  4. Sergei Khrushchev, translated by William Taubman, Khrushchev on Khrushchev. (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1990).
  5. John Rettie, "How Khrushchev Leaked his Secret Speech to the World," Hist Workshop J 62 (2006): 187–193.
  6. Timeline of Joseph Stalin, Joseph Stalin killer file, Retrieved December 17, 2008.
  7. Charles Gati, Failed Illusions: Moscow, Washington, Budapest and the 1956 Hungarian Revolt (Stanford University Press, 2006, ISBN 0804756066).
  8. A. Kemp-Welch, (ed. and tr.) Stalinism in Poland, 1944-1956 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999, ISBN 0312226446).
  9. 9.0 9.1 Dmitri Volkogonov and Harold Shukman (Ed, Trans.), Autopsy for an Empire: the Seven Leaders Who Built the Soviet Regime (New York: Free Press, 1998, ISBN 0684834200).
  10. Richard Pipes, Communism: A History (Modern Library Chronicles, 2001, ISBN 0679640509).
  11. Sergei Khrushchev, Nikita Khrushchev and the Creation of a Superpower (Penn State Press, 2000).
  12. Jerrold L. Schecter (ed. and trans.), Khrushchev Remembers: The Glasnost Tapes (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1990).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Gati, Charles. Failed Illusions: Moscow, Washington, Budapest and the 1956 Hungarian Revolt. Stanford University Press, 2006. ISBN 0804756066.
  • Kemp-Welch, A. (ed. and trans.). Stalinism in Poland, 1944-1956. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999. ISBN 0312226446.
  • Kennedy, Robert F. Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis. New York: W.W. Norton, 1969. ISBN 0393318346.
  • Khrushchev, Sergei. Nikita Khrushchev and the Creation of a Superpower Shirley Benson, Translator. Penn State Press, 2000. ISBN 0271021705.
  • Rettie, John. "How Khrushchev Leaked his Secret Speech to the World." Hist Workshop J 62 (2006): 187–193.
  • Taubman, William. Khrushchev on Khrushchev: An Inside Account of the Man & His Era by His Son, Sergie Khrushchev. Random House, 1992. ISBN 0517079704.
  • Taubman, William. Khrushchev: The Man and His Era. London: Free Press, 2004. ISBN 978-0393324846.
  • Pipes, Richard. Communism: A History. Modern Library Chronicles, 2001. ISBN 0679640509.
  • Schecter, Jerrold L. (ed. and trans.). Khrushchev Remembers: The Glasnost Tapes. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company, 1990. ISBN 978-0316472975.
  • Volkogonov, Dmitri Antonovich. Harold Shukman, Ed., Transl. Autopsy for an Empire: the Seven Leaders Who Built the Soviet Regime. New York: Free Press, 1998. ISBN 0684834200.
  • Volkogonov, Dmitri. Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1991. ISBN 0761507183.


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