History of the Soviet Union, 1947-1954: Cold War to Xenophobia

Children in the Russian Famine of 1946-1947 / Wikimedia Commons

By Dr. Lewis Siegelbaum / 09.24.2015
Professor of Russian and European History
Michigan State University

Cars for Comrades


Left: New Zaporozhets, photo by Nikolay Rakhmanov (1960) / Wikimedia Commons
Right: Selling the Volga Abroad / Wikimedia Commons

Cars and communism did not get along very well, at least not in the Soviet Union’s formative decades. Few and far between at the time of the October Revolution, private automobiles got scarcer still during the tumult of civil war and for some time thereafter. Then in May 1929, the Soviet government signed a technical assistance agreement with the Ford Motor Company to build an integrated automobile factory near Nizhni Novgorod (later, Gor’kii). However, the resultant Gor’kii Automobile Factory (GAZ), was celebrated more for its vastness (“the largest factory in Europe”), and the wonder of its assembly line than for its products, chiefly the Ford-derived Model A car and 1.5 ton Model AA truck. The production of trucks – vital for military purposes and the delivery of goods within the burgeoning cities – vastly outpaced car production. The party and government elite might have cars and drivers at their disposal, but very few people actually owned a motor vehicle.


Left: New Moscow, by Iurii Pimenov (1937) / Moscow: Sovietskii khudozhnik
Right: The Zhiguli / Wikimedia Commons

Only after World War II did Stalin make a slight concession to the comrades. He approved the production of two new models – the Pobeda (Victory), a swoop-back sedan produced by GAZ, and the Moskvich (Muscovite), a replica of the pre-war German Opel Kadett produced by the Moscow Small Car Factory – and set aside a certain proportion of each for purchase by individuals. Priced at 16,000 and 9,000 rubles respectively, the cars were way beyond the means of the average worker whose wage stood at about 600 rubles per month. But so few were produced – only a little more than six thousand in 1946 and less than ten thousand in 1947 – that demand significantly exceeded supply. Trade unions organized waiting lists that could mean the deferment of one’s dreams of owning a car for upwards of six years. By the time it was phased out in 1958, just under 236,000 Pobedas had been produced by GAZ. Built to withstand the roughest of driving conditions, the car was exported to other Soviet bloc countries (including China) and to Finland as well. The Moskvich, an inferior product in just about every respect, went through periodic modifications in subsequent decades. Except for the even more diminutive Zaporozhets that began production in the late 1950s, it remained the most “proletarian” of Soviet cars.


Left: Moskvich 400 (1946-1955) / Wikimedia Commons
Center: Zaporozhets (1959) / Wikimedia Commons
Right: Automobiles parked outside the Hotel Moscow, photo by Evgenii Khaldei (1936) / Soiuz fotokhudozhnikov Rossii

Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the prestige spectrum, Moscow’s Stalin Factory (ZIS) was turning out the ZIS-110, a limited edition limousine patterned after a pre-war American Packard. With a 600 cc eight-cylinder engine, the most powerful installed in a Soviet car up to that point, the ZIS-110 was capable of speeds of up to 140 km/hr. More than any other, it represented the Soviet state on wheels. Its components came from a broad range of enterprises – 73 in all – scattered throughout the country. These included processing plants that supplied cork padding for interior panels and – fittingly for a product at this point in Soviet history – the Gulag-run Sokol’niki labor camp that furnished some of the leather upholstery. When it came to distributing the finished product, Moscow received favored treatment as it did in so many other respects. Of the 71 vehicles assigned by the middle of 1946, 38 remained in the Soviet capital. Kiev got seven, Leningrad three, and Minsk, Riga, Tallinn, Kishinev, Kaunas, and Petrozavodsk received four each. Between 1945 and 1958 ZIS sent forth a total of 2083 units, including small numbers of armor-plated (ZIS-115) and convertible (ZIS-110B) versions. The armor-plated model, completed in 1947, went into production just after the American atomic bomb blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The car did not have to endure that punishment, but it truly was a “bunker on wheels,” a real colossus. With added layers of steel and seven-centimeter thick plexiglass windows, it weighed in at more than seven tons and required special wheels and tires to bear the additional weight. ZIS only made a few dozen, most of which it dispatched directly to the Kremlin. Stalin reputedly had five of them at his disposal, using a different one every day as a safety precaution.

Cold War


Left: The “Punished” Nazis, by Iu. Ganf (1947) / Moscow: Pravda
Right: Equal Partners, by Kukrynisky (1947) / From Out of the Crocodile’s Mouth, by William Nelson

The Cold War may be defined as the rivalry for world domination between East and West, that is, between the Soviet bloc on the one hand and the American-dominated “Free World” on the other, that was fought on many fronts — ideological, political, economic, military, and cultural — in the aftermath of the Second World War. No consensus exists among scholars about when the Cold War began (or ended) or which side was responsible for starting it. The orthodox (or liberal) view was that the Cold War was essentially caused by Soviet expansionism. “Revisionist” historians have argued that it was the product of mutual suspicion, that far from being expansionist or revolutionary-minded, Stalin was coldly rational and cautious, and that — at least in the “hard revisionist” version — the need for capitalism to expand by breaking down trade barriers everywhere was an essential part of the dynamic.


Left: Compromising Situation, by Kukrynisky (1947) / From Out of the Crocodile’s Mouth, by William Nelson
Right: The Way It Happened, by Iu. Ganf (1947) / From Out of the Crocodile’s Mouth, by William Nelson

Although the Grand Alliance of the United States, the Soviet Union and Great Britain showed signs of fracturing already before the end of the World War, it was not until 1947 that divisions between East and West could be said to have become irrevocable. In that year, George F. Kennan, the chief of mission at the American Embassy in Moscow, published (as “X”) his Long Telegram in Foreign Affairs that urged a “long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies;” President Harry Truman enunciated his “Doctrine” of supporting “free peoples” (specifically Greece and Turkey) against “subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressure;” and Secretary of State George Marshall announced his Plan for extending credits to European states to enable them to rebuild their economies in an integrated fashion. Also in 1947, a coalition of Communists and Socialists in Poland came to power as a result of elections marked by intense pressure on voters and ballot-box stuffing; and leading Communists from eastern and central Europe met along with Stalin’s principal representative, Andrei Zhdanov, to map out a common strategy for consolidating Communist Party rule and thwarting what Zhdanov referred to as “the aggressive and frankly expansionist course to which American imperialism has committed itself since the end of World War II.” They agreed to form a Communist Information Bureau (Cominform) with its headquarters initially in Belgrade. The appointment of a Communist-dominated government in Czechoslovakia (commonly referred to as the “Czech coup”) in early 1948 marked the final act in the post-war division of Europe between East and West.

Capitalist Europe on the Upswing (1947) / From Out of the Crocodile’s Mouth, by William Nelson

The establishment of respective military alliances (NATO and the Warsaw Pact), the triumph of the Communists in China, the Korean War that involved UN-sponsored American troops in combat against contingents of the Chinese Red Army, and the nuclear arms race followed. In addition to the creation of a bi-polar world, the Cold War had immense consequences for the domestic policies and political climates of both the United States and the Soviet Union.

Cominform and the Soviet Bloc

Over Here and Over There, by Viktor Koretskii (1947) / Wikimedia Commons

Founded in September 1947 by leading Communists from the Soviet Union, eastern Europe, Italy and France who met at Sklarska-Poreba in Poland, the Communist Information Bureau (Cominform) represented the revival of institutional links among Communist parties that had been in abeyance since the dissolution of the Comintern in 1943. The main purpose of the organization was to commit member parties to a common strategy under the leadership of the Soviet Communist Party in the struggle against what was termed American-led imperialism. It marked a turning point in the relationship of the Soviet Union with both its former western allies and the emerging Communist-dominated governments in eastern Europe.

Many Communist parties in Europe rode a wave of popularity created by their prominence in resistance to Nazi rule and the crucial role of the Soviet Red Army in defeating the Nazis to emerge in the immediate post-war years as leading contenders for political power. Fearful of provoking western intervention, the Soviet Union exercised a restraining influence on some of these parties but otherwise permitted them to act along the lines of “separate roads to communism.” By the time of the Cominform’s creation, the Yugoslav, Hungarian, Romanian, Polish, and Bulgarian Communist parties had assumed the reins of government; in Czechoslovakia the party was part of a governing coalition; and in Italy and France, communists had been ousted from such coalitions earlier in the year. The common strategy dictated by the Soviet Union via the Cominform involved the abandonment of restraint and an attempt to impose on ruling Communist parties uniformity in both domestic and international policies.

Over Here and Over There (1947) / Wikimedia Commons

What had emerged as the Soviet bloc would be shaken in less than a year. In June 1948, the Yugoslav League of Communists under Josip Broz Tito was expelled from the Cominform for having refused to accept limits on its independence of action. Thereafter, Stalin, seeking to prevent the spread of “Titoism,” launched a series of purges of eastern European Communist leaders as well as within the Soviet Communist party. In several cases, show trials, mimicking those that had occurred in Moscow in 1936-38, were organized. Leading cadres of the Czechoslovak, Romanian, Hungarian and Bulgarian Communist parties, accused of having been agents of imperialism or Zionism, were convicted and sentenced to death or long prison terms. The chill that descended over eastern Europe and the Soviet Union would continue until Stalin’s death in 1953 and in some countries for at least several years thereafter.

Eight-Hundred Years of Moscow


Left: Monument to Iurii Dologrukii, by A.P. Antropov, Moscow (1947) / Wikimedia Commons
Right: Medal for the 800th Anniversary of Moscow (1947) / Orders and Medals of the Soviet Union

When Iurii Dolgorukii, Prince of the Suzdal branch of the Kievan ruling family, sat down to dinner with Sviastoslav Olgovich, Prince of Seversk, on April 4, 1147, little could he imagine that eight hundred years hence, millions of citizens of the capital of Russia and the Soviet Union would celebrate the event. Iurii and his distant cousin were members of minor branches of the dynasty. They met in military council on this nameless bluff overlooking the Moski River, surrounded by mire and impassable roads, but perfectly situated for defense. Dolgorukii’s modest hunting lodge suited troubled times. Kievan Rus’ was in its death throes, torn apart by its quarreling princes. This spot was far from the center of the struggle. Establishing there a fortified town, or Kremlin, Dolgorukii and his heirs would be able to consolidate their power slowly while other families withered in internecine struggles. The course of the following centuries would see that power extend from Poland to the Pacific Ocean; and the mud of the Kremlin would eventually be graced by some of the world’s most beautiful churches.


Left: Eigth-Hundredth Anniversary of Moscow, by Ivan Semenov (1947) / Moscow: Pravda
Right: Glory to Moscow, 800 Years (1947) / New Gallery

By 1947 the Kremlin stood at the center of a great modern city, rebuilt by Stalin during the 1930s, which had survived German invasion and now stood proud as center of the Soviet state. Its value was as much symbolic as it was geographic. Both a mythic refuge against foreign incursion and symbolic center of a vast empire, Moscow and its Kremlin embodied the power of the centralized Russian state. When Stalin ordered a great monument to Dolgorukii placed in the center of the city, he was honoring the tradition of the strong state, the same he honored in the person of Ivan the Terrible, and the same tradition he himself continued. The Muscovite state, though very much a medieval entity, had an important role to play as the Cold War broke out in 1947, one with internal and external ramifications. The Kremlin summoned Russians to defend their homeland against foreign aggression; when the Orthodox patriarch celebrated the five-hundredth anniversary of the autocephalous Russian church from the Kremlin that year, he lashed out against hostile foreigners. Internally, the Kremlin asserted the centrality of Russians in the Soviet state. The Great Russian People toasted by Stalin in his famous 1945 speech, who were first among equals in the Soviet land, found their center in Moscow, which found its center in the Kremlin. In the center of that complex, on the spot first occupied by Iurii Dolgorukii, stood Iosif Stalin.

End of Rationing


Left: Five Ruble (Chervonets) Note of 1947 / Wikimedia Commons
Right: Who Receives the National Income?, by Viktor Govrokov (1950) / From Russian Posters, by Victoria Bonnell

Rationing has been referred to as the “default option of Stalinist distribution,” and for good reason. Introduced during the First World War and continued through the Civil War, it was officially imposed again from 1929 to 1935 and from 1941 to 1947. Although occasionally justified as a method of distribution more appropriate to socialism than the variety of administrative and quasi-market mechanisms it replaced, rationing represented the state’s improvisatory response to especially disastrous economic conditions, and was abolished when conditions improved. During the war, it was largely confined to urban areas and covered most essential food items such as bread, flour, vegetable oil, meat, fish, and sugar. It also was socially discriminatory, with initially four major categories — manual workers, white-collar workers, dependants, and children under 12 years of age — entitled to different levels of rations. In February 1942, a fifth category, consisting of people employed in important war industries together with scientists and technicians, was added. Official ration levels occasionally were cut, for example, for sugar in April 1942 and for bread in November 1943, but otherwise remained stable throughout and immediately following the war.


Left: We Will Fulfill the Five-Year Plan in Four Years (1947) / Russian Antiquity
Center: New Mines (1948) / From Soviet Russia, the Land and the People, by Nicholas Mikhailov
Right: Growth of National Income (1947) / Wikimedia Commons

On September 14, 1946, the Council of Ministers announced an increase in ration prices of 2.5 to three times, while also a lowering of commercial prices of between ten and twenty percent. Advertised as the first step towards the abolition of rationing, the decree was met with considerable consternation among the public. On September 27, another decree, “On Economizing in the Consumption of Grain,” reduced the number of people entitled to ration cards by some 28.5 million, mostly in rural areas. Both measures, in fact, were intended to reduce the consumption of bread in the face of the disastrous harvest, and in October and November, bread sales dropped by 60,000 tons.


Left: New Oil Rigs (1948) / From Soviet Russia, the Land and the People, by Nicholas Mikhailov
Right: New Ruble (1947) / Wikimedia Commons

Popular attitudes towards the impending abolition of rationing were mixed. Many associated rationing with wartime, and looked forward to its abolition as a confirmation of the return of peace. They blamed the persistence of shortages and the increase in ration prices on various kinds of corruption and abuse of the rationing system. It was not clear, however, that supplies of bread would be sufficient and available at an affordable price, and thus many worried about speculation and starvation. In the end, that is to say, on December 14, 1947, the state decreed the simultaneous abolition of food rationing and a currency reform intended to soak up the monetary savings of those who had not opened accounts in banks, which meant mainly rural dwellers. The immediate effect of these reforms was to leave many areas of the country without adequate supplies of bread and many people without the means to purchase essential items. More generally, whatever prestige the Soviet government obtained by having been the first to take this step, the end of rationing belied hopes for improvements in living conditions.

Estonia Sings

Crowds at the Festival / Wikimedia Commons

The first post-war Festival of Song and Dance was celebrated by Estonians in the summer of 1947. Weakened first by the 1940 incorporation of the Estonian Republic (established 1918) into the Soviet Union and then destroyed by the Nazi invasion of 1941, Estonian culture had its first chance to rebuild under Soviet rule. The times were bitter, with the collectivization of the Baltic countryside, Sovietization of intellectual life, and the migration of Soviet Russians into Estonian cities. Gustav Ernesaks (1908-1993), who led efforts to revive the festival, and whose name would become forever linked with it, treaded the fine line between acceptable Soviet patriotism and unacceptable Estonian nationalism.

In Soviet times, the festival would serve as the focus of Estonian national identity, just as it had for almost eighty years. First celebrated in 1869 in the university town of Tartu, later moved to the capital of Tallinn, the festival asserted Estonians’ right to a national culture, based on their own traditions and language, during a time when tsarist authorities were pursuing a policy of Russification. Its cornerstones were familiar from other small-people nationalisms that cropped up in nineteenth century Europe, including performances of a “folk” epic, the Kalevipoeg, compiled from oral fragments in 1857, and “folk” songs written for the festival. Convening every five years, the festival drew massive audiences for its equally massive choral performances. The 1947 festival was the twelfth, and it drew about a quarter-million of the total 1,125,000 Estonian population. In later years, the all-festival chorus reached tens of thousands of performers in the great orchestra shell built in a field outside the capital.

Estonian National Flag (1990) / Republic of Estonia: National Symbols

Soviet authorities forced overt signs of Estonian nationalism out of the celebration. Marchers in the pre-festival parade carried Soviet slogans, and in early years abstained from wearing Estonian folk dress. The orchestra shell sported banners proclaiming the fraternity of Soviet nations. Ironically, the Soviet language of nationality gave Estonians a powerful vehicle for their own national aspirations. Newsreels show how the collective chorus celebrated its folkloric culture and sang of its love for the homeland (rodina in Russian-Soviet parlance), all within the bounds of Soviet discourse. Yet because the entire audience understood the homeland to be Estonian, and not Soviet, the experience was one of overwhelming national solidarity. The swell of national resistance that culminated in national independence in 1991 was called “the singing revolution,” because it began in similar singing festivals.

Famine of 1946-1947

We Can Defeat Drought Too!, by V. Govorkov (1949) / Wikimedia Commons

Of the three major famines that occurred in the Soviet Union (1921-1922, 1932-1933, 1946-1947) we know the least about the last. This is partly due to the greater effectiveness of the Soviet government in controlling information after the Second World War, and partly a consequence of historians’ preoccupations with earlier periods of Soviet history. It is clear, however, that as in the other two cases (and as indeed seems endemic to famines worldwide) a combination of factors was responsible for mass starvation in the Soviet countryside in 1946-47.


Left: Grape Harvest, photo by Boris Ignatovich / Soiuz fotokhudozhnikov Rossii
Right: Grain, by T.N. Iablonskaia (1949) / Moscow: Sovietskii khudozhnik

Among these, of course, was the Great Patriotic War. The war deprived Soviet agriculture of a great deal of its productive resources. By 1945 kolkhozes had only 42 percent of the number of horses and 38 percent of the number of working-age men that they had had before the war. Sown area dropped from 117.7 million hectares in 1940 to 84.0 million in 1946. The end of the war brought men back to the countryside, but in smaller numbers than had departed. This was not only because of casualties, but because many peasant soldiers chose not to return to, or stay on, the farms.

Take a Look!, by Petr Golub (1946) / From Russian Posters, by Victoria Bonnell

Secondly, 1946 was a year of severe drought especially in Moldavia, most of Ukraine, and parts of the central black-earth and lower Volga regions. The grain harvest was only 39.6 million tons as compared to 47.3 million in 1945 and 95.5 million in 1940, the last full year before the war. Finally, state policies contributed significantly. Procurement quotas in 1946 remained high and grain deliveries were only slightly lower than in the previous year (17.5 million tons as against 20 million). A decree of September 19, 1946 “On Measures to Liquidate Breaches of the [Kolkhoz] Statute” required the return of all kolkhoz lands that had been used for private (that is, family) purposes. To make matters worse — for the kolkhoz peasantry — the phasing out of rationing and the devaluation of the ruble on December 14, 1947 virtually wiped out savings accumulated during the war.

The New Curriculum


Left: Love to the Motherland!, by Viktor Koretskii (1949) / From Russian Posters, by Victoria Bonnell
Right: Study the great path of the party of Lenin-Stalin!, by Boris Berezovskii (1951) / From Russian Posters, by Victoria Bonnell

Soviet schoolchildren of the post-war era were expected to behave. Wartime school reforms had already separated boys from girls in the classroom, and subjected them to a discipline that seemed appropriate in a time of war. In 1946 new rules for internal order placed teachers and other school employees under a rigorous regime that made simple infringements like a overlong lunch break subject to punishment, and made the behavior of their students part of their job performance criteria. Curricular reforms developed over the course of 1947 and promulgated on January 1, 1948 extended the discipline to the curriculum, which featured traditional subject matter in the sciences, social sciences, humanities and arts.


Left: Accepted into the Pioneers, photo by Georgii Zal’ma (1949) / Moscow: Iskusstvo
Right: Let’s Surround Our Orphaned Children with Care and Motherly Love, by Viktor Koretskii (1947) / New Gallery

The wartime reform had extended the responsibility of schools outside the classroom. Homework, cultural excursions and structured activities were provided for students long beyond the school hours. Changes in the Komsomol by-laws in 1949 subjected even older children to the same strict supervision. Surely many held the ideal of quiet, neat and obedient children embodied by a circle of school children in the 1949 newsreel observing Stalin’s seventieth birthday. For many though, the disciplined classroom was a source of structure and guidance. Children were disciplined, but they were also cared for and given a sense of place. This benevolent aspect of Soviet education was described in the popular 1954 memoir of Frida Vigdorova.

Triumph of T.D. Lysenko

The Gems of Stalinism, photo by Dmitri Baltermants (1905) / From Faces of a Nation: The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union, 1917-1991, by Dmitrii Baltermants

The name of Trofim Denisovich Lysenko (1898-1976) has been synonymous with the devastating effects that ideological dogmatism had on scientific inquiry in the Soviet Union. Actually, the story of Lysenko’s battles with Soviet geneticists is a good deal more complicated and its outcome was less typical of the relationship between science and ideology than is often recognized.

Of peasant background, Lysenko rose to prominence in the mid-1930s as an agronomist who was sharply critical of Soviet scientists for pursuing genetic research which he regarded as evidence of their slavish adherence to “bourgeois” biology. Instead of the Mendelian genetics championed by Nikolai Vavilov, Lysenko saw in “vernalization,” that is, the application of cold and moisture to seeds before planting, tremendous possibilities for expanding agricultural yields. His claims to have transformed a variety of winter wheat into spring wheat and to have achieved other breakthroughs, though lacking in scientific merit, resonated with Stalin and other political authorities who were desperate for advances in food production. They also appreciated his home-grown, “proletarian” plain-spokenness as compared to the restrained rhetoric of academic science.

For the Flourishing of Soviet Science (1948) / Wikimedia Commons

Despite a purge of the biological establishment in the late 1930s and the arrest of Vavilov in 1940, genetic research survived. In 1947 an article critical of Lysenko’s approach was published in the main Soviet philosophical journal, and these criticisms were repeated at conferences of biologists later in the year. In April 1948, Yuri Zhdanov, son of the Leningrad party boss, Andrei Zhdanov, and a chemist by education, addressed a gathering of party officials in his capacity as head of the Science Sector of the party’s Central Committee. Attacking Lysenko for his tendentious application of I. V. Michurin’s selective plant breeding techniques and his attempts to suppress other approaches, Zhdanov called for more criticism and self-criticism in science. However, after Lysenko wrote to Stalin complaining of persecution and offering his resignation as president of the Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences (VASKhNIL), it was Zhdanov, Jr. who had to write a repentant letter for his “incorrect report … on matters of Soviet biology.” Subsequently, non-Michurinists engaged in samokritika, and all genetic research in the Soviet Union was halted until the mid-1960s.

The August 1948 session of the Agricultural Academy at which Lysenko triumphantly presented his report, “On the Situation in Soviet Biology,” was one of five such occasions in the late Stalin period when scientific disputes were settled by party intervention. However, in the cases of philosophy (1947), linguistics (1950), physiology (1950), and political economy (1951), the outcomes were less clear-cut and less easily lend themselves to a dichotomy between ideological imposition and “true science.” What was characteristic of all five discussions was the transfer of the rites of Communist political culture to academic life in which the operational procedures and rhetorical vocabularies were stable, but the experts could not know in advance which competing faction would win the party’s imprimatur.

Ukraine after the War

The Unification of the Ukrainian Lands in 1939, by Mikhail Khmelko (1949) / From Soviet Socialist Realist Painting 1930-1960s, by Matthew Cullerne

At least twice in the Soviet era, the genie of Ukrainian nationalism was let out of the all-Union bottle, only to provoke in Moscow fears of Ukrainian separatism and repressive measures to curb it. The first occasion was during the 1920s when the Soviet nationality policy of “indigenization” (korenizatsiia) privileged native Ukrainian communists in the republic’s cultural, political and economic affairs. The second was during the Great Patriotic War when, as part of the Soviet war effort, the Order of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, the only Soviet military order named after a non-Russian hero, was established, and the press characterized ethnic Ukrainians as “great.” This was a term that previously had been reserved exclusively for Russians within the imperial hierarchy of the “friendship of peoples.”

Soviet Ukrainian ethnic patriotism contended during the war with not only German propaganda but also the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and its military wing, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). By the spring of 1945, the UPA had 90,000 men under arms, primarily in the western borderland region which had been annexed in 1939. Before its liquidation at the end of the 1940s, the UPA inflicted heavy casualties on the Soviet army and Communist officials. Executions and the deportation of several hundred-thousand people from Western Ukraine were part of the Soviet campaign to suppress the OUN. In 1946, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic (Uniate) Church, the dominant Church in Western Ukraine, was banned and its property confiscated.

Soviet service medals / Wikimedia Commons

Aside from the insurgency in the western borderland, Soviet authorities faced the huge task of restoring Soviet order and the economy in Ukraine after the war. The task was made even more difficult by the imposition of a delivery quota of 7.2 million tons of grain for 1946. Nikita Khrushchev, first secretary of the Ukrainian party organization since 1938, bore ultimate responsibility for extracting grain. But in March 1947 he was replaced by Lazar Kaganovich who typically ran roughshod over the republic, already reeling from famine. Meanwhile, in 1946 a campaign was launched by republic-level ideologues to purge Ukraine of “vestiges of bourgeois nationalism” in the arts. Throughout 1947 and into 1948, writers, composers, and artists were enjoined to renounce their harmful obsession with the distant Ukrainian past in favor of contemporary Soviet themes. Part of the Zhdanovshchina, this campaign was only partially successful in putting the nationalist genie back in the bottle.

Veterans Return


Left: The Dembolized Soldier, by Vladimir Vasiliev (1949) / From Art under Socialist Realism, Soviet Painting 1930-1950, by Gleb Prokhorov
Right: Demobilized Soldiers to Work! (1946) / Russian Antiquity

Traumatized by years of frontline violence, endowed with tremendous moral status for their sufferings, veterans of the Great Patriotic War returned from their long campaign to homelessness and poverty, and perhaps most tragic, to a society that refused to talk about its wounds. Numbering eleven million toward the end of the war, the Soviet Army demobilized 8.5 million veterans over the next three years, starting with the oldest. An economy in ruins had little work for them, and in many regions unemployment reached fifty percent. Many veterans had nowhere to live, and moved into zemlianki, huts dug into the earth, which they might have remembered from the front.


Left: We Won Happiness for Our Children! (1946) / Russian Antiquity
Right: Cavalier of the Golden Star, by A. Freidin (1951) / From New Russian Media, by Vladimir Padunov

Healthy veterans had the prospect of starting a family. Women vastly outnumbered men in the postwar cohort, making healthy men a valuable commodity. Marriages and illegitimate births both boomed. Wounded veterans managed as they could, depending on their wounds. There was a shortage of prosthetic devices, a shortage of hospital beds, and shortage of time to listen to grieving men and women. Some of the deepest wounds were psychological, since the Red Army, unique among the warring armies, had no furlough policy during the war. Soviet Russia knew no such institution as the psychologist.

Mamaev Kurgan (1989) / Moscow: Plakat

Veterans represented a vast social resource for postwar reconstruction, but inspired fear from a government still subject to resentment, whose leaders remembered the example of the Decembrists, who had once used their status as heroes of the Napoleonic Wars to challenge the Romanov autocracy. The emotional bond shared by frontline fighters overwhelmed any allegiance to the party. Authorities struggled for ways to channel this powerful force. Writers provided models of the rehabilitated invalid in Boris Polevoi’s Story of a Real Man (1946), and of the vigorous and productive veteran in Semen Babaevskii’s Cavalier of the Golden Star (1948). The latter work was particularly trite, and received the Stalin Prize for Literature. More profound writing that dealt with the unhealed wounds of veterans and their families, such as Andrei Platonov’s Homecoming (1946), brought down the wrath of the authorities.


The Goal of Capitalism is Always the Same, by Ivan Semenov (1953) / From Russian Posters, by Victoria Bonnell

The Cold War inspired anxieties and pathologies in most of its participants, East and West. If American authorities hunted Communists behind every unorthodox thought or utterance in the late 1940s, Soviet authorities were no less vigilant against traces of alien influence. These were the years of Zhdanov’s campaign against cosmopolitanism, years of spy scares and personnel checks in every Soviet institution.

Loose Lips Help the Enemy, by Viktor Koretskii / Electronic Museum of Russian Posters

The battle against alien influence was conducted on two fronts, the legal and cultural. The right of Soviet citizens to associate with foreigners, already subject to police surveillance, was severely restricted by a February 1947 law prohibiting marriage to foreigners. Many international couples were forced into years of separation and harassment by the new rule. Soldiers labored under draconian disciplinary code of 1946, which made commanders responsible for all infringements of secrecy by their subordinates. All citizens were subject to the 1947 codification of state secrets that made almost all information concerning the military, economy, science or technology, and was reinforced by an edict that made disclosure of such secrets acts of treason or espionage subject to stiff terms in the labor camps. Though the Cold War information discipline started to weaken with the death of Stalin, many of these rules stayed in place in one form or another until the demise of the Soviet Union.


Left: Clever Invention, by Kukrynisky (1947) / From Out of the Crocodile’s Mouth, by William Nelson
Right: We are For Peace, photo by B. Utkin (1948) / Moscow: Iskusstvo

On the cultural front the war was more difficult to wage, the enemy more difficult to distinguish. Cultural doyens made the exaltation of all things Russian and condemnation of all things western mandatory. Molière was inferior to the Russian playwright Ostrovskii; foreign-sounding camembert cheese had to be renamed zakusochnyi or snack cheese; aviation was declared by the Great Soviet Encyclopedia to be a Russian technology developed with little western help. Grigorii Aleksandrov’s new film, Meeting on the Elbe, examining a moment that had recently been celebrated as the pinnacle of Soviet-American fraternity, detailed how the alien music of jazz carried with it a range of social pathologies. The xenophobic vaccine often infected the young people it aimed to protect.

Year of Laktionov


Left: Letter from the Front, by Aleksandr Laktionov (1947) / From Architecture of the Stalin Era, by Aleksei Tarakhanov and Sergei Kavtaradze
Right: New Apartment, by Aleksandr Laktionov (1952) / From Art under Socialist Realism, Soviet Painting 1930-1950, by Gleb Prokhorov

It was a very good year in 1947 for Aleksandr Laktionov, painter, student of Isaak Brodskii, and embodiment of the arch-academism of post-war painting. A native of Rostov-on-Don, he had come to Moscow in 1932 to study at the Institute of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, which he graduated in 1938, continuing post-graduate studies until 1944. His first minor success had been Hero of the Soviet Union N. V. Iudin visiting Komsomol Tank Troops (1938); but he scored his greatest coup with his 1947 Letter from the Front, which won the immediate love of millions of Soviet citizens including Stalin himself. The painting received the Stalin prize in 1948.


Left: Hero of the Soviet Union N.V. Iudin Visiting Komsomol Tank Troops, by Aleksandr Laktionov (1938) / From Architecture of the Stalin Era, by Aleksei Tarakhanov and Sergei Kavtaradze
Right: Portrait of the Artist I. Brodskii, by Aleksandr Laktionov (1939) / Wikimedia Commons

The Soviet Academy of Arts was created in 1947 as well, and the appointment of Sergei Gerasimov as the first president signaled the ascendancy of academic realism and political reliability. Certainly Laktionov was no rebel; he was appointed an academician in 1949, and lived a comfortable life for many years after. The only other picture that rivaled Letter for accolades was his 1952 New Apartment (Novosel’e), in which a starry-eyed citizen occupies a new home by first hanging up a portrait of Stalin. Yet Laktionov should not be dismissed as a hack socialist realist.Letter from the Front was deeply loved by his compatriots, for whom it captured a cherished experience. Its realism was not the “lacquered” variety of political toadies, but an honest realism that caught the tatters and poverty of the time. And for all its conformity to official Soviet tastes, Laktionov’s combination of hyperrealism and sentimentality perhaps best matched another painter who was capturing a mass audience in his own native land at the same time, namely Norman Rockwell.


Discussion about Art, by Vasili Iakovlev (1946) / From The Art Bin, by Karl-Eric Tallmo

In 1947 Andrei Zhdanov (1896-1948) was at the height of his power, issuing authoritative statements on matters of international relations and culture. Zhdanov had joined the Bolsheviks in 1915, but his mentality was much of the generation that had purged and supplanted the Old Bolsheviks. Based in Leningrad, he rose to Politbiuro status in 1939, and helped lead his city’s defense during the blockade of 1941-1944. Close relations with Stalin brought him to the pinnacle of power after the war. His reign over party doctrine ended with his sudden death in August, 1948. His grateful comrade renamed his Ukrainian birthplace Mariupol into Zhdanov in his honor.

The somber name zhdanovshchina has become associated with the three years of his greatest power, 1946-1948, when he severely tightened ideological guidelines. He was behind the August 1946 attack on the literary journals ZVEZDA and LENINGRAD, based in his home city, for publishing the allegedly anti-social works of the satirist Mikhail Zoshchenko and the poet Anna Akhmatova. It was an attack by implication on all such cultural leanings, and led to an assault on “cosmopolitanism,” that left the cultural world in shambles. Whether out of fright or cowardice, artists competed to appear most servile to the party; and those who did not fell silent. By 1947 Zhdanov’s hold on the cultural world was fierce. That year he was also responsible for the creation of Cominform, the propaganda arm for the new-formed eastern bloc that attempted to impose similar discipline on those countries.

Even in totalitarian states power can be fleeting. Zhdanov’s sudden death left his faction in the ruling circle leaderless and exposed to the opposing block led by Georgii Malenkov and Lavrentii Beria. Within months a purge resulted in the execution and imprisonment of thousands of party officials and managers, most from the leadership of Leningrad and the Russian Federation.