Sputnik 1, first artificial Earth satellite, launched by the Soviet Union in 1957 / Photo from the Science Museum, London
Left: Morskoi Prospect today / Wikimedia Commons
Right: Academician Mikhail Alekseevich Lavrentiev / From Akaderngorodok: Town of Science in Siberia (1995)
Brainchild of academicians Mikhail Lavrentiev, Sergei Sobolev, Andrei Trofimuk and others, Akademgorodok (the town of science in Russian), was a model scientific community placed in the forests of Siberia. Approved in 1957, ground broken in 1958, the town was designed to foster theoretical and applied research in the natural sciences, technology and economics. The Siberian site on the Ob Sea, a reservoir near the city of Novosibirsk, was chosen far from the interference of Moscow by practical idealists supported by Nikita Khrushchev. Soviet science, they believed, freed from red tape to pursue its rational ends, could surpass western science and burnish the image of Soviet for the entire world. Although it never completely lived up to dreams, Akademgorodok is still a leading scientific center with twenty different research institutes producing world-class research in physics, mathematics and other sciences.
Left: Capital sigma, symbol of Akaderngorodok / From Akaderngorodok: Town of Science in Siberia (1995)
Right: Morskoi Prospect (1996) / Wikimedia Commons
Scientists flocked to Akademgorodok from throughout the Soviet Union. Living conditions were ideal by Soviet standards, beyond even the Moscow norm. Buildings were of standard design, but the shops were well-supplied, the apartments comfortable, and cultural opportunities were abundant. For all their deification of science, planners preserved the natural beauty of the site in the middle of a forest, with its pinewood and birch coppices, a profusion of squirrels and birds, the golden beach and mountain slopes for winter skiing.
Left: Upper part of Akademgorodok (1959) / From Akaderngorodok: Town of Science in Siberia (1995)
Right: Beach on the Ob Sea (1965) / From Akaderngorodok: Town of Science in Siberia (1995)
The utopian vision of no bureaucratic interference proved impossible in the Soviet Union. Tremendous successes in seemingly non-ideological fields such as physics were coupled with failures in fields such as genetics and cybernetics that touched deep philosophic and social questions. Still, Akademgorodok encouraged an openness of exchange that embodied the best of the thaw years, and was a harbinger of the era of glasnost. Topics taboo in Moscow were discussed freely in Siberia, and not confined to the pure science intended by state planners. Akademgorodok put scientists at the center of social reform, yet it also represented the isolation and elitism that would forever hinder intellectuals in their attempts to improve the Soviet way.
The Anti-Party Group
By 1957 Nikita Khrushchev was in a relatively secure position as first secretary of the Communist Party. Several years earlier he had outmaneuvered Georgii Malenkov for party leadership by stressing the need to continue developing heavy industry and increasing military expenditures, policies that appealed to core constituencies of the party. He also built via the power of appointment an extensive network of loyal clients in the central apparatus and regional party organizations. He had weathered the storms of the previous year in eastern Europe occasioned by destalinization, and could point to the success of his Virgin Lands scheme (link) that had brought millions of new acres under cultivation.
Now determined to confront the top-heavy bureaucracy that he blamed for inefficiencies in economic planning and shortages of consumer goods and housing, Khrushchev embarked on a radical restructuring of economic administration. In February he announced the abolition of most central industrial ministries and the creation of 107 regional economic councils (sovnarkhozy) corresponding to the territorial divisions of oblasts and autonomous republics. Intended to bolster regional party leaders’ participation in and supervision over economic decision-making, the “Law on Further Improving the Organization of Management of Industry and Construction” was passed by the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet on May 10, 1957.
Stung by the implications of this decentralization program, Viacheslav Molotov, Lazar Kaganovich and several other Stalinist stalwarts confronted Khrushchev at a meeting of the party’s Presidium in late June. They accused him of sowing disunity in the party, promoting his “cult of personality,” and otherwise acting irresponsibly. However, Khrushchev parried this attempt to oust him as first secretary in favor of Nikolai Bulganin by calling an extraordinary session of the Central Committee. Thanks to Georgii Zhukov, the Minister of Defense who arranged military transport to bring Khrushchev’s supporters to the capital, the majority in the Central Committee turned the tables on Khrushchev’s critics by denouncing them as an “anti-Party group” and confirming him in office. The conspirators were forced to resign from the Presidium and assume minor posts in the state bureaucracy. Zhukov was rewarded for his support by being upgraded from a candidate to full member of the Presidium, but in October 1957 he was removed from office and sent into retirement, undoubtedly because he had come to represent a threat to party oversight of the military.
Left: Dachas outside Moscow (1954) / From Moscow and Leningrad Observed, by Georges Bortoli
Right: Autumn in Pargolovo, by Mikhail Kozell (1969) / Leonid Shishkin Gallery
Once a sign of party privilege, the dacha, the little house in the countryside coveted by every Soviet citizen, became a possibility for broad sectors of the Soviet population under Khrushchev. Allotted through trade unions, institutes, factories and other professional organizations, the dacha became a prize plum in the Soviet system of spoils. City dwellers dreamt of having a small plot of land outside the city to flee to on summer weekends, away from the heat and dirt of the city. Cities themselves were growing at astonishing rates. Moscow incorporated outlying rural lands into its city limits, building them up quickly with new apartment buildings. Thus the chance to sneak outside the city to breath fresh air became all the more valued.
Moscow Landscape, by Ivan Shagin (1955) / Moscow: Iskusstvo
Privileged dacha communities such as Peredelkino, the writers community where Boris Pasternak, Kornei Chukovskii and others lived in homes allotted them by the Writers Union, or compounds for party leaders, cosmonauts, and star athletes, were nestled relatively close to the city. Dacha settlements for the less privileged, where the homes were closer to huts, and the amenities were sparse, were built further and further from the city. The work week over, vacationers crowded onto the electrichka, the green electric trains that were routed into dacha country, only to return on Monday morning. Pathologies that arose due to the unchecked growth of cities, foremost pollution, made dacha rest a necessary component of most Russians’ therapeutic regime. Yet it did not explain the deep sentimental attachment to dacha country shared by most Russians as modern life distanced them from their rural roots.
Dacha Visitors, by Ivan Semenov (1953) / Moscow: Izd-vo Pravda
The rhythms of dacha life were as unhurried as the melody of its anthem, Moscow Nights (more properly, Nights outside Moscow), the hit song of 1958. Long walks through the forest, slow steams in the bathhouse for those lucky enough to have one, and the national passion for mushroom picking, were glories of the dacha weekend. Often indifferent to maintenance and back-breaking labor at the work place, Russians invested considerable sweat equity in their dachas, despite the fact that they were not the legal owners. The six-hundred square meter plots usually alloted to lucky workers under Khrushchev were still owned by the state. Yet so deeply rooted was the love of the dacha that the state dared not exert its legal rights, so much so that when the government campaign against Pasternak was at its height, the union still did not dare evict him from Peredelkino. De facto ownership of a dacha became a matter of survival in post-Soviet years, when the garden plot became the main source of food for many families.
Soviet tanks in Budapest (1956) / Wikimedia Commons
Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin at the Soviet Communist Party’s Twentieth Congress in February 1956 precipitated a number of crises in eastern Europe. The most serious of these occurred in Poland and Hungary, two countries where ruling Communist parties had very limited popular support and where the Catholic Church provided a bulwark of opposition. In June 1956, workers in the Polish city of Poznan demonstrated against cuts in wages and the insensitivity of local authorities to their grievances. The demonstrations were suppressed but they did afford reformist Communists the opportunity to advance an agenda that included significant concessions to workers. After tense negotiations with Soviet leaders who flew uninvited to Warsaw, the Polish Communists rallied around the reformist, Wladyslaw Gomulka, who was appointed first secretary. Gomulka succeeded in containing popular discontent and thereby avoided the fate that befell Hungary.
Economic hardship and political repression were characteristic of the years of Matyas Rakosi’s leadership of the Hungarian Communist Party. When he was forced to resign in 1953 a more liberal New Course was advanced by the prime minister of the Hungarian government, Imre Nagy. However, in 1955 Nagy was outmaneuvered and stripped of his position by supporters of the Rakosi line. Grievances among Hungarians simmered until late October 1956. Having closely followed events in Poland, university students congregated in Budapest’s center to commemorate the poet Sandor Petofi, sing nationalist songs, and demand greater freedom of expression. Their demonstration turned militant. The printing plant of the party’s newspaper was sacked, and shots were fired in the streets. Reappointed as prime minister on October 24, Nagy failed to stem the disorders. With army units joining the insurgency, Soviet troops entered the fray but could not disperse the insurgents who by now were well armed and determined. Workers throughout the country formed councils to take control of factories and organize militia units. Nagy thereupon reconstituted the government to include non-Communists and sought to meet the insurgents’ demands. Meanwhile, Soviet troops withdrew to the outskirts of Budapest.
Ruin in the streets (1956) / Wikimedia Commons
At this point, having received alarming reports from the Soviet ambassador, Yuri Andropov (later to become head of the KGB and eventually party leader), Khrushchev resolved to intervene by sending additional troops. They began crossing into Hungary on October 31. In a desperate attempt to put himself at the head of national resistance, Nagy declared Hungary’s withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact alliance. But the new party chief, Janos Kadar, defected to the Soviet side and announced the formation of a new government, headed by himself. Nagy, denounced for having succumbed to the “counter-revolutionaries,” took refuge in the Yugoslav embassy. On November 4 Soviet troops launched a massive offensive against Budapest, overwhelming its defenders. Lured out of the embassy, Nagy was arrested, secretly tried, and in June 1958 executed along with several other leaders of the insurgency. As many as 200,000 Hungarians fled across the Austrian border to the West. The Hungarian uprising –dubbed a counter-revolution in Soviet accounts but widely regarded elsewhere and in Hungary as a revolution — constituted the greatest crisis within the Soviet bloc before the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968.
International Youth Festival
Youth, by M. Natarevich (1957) / From The Leningrad School, 1930-1990, by S.V. Ivanov
One summer morning in 1957, Muscovites awoke to find their city’s main streets bedecked with multicolored flags. Ordinarily, holidays were celebrated with red flags hanging from lamp posts, but what was about to take place was not an ordinary Soviet holiday. It was an International Youth Festival, official approval for which had been given before the chilling of the cultural “thaw” had descended over the country in the spring. Instead of the hammer and sickle, the symbol of the festival was Pablo Picasso’s doves of peace.
Moscow Youth Festival, photo by Mihail Trakhman (1957) / From Artkhronika
The festival marked a departure from normal Soviet life in other respects. Each of the three art exhibits at the festival contained works by abstractionists that violated the canons of socialist realism. Jazz, which had been hugely popular in the Soviet Union in the 1920s but which under Stalin was officially condemned as decadent and had been forced into the underground, was performed by a British jazz ensemble. The international film festival staged concurrently with the youth festival showed Soviet viewers how outdated socialist realism had become. Finally, the sheer presence of foreigners from outside the Soviet bloc mixing freely with crowds of Soviet citizens added to the festive atmosphere and left an indelible impression on those fortunate enough to have experienced it.
Left: Russians cheer American flag, photo by Robert Carl Cohen (1957) / Radical Films
Right: Opening Day of the Sixth World Youth Festival, photo by Robert Carl Cohen (1957) / Radical Films
The propaganda coup that cultural authorities had anticipated fell victim to the law of unintended consequences. The giddy sense of freedom unleashed by the week-long festival was not forgotten, and became a beacon for youth around the country. Maiakovskii Square, witness to the carnival of dance in 1957, became a gathering point for young poets and other discontents, eventually catalyzing the birth of the dissident movement.
Khrushchev’s Secret Speech
Stalin and Politibiuro Colleagues in the Kremlin (1946) / Fotografia sovietica
On February 24, 1956 before assembled delegates to the Communist Party’s Twentieth Congress as well as observers from foreign Communist parties, Nikita Khrushchev delivered a speech denouncing Stalin for his transgressions. The speech was “secret” in the sense that it was read in a closed session without discussion and was neither published as part of the congress’ proceedings nor reported in the Soviet press. However, copies were sent to regional party secretaries who were instructed to brief rank-and-file members. Moreover, the US State Department received a copy of the speech from East European sources and soon released it.
The speech, replete with lengthy quotations from correspondence and memoranda, gave details about the unwarranted arrest and execution of high-ranking loyal party members during the Terror of the late 1930s; the unpreparedness of the country at the time of the Nazi invasion in June 1941; numerous wartime blunders; the deportation of various nationalities in 1943 and 1944 and the banishing of Tito’s Yugoslavia from the Soviet bloc after the war. Absolving the party itself of these grave actions, Khrushchev attributed them to the “cult of personality” that Stalin allegedly encouraged and his “violations of socialist legality,” code words for dictatorship and terror. Noticeably absent from this indictment were the collectivization drive that was accompanied by massive state violence and famine, the repression of intellectuals, and any implication that other party leaders — himself included — shared responsibility for the crimes that Khrushchev mentioned.
The speech sent shock waves throughout the Communist world and caused many western Communists to abandon the movement. In Tbilisi, students demonstrated against the removal of a monument to Stalin, Georgia’s native son. In Poland, demonstrations by workers in Poznan over declining wages and deep divisions between recalcitrant Stalinists and anti-Stalinists within the Polish Workers’ Party threatened to engulf the country in crisis, and in Hungary mass demonstrations led to a popular uprising in October 1956. The prime minister, Imre Nagy, sought to regain control through concessions that included abolishing the one-party system and freeing from prison the virulently anticommunist Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, but as the insurgency expanded, the Soviet Presidium decided to send in troops. The Hungarian uprising, which occurred simultaneously with the Anglo-French intervention against Egypt over its claims to the Suez Canal, was the most serious crisis in the Soviet bloc until the Prague Spring of 1968. It temporarily weakened Khrushchev in his struggle against the Stalinist stalwarts in the Presidium who conspired, but failed, to oust him in June 1957.
Moscow Time, by Boris Leo (1960) / Moscow: Pravda
Ten years after the end of the Great Patriotic War, Soviet workers were still criminally liable for changing jobs without proper authorization and for arriving at work more than twenty minutes late. Enforcement of this draconian law, passed in June 1940, had become increasingly lax in the post-war years, but it was not until a decree of the Supreme Soviet was issued on April 25, 1956 that it was abolished.
One Grabs a Plow, Thirty Grab a Spoon (1956) / Moscow: Pravda
Liberalization of labor laws also included the reintroduction of a minimum wage in September 1956, and Standard Factory and Office Regulations introduced in January 1957. The regulations were designed to give increased security of employment as well as to strengthen workers’ rights of appeal through the creation of commissions on labor disputes, which contained an equal number of representatives from management and trade unions. At the same time, a major overhauling of the wage system was phased in, beginning with heavy industry and eventually (by 1960) encompassing all branches of large-scale industry and (by 1962) other sectors of the waged economy. The wage reform included the simultaneous raising of piece rates and output norms, a reduction in the number of wage scales and rates within each scale, and the reduction of the working day from eight to seven hours and in the coal-mining industry from seven to six hours.
The Fate of Men (1956) / Moscow: Pravda
While the reforms went some way towards fulfilling the objectives of reducing wage anomalies, curbing labor turnover, and providing incentives for increased productivity, structural impediments continued to plague the Soviet economy. The bureaucratically administered “central command” system virtually compelled managers to underestimate capacity and overestimate their need for resources and labor. Workers, denied the opportunity to defend their interests collectively, continued to exercise their individual control over the pace and quality of work. The result was a perpetuation of the shortage economy based on a massive over-consumption of labor. Labor management thus proved no easier, leading frustrated managers in five years to pass the infamous “parasite law” of 1961.
Launch of Sputnik
Left: The First Sputnik, by S. Kuzmin (1959) / Moscow: Pravda
Right: First Sputnik matchbook (1958) / From Virtual Matchbox Label Collection, by Stanislas Dmitriev
On October 4, 1957 Sputnik I, the first earth-orbiting artificial satellite, was launched from the Baikonur cosmodrome in the Karaganda region of Kazakhstan. The Soviet space program, under the direction of its Chief Designer, Sergei Korolev, thereby achieved a major victory in its competition — the “space race” — with the United States.
Left: Cool, Countryman!, by M. Vaisbord (1957) / Vecherniaia Moskva
Right: Soviet matchbooks (1958) / From Virtual Matchbox Label Collection, by Stanislas Dmitriev
Sputnik I weighed 184 pounds, or six times more than the Vanguard satellite that the United States tried but failed to put into orbit in December 1957. One month after the launching of Sputnik I, on November 3, 1957, Sputnik II, a satellite weighing 1,120 pounds and containing the dog “Laika” was sent into orbit. Because the alloys capable of resisting the intense heat produced by the thrust of the rocket necessary to launch such satellites were unavailable to Kurchatov, he designed a four-chamber cluster of rockets, adapted from his work on the Soviet ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) system. When Iurii Gagarin was sent into space in 1961, a giant “cluster of clusters” rocket with a total of twenty engines was used.
Left: The first Soviet satellite Sputnik 1 (1957) / FUNET Image Archive
Right: In the Moscow planetarium (1957) / Vecherniaia Moskva
These achievements astounded the international scientific community and earned the Soviet Union considerable prestige. They also had significant military implications, since a missile that could launch satellites into orbit could also deliver nuclear warheads to targets in the United States. The United States Congress responded to this perceived Soviet technological superiority by passing the National Defense Education Act in 1958. It called for spending some five billion dollars on higher education in the sciences, foreign languages, and the humanities. Despite intelligence reports that the Soviet Union was not undertaking significant ICBM deployment, the Pentagon insisted on, and received, a massive increase in spending on missile development.
Literary Life at a Crossraods
Portrait of the Poet Boris Pasternak, by Iurii Annenkov (1921) / Wikimedia Commons
Liberals and conservatives waged a tug-of-war over the fate of Soviet literature that yielded spectacular results in 1956-1957. A two-year interim of quiet had stabilized the Soviet arts world after the first thaw of 1954. Writers who made their careers under Stalin retained control of the Writers Union, while younger writers continued to test the limits of expression without straying into disloyalty. It was an equilibrium, not a peace, one broken at the same Twentieth Party Congress that witnessed Khrushchev’s Secret Speech. Departing from the tradition of a single report on literature, delegates heard two reports. Aleksei Surkov, conservative secretary of the Writers Union, delivered a predictable speech on the ideological tradition of socialist realism. Mikhail Sholokhov, usually a conservative but never predictable, and a fine writer who would receive the Nobel Prize in 1965, stunned and delighted delegates by ridiculing Surkov and the pretensions of all literary administrators in sometimes salty language. As delegates howled with laughter, Sholokhov stated “There is nothing that a writer can learn from Surkov.”
A Worker-Inventor, by Iurii Belov (1957) / From The Leningrad School, 1930-1990, by S.V. Ivanov
In the aftermath of the congress, writers could risk violating unspoken rules. Nevertheless, two literary scandals of 1957 show how sensitive authorities still were, and how confused boundaries could be. Vladimir Dudintsev’s novel Not by Bread Alone (published 1956), was the first to be attacked when official spokesmen criticized him in a public discussion held in May 1957. Dudintsev was an odd target. The style of his novel was entirely conventional, less adventurous than even the average work of socialist realism. Like many early critics of Soviet socialism, he did not doubt the fundamental justice of the system, wanting only to improve it. Dudintsev’s use of contrasting characters – Drozdov, the self-serving industrial bureaucrat, and Lopatkin, the independent and creative inventor – was meant to overturn the conventions of socialist realism, yet its style belonged very much to that school. Although his villains were bureaucrats and members of the Communist Party, his hero was an engineer, who triumphed in end due to the patronage of higher party officials. It must be noted that when Dudintsev was criticized, his defenders spoke up as well, and no punishment was inflicted on him.
Worker Proposal, by V. Vasiliev (1951) / “Fighting Pencil” Group: Red Tape from the Red Square
Boris Pasternak and his novel Doctor Zhivago were a different matter. Along with Anna Akhmatova, Pasternak was the last of the great pleiade of modernist poets that Stalinism had ground into silence. Except for a brief clearing during the war, Pasternak was forced to rely on translation work (which included magnificent translations of Shakespeare’s tragedies) to remain professionally active. Working all the while in secret on a novel that he completed in the mid-1950s, Pasternak waited for the right moment, which he thought he saw in the months after the secret speech. By all accounts, he was surprised and somewhat piqued when the manuscript was rejected byNovyi mir. He then sent the novel to the Italian publisher Feltrinelli, who brought it out in 1957, despite furious Soviet demands (and Pasternak’s half-hearted demands) that the novel be returned. English and French translations soon followed the Italian, all of which preceded Russian publication. Pasternak was publicly vilified for his purported act of treason, a campaign that intensified when he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958. Although he refused to travel to accept the prize, he was an official outcast until his death in 1960.
Photo of Boris Pasternak / Wikimedia Commons
Despite Pasternak’s astonished protestations, official critics might have been correct to condemn the novel. If Dudintsev questioned only the working of the Soviet bureaucracy, Pasternak placed the value of the entire revolution in doubt. His hero, Iurii Zhivago, whose name means life, refuses to immerse himself in public life or socialist construction during the years of revolution. Instead this doctor and poet, an embodiment of the Russian intelligentsia, follows his own set of human values and is eventually destroyed. Although by Soviet standards Zhivago is a failure, Pasternak clearly intends him to be a model of sensitivity, integrity and courage. He dies pennilessly and useless, yet leaves behind a magnificent cycle of poems that not only crown his life, but were perhaps Pasternak’s own greatest works.
The Palace of Sport
Left: The Village of Luzhniki, photo by Viktor Ruikovich (1932) / Photodome
Right: Broacast from Dynamo Stadium, photo by O. Knorring (1948) / Moscow: Iskusstvo
The opening in 1956 of Moscow’s Luzhniki Sports Complex, located at the southern bend of the Moscow river, was the symbolic culmination of the massive transformations undergone by the entire country. By the mid-1950s, Soviet society was nearly half urban and almost universally literate. The expansion of higher education and technical training had created a more complex and articulated society, as new groups of technical specialists, middle-level bureaucrats and intellectuals emerged. Through improvements in transportation and communication, even those in rural areas were drawn into the vortex of an urban-based culture. Moreover, the reduction of the work-day from eight to seven hours and (for some) the work week from six to five days meant more leisure time. All these changes, then, created possibilities for the growth of spectator sports, which, in the Soviet Union, meant first and foremost soccer, and secondly, hockey.
Left: Lenin Stadium, Leningrad, by A. Koroviakov (1960) / From The Leningrad School, 1930-1990, by S.V. Ivanov
Right: Luzhniki Stadium (1957) / Wikimedia Commons
The Luzhniki Complex contained soccer fields, running tracks, a swimming stadium, and basketball, volleyball, tennis courts. Its crowning glory was Lenin Stadium, which, with a capacity of 103,000, was one of the largest stadiums in the world. While Dinamo, the favorite soccer team of Moscow workers, continued to play its home games at its own stadium, Dinamo’s rival, Spartak, moved to Luzhniki. In the fall of 1956, the Palace of Sport opened just west of Lenin Stadium. This was a large 14,000-seat indoor arena, comparable to most North American facilities in size and amenities. Containing only the second artificial rink in the Soviet Union, it served as the venue for the most important games of Moscow’s several first-division hockey teams.
Left: Construction of the Central Stadium in Moscow, by Mikhail Sokolov (1957) / Leonid Shishkin Gallery
Right: Spartak fans, photo by Viktor Akhlomov / Photodome
Over the next decade a wave of construction of stadiums and palaces of sport swept the Soviet Union. If in 1952, the USSR had 1,020 stadiums seating more than 1,500 spectators, then by 1960, the number had grown to 2,407 and by 1968 to 3,065 such structures. Spectatorship correspondingly expanded, though not necessarily to the financial advantage of teams, which remained dependent on relatively modest state budgetary allocations rather than ticket sales, television revenues, or apparel sales.
Repealing the Ban on Abortion
Stop!, by K. Ivanov (1968) / Russian State Library
In 1955 the Soviet government lifted its ban on abortion (which had been in place since 1936 after an earlier period of legalization). Official pronatalism informed this policy shift: Communist authorities and medical experts hoped to fortify the nation’s reproductive capacity because they believed that illegal underground abortion adversely affected women’s procreative health to a greater extent than legal medicalized abortion. Unlike the 1920 decree that had first decriminalized the procedure, the 1955 decree recognized a woman’s right to control her reproduction. But it also emphasized that preventing abortion — illegal and legal — remained a key government objective.
Abortion Has Dangerous Consequences, by A. Rudkovich (1965) / Russian State Library
Public health officials and activists as well as medical experts and personnel were largely responsible for the antiabortion campaign that subsequently unfolded. Despite some regional differences, the campaign’s basic contours were the same: to emphasize the perils of abortion and spread pronatalist propaganda among the wider Soviet populace. Educational efforts targeted not only women’s medical facilities but also workplace and non-workplace settings, such as workers’ dormitories, schools, and various public venues. In 1956, for example, medical personnel coordinated over 20,000 antiabortion lectures and talks throughout the city of Tashkent. Journal articles and health pamphlets entitled “Don’t deprive yourself of motherhood” and “Abortion doesn’t happen without consequences” sounded the alarm about the procedure, as did posters, photo exhibits, the radio, and movies. The 1956 film, Why Did I Do That?, emphasized how ending a pregnancy could lead to irreparable harm by destroying a woman’s chances of becoming a mother.
For You, Comrade Men, by L. Aristov (1962) / Russian State Library
Medicalized abortion was certainly not without danger in the 1950s and 1960s, particularly in the Soviet Union with its inadequate medical facilities. Educational strategy, however, was not non-partisan: the point was to discourage abortion by highlighting its risks and costs, even in misleading ways. Thus, even though health professionals and educators acknowledged that medicalized abortion was safer than underground illegal abortion — hence the change in abortion policy — they still described the procedure as dangerous or extremely dangerous. Chronicling numerous potential health complications, they characterized women as “victims” who had “to survive the severity of abortion” and its “frequent” adverse effects. Although international studies from the mid-1950s to mid-1960s indicated that medicalized abortion caused few serious complications such as inflammatory disease or infertility, the Soviet antiabortion campaign repeatedly emphasized the possibility of these dire consequences, and cautioned women against denying themselves the “happiness of motherhood.” By warning women that abortion-related infertility was linked not only to personal unhappiness but also to family unhappiness and the destruction of marriage, the campaign suggested that women who suffered this side-effect would lead lives of loneliness, lives without children orhusbands.
The antiabortion campaign evoked people’s fears in an effort to control them and bolster the regime’s pronatalist agenda. It also contributed to shifts in official discourse about the family, gender roles, and sexual norms. Whereas in the early Soviet years and Stalin era men were frequently eliminated or marginalized in representations of the Soviet family, particularly in the immediate post-WWII period when the government legitimized and endorsed “single-mother” families, during the Khrushchev era husbands and fathers began to figure more prominently. By representing abortion as a husbandly concern and fatherly matter, the antiabortion campaign helped to promulgate a more heteronormative family model and a new image of “responsible” husbands and fathers in the post-Stalin era which embedded masculine identity more firmly in the family. A 1962 antiabortion poster featuring the text “For you, comrade men” in the largest letters underscores the ways in which the campaign reenvisioned men’s roles in the reproductive sphere and the family. It also demonstrates how the regime sought to regulate women’s reproductive behavior via manipulative rhetoric rather than prohibitive laws.
Fate of a Man, by B.A. Zelenskii (1959) / Electronic Museum of Russian Posters
Soviet movie-goers had plenty to weep about in post-war years, but precious little of what they saw on screens touched the deep wounds left by the war. Most films pretended as if it never happened, showing a world of peace and plenty in which men and women formed healthy families. Notorious here would be Ivan Pyriev’s musical spectacular, Cossacks of the Kuban (1948). Russian men and women behaved honorably, fought courageously, endured silently, and obeyed wordlessly in such films. The rare film that dealt with the war would more likely than not focus on the leaders, not the soldiers, leaving common viewers with no reflection of their experience. Culminating this trend were two films of 1950, The Battle of Stalingrad, directed by Vladimir Petrov, and The Fall of Berlin, directed by the Georgian Mikhail Chuareli. The latter film was set almost entirely in Stalin’s command post in the Kremlin.
Director Mikhail Kalatazov gave viewers the gift of his Cranes are Flying in 1957, a visually powerful and emotionally rewarding story of young woman’s attempt to live her life during the war. The lyrical and tender love story opening in Moscow in the days before war struck, presents full-blooded characters and moral dilemmas. The heroine Veronika was wrong for Soviet cinema; capricious, untamed, self-centered, she is also capable of great self-sacrifice. Played by Tat’iana Samoilova, daughter of the great acting family, she was paired with Aleksei Batalov, himself scion of an acting tradition. His noble character Boris, son of a doctor, volunteers for the front immediately, and loses his life as the unguided army stumbles toward Moscow in retreat. This leaves Veronika to the arms of his cousin Mark, a spoiled pianist incapable of sacrifice or love. Although the movie chronicles the failure of Soviet leadership in the first days of war, shows people whose sole concern is themselves, and even delves into such topics as the wartime black market, it did so free of moralizing or political harangues. Coupled with stunning black-and-white photography and daring editing unseen since the innovative 1920s, the movie was memorable for Soviet viewers, and enough so to carry away the Golden Palm at the 1958 Cannes Film Festival.
Cranes are Flying, by B.A. Zelenskii (1957) / Electronic Museum of Russian Posters
Honor of being the first film to break postwar taboos went to the far more modest The Soldier Ivan Brovkin (1955), directed by Ivan Lukinskii and ignored by film historians. Essentially a story about a nice young Russian boy drafted into the war, the film de-elevated the war film to a level accessible to common viewers, without challenging them to confront its pain. Played by Leonid Kharitonov, whose lyrical performance of several songs from the movie made him an all-Soviet heart throb, Brovkin opened the way for more adventurous films. Similar in story line but very different in treatment was the 1959 film Ballad of a Soldier, directed by Grigorii Chukhrai, which uses the tale of a young soldier on a brief leave from the war to convey its futility and tragedy.