Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Book Review - Khrushchev's Russia by Edward Crankshaw

Khrushchev's Russia by Edward Crankshaw

Penguin Books, 1959

Ah, the Penguin Special. I've noticed recently that the special, or book published about a current event, is making a comeback, after a few decades of obscurity. The book under review comes from an earlier time when such books were more popular. While most of these types of books deservedly spend only a short time in the shops and a long time sitting unread on some dusty library shelf, they are occasionally worth revisiting.

Khrushchev's Russia is a useful little primer on what is now a relatively forgotten time in the history of the USSR. The death of Stalin led to a significant time of change in the government of the Soviet Union. As Crankshaw makes clear, the leadership wanted to make a clean break with the tyranny of the past, and the initial period of collective government was effective in doing that. Crankshaw shows throughout this book that Khrushchev's subsequent rise to power, while having outward similarities to Stalin's rise, was in fact very different, with Khrushchev needing to find a consensus view to remain in power. The power struggle between Malenkov and Khrushchev is well described, with Malenkov seeking the backing of the technocrats, while Khrushchev increased his grip on the Party in an endeavour to have its backing. In the end he succeeded, and as Crankshaw writes, to have the Party behind you means victory, for two reasons: one, the party structure means that someone in control has a voice that penetrates to the smallest village, and all the apparatchiks will follow the voice from the centre.

After the description of the quest for power, Crankshaw spends some pages discussing "the size of the problem", laying out in clear terms how far the USSR lagged other powers, and how the focus on heavy machinery had limited the availability of consumer goods to citizens. The backwards and forwards politics in this area seems to have been the product of the power struggle going on at the highest levels of the Party at the time.

This book is most interesting when it discusses the "thaw", the name given to the relaxation of culture after Khrushchev's famous "secret speech" denouncing Stalin. This led to a brief flowering of literary output, with the likes of Yevtushenko and Pasternak coming to the fore. Crankshaw puts this flowering, and the subsequent crackdown, into context with the uprisings in Poland and Hungary - bringing them into a larger context of the people flexing their "muscles" and seeing how far they could go. Khrushchev is never idealised in this book, and his chilling speech to the Russian writers where he threatened them with being shot reminds the reader that for all the discussion of a new way the old realities of the Stalinist system were not too far from the surface. The appendix to the book, containing the rejection letter to Pasternak from Novy Mir is a fine example of what artists had to cope with in such a system.

Crankshaw ends his special on a note of hope, describing the upcoming generation of Russians as ones with intelligence and a lack of fear. With the benefit of hindsight (this book was written before the intensification of the Cold War in the '60s) we can see that generation did not fulfil its promise, and the dull formalism of Soviet life continued.

It's always worth reminding ourselves of the relatively short duration of the Russian experiment - when this book was written the Revolution was barely forty years old, and there was no indication of its eventual decline thirty years hence - and at the time of writing it was quite possible to imagine that Russia may indeed surpass the wealth of the USA in another generation. Only fifty years ago there was no consensus that the Capitalist system would come out on top. This book, while pulling no punches in describing the worst excesses of the Soviet system, is a reminder of that.

You might find this book floating somewhere on a library shelf - it's a more entertaining read on 50s Russia than the Wikipedia entry.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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