When the Soviets Shimmied

The opening procession of the Sixth International Festival of Youth and Students, Moscow, 1957
Sovfoto/Getty Images
The opening procession of the Sixth International Festival of Youth and Students, Moscow, 1957

Ilya Ehrenburg considered himself an “average writer”: “I know that what I write today is necessary to people now, but tomorrow they won’t need it,” he told the art historian Igor Golomstock. His sentimental novella The Thaw, published in 1954, a year after Stalin’s death, gave its name to an era in Soviet history. Although his many books are now forgotten, Ehrenburg’s metaphor remains as useful for historians today as it was for people living in the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s. In Moscow in February 1956, after Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin and the Terror in a “secret speech” at the Twentieth Party Congress, “you could smell the thaw,” Golomstock wrote.

“Thaw” is an ambiguous image. It suggests movement and mess. When snow and ice melt, they expose debris and scars in the landscape, as well as the shoots of new life. And in the cycle of the seasons, the cold eventually comes back. By 1962, when there was an ideological crackdown, Golomstock thought the short spring of cultural freedom was over. “I had no faith in the thaw,” he writes at the end of his newly translated memoir, A Ransomed Dissident, “because I understood that in Russia everything will always find a way back into its usual rut.”1

Golomstock was born in Kalinin in 1929, into a family of Karaite (ethnically Turkic) Jews. He died in 2017, having spent over half his life in Great Britain. His reminiscences begin with his father’s arrest in 1934 “for anti-Soviet propaganda” and his boyhood in Kolyma, in far-eastern Siberia, where his mother worked as a doctor in a labor camp. As a child, Golomstock spoke “in a half-criminal jargon.” He saw “fugitives baited with dogs, a guard shooting a prisoner he didn’t like.” In 1943 he returned to “starving Moscow,” where intellectual schoolmates “initiated [his] ascent from savage to Homo sapiens.” Golomstock went on to become a distinguished art historian. His encounters with Western culture during the Thaw helped to make him a dissident (in Russian inakomyslyashchii, or “differently-thinking-person”).

In To See Paris and Die, the historian Eleonory Gilburd gives another perspective on the Thaw. She is less interested in “differently-thinking” members of the Moscow cultural elite than in the “average” people for whom Ehrenburg wrote. She does not discuss samizdat, or the smuggling of forbidden books. Instead, she seeks out the cultural experiences of socially conforming (that is, nondissident) engineers, doctors, librarians, and teachers in Moscow and Leningrad, and in far-flung places like Astrakhan, Ufa, and Syktyvkar. She traces the officially sanctioned channels through which Western books, paintings, films, and songs reached a mass audience, and the varied and surprising stories of how they were appropriated…

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