When the Cat’s Away…

On March 5th, 1953 the Soviet Union held its breath in anticipation. Joseph Stalin was this larger-than-life figure who effectively dictated the lives of millions of Soviet citizens in a long, unpredictable and bloody reign, his abrupt death left many questions and a very uncertain future. Not only did this throw a wrench in Soviet politics, giving way to a scramble for power, but also deeply affected Soviet day-to-day life. Soviet leadership was, for the most part, indecisive and as a result the next few decades saw the drastic shifts in Soviet policymaking. The concern now was people didn’t know how much freedom they had and were afraid to test the waters, anything could happen.

To understand the reasons for such social uncertainty, one must understand that for the last half-century the Soviet people were trained to see the party as the sole undeniable source of power and any deviation from Stalin’s will would most likely get you sent to Siberia or shot. Before Stalin’s death, Soviet culture seemed to be deprived of feeling, such as pointed out by Olga Shmarova in 1953 who wrote that in Soviet films, ironically “lovers talk about bulldozers and tractors.”. Soviet artists during Stalin’s time never expressed their own ideas or emotions, but rather projected what the Party impressed on them. With statements as void as “to be a Soviet patriot means first and foremost to be loyal to the great ideas of Lenin and Stalin” Soviet society seems tasteless and bland, but this was a necessity as sticking your neck out expressively goes against “the vital foundation of the Soviet system” and made you a target.

With Stalin gone there was now a new opportunity for social expression and political and economic reform, however, none of it was immediate but rather for the most part took shape in the late 50s and early 60s in the Khrushchev era. This impacted economics as the focus of Soviet projects shifted from “grandiose construction projects” to consumer goods production and development of the “virgin lands” of the south-central USSR. The only thing that held the Soviet Union from a complete cultural revolution was the creeping fear that another dictator was making a play to continue what Stalin started and what lay ahead was in the hands of a handful of Stalin’s advisors, namely Georgii Malenkov, Lavrentii Beria and Nikita Khrushchev. Although as unsure as the future was, it was clear that the death of Stalin marked a pivotal moment in Soviet history and the culture, politics and economics of the region would not be the same.

9 thoughts on “When the Cat’s Away…

  1. Tim, good portrayal of why life might have felt so uncertain following Stalin’s death. Glad you utilized the Current Digest – those quotes, especially the first one, really enrich your post! I have to slightly challenge the assertion that Soviet culture was “deprived of feeling” prior to Stalin’s death – I don’t think many of the films and other arts would have resonated with Soviet audiences the way they sometimes did if that were true. But, you’re definitely right that Stalin’s death marked a turning point in Soviet culture!


    1. Thanks for the review, an alternative opinion never hurts! I could have tried to be clearer in how I worded “deprived” I think maybe mislead is more what I was going after, the idea that Soviet audiences experienced feelings fabricated by the state with the intentions of breeding loyalty and patriotism.


  2. Hello Tim,

    I think this post did such a wonderful job of articulating the concerns of the era. I think of how challenging it is when we change presidents in the United States. For months (and sometimes longer), it is difficult to adjust to new leadership. With the switch from Stalin to Khrushchev, I can only imagine people’s anxieties. Khrushchev addressed several issues that Stalin had ignored, and his new stances revolutionized the USSR.

    The ‘Thaw’ period gave people a greater voice than previously imagined. I was surprised to see that people were so vocal so soon after his death. I figured that essays like ‘On Sincerity in Literature,’ written in December 1953, would take much longer to worm their way into society.


    1. You are absolutely right in the suddeness with which peope came forward, it many ways it was as though a dam had broken and people wanted to get as much done as they could before everything clamped down again.


  3. I like how you touched on the uncertainty surrounding Soviet life in the immediate aftermath of Stalin’s death. The description of Stalin as a “larger-than-life figure” really highlights how crazy it was to think of life after him. It’s almost as if people forgot he was a person who would eventually die like everyone else, and that illustrates how all-encompassing his power/image was. Great post!


    1. Absolutely! It’s an interesting concept to see how Soviets may have percieved Stalin as almost inhuman, an immortal concept, you’d think they’d have mentally prepared beforehand for something like this.


  4. I think it’s really interesting to think about how scared people must have been when Stalin died. In the US, if a president dies, we know exactly who will take over afterwards, and we have some idea of how that person might act and what policies they might support. People in the Soviet Union when Stalin died had no such certainty or clarity. You depict that very well, showing a concept that’s relatively alien to us as Americans.


  5. considering how much damage he had done to some of his people, do you find it kind of odd that they were so supportive of him following his death?


    1. You have to consider the damage he’d done in relation to what the people saw. Sure your neighbor might disappear but no single person other than the upper echelons of the party knew the sheer scale. All the people knew was that Stalin was untouchable.


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