This article is entittled The Soviet Experiment part two. If you have not read part one, I recommend you read it now. Joseph Stalin died in 1953, some say by posion, others say by natural causes. There was a strong urge to assassinate Stalin in the years following World War II. Stalin was even contemplating a new purge in the 1950s, against Jewish peoples. This purge would have been of Jewish people in high level government jobs, the Doctor's Plot was set up to make it look like several Jewish doctors in the Kremlin had a plan to assassinate Stalin. However, Stalin died, of mysterious causes, before any purge could begin. During the period between 1953-1956 not much occured politically in the Soviet Union. The leadership of the USSR was in the hands of the Politburo, as it was after Lenin's death. There was no clear successor to Joseph Stalin.
It was also in this period that hundreds of thousands of German POW's were released from Siberian work camps. Additionally, many prisoners who were labeled as dissidents under Stalin were released as well. In 1956, Nikita Khrushchev became the new General Secretary of the Sovet Union. He is remembered as reformer who attempted to enact reforms and de-centralize the central government. Notably, the novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn was released in this period. Never before had Soviet citizens been able to read a novel that depicted life in a work camp or shown Stalinist repression.
Khrushchev would begin his leadership with the 1956 "Secret speech" This speech would begin the process of de-stalinization and allow the cultural thaw to occur. Solzhenitsyn's novel was released during the thaw, and the film Ballad of a Soldier which attempted to dispell the myth that the Communist Party led the USSR to victory in WW2 was also released. Khrushchev's reign can be characterized as a period of opening up in the USSR. He attempted to enact large scale, regional reforms that would de-centralize the communist party and create agrarian lands in the Soviet stans. These reforms, while note-worthy, were not successful. He created far more enemies than he did friends.
While Khrushchev's reign can be characterized as reform friendly, it can also be characterized as a oppressive. Khrushchev sent in Soviet Tanks to repress anti-communist movements in Poland and Hungry. Also, during this period the People's Republic of China overtly turned against the USSR and formed a seperate communist sphere. Scientifically the Soviet Union sent the first man to space during this period and began to make headways against the U.S. in the space race. Khrushchev also favored the policy of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). He kept enough atomic weapons stockpiled to destroy the U.S. in the event of nuclear war, as opposed to the U.S. who built so many atomic weapons in this period that they could destroy the world in a blink of the eye.
In 1963, the Cuban Missile Crisis occured. This crisis put the United States and the Soviet Union on the brink of nuclear war. Through negotations JFK and Khrushchev were able to foster a new relationship. However, this relationship would not last. JFK was assassinated and Khrushchev was removed from power by Leonid Brezhnev shortly thereafter.
Leonid Brezhnev's leadership of the USSR marked an end to the thaw. After this period, novels, films, and songs that questioned the Communist Party were banned. Anyone who pursued such activities were often exiled to the West or exiled within Russia. The work camps of the Stalin period did not return, but many labeled Brezhnev as a hardline, Stalinist. Despite the exiles, a large dissident group began to form in the USSR during this period.
Brezhnev's period as General Secretary also opened up new relations with the U.S. this was the period of detente. Arms treates such as SALT, the ABM treaty, and nuclear-non proliferation act were ratified by both countries. Nuclear stockpiles began to decrease. It was during the period of detente that opened the USSR up to western culture. Soviet civilians were able to see the abundance of weatlh from the Western World, that they had never been able to see before. Soviet teenagers stood outside of hotels and begged for beatle records and blue jeans. This period may have done more to undermine the Communist Party's authority than other actions the U.S. took. Ironically, it was not the Soviet Union that ended detente, but the Republican Party and the rise of conservatism in the United States. Politicans like Ronald Reagan characterized the democratic party under Jimmy Carter as being too soft on communists.
The period of detente came to an end in 1979 when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Shortly there after Brezhnev died and the Soviet Union became bogged down in leadership struggle. Eventually the reformer Gorbachev would rise to power, with the plan to create a free market in the USSR. Brezhnev's rule can ultimatly be characterized as a rule of stagnation. It was under this period that the Soviet Union spent more than they made. Citizens were able to get some of the wealth and improve their living, but nothing remarkable was hapeening socially. The Communist Party maintained a stranglehold on politics and the government. Citizens weren't able to express themselves which led to widespread dissident movements and regional independence movements that would finally reveal themselves during Gorbachev's reign to challenge the authroity of the Soviet Union and the Communist Party.
I will detail these movements, the success of independence and trans-national movements, and the final collapse of the USSR in my next article.