Seventeen Moments in Soviet History contains a rich archive of texts, images, maps and audio and video materials from the Soviet era (1917-1991). The materials are arranged by year and by subject, are fully searchable, and are translated into English. Students, educators, and scholars will find fascinating materials about Soviet propaganda, politics, economics, society, crime, literature, art, dissidents and hundreds of other topics.
Debates have raged for years over whether the Soviet legacy was best characterized by its successes or its crimes. Was Lenin's revolution one of history's great events, later perverted by Stalin; or was the October Revolution, which rejected God, dispossessed large segments of the population, and made the entire people subject to the state, flawed from the moment of inception? Rather than answering the question, we hope with this web site to help students and readers understand the more complicated truth, that at all moments of its history, the Soviet Union offered experiences of great good and great evil. Soviet citizens were forced to understand them as a whole. The object of this web site is to give users a sense of what this total experience was like, using the original words of the participants. We have selected from Soviet history seventeen moments - following the title of a beloved spy series of the seventies - almost at random but not entirely.
1917: The October Revolution2013-03-11 17:45:40 Kristen Edwards
The Bolshevik seizure of power in Petrograd in October 1917 was celebrated for over seventy years by the Soviet government as a sacred act that laid the foundation for a new political order which would transform "backward" Russia (and after 1923 the Soviet Union) into an advanced socialist society. Officially known as the October Revolution (or simply "October"), it was regarded by the Bolsheviks' enemies -- and continued to be interpreted by many western historians -- as a conspiratorial coup that deprived Russia of the opportunity to establish a democratic polity.
"The Bolsheviks, having obtained a majority in the Soviets of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies in both capitals, can and must take state power into their own hands ... The majority of the people are on our side." Thus did Lenin, still in Finland as a fugitive from arrest on charges leveled in the aftermath of the July Days, cajole his party's Central Committee in September. Lenin's assessment of the shifting balance of forces was acute. So was his sense of urgency. The leftward swing in popular sentiment after the Kornilov Affair was strengthening the Bolsheviks, but also the more radical elements of the SR and Menshevik parties committed to the establishment of an all-socialist coalition government. While most Bolsheviks also favored such an arrangement and looked forward to the Second All-Russia Congress of Soviets as the vehicle for delivering it, Lenin was adamant that only an insurrection could deal a decisive blow to the Provisional Government and the threat of counter-revolution. On October 10, having returned to Petrograd, he obtained, by a vote of 10-2, a resolution of the Central Committee in favor of making an armed uprising the order of the day.
It was a measure of the Provisional Government's over-confidence and isolation that even after the two Bolshevik dissenters, Grigorii Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, went public with their dissent, it did not take any decisive measures. In the meantime, the Bolsheviks managed to fashion the Military Revolutionary Committee (MRC) of the Petrograd Soviet into a command center for carrying out the insurrection. Kerenskii's ill-conceived decision to shut down the Bolsheviks' printing press, an action that evoked the specter of counter-revolution, turned out to be the impetus for the uprising. On October 24, Red Guards and soldiers under the MRC's command, began to occupy key points in the city. By the following day, the assembled delegates to the soviet congress were informed that the Bolsheviks had taken power in the name of the soviets, and that they should proceed to form a Workers' and Peasants' Government. Within minutes, the battleship Aurora was bombarding (with blank shells) the Winter Palace, where most of the Provisional Government's ministers waited in anxious expectation, and the Palace was stormed by Red Guards. As the Menshevik and SR delegates stormed out of the soviet congress in protest, Trotsky, the congress' president, told them to join "the rubbish heap of history."
1973: KVN is Canceled2011-03-28 21:48:15 Jim von Geldern
Christine Evans has contributed an essay entitled KVN is Canceled under 1973
The most popular Soviet television program of the 1960s was a satirical game show and contest of wits called Club of the Merry and Resourceful, known by its initials in Russian as KVN. First broadcast in April 1961, KVN drew on Soviet traditions of student amateur theater and Odessan Jewish humor. It also aimed to replicate the excitement and emotions of spectator sport--KVN's ambitious young producers referred to the show as "intellectual soccer." The show was organized as a competition between two teams of students, almost exclusively male, from elite technical universities and institutes, who competed in contests of humor, knowledge, and improvisation, before a jury of celebrities and an audience of "fans." KVN quickly became a national craze, performed throughout the Soviet Union in schools, factory clubs, and rural houses of culture. Famous players and team captains became household names, appearing on other television shows and enjoying lucrative perks from team sponsors. In 1972, although it was still very popular, KVN was canceled.
The show may have been doomed by the expansion of the Soviet television audience in the decade since KVN's first broadcast. From 1965 to 1970, the number of television sets per Soviet family doubled, from roughly one set per four families, to one set per two families, with much greater saturation in urban areas. In 1967, Moscow's Central Television moved into the powerful new Ostankino television center, and began satellite broadcasting. Its signal reached roughly 70% of Soviet territory by 1970. Soviet authorities, accustomed to limiting the distribution of critical and unconventional arts and media to the urban intelligentsia, may have felt KVN's satire was not acceptable fare for television's increasingly provincial and rural audience.
There were practical and political reasons for the show's demise as well. For years, rumors and press accounts charged that fame and money were corrupting the show's "merry play." KVN's satire and irreverent student protagonists were also a poor fit for the more repressive political climate of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Even after it began to be filmed and edited in advance, rather than broadcast live, KVN did not please the censors. Disillusioned, and subject to tighter limits on what could be said on air, the teams' young players had become "ungovernable," according to KVN's producers and editors. The arrival, in April 1970, of Sergei Lapin, as the new head of radio and television, likewise doomed the show. Lapin, an ideological hardliner closely allied with the Politburo's chief propagandist, Mikhail Suslov, was particularly hostile to KVN. Lapin had initiated the removal of prominent Jewish television personalities from the air; he likely objected to KVN's distinctly Odessan Jewish style and prominent Jewish players.
KVN returned to the air in 1986, brought back during the years of Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms. (It remains a very popular show among Russians today). It would be easy to see the cancelation and return of KVN as a reflection of larger trends: two eras of reform and experimentation--the early 1960s and the late 1980s--with two decades of repression and cultural stagnation in between. But in fact, experimentation on Central Television never really went away during the 1970s. KVN was gone, but many very popular new game shows were created in the early 1970s. Let's Go, Girls! (1970) was a kind of Soviet beauty contest, with young bakers, tram drivers, and factory workers competing in professional, housekeeping, and style contests. Its counterpart, Let's Go, Guys! (1971) featured athletic contests and motorcycle racing. Another extremely popular humor program of the late 1960s, 13 Chairs Pub--set in a Polish bar inhabited by lovably corrupt, shallow, and foolish ne'er-do-wells who wore Dior dresses and sang and danced in Polish, English, and German--was not canceled until 1980, when conflicts between the Polish government and the Solidarity protest movement finally made the show's exotic setting politically unacceptable. 1976 saw the first broadcast of a quiz show, called What? Where? When?, that focused, like KVN, on intelligentsia youth and was set around a roulette wheel in the Ostankino Television Center's bar. All of these shows raised, however indirectly, highly politicized questions of ethics, values, and the nature of authority in Soviet society.
KVN's cancelation exposed the political risks of television entertainment, but game shows and other popular TV programs also offered solutions to the Soviet state's Cold War problems. Game shows could direct consumer demand, define Soviet norms of taste, and promote acceptable popular music as an alternative to Western styles. These objectives were especially important during Détente, when the easing of military competition with the United States increased the stakes in soft, cultural arenas. Quiz shows and other entertainments also offered a way to focus on the moral and intellectual superiority of Soviet people, rather than on their standard of living. The imperative to entertain audiences in order to influence them ensured that Central Television's staff continued to experiment with lively, original, and popular shows and genres throughout the 1970s.
1956: Repealing the Ban on Abortion2011-01-19 19:28:47 Jim von Geldern
Amy Randall has contributed an essay entitled Repealing the Ban on Abortion under 1956.
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.
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.
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 or husbands.
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.
1961: The Moral Code of the Builder of Communism2010-06-28 20:19:34 Jim von Geldern
Deborah A. Field has contributed an essay entitled The Moral Code of the Builder of Communism under 1961.
The "Moral Code of the Builder of Communism," its compilers asserted, was superior to all other ethical systems. Presented as part of the official program at the twenty-second Communist Party Congress in 1961, the code consisted of twelve tenets. First and foremost was "devotion to the Communist cause, love toward the Socialist Motherland and to Socialist countries." The remaining eleven principles were meant to govern human relations on all levels, from international to interpersonal.
The code's issuance represented the culmination of a process: over the course of the previous decade, Soviet party and government officials, scholars, and experts had developed, elaborated, and publicized the principles of Communist morality. Communist morality was supposed to replace coercion as a means of ensuring political and social stability and economic growth; it required political loyalty, hard work, and the proper conduct of private life. Under fully developed communism, public and private interests would be perfectly harmonized. But during the contemporary transitional period, in cases where conflicts arose, personal needs were to be subordinated to public priorities. Professionals and moralists in a variety of fields determined what attitudes and behaviors constituted a correct Communist private life, putting forth specific instructions about sex, love, marriage and child rearing. Trade union, party, Komsomol, and a host of new voluntary organizations were supposed to help enforce these standards. These groups included parent-school associations; apartment house committees; druzhiny, teams that patrolled the streets to arrest hooligans, drunks, and other disturbers of public order; and comrades' courts, which were empowered to reprimand, fine, and shame people who neglected their children, disrespected their parents, damaged their apartments, or failed to get along with their neighbors.
Yet, at the same time, by 1961, Khrushchev's reforms had increased individuals' autonomy over their personal lives. The taming and restructuring of the secret police meant that, for the most part, state terror no longer disrupted family relations as it had under Stalin. Divorce became progressively easier to obtain, and the ban on abortion was lifted. The government launched an ambitious housing construction program with the goal of moving families out of communal apartments, barracks and dormitories and into their own individual apartments. The "Thaw" in literature and film meant that heroes were allowed to demonstrate their concern for intimate relations as well as production.
Thus the Khrushchev government provided new opportunities for professionals, officials, and volunteers to intervene in private life, but also new ways for people to evade, resist, and make use of that interference. Some ignored Communist morality or even made fun of it. For example, in 1961, the same year as the twenty-second party congress, a student at the Moscow Steel Institute wrote a comment in English on the blackboard that turned the Moral Code on its head: "Communism is women and wine." Such rebelliousness was not the only reaction to Communist morality; other people selectively adopted aspects of it, and still others turned it inside out, using its language and supporting institutions to fulfill their individual aspirations. So for example, spouses sometimes accused one another of flouting Communist morality in order to reign in wayward spouses, subdue officious in-laws, or in divorce cases to support claims for custody of children or possessions. In other words, they used the language of Communist morality as a means of advancing the very individual interests that official moralists demanded they suppress. Evidence suggests that this was a strategy deployed more often by women than men. The fundamental gender inequality that persisted in Soviet society, despite claims to the contrary, made women more anxious to preserve marriages or claim possessions. Women received lower salaries than men and so were more often financially dependent on them. It was also more difficult for women to find new spouses; as a result of war casualties, women, especially those aged 35 and older, far outnumbered men. According to the recollections of one scholar, the complaining wife of the Khrushchev era was enough of a cliché to become the subject of a joke: How do women of various nationalities hang on to their husbands? The German by skilled housework, the Spaniard, by passion, the French by elegance, and the Russian by party committee.
1917: Media and Organs of the Press2010-04-29 17:21:10 Jim von Geldern
James von Geldern has contributed a new essay on the media and organs of the press for the revolutionary-era section.
The Bolsheviks were journalists long before they were state leaders, and they never forgot the impact of a well-aimed message. Newspapers were the life-line of the underground party. Formative ideological and political debates were conducted in them; reporters and deliverers evolved into party cadres; and readers became rank-and-file supporters. At times, newspapers smuggled from abroad kept the Party alive; and Lenin's editorials often forestalled factional division. Revolutionary struggle taught Bolsheviks the value of mass media, and confirmed their belief that culture is inherently partisan. In times of political turmoil, they exploited it skillfully. Illegal front-line newspapers helped turn soldiers against the Great War; effective propaganda helped win the Civil War.
Yet the revolutionaries knew that the same weapons could be used against them. When they took power, they protected themselves by denying the opposition access to public opinion; printing presses, theaters, movie houses were all eventually confiscated and placed under state monopoly. The Bolsheviks considered these measures necessary and just. Soviet authorities were never ashamed of their monopoly on culture. Culture was a weapon of class struggle. Allowing the enemy access to mass media would have seemed criminally stupid. To debate the ethics of censorship was a waste of time; the Bolsheviks' concern was how to mold popular values, how to reach the masses, reflect the wishes of the state and censure alien ideals.
The early twentieth-century media suited Bolshevik purposes. Under Bolshevik sponsorship, they spoke with one powerful voice, unweakened by dissent or excessive subtlety, unencumbered by complexity. Red propaganda depicted a world of stark contrasts: Bolsheviks were valorous and self-sacrificing; the Whites were cruel and debauched. It was no time for half-tones or self-conscious irony. Bolshevik propaganda might seem heavy-handed, yet judging by its success, much of the public did not resent the overbearing tone. Opponents on both the left and right were no match for the Bolshevik blitz, and some, like the Whites, were particularly ineffective in shaping public opinion.
Discussions of Soviet mass culture have usually dwelt on its administration and rhetoric more than content and reception. This is unfortunate, because mass culture was a rare example of equilateral negotiation in Soviet society. The culture gap could not be forced like a river crossing at war. The economy could be socialized by fiat; industry could be whipped into higher production; and citizens could be made, at tremendous cost, to behave as they should. But socialist society demanded not that people just say the necessary things, but also think them in private. Socialism had to be internalized. Many Bolsheviks saw the mass media as the path from ideology to internal thought. It converted abstract phrases into concrete images. Propaganda demanded the cooperation of three groups: the Party and state, which provided the content; the skills of writers and artists, who made ideas into image; and the audience, which received and digested the images. Leaders, artists, and citizens all acknowledged the wishes of the other. The audience craved interesting material; the state needed its values represented by symbols; artists desired an arena for their creative energies (and a respectable living). One side-the audience-stayed mute about its thoughts, yet even at the height of tyranny, no mass audience could be forced to watch a movie or read a book.