When Americans hear of 1956 in the Soviet Union, if anything comes to mind it is often the uprising in Hungary and the Soviet intervention to suppress it. This association is far different from the liberalization movement that Russians associate with 1956. Kathleen Smith, professor of teaching at the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, discussed this disparity in a lecture, “Rebellious Soviet Students in 1956: A New Generation of Political Prisoners.”
Smith, a former Hamilton government professor, outlined the research in her new book, Moscow 1956: The Silenced Spring, about a movement among freethinking university students in the USSR that tested the boundaries of political and cultural experimentation in the period of de-Stalinization known as the “Khrushchev Thaw.”
There were a number of events that Smith said “sparked the free speech movement within the Soviet Union.” The most prominent event was Nikita Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” that was critical of the Stalinist regime. Also, around this time the novel Not by Bread Alone by Vladimir Dudintsev was published. While ostensibly an acceptable socialist realist text, it seemed to challenge the bureaucracy, and it was popular among students because it served as a signal that the political situation might have been opening up, if only to a small degree.
Josip Broz Tito was also invited to speak in Moscow during this time. This was unusual because, as the Communist president of Yugoslavia and former leader of Yugoslavia’s WWII resistance movement, he was once at odds with the Soviet government in Russia.
These events helped inspire politically-minded students. They took action in a variety of forms, spurred on by these events and the de-Stalinization of Khrushchev’s regime. The students wanted free speech and freedom of information.
This included better access to information, especially about events in the Eastern Bloc, and the ability to discuss current events without fear of censorship and arrest. They wrote letters to newspapers, distributed leaflets, and questioned professors in attempts to piece together information.
However, the 1956 movement had overestimated the extent of reform Khrushchev was willing to allow. In late 1956 and early 1957, there was a crackdown by the government, and they arrested many of the dissident students. “This one amazing year,” said Smith, “was the start of the thaw, but it was only the start. It wasn’t the first draft; it was the outline.” It would still be decades before the reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev, a movement known as perestroika, took place.
Nevertheless, 1956 is an important year in the study of the gradual liberalization process. After all, as Smith said, the generation that was involved in this movement would become the reformers of perestroika.