The Khrushchev Thaw: Relaxation of Soviet Repressions

The Khrushchev Thaw was a liberalization period from 1953 to 1964, introduced by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, that eased Soviet repressions and censorship.

Jan 2, 2024By Tsira Shvangiradze, MA Diplomacy and Int'l Politics, BA Int'l Relations

khrushchev thaw soviet repressions


In 1953, Nikita Khrushchev succeeded Joseph Stalin as the new leader of the Soviet Union. During the 20th Congress of the Communist Party in February 1956, Khrushchev delivered his “Secret Speech,” entitled “The Cult of Personality and Its Consequences,” denouncing the forceful and oppressive methods Stalin was using to consolidate his power. The speech was made available to the public on March 5, 1956. It was followed by the Soviet policy of rehabilitating those forced into exile during Stalin’s Great Purge, easing restrictions on freedom of expression in the media and the arts, and the notion of the “peaceful coexistence” of the Soviet Union with other nations. This period of liberation following Stalin’s death is widely known as the Khrushchev Thaw, the term coined by Soviet writer Ilya Ehrenburg in his aptly-named 1954 novel The Thaw.


The Genesis of the Khrushchev Thaw

Nikita Khrushchev addressing a rally, via Russia Beyond


Joseph Stalin died on March 5, 1953. He had ruled for over 25 years, cementing his cult and “steel” personality in the minds of Soviet citizens. Ilya Ehrenburg recalled the death of Joseph Stalin with the following words:


We had long ago forgotten that Stalin was a man. He had become an omnipotent and mysterious god. And now the god had died of a brain hemorrhage. It seemed incredible.


The beginning of a new Soviet era without Joseph Stalin caused anxiety and uncertainty. In his 1954 novel, cited above, Ilya Ehrenburg described an industrial boss with a tyrannical character, much like Stalin, and his wife, who was disillusioned with her life and decided to leave her husband after winter as soon as the snow melted. The novel, called The Thaw, predicted the “thawing” of Soviet policy after Stalin’s demise.


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The power struggle for leadership of the Soviet Union was intense, as Stalin did not name his successor. Georgy Malenkov, the premier of the Soviet Union; Lavrentiy Beria, Stalin’s secret police chief; and Nikita Khrushchev (also called together the “Ruling Troika”) became the three dominant figures during this power struggle. However, Beria was eventually arrested and executed in 1953 for his close alignment with Stalin’s oppressive regime, including orchestrating purges, mass arrests, and executions.


Nikita Khrushchev emerged as a formidable rival who had been an influential member of Stalin’s elite during the previous years, being a member of the ruling Politburo and the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in Moscow, and eventually, he won the struggle.


Stalin’s funeral procession carrying floristry, 1953, via Radio Free Europe


The Presidium, a key decision-making body within the Soviet political system, elected him as the first secretary soon after Stalin’s death in September 1953. Khrushchev’s success can be viewed as a result of the power vacuum created within the Soviet leadership. His views were more reformist and liberal compared to Beria’s and Malenkov’s. Exhausted by the years of oppressive and strained rule, many members of the Communist Party were ready for a change. Hence, Khrushchev successfully formed alliances and gained support from various party factions, ultimately gaining support within the Presidium.


Nikita Khrushchev’s most important political maneuver to consolidate power was his denunciation of Joseph Stalin’s policies and strategies. In February 1956, at the Twentieth Party Congress, aiming to cement his image as a reformer politician, Khrushchev delivered his “Secret Speech,” “On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences,” denouncing Stalin’s repressive policies, terror, and purges.


Khrushchev outlined that by executing or exiling important party leaders and military personnel, Joseph Stalin exhausted the Soviet political-military capabilities and contributed to the Soviet defeats during World War II. With his speech, the new leader distanced himself from Stalin’s legacies and his associates. This move was due to Khrushchev’s perception that continuous repression and terror would eventually stagnate the Communist Party and damage his position to successfully rule the Soviet Union.


Khrushchev’s Secret Speech and attack on Stalin caused both anxiety and excitement within the audience. Anxiety was the result of almost 25 years of endless hymns and praise for Stalin, now shattered by a new leader. Excitement, as the professor of international history Vladislav Zubok outlined in his book Zhivago’s Children, was caused by the post-Stalin intelligentsia’s “profound hunger for personal freedom” with unquestioned faith in “the Holy Grail of collectivism.”


De-Stalinization & Socio-Cultural Reforms

A disembodied statue of Joseph Stalin’s head on the streets of Budapest during the Hungarian Revolution, 1956, via Rare Historical Photos


The policy of de-Stalinization represented one of the focal points of the Khrushchev Thaw. Beginning right after Stalin’s death, the “Secret Speech” in 1956 further accelerated political prisoners’ release and rehabilitation process. During Khrushchev’s rule, the Gulag population decreased by 80% following the release of nearly 4 million prisoners previously labeled “enemies of the people.”


The mass release of prisoners caused a spike in crime throughout the Soviet Republic. Coupled with the uncertainty of Khrushchev’s unprecedented policies, this further intensified the anxiety of the ordinary citizens that the Thaw would be melting not only the previously established moral order but the civil one as well. As part of the de-Stalinization policy, Khrushchev also ordered the removal of Stalin’s body from the Lenin Mausoleum during the Twenty-Second Party Congress in 1961.


Pablo Picasso exhibition in Pushkin Art Museum in Moscow by Emmanuil Yevzerikhin, 1956, via Soviet Postcards


De-Stalinization opened the door to Western culture in the Soviet Union. In 1957, the First Seminal International Youth Festival was held in Moscow, showing American abstract expressionism. Khrushchev gave a breathing space to artists after Stalin’s monolith-like art, and they started to explore new forms of art and culture through two dimensions: Soviet artists were allowed to revisit Russian art history, including Avant-Garde, and secondly, they examined contemporary art movements in the West. This was done through America magazine, which the Soviet authorities allowed to circulate in 1956.


The same year, Moscow hosted the first Picasso exhibition as well. During the following years, Soviet artists expanded their horizons by attending the World Festival of Youth and Students and the American National Exhibition in 1959 in Sokolniki Park, which featured works by the abstract expressionists Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, and surrealist Yves Tanguy.


Like the Khrushchev Thaw itself, the emerging contemporary Soviet art was confusing for the Soviet authorities, and Khrushchev himself felt concerned by the trend. In December 1962, Khrushchev threatened all hopes for artistic freedom at an exhibition at the Manège, Moscow. When exposed to the works of the abstract artist Ernst Neizvestnyi, Nikita Khrushchev burst into anger and uttered the phrase “dog shit,” referring to the works of the newly-emerged Soviet abstract art.


However, although the brief period of cultural freedom from 1956–1962 appeared unstable and shaky, as was Khrushchev’s tolerance of contemporary art, it generated momentum, providing incentives to many artists, poets, and intellectuals to speak out against government oppressions and Stalin’s terror regime.


International Relations

President Dwight Eisenhower greeting Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev on the steps of Blair House, Washington DC during his visit to the United States by Marion S. Trikosko, 1959, via The Library of Congress


A new stance of the Soviet foreign policy under Khrushchev was Khrushchev’s notion of the “peaceful coexistence” of the nations. This ideological reassessment of the Soviet foreign policy, according to Nikita Khrushchev, meant the continuation of the Marxist-Leninist policy for achieving world communism. Influenced by the paranoid determination to stay in power, Stalin misinterpreted the true meaning of Lenin’s ideas, Khrushchev stipulated. He believed that achieving world communism was possible through “peaceful coexistence”—a more conciliatory attitude toward the West—and that an ultimate “class struggle” between communism and capitalism would not “inevitably” lead to a war that would abolish capitalism forever. The new foreign policy direction of the Soviet Union completely reconsidered Stalin’s achievements and legacy, and for this reason, it is often referred to as “Stalin’s Second Funeral.”


Khrushchev and Kennedy Shaking Hands by Stanley Tretick, 1961, via National Archives Catalog


In terms of foreign policy, the Khrushchev Thaw was possible within the framework of a new peaceful climate in the international arena. The United States, under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, introduced the so-called “New Look” strategy aimed at de-escalation of the direct nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union. In 1949, the Soviet Union successfully tested its first atomic weapon and, in 1953, the first hydrogen bomb. As the United States was no longer the only country with nuclear weapons, diplomacy seemed the only option to avoid massive retaliation. Within this context, Khrushchev also opted for a gentler foreign policy, often meeting with Western leaders during different international summits.


Protesters in New York City holding signs with slogans including “Khrushchev not welcome here” and “Peaceful coexistence is suicide” during Nikita Khrushchev’s 1959 visit to the United States by Thomas O’Halloran, 1959, via The Library of Congress


The first tangible consequence of the new Soviet foreign policy was the signing of the Austrian State Treaty on May 15, 1955. The treaty re-established Austrian sovereignty after its occupation and annexation by Nazi Germany during World War II.


In 1955, Khrushchev visited Yugoslavia, declaring, “There are different roads to communism,” and later, during his visit to Great Britain in 1956, Khrushchev stated, “You do not like communism. We do not like capitalism. There is only one way out of peaceful coexistence.”


Although the leaders of the Western states assumed that the Khrushchev Thaw offered a chance to put an end to the Cold War, in reality, Khrushchev meant “peaceful competition” by “peaceful coexistence.” He continued visiting and providing financial support to countries like Afghanistan and Burma to support the spread of communism. He actively engaged in the establishment of the Warsaw Pact, a military alliance of communist countries, to counterbalance the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).


Opposition to & Legacy of the Khrushchev Thaw

Up to his old tricks again by Harold Maples, 1957, via Mary Cours Burnett Library


The Khrushchev Thaw faced opposition in the executing body of the Soviet Union, the Presidium. Fearing instability, Nikita Khrushchev was voted out of office in June 1957. However, the Central Committee of the CPSU overturned the decision, as Khrushchev enjoyed stronger support in the Central Committee. Khrushchev labeled the opposition headed by Georgy Malenkov, Vyacheslav Molotov, and Lazar Kaganovich as the “anti-party group” and managed to outmaneuver them. Aiming to outline his policy’s departure from Stalinist measures, Khrushchev did not detain or execute his opponents but transferred them to relatively minor positions.


Khrushchev did not abolish the fundamental structures of the totalitarian system either. The central government, economic planning, and the Committee for State Security controlling every level of society remained in place for a different reason: defending the socialism that Vladimir Lenin was trying to build.


By 1964, Khrushchev’s influence had decreased. Internally, the Soviet Union struggled with industrial growth and agricultural production. Internationally, the Berlin Crisis and the Cuban Missile Crisis exhausted the Soviet Union financially and damaged its prestige. The Khrushchev Thaw and “peaceful coexistence” did not bear the result Khrushchev hoped for.


In October 1964, the Presidium voted for Nikita Khrushchev’s removal, and the Central Committee could not interfere. Pravda, the Communist Party newspaper, charged him with “hare-brained schemes, half-baked conclusions, and hasty decisions and actions divorced from reality.”


However, Khrushchev’s Thaw paved the way for flexibility within the Soviet leadership and set up a chain of grassroots movements throughout the Soviet Union, especially in Eastern Europe, demanding reforms. Mass protests erupted in the summer and autumn of 1956 in Poland and Hungary. Even though the protests were suppressed with tragic consequences, they indicated the end of Stalin’s monolithic era and the possibility for change.

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By Tsira ShvangiradzeMA Diplomacy and Int'l Politics, BA Int'l RelationsTsira is an international relations specialist based in Tbilisi, Georgia. She holds a MA in Diplomacy and International Politics and a BA in International Relations from Tbilisi State University. In her spare time, she contributes articles in the field of political sciences and international relations.