In 1962, nikita Khrushchev’s Thaw was already drawing to a close. Although nobody knew it at the time, in just two years the unpredictable General Secretary would be forced into retirement by his fellow Politburo members – the first non-murderous deposition of a Russian leader in over a millennium of history.
These were strange times. Gone was the initial euphoria that swept over the intelligentsia after Khrushchev unexpectedly exposed Stalin’s Cult of Personality at the 20th Communist Party Congress in 1956. Yet overall, the Thaw seemed to be continuing. Political prisoners were returning from the Gulag. In October 1961, after Stalin was further condemned at the 22nd Congress, his body was removed from the Mausoleum on Red Square, signaling that the “vozhd of all peoples” had been deemed unworthy of reposing alongside Lenin.* The literary journal Novy Mir had published Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. The naïve generation that has been labeled the “Children of the 20th Congress” was busy producing optimistic films, writing daringly liberal books, and strumming their guitars to the tunes of romantic songs. The assumption was that the air had been cleared and from here on out things would only get better.
However, in the seven years that had passed since Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” at the 20th Congress, the powers that be had repeatedly shown they were not averse to flexing their totalitarian muscle. They had rallied the indignation of “the entire Soviet people” over the publication abroad (and subsequent Nobel Prize for author Boris Pasternak) of Doctor Zhivago (the standard phrase was, “I haven’t read Pasternak, but I can say that…”). The 1956 Hungarian uprising had been crushed by Soviet tanks. Protesting workers in Novocherkassk had been shot. And in October 1962, when Soviet missiles were sent to Cuba, humanity experienced a close brush with World War III.
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