Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Spaceman and the Horse Cart

A new book captures the Soviet Sixties, the last decade when Russian Communists felt optimistic.

Credit: E.D. Aniskin

The Soviet Sixties, Robert Hornsby, Yale University Press, 675 pages

When the coup plotters overthrew Nikita Khrushchev on October 14, 1964, springing their trap at a meeting of the Presidium with a motion to strip him of all his party and state posts, Khrushchev went willingly. His son Sergei recalled his father grumbling when he returned home that night: “I am old and tired. Let them cope by themselves.” Nothing like this could have happened to Stalin, Khrushchev added, but now “the fear is gone and we can talk as equals. That’s my contribution. I won’t put up a fight.”


Had things really changed? Was the Soviet Union in the 1960s and ’70s a freer country? Yes, argues Robert Hornsby in The Soviet Sixties. The book fills a gap in the average American’s understanding of the history of Communism, which generally skips straight from purges to perestroika. There was a long period in between when the Soviet Union was not the groaning, dysfunctional gerontocracy of recent memory. The standard of living was lower than in the United States but improving rapidly. The two Cold War powers seemed evenly matched. No one was afraid of the midnight knock on the door anymore.

The Sixties in the Soviet Union began with Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” on February 25, 1956. By acknowledging Stalin’s crimes, it signaled the start of a more open era. Amazingly, the speech could easily have gone very differently or not been given at all. When Khrushchev proposed the idea, many Presidium members said it was a bad idea, some because they sincerely did not think Stalin deserved execration, others because they worried it would undermine their own position since they had all served Stalin during the period in question. They urged Khrushchev to postpone the speech until more historical research could be done or to leaven his criticism with praise for Stalin’s accomplishments. It was Nikolai Bulganin who backed up Khrushchev and said he must give the speech as intended, because “party members could already see that the attitude toward Stalin had changed” and “it would look cowardly not to raise the issue.”

There was still oppression in the new era, but nothing like the bad old days. Hornsby gives the number of prosecutions for counterrevolutionary crimes per year: In the late 1940s, the average was 100,000; in the early 1950s, 40,000; in 1954, 2,000; in 1955, 1,000; in 1956, 400. In 1957, during the last big crackdown on dissent, it ticked back up to 2,000, but “less than 2 percent were jailed for ten years or more; and nobody was executed.” There was also none of the deranged paranoia from the top that had characterized the Terror. Under Khrushchev, Hornsby says, “convictions were seemingly rooted in concrete events that had actually happened, rather than in invented conspiracies.”

People who made off-color jokes about party leaders in the workplace were not sent off to the gulag anymore. They were instead given the profilaktika (phrophylaxis) treatment, which came in two forms. “Open” prophylaxis meant your workplace or your apartment block would bring up your error at a public meeting, give you a chance to apologize, and offer suggestions for improvement. “Private” prophylaxis meant the local KGB would invite you for a chat, warn that they were watching you, and explain the consequences of continuing on your path. “The use of intimidation from officialdom (rather than outright repression) and social pressure from the wider public were to be at the heart of this new approach to tackling the erring citizen without branding them ‘anti-Soviet’ at the first sign of trouble,” Hornsby writes. Perhaps it did work. According to the KGB, “the majority of those subjected to prophylactic measures did not offend again.”

All of this mellowing took place under an unlikely reformer. Khrushchev was, after all, a former protege of Stalin. He was also very stupid. He once gave a speech in Tashkent praising the wonderful Tajiks in the audience for their success in growing cotton, which they were doing much better than those lazy Uzbeks next door. An aide had to quickly tell him that it was actually Uzbeks he was talking to. But Khrushchev’s impulsiveness had its upside. If something struck him as a good idea, he would do it, without thinking too much about how to rationalize his decision ideologically. That was how Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn came to publish his camp novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in the literary journal Novy Mir in November 1962. Khrushchev bypassed the censors and gave the editors his personal permission.


Most Russian liberals were still determined to work within the system. The Soviet Union had many flaws, they reasoned, but these would be corrected through reform, not by overthrowing the government. In contrast to American and European campuses during this period, university students did not riot or declare their government illegitimate. The only campus unrest Hornsby mentions involved students from the Third World. Twenty Nigerian university students brawled with their Russian peers in Leningrad in 1964 “after months of escalating tensions had gone un-addressed.” A Ghanaian student named Edmund Assare-Addo was found dead in a gutter in Moscow in December 1963, and friends claimed he was knifed to death by a Russian who resented his pursuit of Slavic women (Russian authorities said the victim passed out drunk in the snow). Five hundred African students gathered in Red Square to stage a protest against racism, drawing the attention of the Western press.

For the average Russian, the Sixties had nothing to do with the treatment of dissidents, of whom there were very few. The story was rising living standards. One million Russian households owned T.V. sets in 1955. It was 10 million by 1963 and 25 million by 1969. The number of people working in the retail sector doubled over the course of the decade. Some of this was a conscious choice by party leaders to reorient the economy toward consumer goods. Some of it was having more prosperity to go around in the first place: between 1961 and 1969, the first Siberian oil deposits were tapped and Russia became a net exporter of oil.

The space race was competitive, with the Soviets beating America into orbit with Sputnik in 1957 and then sending the first man into space with Vostok 1 on April 12, 1961, a date still celebrated today in Russia as Cosmonautics Day. When Yuri Gagarin returned to earth, he landed hundreds of miles off course in the Saratov Oblast and had to hitch a ride with a peasant woman on a horse-drawn cart to find a telephone. Something about that juxtaposition, captured in a famous photograph, conveys the essence of the Soviet Sixties: the old world of the village and the new world of space travel joined in a common enterprise, making their ramshackle way into the future.

Something else the Gagarin episode captures is the self-confidence Russians felt during the Sixties, to an extent rare in their history and not just the Communist period. Hornsby quotes a computer programmer who remembers the high quality of Russian technology under Khrushchev but sighs, “We made our last good computer in 1962.” As Hornsby explains, the decline was the result of “opting to copy Western blueprints, rather than producing home-grown designs.” This echoes something American scholar Donald Raleigh records in his oral history of Soviet Baby Boomers. One interviewee tells him that, under Brezhnev, “You’d come with an idea, let’s say, and the first question that arose was ‘And over there in the West? Do they have this? If they don’t have it, then why do we need it?’ Under Khrushchev this question never arose.”

Every country ought to feel that kind of self-respect, even our enemies, even those that operate under evil systems of government, as Communism surely was. Reading about Russia’s reforms and successes during the period in Hornsby’s book, I did not find myself, as a reader, rooting for them to win the Cold War. Yet I did not want them to hurry up and reach the cultural cringe of the 1980s when they felt they could do nothing right, either. 

To close with a personal anecdote: When I gave birth to my youngest son, the delivery room nurse happened to be from Belarus. We started talking about Slavic matters, since my husband is Russian, and I made a joke about going into labor so close to Cosmonautics Day and how if the baby had arrived a few days earlier, I would have had no choice but to name him “Yuri.” As soon as I said it, I felt like an idiot, because I had no idea whether Cosmonautics Day is taken seriously in Belarus or regarded as a relic or a joke. To my surprise, the nurse nodded with great seriousness, “Yes, Cosmonautics Day.” And then after a long pause said, “He was a great man.” 

How strange, I thought, to have a new holiday on the calendar that commemorates one of your country’s great accomplishments instead of some historical sin like slavery or indigenous genocide. In the totally unironic way this woman spoke of Gagarin’s greatness, I detected honest civilizational pride. There were many things in Hornsby’s book that reminded me of the country I live in today, including ideological profilaktika. That pride was the biggest difference.