Accessibility links

Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Uncovered Protests

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 7 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A recent study documents that Soviet citizens frequently took part in protests against the authorities during the Khrushchev and Brezhnev periods far more often than anyone in the West knew or even suspected. The study "Mass Disorders in the USSR Under Khrushchev and Brezhnev" by Vladimir Kozlov was published in Novosibirsk in 1999. However, up to now, it has attracted relatively little attention. Thanks to a review in the current issue of the "Journal of Cold War Studies," published by Harvard University's Davis Center, that will almost certainly change.

That review points out that "most Western scholars assumed that public protest in the Soviet Union was confined to dissidents imprisoned in labor camps for publishing criticism of the Soviet government or for seeking to practice their religious beliefs."

The only exceptions to that image of a thoroughly cowed Soviet population were the 1956 demonstrations in Georgia after Nikita Khrushchev's anti-Stalin campaign began and the 1962 strike in Novocherkassk by workers protesting price rises.

But that image of the Soviet system and its people was a product of the tight controls Moscow imposed on the media rather than a reflection of reality. Using archival materials from the USSR Prosecutor's Office and correspondence between the Interior Ministry and the Communist Party's Central Committee staff, Kozlov shows that many Soviet citizens engaged in protests at a time most outsiders viewed them as quiescent cogs of the state.

Indeed, Kozlov argues, there were so many of what he calls "mass disorders" that it is possible to place them in four different categories.

First, immediately after the death of Stalin in 1953, incidents of mass unrest consisted of largely unorganized acts of violence by marginal groups such as alcoholics and criminals protesting their specific conditions. Most of these took place in Siberia or Kazakhstan, Kozlov reports.

Second, throughout the Khrushchev period, Kozlov said, groups of people, especially unemployed young men, frequently staged protests and even strikes to seek better living conditions or improved employment opportunities. They sometimes destroyed property or attacked others in their neighborhoods whom they blamed for their own conditions.

Third, there were ethnic riots in various places, first and foremost among the nationalities originally from the Caucasus which had been deported by Stalin to Central Asia. Sometimes these took the form of clashes between former deportees and the people who had moved into their traditional territories. And sometimes they occurred between the deported nationalities and the Kazakh community among whom the deportees were living.

And fourth, there were the political demonstrations, like the pro-Stalin marches in Georgia in March 1956. In sharp contrast to the others, these protests tended to be extremely well-organized, Kozlov reports, something that was especially frightening to the authorities. Moreover, he reports, many of these actions took place as a response to a specific state policy.

According to Kozlov, the wave of mass unrest began to decline by the end of Khrushchev's time in office (1964) and was almost completely gone by the beginning of the 1970s. He explains this trend by a combination of improved pay and expanded penalties for engaging in hooligan-type activities.

Whether Kozlov's report is comprehensive is unclear: it is uncertain whether other archives he did not gain access to might show a different or even greater pattern of unrest. But what he does report and what the review does suggest points to three important lessons:

First, the absence of press reports in countries with little or no media freedom about unrest does not prove that there is no unrest or that the population is completely intimidated.

Second, the Soviet government was obviously far more worried by such unrest and the potential for it to grow than its public statements ever indicated, a degree of concern that helps to explain why Leonid Brezhnev ran the country the way he did.

And third, unrest under conditions when it is unlikely to be reported by the media or to gain its authors their ends suggests that the people of the former Soviet Union were less docile than many analysts and scholars have suggested. Kozlov's book may serve as a not-so-distant mirror of a society once again going through wrenching changes, just as the Soviet people did after the death of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.