11 March 2010

Khrushchev and His Time

It was sobering to notice how many of 
these magazine covers looked familiar to me!
Click on the photo above for Life's gallery,
"Why Communism Terrified Us."
Time's first Khrushchev cover, eight months 
after Stalin's death.
. . . is the name of an excellent exhibition at the Manezh, next door to the Kremlin, in Moscow. It is scheduled to close at that location on Sunday. The exhibit is a project of the Moscow House of Photography--click on this link for their English-language announcement and sample of photos. House of Photography founder Olga Sviblova explains some of the impulse behind this exhibit in her article "Why we organized the 'Khrushchev and His Time' exhibit" (Russian); here's an excerpt:
I was fortunate enough to study in one of Khrushchev's "lyceums": Mathematics School 444. It was Khrushchev who had opened special math and language schools for the restoration of a society that had been genetically altered by Stalinist repression. This same Khrushchev was the one who began taking down the Iron Curtain by way of the Youth and Student Festival in 1957, and by invitations to Western artists and performers. Under Stalin, knowing a foreign language could serve as a pretext for repression; Khrushchev began to restore foreign language instruction through those special schools.

I can't speak for others, but our school was absolutely free. We weren't just taught to think math. In our literature classes we read Aksyonov, Vosnesensky, Voinovich, Solzhenitsyn, as well as dissidents' letters. Our teachers, coming from their institutions of higher education to our school, believed that life had begun to change, and that each of us was responsible for the vectors of this change. I'll write more about this school, which did so much to shape me, on another occasion. Right now my main point is what I learned there: I was taught confidence, that we make our history with our own hands, and that freedom is inseparable from responsibility.

Under Khrushchev, our family moved from a communalka to our own separate apartment in a khrushchyovka [more pictures here] in Izmailovo. Today we are getting rid of these five-story units, and few people remember how good these gingerbread homes were, painted as they were in all colors of the rainbow, with small but private kitchens and bathrooms. ...

Khrushchev's time was a time of physicists and poets, a time when education began to be respected more than the Party membership card, a time when everyone took their backpacks and went hiking into the mountains, singing the songs of Okudzhava and Vysotsky around the campfire, looking up at the the stars--somehow we were beginning to look up to the sky, not just down at our feet.
Sviblova isn't blindly sentimental; she mentions the shadow side of the Khrushchev era, and how soon some of the old chill returned, but the Khrushchev thaw--that huge change in quality of life for millions--is as important a legacy for Khrushchev as the negatives we can so quickly recite: Hungary, the Berlin Wall, Pasternak's repression, the massive anti-religion campaign, the scandal at the Manege avant-garde artists' exhibition, the shoe-thumping at the United Nations.

In 2007, I lived in a khrushchyovka for two months. For one person, it was very nice. (Can't say what it would have been like for a family!) Memories of Khrushchev himself go back to my childhood in Chicago, to October 1962, when I remember my parents anxiously scanning the airwaves with our Hallicrafters short wave radio, trying to figure out how the Cuban missile crisis would turn out. Even before that, I remember a political cartoon--Khrushchev propelling a Soviet spacecraft into orbit by bouncing it off the U.S. president's head. And I vividly remember being in a drama class in October 1964 when I heard the news that Khrushchev had been removed from power.

At the Manezh exhibit last Saturday, deeper visual memories must have been triggered. The wall of newsmagazine cover pictures of Khrushchev included several that seemed very familiar. We were there to meet our friend Vicky and two of her English language students--all of whom were born years after Khrushchev died. Although most of the others at the exhibition were about our age or older, there were a good number of young adults in attendance.

Along with the hundreds of photos and copies of documents, video installations played loops of newsreel footage and samples of Khrushchev-era popular culture. Among the many highlights--the defense of Stalingrad; the development of the Moscow Metro; memos and orders relating to the suppression of the rebellion in Hungary; documents from the GULAG; the 1956 "secret" speech denouncing Stalin; Khrushchev meeting Van Cliburn; the Pasternak case; Khrushchev and Gagarin; and Khrushchev in retirement. As the exhibit's introductory text notes, he was the first Soviet leader who was not the least bit camera-shy; and in part the exhibit is a tribute to the wonderful photographers who took advantage of this access to help build up a cumulative portrait of this impulsive and contradictory leader who, for a season, was definitely on the world's center stage.

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Bye, Bye Bye Baby, Goodbye - Blues Masters bhgbjazz

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