The Soviet '68

Still from The Diamond Arm (Leonid Gaidai, 1968).

The Italian Slavist Gian Piero Piretto dedicated a book to what he called "Moscow’s 1968." The book's subject matter, however, was the Soviet Union in 1961. In many ways, the period of the late 50s and early 60s — symbolized most effectively by Khruschev‘s denunciation of Stalin at the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in 1956, the removal of Stalin’s embalmed body from the Mausoleum, Gagarin’s flight into space in 1961, the great explosion of film, literature, and art, and a relaxation of censorship that helped to reanimate the revolutionary romanticism of the 20s — encapsulated the forward thrust of a renewed Soviet system gradually shorn of Stalinist accretions. For many, these hopes would come crashing down (as would Gagarin himself during a routine training flight in March 1968) when Warsaw Pact tanks rolled into Prague to crush the experiment which embodied the apogee of the romantic aspirations of the 60s, namely Dubcek’s attempt to implement "Socialism with a human face." The year 1968 in the Soviet Union would represent the definite end to the illusions of the 60s and the dreams of the shestydisyatniki generation, and the arrival of a new era and another generation with more cynical and less collective strategies of dealing with the Soviet system. Any illusions of renewal through a return to the revolutionary romanticism of the early post-revolutionary years would be replaced by a certain "privatization" of dissent accompanied in wider society by a more mercenary and utilitarian attitude to the system. In the years after 1968 any remaining belief in the Soviet experiment would rapidly dwindle, although the numbers of those who would actively participate in dissident movements were never significant enough to threaten it. Paradoxical strategies of outward conformity and private dissidence would become the norm.

The Prague events are, of course, central to any understanding of the Soviet ‘68, the May events in Paris being only of peripheral interest. There was, however, a clear mutual repulsion between most of the New Left and the Soviet leaders (the story goes that a telegram was sent to the Politburo from some of the leaders of the 68 rebellion in France with the statement that they would not rest until the last monarch was hung by the guts of the last member of the Politburo). However, the mythology of the October Revolution and the early Soviet 20s was rediscovered in the West by radical and alternative western cultural figures in the late 60s (the emergence of Vertov and Medvedkin Groups linked with Jean Luc Godard and Chris Marker are a case in point) whereas Soviet artists began to turn away from their rediscovery of this period. There was a corresponding rediscovery of, say, Jean Vigo amongst Soviet cinematographers such as Shpalikov and Ioselliani. 1

The reaction to the Prague events in Soviet society in general was, at least initially, a muted one. Protests in the early 60s (not just the 1962 uprising at Novocherkassk but less well-known revolts in provincial cities throughout the Soviet Union such as in Temirtau in August 1959 and anti-police and party actions in the summer of 1961 in Murom and Alexandrov) were far more significant in terms of numbers than the demonstration of seven people on Red Square against the crushing of the Prague Spring in August 1968. Yet 1968 marked a molecular transformation of dissent linked to the transformation of private and the public spheres and the substitution of politics and ideology by the adoption of a more explicitly ethical stance as well as by the adoption of other ideological stances. Pre-68 dissident groups often remained Socialist, Marxist, or even Leninist in inspiration but this was much less the case after 1968. The dissident movement which sprang up in reaction to the Prague events, as well as the jailing of Daniel and Sinyavsky in 1965, may have relied on demands that the authorities obey their own laws or constitution but no longer was there a common acceptance of the legacy of the October Revolution or any generalized sense of the superiority of one system over another. In an oral history of Soviet Baby Boomers in the city of Saratov, Donald J. Raleigh was repeatedly told by many of his informants, that it was just after the Prague events of 1968 that they began to listen to foreign radio broadcasts and read samizdat literature.

However, the Prague events were not necessarily received unanimously in one way or another by the intelligentsia. Vladislav Zubok, in a study of the same generation entitled Zhivago’s Children, has argued that that there was more opposition to the Prague invasion amongst enlightened apparatchiks than there was amongst the intelligentsia. One representative of the Soviet intelligentsia, the filmmaker Aleksei German, stated in a book-length interview that there was a mixed reaction and he (as opposed to his future wife Svetlana Karmelita) had originally justified the realpolitik of the Soviet decision. Ironically, one of the consequences of Prague was to be the abandonment of his proposed adaptation of the Strugatskys' Hard to be a God; the sci-fi authors' proposed script had already been written and submitted in 1968. Given the changed situation in the country, the film had taken on a new, subversive tinge and after the crushing of the Prague Spring any filming on the subject proved impossible (the film was not even fully completed by his death in 2013). 3

1968 was also in many ways a kind of cut-off point in terms of the hegemony of Leninism. The call for a return to "true Leninism" was still generally accepted by the shestydesyatniki (Ilya Budraitskis pointed out that even in many dissident circles Lenin’s State and Revolution had been the seminal text for resisting the actually existing Soviet system). In Prague itself one of the slogans of the resistance to the incursion of Soviet tanks was “Lenin wake up, Brezhnev has gone mad” (in Jan Nemec’s film Oratorio for Prague there is also a positive comparison of Dubcek with Lenin). Cecile Vaissie, in her book on the Dissident movement in Russia, cites a curious incident when poets attempted to revive the Mayakovsky Readings in the late 60s. At such a reading a participant declaiming Mayakovsky’s poem "Vladimir Ilyich Lenin," was pounced upon by a militiaman, had his glasses broken and his arm dislocated while the other participants start singing the Internationale in their chorus of resistance to police violence. The changing fate of the figure of Lenin can be partly traced through the artistic representation of the leader of the world proletariat. Take the case of a film such as Sixth of July (one of the many artefacts of Leniniana of the late 60s and early 70s, when the Soviet Union was celebrating two significant events — the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution in 1967 and the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Lenin in 1970). Through Karasik’s film (scripted by a playwright who made his name dramatizing events of the early revolutionary period, Mikhail Shatrov) one can read much about the times. Its entrance into the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival was said to have been approved by Brezhnev with the words "Let the Czechs watch the film, so they can see what to expect." Based on the clashes and eventual suppression of the Left Social Revolutionaries in the summer of 1918, the film nonetheless gives the Left SRs a sympathetic hearing (Spiridonova is foregrounded as much as Lenin and not demonized). Yet only two years later the film was attacked by Party historians and Shatrov was rarely to return to his dramaturgical dissection of the early revolutionary years until the era of perestroika. Apart from Yutkevich’s polystylistic Lenin trilogy, the screen Lenins of the next decade would tend to be more hagiographical (and fetishistic) in nature, dessicated and hackneyed shadows of a once vital genre (the star of Sixth of July, Yuri Kayurov, would go on to play Lenin on the screen eighteen times). 4

The paradoxes of the Western and the Soviet ’68 were well expressed by one well known Soviet cultural scholar, Maya Turovskaya, who, upon her return from a trip to West Germany in 1968, spoke of the Soviet intelligentsia and Western radicals as travelling on two different trains going in opposite directions. As a contemporary writer, Keti Chukhrov, has argued, this could owe to the fact that the transformations in Soviet society had done very much of what the generation of western sixty-eighters had been fighting for. While the Soviet intelligentsia keenly felt the absence of some of those civic freedoms which had been attained in the mature capitalist societies. Chukhrov has argued:

Devoid of control, for a very short period of time in Soviet history, the social space of the 60s acquired features that were probably even demanded and fought for by the revolutionary generation of the Western 60s: the acceptance of all social layers into universities, criticism of the hierarchy in cultural spheres, attacks on the bourgeoisie appropriating the common good values of art, science and public sphere. In other words, the party’s hostility to certain aesthetic features, considered abstract or formalist, could have been combined with the living spaces of social equality and non-segregation. 5

The rupture which the 70s represented (leading to another dissidence either more liberal or nationalist or purely ethical than leftist) played within a logic comprised of elements of growing state corporatism, an opening to the global economy, and a society often appeased by privileges and blat (special ways of obtaining goods or privileges within the Soviet deficit economy). In this new configuration of social reality, the intelligentsia would be more willing to create oases of non-Sovietness within Brezhnev’s sclerotic system than to continue the 60s project of democratizing the Common. As Tvardovsky was to plaintively state in 1968: "Money has been rehabilitated in earnest and for a long time." 7

The kitchen, now a more private space after the house-building programmes of the post-war years, would replace the more public spaces of the Thaw as the arena of discussion. Flight into more private worlds, into the more apolitical underground culture, or flight in terms of large-scale emigration, would characterize these post-68 years. A more cynically minded intelligentsia of the 70s, as opposed to the romantic, idealist cohort of the previous decade, would emerge. Indeed, it is a curious fact that few dissidents of the 70s were students or former students (only 10% according to a study cited by Zubov in Zhivago’s Children). One could also speak of a certain consumerist wave affecting society (Gaidai’s 1968 Soviet blockbuster Diamond Arm was full of the social types of this victorious consumerism) and appeasing part of the intelligentsia after 1968; after all, few were ready to lose their privileges (which, for many, included increasing foreign travel) to join forces with dissident circles.

1968 then, in Soviet terms, while remaining a landmark year, embodied the end of 60s optimism, the termination of political hopes and illusions that the Soviet system could slowly be democratized. Just as the soixante-huitards in Western Europe were about to begin their "long march through the institutions," the Soviet intelligentsia abandoned just such a strategy (a strategy in many ways embodying their stance in the decade or so prior to 1968). In many ways 1968 represented the final abandonment of the October project. As Keti Chukhrov has put it:                  

While the Soviet 60’s still preserved … a continuity between universalist aspirations and lifestyle (“continuity between thoughts and deeds” …), the early 70s already reveal the irretrievable rupture.                 


1. No return to Revolutionary Romanticism would be seriously sustained after the late 60s though there would still be extraordinary aesthetic experiments still going on at the margins. 1968 would after all be the year of the initial screening of Parajanov’s Sayat Nova. The film director was one of the most extravagant and legendary figures of post-war Soviet cinema — author of several films recognized as masterpieces, he was once asked to star as Karl Marx in a film by one of the masters of early Soviet cinema. Imprisoned in the mid-70s, he was eventually released thanks to the mediation of Lily Brik and Louis Aragon. Parajanov was a strangely emblematic figure illuminating many of the harsh paradoxes of Soviet reality. It has been argued that it was more his willingness to put himself at the forefront of political disputes between the Ukrainian art world and the Soviet elite rather than his open bisexuality that sent him to prison. His treatment by the Soviet authorities did not stop Parajanov from being an admirer of Lenin (admittedly for aesthetic rather than political or ideological reasons).

2. Ilya Budraitskis has argued that 1968 was a watershed year for dissident movements and circles in his essay on leftist-oriented dissidents and dissident circles, Dissidents Amongst Dissidents.

3. Other film projects were abandoned in this year, including the film on the Russian Civil War Interventsia, starring the then little-known bard and actor, Vladimir Vysotsky, who would become the one alternative voice who was as much a popular idol as he was of the intelligentsia until his death during the Soviet Olympics of 1980. The increasing shelving of films and the growing censorship was evidence of the nomenklatura attempting to redraw the boundaries of the acceptable. Whether they succeeded or not is another matter.

4, Curiously even plays and films on Lenin (as much as other types of films) were also to be censored or shelved during peak Brezhnevism.

5. Keti Chukhrov, "The Soviet 60s: Just Before the End of the Project."

6. As a Khruschev favourite, Tvardovsky was to be forced out of editing the most prestigious literary journal, Novy Mir, in 1970.

7. Joseph Brodsky would echo this with his verse: "Money alone is on my mind/ The economy is central."    

Giuliano Vivaldi is a translator and writer. His writing has appeared in Senses of Cinema, Calvert Journal, Desist Film, Open Left, the Russian New Literary Observer journalHistorical Materialism, and e-flux journal