Mass Uprisings in the USSR

Review: Ruffley on Kozlov

Vladimir A. Kozlov. Mass Uprisings in the USSR: Protest and Rebellion in the Post-Stalin Years. Translated and edited by Elaine McClarn and MacKinnon. Armonk, New York and London: M.E. Sharpe, 2002. xix + 351pp. Notes and index. $29.95 (paper), ISBN: 0-7656-0668-2.

Reviewed for H-Russia by David L. Ruffley, Department of History, Colorado College.

"Symbiotic Signals?" Mass Uprisings After Stalin

So long as the Soviet people maintained a fundamental belief in the ideals of socialism, they staged mass uprisings in protest against the "flawed" socialist reality they witnessed about them. When their communist ideals were "squeezed out of mass consciousness by the conformism, consumerism and individualism of the Brezhnev era" (pp. 313-314), the people stopped believing and the disorders stopped. This is the fundamental thesis Kozlov asserts in Mass Uprisings in the USSR.

Long on narrative and short on analysis, Kozlov's work serves as a richly documented chronicle of disturbances staged by Soviet citizens to express their discontent. Kozlov organizes his book into three parts. The first seven chapters focus on the period from 1953-1960 when destalinization caused uncertainty and unrest. Chapters 8-14 describe the 1961-1964 period, when Khrushchev'serratic reforms created general instability and even a unique type of breeding ground for riots that Kolov terms "Virgin Lands Syndrome". This syndrome was the volatile combination of young dislocated workers being sent to work in undeveloped regions and primitive living conditions. Dissatisfaction and boredom frequently provided the tension that would lead to disorders. Two chapters in this second section focus upon the "unique" 1962 riots in Novocherkassk (its "unique" nature is discussed below).Finally, Kozlov provides a single short chapter on the period from Brezhnev's accession to the 1985 arrival of Mikhail Gorbachev. Each chapter describes in detail the onset, evolution and resolution of a particular uprising, or of a closely related series of uprisings.

Kozlov contends that both the traditional Western and the Communist views of uprisings in the USSR are flawed. The Western perspective tends to emphasize uprisings as symptoms of anti-regime behavior, while Soviet Communists tended to stress the involvement of criminal elements in misleading naïve citizens. Kozlov believes the truth to lie in between these perspectives. He says that Soviet citizens arose when ethnic tension, frustration with living conditions, police heavy-handedness or officialincompetence disrupted the order of daily life. Such tensions led to incidents that sparked disorder (fights, public drunkenness, etc.). These disorders provided an opportunity for frustrated citizens to vent frustrations in riots, usually fueled by rumors. Malcontents and "hooligans" often exacerbated such disruptions for their own gain, or to settle scores with officials. Kozlovemphasizes that the "mass uprisings" of his study were not the anti-regime riots they were often depicted to be in the West. Instead, most of the uprisings featured some public adoption of the myths and ideas of official Soviet ideology. Kozlov says that the use of official slogans during disorders supports the notion that the Soviet people believed in the basic tenets of Marxism/Leninism, but were frustrated at the "corrupted" version of socialism that they saw in the reality of their dailylives. Kozlov does not deliver any deeper analysis of this issue. Readers familiar with James C. Scott's concept of public and private "transcripts" in relations between dominant and subordinate groups will find this issue tantalizing, and simultaneously find Kozlov's lack of detailed analysis to be frustrating.

Thanks to meticulous archival research (more than 90 percent of his citations are from the State Archive of the Russian Federation-GARF), Kozlov presents the names, socioeconomic backgrounds and specific activities of "ringleaders," police, soldiers and officials involved. He uses these chronicles to develop a model of the "typical" uprising. Popular discontent creates thecontext in which a pivotal event (e.g. the arrest of an alleged criminal or AWOL soldier, perceived mistreatment of a drunken citizen, or ethnic violence) generates open hostility, normally directed towards the police as representatives of "flawed" Soviet socialism. That hostility is then manipulated by persons antagonistic toward the regime (former GULAG inmates, aggrieved war veterans, criminals and "hooligans") who consistently serve as catalysts in the outbreak of mass disturbances. Actions by police and communist officials then either exacerbate the situation or lead to its resolution.

Kozlov marshals significant evidence in support of this "model" of confrontation. In particular, his detailed chronologies underscore his assertion that instigators of violent behavior were "people in whom such [social] constraints had already shut down" (p.27). In every uprising, Kozlov provides specific evidence to support the "catalytic" role of such instigators. Most participants in uprisings knew nothing of this "catalytic" role, or anything at all about these criminal elements, but Kozlovsuccessfully establishes the significant role of these few individuals. This feat could be the work's most significant contribution, but it simultaneously highlights a potential weakness. Much of Kozlov's source material is taken from police reports, KGB assessments and trial documents. Given the focus of police and security agencies (both Soviet and others) on finding criminals, it is not surprising that the documents those agencies produce emphasize the role of criminals. Therefore, it isdifficult to assess whether the criminal element, certainly prominent in Kozlov's sources, was in fact as prominent in these events as his sources assert they were. Kozlov fails to engage in any thorough source criticism of his archival findings, focusing in his chapters exclusively upon the sequence of events in each rising, leaving source criticism and analysis for others.

Several of Kozlov's chapters deserve specific discussion. Chapter 4 focuses upon a 1958 riot in Grozny. Kozlov considers this event significant because its nature and intensity led to a special Central Committee plenum to discuss mass uprisings that shaped future policy. But he also speculates that local Russian officials or KGB personnel may have taken advantage of the disorder inGrozny "for purposes of provocation" (p. 103). He supports this contention with details concerning the sudden appearance of machine-printed leaflets and cars that transported workers to the regional party building. Kozlov further notes that no satisfactory explanation for the origin of the leaflets or automobiles may be found in records of the KGB investigation. Kozlov does not say so, but the implications of this potential "provocation" are chilling in light of today's allegations of officialconspiracy in the 1999 apartment building explosions in Moscow or the 2002 theater hostage situation, both of which the regime attributes to Chechen separatists.

Chapters 12 and 13 are devoted to Novocherkassk, which Kozlov describes as unique because of the truly mass nature of the protest against price increases and wage restrictions that prompted the revolt and the direct involvement, for the first time, of Presidium-level officials in suppressing it. Kozlov contends that mishandling of the situation by those officials turned therising from a typical protest against economic conditions into a politically oriented event. Particularly valuable are Kozlov's assertions that the regime's successful "quarantine" of information about Novocherkassk and its prosecution of a limited number of "scapegoats" minimized the potential for similar risings elsewhere, allowed most mainstream participants to escape, and set the stage for the accommodation between state and people that would characterize the Brezhnev era (pp. 276-287).

Kozlov's work provides significant evidence to support his general notion that Soviet citizens stopped believing that they were building a genuinely socialist society by the early 1960's. Their calls for implementation of "genuine" socialism and complaints about Khrushchev and other "corrupt" Soviet leaders as failing to build "true" socialism reflected the fact that their everyday reality stood in stark contrast to the regime's promises and rhetoric. While this infamous "gap between words and deeds" is more commonly associated with the Brezhnev era, it clearly resonated in the slogans and banners used by the rioters that Kozlov describes. In addition, Kozlov provides descriptions of ethnic-based conflicts in Chechnia, Georgia and Central Asia that foreshadow the role of ethnic nationalism in the demise of the USSR after 1985. His descriptions and details are the book'sstrongest points. His failure to go beyond descriptions may be its weakest.

Kozlov only briefly mentions the continuity of his post-Stalin risings with such pivotal Russian events as Bloody Sunday 1905 or the traditional Russian petitions to the "good Tsar" to redress grievances caused by "bad" officials. He often describes specific rumors that served to exacerbate tensions in the risings without any discussion of the general role of rumors in such events. Likewise, Kozlov's treatment of society after Khrushchev is minimal. He sticks to his basic assertion that peoplestopped protesting when they stopped believing, content instead to settle into complacency and the pursuit of such material goods and affluence as the Brezhnev era allowed. He implies that such was the conscious policy of the Brezhnev regime, but does not examine this issue in detail. In fairness to Kozlov, the Brezhnev-era social contract is beyond the scope of his study. Nevertheless, such lack of analysis makes this book most suitable only for advanced students or scholars of Russian society. Undergraduates or the general reader may find aspects of the stories in Kozlov to be interesting, but the simple chronology ofrising after rising can degenerate into a tedious succession of meaningless names and places in the absence of contextual discussion. No maps are included, so even some of the cities where uprisings occurred, and whose names have subsequently changed, remain obscure to general readers. Finally, the book includes no bibliography. Kozlov's principle focus is on archival sources, but he does mention relevant works in his introduction that should be listed in a bibliography for the work to be moreaccessible to students.

Nevertheless, Kozlov's book makes a positive and valuable contribution to exposing some of the traditional "blank spots" in postwar Soviet history, adding to the process of fleshing out the developing mosaic that is our understanding of this pivotal period.

Copyright © 2004 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For other uses contact the Reviews editorial staff: [MAILTO][/MAILTO].