Don’t Forget Czechoslovakia

A Czech student stands on top of a Soviet tank waving a Czech flag (1968)

“At 3am 21 August 1968, I woke up to a completely different world from that one I went to sleep in, just a few hours earlier. The only way how you can help us is this: not to forget Czechoslovakia, don’t forget Czechoslovakia. Please excuse my bad grammar, with the Russian tanks under my window I just can’t concentrate well enough, thank you.” (Appeal by Czech Student) These were the closing words of a radio broadcast in English from a Czech student to other students of the world. The broadcast was recorded on the 22nd of August 1968, a day after the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw troops in response to the ‘Prague Spring’—the movement away from the prescribed ideas of Socialism. How did Warsaw troops come to invade a country that was part of their Pact?

Listen to the full Appeal by Czech Student here

“Socialism with a Human Face”

This was the slogan used by Alexander Dubcek to promote political reform in Czechoslovakia following his rise to power in early 1968. His plans were entitled the Action Program, and in them he called for a new Czechoslovak constitution granting greater personal freedoms including freedoms of assembly and speech. “The working people . . . can no longer be prescribed, by any arbitrary interpretation from a position of power, what information they may or may not be given, which of their opinions can or cannot be expressed publicly, where public opinion may play a role and where not.” (Action Program) What followed was a widespread movement in the country pushing for the economic, social, and political reforms suggested by Dubcek. This movement was mostly led by intellectuals and students though worker and farmers were also involved. “On 10 August the Communist Party [of Czechoslovakia] itself drafted new party statutes to require secret balloting, set term limits, and permit intra-party factions.” (Freeze, p.436)

Party poster of Alexander Dubcek. Text reads “I am with you, be with us!” (1968)

Off the Road of Socialism

These movements of political reform proved too much for other Soviet leadership to handle. July 18, 1968 the Warsaw letter was released as a warning to Czech reformers saying the “offensive of reactionary forces . . . threatens to push your country off the road of socialism and thus jeopardize the interests of the entire socialist system.” (The Warsaw Letter) The letter argued that the reformers were backed by anti-socialist forces who sought to bring anarchy to the socialist system as a whole. The movement was called a threat to the foundations of socialism and warned that only as a socialist country could Czechoslovakia retain its sovereignty—not threatening at all. Resistance to the reformer also came from within Czechoslovakia. An August 1968 letter from five Czech party officials to Brezhnev called for the Soviet Union’s aid in restoring socialism in Czechoslovakia. The hardliners wrote that the failures of their party leadership had weakened the country to right-wing forces and, “request for you to lend support and assistance with all the means at your disposal.” (Hardliners “Request”) It is unclear how much this letter influenced the Soviet’s decisions for military intervention in Czechoslovakia, however, it did assist with justification after the fact; and until 1992, the letter was sealed in the Moscow Communist Party archives in a folder labeled “Never to be Opened.” (Hardliners “Request”)

Military Intervention and the Brezhnev Doctrine

All this culminated in the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact troops August 21, 1968. The move was met with much backlash from communists around the world at in the Soviet Union itself. In September the Brezhnev Doctrine was published in Pravda as an attempt to justify the invasion. In it he argued that while other socialist countries had the right to determine their own paths, those decisions could “damage neither socialism in their own country, nor the fundamental interests of the other socialist countries.” (Brezhnev Doctrine) Later in the doctrine, Brezhnev frames the decision to intercede with armed forces as a last resort on the part of the Soviet government. Despite the backlash to the invasion, the Czech reformers movement had been broken, but the Czech students radio message to other students around the world “don’t forget Czechoslovakia” was a reminder that for a short time, democracy and socialism were able to coexist.             

Sources

Appeal by Czech Students to the World (August 22, 1968). (2017, November 28). Retrieved from http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1968-2/crisis-in-czechoslovakia/crisis-in-czechoslovakia-audio/appeal-by-czech-students-to-the-world-august-22-1968/

Brezhnev Doctrine. (2015, September 1). Retrieved from http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1968-2/crisis-in-czechoslovakia/crisis-in-czechoslovakia-texts/brezhnev-doctrine/

Czechoslovak Communist Party. (1968, April). Action Program. Retrieved from http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1968-2/crisis-in-czechoslovakia/crisis-in-czechoslovakia-texts/action-program/

Freeze, G. L. (2009). Russia: a history (Third). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hardliners “Request” Soviet Intervention. (2015, September 1). Retrieved from http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1968-2/crisis-in-czechoslovakia/crisis-in-czechoslovakia-texts/hardliners-request-soviet-intervention/

Siegelbaum, L. (2015, September 1). Crisis in Czechoslovakia. Retrieved from http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1968-2/crisis-in-czechoslovakia/

TASS. (1968, July 18). The Warsaw Letter. Retrieved from http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1968-2/crisis-in-czechoslovakia/crisis-in-czechoslovakia-texts/the-warsaw-letter/

All images from 17 Moments

What’s a Woman to Think? That She Doesn’t Have Time for Anything.

The Machine Turner Andreeva | V. Andreev (1955)

“It was morning—the beginning of another day which, just like hundreds of days before it and thousands of days to come, would be filled with the bitterness and boredom of endless, terribly petty and soul-destroying work, all the things which filled the life of a housewife, the life of millions and millions of women.” (Fadeev) This quote comes from the novel Ferrous Metallurgy written by Aleksandr Fadeev in 1954. The excerpt of the novel found on Seventeen Moments is from the point of view of Tina, a soviet housewife, who is beginning to question the life she lives. In the excerpt she and her husband begin to argue about Tina getting a job and their conversation emphasizes many of the issue’s women were facing in the 1950s Soviet Union. Tina’s husband tells her that he does not want her to look tired and aged like a friend’s wife who had a job and still completes all the housework to take care of the family. Tina counters saying she is no better than a servant to her husband and his family implying that she would at least be his equal if they both worked.

Setting aside the issue that her husband’s reason for not wanting her to work is her appearance, his comment highlights one of the major struggles of women during this time: the double burden. The double burden describes the two full-time jobs that women were forced to endure: their profession and housework. The rights of women had increased greatly in previous years—they were full citizens and had many more work opportunities—however, the traditional domestic responsibilities of women remained. They were simply expected to do all the cooking, washing, sewing, and childcare (traditionally a full-time job) on top of their other full-time job. (Maksimova) “It Is Her Right” an article published in 1954 by E. Maksimova shows this mentality of assuming women’s domestic roles by quoting an overheard conversation between two men. The first man stating, “So, according to you, women enjoy doing the washing when they come home from work” and the second man replying, “What do you mean? They’re women, aren’t they? Anyway, physical labor is good for you.” (Maksimova) It was simply assumed that women must like domestic work because they were women. In her essay Maksimova explores the impact of the double burden on the daily lives of two women. Both women are successful at their careers but struggle to do all the work expected of them in their domestic lives let alone have free time for things such as reading or the cinema. Maksimova also discusses how the few attempts by the government to relieve the domestic burden placed on women, such as public laundry facilities, proved ineffective. So few were provided that they were often inaccessible to most women.

One factor contributing to the double burden on women was the reinforcement of traditional gender roles—specifically the image of the housewife and school teacher. (von Geldern) The re-legalization of abortion in 1955 was an important factor in shaping the public perception of gender norms during this time. As with the previous legalization of abortion, the government was not in support of women’s reproductive freedoms but wanted to prevent illegal abortion. Supported by the government, the anti-abortion campaign emphasized, “a more heteronormative family model and a new image of ‘responsible’ husbands and fathers in the post-Stalin era which embedded masculine identity more firmly in the family.” (Randall) The promotion of domesticity and patriarchal family structure combined with the double burden placed on women show the lack of reform and progress regarding gender issues following Stalin’s death.

Sources

Fadeev, A. (2015, September 1). Fadeev on the Housewife. Retrieved from http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1954-2/whats-a-woman-to-think/whats-a-woman-to-think-texts/fadeev-on-the-housewife/

Maksimova, E. (2015, September 1). It Is Her Right. Retrieved from http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1954-2/whats-a-woman-to-think/whats-a-woman-to-think-texts/it-is-her-right/

Randall, A. E. (2017, May 21). Repealing the Ban on Abortion. Retrieved from http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1956-2/repealing-the-ban-on-abortion/

von Geldern, J. (2015, September 1). What’s a Woman to Think? Retrieved from http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1954-2/whats-a-woman-to-think/

A Shiny New Moscow . . . Sort of

Plans of Grandeur

The late 1920s and the 1930s were an iconic time in architectural history. It was the height of the Modernist movement with notable architects such as Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe of the Bauhaus, the Spanish architect Le Corbusier, and American architect Frank Lloyd Wright designing some of their most famous buildings. In the Soviet Union, architectural projects took a different stylistic route than the west. One of the major architectural and urban plans of the Soviet period was the rebuilding of Moscow. It was a massive undertaking signed in 1935—though revitalization had already begun as early as 1931—with plans to restructure the entire city in 10 years. The new city plan was based on a radial district structure that would increase Moscow to three times its size and allow for a population of 5,000,000. The designs would incorporate new highways and transportation systems, monumental government buildings, apartments, and lots of public parks. In the 1935 decree it was stated that “the construction and architectural design of the capital of the U.S.S.R. must perfectly reflect the grandeur and the beauty of the Socialist epoch.” (Denny, 17 Moments) The image created for Moscow was an idyllic vision of an urban utopia which is ironic considering the dark and bloody aspects of the 1930s under Stalin (a representation of this can be seen in the impressionist style painting New Moscow which I found amusing and made the cover image for my blog).  

Master Plan of Moscow, 1935

The World’s Best Metro

While plans for the rebuilding of Moscow were being created construction has already begin to create the “most modern conceivable system of transportation”—the Moscow Metro. Construction of the metro system began in 1932 and was backed by a massive publicity campaign by the Soviet government to ensure its success. The project was directed by Moscow Municipal Soviet chairman Nikita Khrushchev and Lazar Kaganovich, another leading politician who would later be purged by Khrushchev in 1957. The metro opened in 1935 and stations unexpectedly became tourist destinations. “Stations in central Moscow are like palaces, walls clad in precious stone, decorated by mosaics and grandiose sculptures.” (Moscow Metro, 17 Moments) Despite the Metro’s decorative elements that “mocked utility” it was a symbol of national pride and did much to improve the image of the party. (Freeze p.361)   

A Failed Utopian Symbol

The major architectural feat attempted under the reconstruction of Moscow—and the centerpiece of the new city plan—was the Palace of the Soviets. Planning for the building began as early as 1931 with an architectural competition that received 160 entries from both Soviet and foreign architects—including leading modernist architects Gropius and Le Corbusier. The final design selected was by Boris Iofan a Soviet architect, “his terraced, colonnaded palace was to be the tallest building in the world, soaring eighty meters above the recently completed Empire State Building. It was to be crowned with a massive, 90-meter tall statue of Lenin.” (Rebuilding of Moscow, 17 Moments) Many scholars have assumed that this design shows the Soviets rejection of western modernism, however, Sona Stephan Hoisington argues that this is not necessarily the case as many modernist designers were invited by the government to participate in the competition and were some of the top awarded designs. She further states that “what started out as a practical complex . . . was rapidly transformed into a symbol of Soviet might and the determination to overtake America and into a sacred space, a temple to the revolution . . .” (Stephan Hoisington, 42) To further press the point of Soviet power, the site chosen for the Palace of the Soviets was the massive Cathedral of Christ the Redeemer which was demolished in 1931. In place of the church, the Soviets wanted to construct something visually dominating that represented the power and authority of the government. (Stephan Hoisington, 47) Construction of the building began in 1935, but despite the Soviets grand plans for an architectural symbol, the Palace of the Soviets was never completed. Construction was halted with the Nazi invasion and in 1960 the largest outdoor heated swimming pool was opened on the site. (Rebuilding Moscow, 17 Moments)         

Stalinist Architectural and Shifting Cultural Sensibilities

The development of Stalinist architecture can be seen as a reflection of changing cultural sensibilities in the Soviet Union and as part of the “Great Retreat” from revolutionary values. The increased focus on the capital city as a symbol of the Soviet Union’s power, represents what Freeze calls ‘the consolidation of the center’. It “signaled a new hierarchy of values, by which society’s attention shifted from the many to the one outstanding representative.” (Freeze, p.361) This shifting focus towards achievements of the individual rather that the whole can be seen in other aspects of Soviet society in the 1930s such as Stakhanovism and Stalin’s Falcons. As part of this reconstruction, many large stadiums were built and encouraged the growing interest in competitive sports. (Physical Culture, 17 Moments) All these elements incorporated in the reconstruction of Moscow seem to contradict many revolutionary values of discipline and celebration of the many not the few. The use of monumental and more classical architecture as symbols of authority and power show the shift towards traditionalism that developed with Stalinism in the 1930s.

Sources

Denny, H. (2016, January 14). Soviet to Rebuild Moscow In 10 Years. Retrieved from http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1936-2/rebuilding-of-moscow/soviet-to-rebuild-moscow-in-10-years/

Freeze, G. L. (2009). Russia: a history (Third). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Siegelbaum, L. (2017, June 18). Rebuilding of Moscow. Retrieved from http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1936-2/rebuilding-of-moscow/

Stephan Hoisington, S. (2003). “Ever Higher”: The Evolution of the Project for the Palace of Soviets. Slavic Review62(1), 41–68.

von Geldern, J. (2015, October 13). Physical Culture. Retrieved from http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1934-2/physical-culture/

von Geldern, J. (2015, August 27). The Moscow Metro. Retrieved from http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1934-2/the-moscow-metro/

All images are from 17 Moments – Rebuilding of Moscow

The Workers Behind Kasli Cast Iron Sculpture

Molding of an Artistic Casting at Kasli Iron Works, photo by Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii
Molding of an Artistic Casting | Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii (1910)

Taken in 1909 by Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii, this image—Molding of an Artistic Casting—depicts men working at the Kasli Iron Works Factory. The town of Kasli—in present day Chelyabinsk Oblast—is located in the Ural Mountain region about 100 miles from the border of Kazakhstan. Many factories can be found in this region as it was well known for its iron ore deposits. Kasli’s cast iron works were renowned for their artistry throughout the 20th and late 19th centuries. The factory was one of the few in this region that was kept operational by the Soviets when they took power and it is still in use today. Items from the factory were first displayed internationally at the 1867 Paris exposition and would continue to be presented at many domestic and international expositions. In 1900, works from the Kasli factory won the grand prize at the Paris exposition for its cast iron pavilion.

In the image, the foreground figure can be seen cleaning a cast object that has been created through precision casting—also known as lost wax casting. This method of casting metal dates to ancient Mesopotamia. The process uses a wax model of the desired metal form around which layers of sand and ceramic glazes create a mold. The wax is melted out of the mold. This step gives the casting process its name as the wax model is lost in the mold’s creation. Metal is then poured into the ceramic mold to create the item. This method of casting produces high quality metal artifacts with smooth finishes and allows for intricate details in the design. An open mold with a wax model sitting inside can be seen on the table next to the main figure. A second man wearing a hat sits working next the first figure and the legs and hand of a third figure can be seen on the left hand side of the image.       

At the time of this image, the Kasli factory employed a highly skilled workforce numbering over three thousand workers. The factory produced high quality artistic and architectural cast iron pieces. The workers were master craftsmen whose skill had been cultivated over generations since 1747 when the foundry was established. These artisans passed their knowledge down to younger generations just as they had learned from those before them. (Heller, p.53-55) The appearance of Kasli works at international exhibits came six years after the Emancipation Manifesto in 1861. The new—if limited—freedom from the emancipation would have allowed for an increase in peasants moving to skilled factory work rather than farming. The success of Kasli’s cast iron works at the 1900 exhibition also align with social and economic changes in Russia. This international recognition of artistic excellence came near the end of the ‘Witte era’ with the promotion of domestic industries and industrial growth. Government policies under the Minister of Finance Sergei Witte would have been beneficial for factories such as Kasli Iron Works in increasing production and international recognition.     

Old Woman at the Spinning Wheel by Vasilii Torokin
“Old Woman at the Spinning Wheel” | Vasilii Fedorovich Torokin

Molding of an Artistic Casting is a fascinating image as it shows highly skilled labor and artistic expression at a time of industrialization and social unrest. In most western countries, increased industrialization led to the decrease in skilled labor jobs; however, the Kasli factory was able to flourish while maintaining traditional techniques during periods of industrialization in Russia. Some artists of the Kasli factory, such as Vasilii Fedorovich Torokin, were cognizant of the social injustices in Russian society and used their craft to express these views—often through the depiction of the peasant class. (Mezenin) An example of this is Torokin’s sculpture “Old Woman at the Spinning Wheel.” At the time, Torokin’s work was remarked upon as having “democratic tendencies.” (Mezenin) Prokudin-Gorskii’s photograph gives a glimpse into the techniques of the Kasli Iron Works factory and allows the viewer an understanding of the lives of the people who worked there.

Sources

Castings made by Kasli masters, using their own models. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://izi.travel/en/8741-castings-made-by-kasli-masters-using-their-own-models/en

Freeze, G. L. (2009). Russia: a history (Third). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Heller, A. A. (2010). Industrial Revival in Soviet Russia. Place of publication not identified: Nabu Press.

Mezenin, N. (1979). Wonders of Kasli. Metallurgist23(6), 425–427.

Mikhaĭlovich, S. (1970, January 1). Formovka khudozhestvennago litīi︠a︡. [Kasli]. Retrieved from https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2018679475/

Precision Casting. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.investmentcastchina.com/precision-casting/

Prokudin-Gorskii. (1970, January 1). Molding of an Artistic Casting. Kasli Iron Works. Retrieved from https://www.wdl.org/en/item/5255/#q=Prokudin-Gorskii&page=4

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