The Soviet Sixties: Dr Rob Hornsby on his new book

The Soviet Sixties has recently been published by Yale University Press. Dr Hornsby joins us to tell us more about the book.

Why did you want to write this book?

In large part because there is an incredibly eventful story to tell and it hasn’t been done yet in a standalone work.

There’s always been lots of great literature on the Russian Revolution, the Stalin years and the eventual Soviet collapse, but far less on the 1950s and 60s especially.

This was a key period when the Soviet Union was winning the space race, when Stalin was denounced and millions of prisoners were released, when Soviet youth fell in love with the Beatles and the regime was winning new friends in Africa, Asia and Latin America as decolonisation reshaped the world.

What was ‘Soviet’ about the 60s period? What did you discover that might challenge our expectations of what it was like to live through this period?

The Soviet experience of the age was like that of the ‘global sixties’ in some key ways – such as increased interaction with the outside world, optimism about building a better future, changing attitudes to sex, new developments in fashion, culture and more.

Nonetheless, the Communist Party still reigned supreme, the Soviet military twice invaded neighbouring countries, the Committee for State Security (KGB) penetrated deeper into everyday life and liberalisation could be decidedly precarious.

What characters do you think we should know more about and why?

I didn’t ‘uncover’ him in any sense, but I’d say that Nikita Khrushchev is eternally fascinating for a historian, as someone with really major achievements and failings, as well as a hugely rambunctious character, to weigh up.

Beyond that, I’d probably point you toward the cosmonauts who were some of the biggest heroes of the age, like Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova who became the first man and woman in space respectively.

The key character who was new to me is Viktor Zhdanov: a Ukrainian virologist who managed to get the global Smallpox Eradication Programme underway at the end of the 1950 and can consequently be said to have had a big role in saving hundreds of millions of lives globally. He’s going to be central to my next major research project.

What is the key point that you would like readers to take away from your book?

Maybe the key point is that the Soviet Union of the sixties era was neither the kind of terror state of the Stalin period nor the decaying colossus of its final years.

While it was still a system that was badly flawed in a great many ways, around the late 1950s and early 1960s especially, there was a tremendous vibrancy at times, too.

Whether looking at renewed discourse about equality of the sexes, great achievements in science and technology, the arrival in Soviet cinemas of Bollywood movies or new developments in art, music and literature, this was a period when a rather different model of the Soviet system came into being.

‘The Soviet Sixties’ is published by Yale University Press, 2023.

Read more about Dr Hornsby’s research on his staff profile.