Terror and Respect, or Terror and Pity? Soviet Tragedy and Khrushchev’s Secret Speech

Anatoly Pinsky

Rereading Helen Muchnic, “The Concept of Tragedy in Russian and Soviet Literature,” The Russian Review 23, 1 (January 1964): 25-34.


A scene from the production of Hamlet in 1954 at the State Academic Drama Theater in Leningrad.

In the first issue of The Russian Review from 1964, the critic Helen Muchnic published an essay, “The Concept of Tragedy in Russian and Soviet Literature,” originally delivered as a lecture at Dartmouth College the previous year.[1] Muchnic was a professor of literature at Smith College and the author of classic studies of Russian letters such as An Introduction to Russian Literature and its sequel, From Gorky to Pasternak.[2] In the 1960s, she was a frequent contributor to The Russian Review, as well as other publications, including The New York Review of Books. To “The Concept of Tragedy in Russian and Soviet Literature” Muchnic brought a characteristic elegance, an incisiveness at once searching and modest. Sidney Monas once described Muchnic’s approach to Russian literature as “a kind of passionate nostalgia, a kind of commitment that comes from withdrawal,” and celebrated her work as marked by “a dignity and a depth that mocks easy conclusions.”[3]

“The Concept of Tragedy in Russian and Soviet Literature” was a response to another eloquent work, George Steiner’s The Death of Tragedy, which had appeared several years earlier. It was Steiner’s view that in the seventeenth century, with the fall of classical and Christian mythology and the rise of reason, dramatic tragedy began to vanish from the cultural scene. In the early modern era, men and women became more optimistic; armed with rational thought, they believed they could overcome the most intractable problems of human history, rendering tragedy almost unthinkable.[4] In Muchnic’s view, Steiner had gotten the story slightly wrong. Steiner “argues brilliantly that tragedy is dead,” Muchnic writes, “and doubtless it is, in its original form.” However, she goes on to observe: “Maybe, however, it is not really dead. Maybe it is still alive, but somewhat different, in the guise of a new definition.”[5] Like Steiner, Muchnic defines tragedy as a kind of disaster that is ineluctable and unappeasable, one that places men and women face to face with the specter of terror. To define “terror,” both critics invoke James Joyce, who cast it as “the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human suffering.” For both Muchnic and Steiner, tragic literature leads us to pose questions that might point to a semblance of justice in our cruel world, questions that ennoble but, in the end, are unanswerable. Tragedy, in this interpretation, tells stories of human beings who die, but who long to live, eternally even. Yet in making an effort to survive, they die well.[6]

Where Muchnic departs from Steiner is in her view of Russia’s nineteenth century. In the works of Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy, “the outcome is bright,” but “tragic events […] occur in an ultimately untragic context: [these works] too are concerned with what is ‘grave and constant in human suffering.’”[7] In classical and Elizabethan tragedy, the tragic hero is famous and highly placed; classical Russian literature, however, posited a different sort of tragic hero. Russian authors, Muchnic writes, effected a “redefinition, a kind of sly, satiric comment on grandiose emotions strutting about in buskins on an elevated stage, and a poignant recreation of tragic experience pacing out its doom on city streets in ordinary footgear, in the tattered shoes of an Akakii Akakievitch, for instance, or the elegant slippers of an Anna Karenina.”[8] These characters boast little control over their lives; and, in the background, one witnesses not a chorus that pities their plight (as in Greek tragedy), but instead a society that compounds it: “Petty, malicious and tyrannical, far from allaying the pain of tragedy, [society] intensifies it, and makes the beholder all the more sympathetic with the protagonist and the more ready to condemn his world.”[9] For Muchnic, then, the problems of humanity not only persisted following the rise of reason in the seventeenth century, but were democratized, though they were no less tragic for their personification in lesser heroes.

In Muchnic’s opinion, if tragedy experienced a decline in Russia, it came after the revolution. For the Communists, she explains, disaster and suffering are the lot of the deserving, doled out in just portions by hardened men. Reason, in this view, conquered all. Questions that cannot be answered are not asked because they do not exist. Yet even in the Soviet Union, Muchnic suggests, tragedy endured. The genre survived in Sholokhov’s The Silent Don—in Grigorii Melekhov’s impulsive, but failed, search for justice—despite the intentions of Sholokhov himself. The genre was reborn, albeit underground, in Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. In the novel, Pasternak’s eponymous hero offers up his own poetry as a claim to immortality. As in the literature of the nineteenth century, the outcome is bright; but, Muchnic hints, it is only in our fantasies that words succeed in stopping time and arresting death.

In this essay, I would like to commemorate Muchnic’s beautiful article, and celebrate the anniversary of the journal in which it appeared, by making a twofold effort to elaborate on it. First, I will review the ways in which the discussion of tragedy, in scholarship not only on Russian literature, but also on Russian theater and film, has evolved since the appearance of Muchnic’s article nearly sixty years ago. In doing so, I will focus on part of the period covered in Muchnic’s essay: the years between the October Revolution and the early post-Stalin era, which witnessed the publication of Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. My goal is to show that tragedy endured under Stalin, not merely in Sholokhov’s novel, and in fact became an important genre in the years immediately after his death. In the second part of this essay, I will read what was perhaps the most consequential historical document of the early post-Stalin years, Nikita Khrushchev’s so-called secret speech, as a tragedy. As I hope to show, Khrushchev’s speech resembled a drama in which reason did not so much conquer as terrorize.


First, let’s take a small step back. In 1958, before the publication of Muchnic’s article, Rufus Mathewson, in his The Positive Hero in  Russian Literature, wrote briefly of the fate of tragedy in the early Soviet Union. Trotsky, Mathewson explained, claimed in Literature and Revolution that dramatic tragedy was the pinnacle of art, and, at the Writers’ Congress of 1934, Gorky promised that Soviet writers would soon create masterpieces of tragic art (without citing Trotsky, of course). Thereafter, Soviet critics debated the desired look of the genre. The Soviet view that came to the fore, Mathewson writes, “focuses […] attention on the catharsis, as the critical moment at which new truths are apprehended, and tinkers with its mechanism so that it yields the spectator not tragic reconciliation (through pity and terror), but political inspiration (through pity and respect).” In this version of tragedy, men and women die, but willingly and unencumbered by terror. They sacrifice themselves in the service of Marxist reason, which triumphs in the end, and their example inspires the spectator to follow in their footsteps. The most famous work of this genre was Vsevolod Vishnevskii’s 1933 play, The Optimistic Tragedy, about a unit of sailors who perish in the civil war, but for the good of the cause. Mathewson tends to side with Muchnic: Soviet tragedy was not true tragedy, because it was exceedingly pat, both intellectually and emotionally.[10]

This disregard for Soviet “tragedy” was shared widely by anglophone critics in the 1950s, 1960s, and well after.[11] Over the last two decades, however, scholars have uncovered examples of other, more full-blooded, versions of tragedy under Lenin and Stalin. Mark Steinberg, for instance, has unearthed a “tragic sense” in proletarian literature in the first years of the revolution. Worker writers, he explains, reflected on the inevitability of suffering and thus the false promises of reason.[12] Scholars of Soviet Shakespeare, for their part, have identified productions of the bard’s plays that retained a tragic ethos, despite the intentions of directors. As Arkady Ostrovsky has written, stagings of Othello and Romeo and Juliet in 1935 featured actors who failed to strike the heroic pose of optimistic tragedy. Most significant was a production of King Lear that same year, starring Solomon Mikhoels. For Mikhoels, “King Lear was, above all, a philosophical tragedy of mistaken thought.”[13] Pasternak, of course, was a central figure in the world of Soviet Shakespeare. Between 1940 and 1951, he translated six of Shakespeare’s tragedies, including Hamlet, which famously informed the writing of Doctor Zhivago.[14]

If tragedy survived in Stalin’s Soviet Union in Shakespeare, it found masterful expression in Eisenstein’s film trilogy, Ivan the Terrible. (Although the three films were inspired by Shakespearean tragedy, Muchnic, who focused on literature, does not mention it, nor does Steiner). In her recent study of the films, Joan Neuberger argues that Eisenstein’s conception of tragedy aptly characterized Ivan, Russian history, and Eisenstein himself. In Eisenstein’s view, absolute rule is ineluctably tragic, for it “creates impossible moral choices for any human being.” Ivan felt tremendous remorse for the suffering he caused, and so questioned his actions; but invariably he smothered his doubts and claimed even more power for himself. As a filmmaker, Eisenstein himself sought and gained power, but he “discovered that power and success could be maintained only through untenable moral compromises.” In this tragedy as well, reason is not supreme. “In general,” Neuberger writes, “Ivan asks us to consider what role emotions play—in relation to reason and logic—in motivating us to act.”[15] In fact, a tragic portrayal of Ivan was widespread in the Stalin-era artistic community. As Kevin Platt and David Brandenberger have shown, a tragic image of the tsar is found not only in Eisenstein’s film, but also in literature (for example, in Aleksei Tolstoy’s Ivan the Terrible).[16]

There were, then, tragic threads in the fabric of Soviet culture. After Stalin, they increased in number and significance, moving to the center of Soviet life. This development should not surprise us, for tragedy is a genre that not only meditates on the failures of reason, but also helps culture producers and their audiences work through painful memories and mourn.[17] Following Stalin’s death in 1953, there were many people and phenomena to mourn for, including Stalin and the illusions that surrounded his persona—among them, the conceit that Stalin himself was reason personified.[18]  Hamlet had been performed under Stalin, but rarely (famously, Stalin condemned the Danish prince as “weak-willed”).[19] After 1953, a veritable cult of Hamlet took shape, for, more than Shakespeare’s other tragedies, the play dealt with memory and mourning.[20] In 1954, Hamlet returned in force to the Soviet stage, with productions in Riga, Leningrad, and Моscow, the latter two presenting the downcast, skeptical Hamlet of the Russian nineteenth century.[21] That same year, in his novella The Thaw, Il’ia Erenburg elaborated similar themes, underlined by a production of Shakespeare’s tragedy in the book itself. One of the novella’s heroines, Tanechka, a young actress who desires love and true art, plays Ophelia, but she is disgusted by her heartless performance. The protagonist, Dmitrii Koroteev, attends the premiere, and states, “I have not seen Hamlet since I was a student in university…” suggesting the play had all but disappeared from the Soviet stage under Stalin.[22] Hamlet was not the only Shakespearean tragedy to gain attention in these years. Othello had been the most commonly staged of the bard’s plays in the Stalin era; after 1953, the play was reconceptualized.[23] In 1955, Sergei Iutkevich created a film version, in which the Moor is of more human proportion and is no longer shorn of doubt.[24] Soviet writers penned their own tragedies as well. In 1954, Ol’ga Berggol’ts published a drama in verse, Loyalty. As Katharine Hodgson has argued, Berggol’ts cast the work as a defense of the embattled genre (as suggested by the subtitle, A Tragedy). Loyalty told the story of the liberation of Sevastopol’ (the ruins of which are compared to Troy) during the Second World War, and featured a heroine who, like her counterpart in classical tragedy, “brings about near-disaster by her impulsive actions rather than wickedness.”[25]

In comparison to classical and Shakespearean tragedy, however, early post-Stalin tragedies often ended on a bright note. Reason, or rather, its promise, prevailed. The Hamlet of the 1954 Moscow production overcomes his anxiety and chooses to confront despotism.[26] Erenburg’s Tanechka begins to believe in the possibility of love and meaningful art.[27] Iutkevich’s Othello regains his faith, which, according to one interpretation, is never in serious danger.[28] And Berggol’ts’s heroine learns from her mistakes and the Red Army retakes Sevastopol’. In Muchnic’s view, Doctor Zhivago, first published in 1957 in Italy, also ends warmly, even if the novel is more tragic than the works that appeared in the Soviet Union in the mid-1950s. The future does not belong to reason; Zhivago’s plot is governed by “a mysterious and ominous atmosphere in which men’s daily affairs take place.”[29] Still, after Stalin, Soviet culture had taken a meaningful, if incomplete, turn toward tragedy. The genre came to inform not only film, theater, and literature; in fuller form, it also shaped non-fictional sources, including the most resounding document of the era, Nikita Khrushchev’s secret speech. Petr Vail and Aleksandr Genis, in their classic, 60-e: Mir Sovetskogo cheloveka, called Khrushchev “the main poet of the era.”[30] We might be more precise: Nikita Sergeevich was a tragedian.[31]


On February 25, 1956, in a closed session of the Twentieth Party Congress, Nikita Khrushchev delivered a speech entitled “On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences.” The text, which came to be known as the “secret speech,” was the work of numerous authors. At its center was a report drafted by a commission headed by Petr Pospelov, formed in December 1955. The Pospelov commission presented its findings, based on statistical data and victims’ testimonies, to the Central Committee Presidium in early 1956. The reactions of Presidium members varied. Some, like Khrushchev, called for using the report to comprehensively account for Stalin’s misdeeds; others, like Molotov, Kaganovich, and Voroshilov, sought to emphasize Stalin’s achievements. As Polly Jones has shown, the final version of the speech that Khrushchev delivered was a hybrid, containing a panoply of divergent voices, including a long, emotional addition by Khrushchev himself.[32]

The speech is certainly disjointed, and at times a contradictory, document.[33] Still, in it, one finds a degree of coherence. Indeed, its narrative bears striking resemblance to the genre of tragedy, with Stalin cast as the tragic hero. This was not the first time that Stalin had been cast in this manner. According to Aydin Dzhebrailov, the Othello of Sergei Radlov’s 1935 production (mentioned above) was modeled on Stalin’s official persona. Like Stalin, Othello was modest, averse to introspection, and dedicated to the state.[34] And various scholars have shown that Eisenstein based his Ivan the Terrible on Stalin (if only in part, for Eisenstein did not consider Stalin to be remorseful for the suffering he caused).[35]

Yet Khrushchev’s speech cast Stalin as a rather different tragic hero. The features of tragedy in the text are manifold. Khrushchev delivered the speech at a time of transition, centering it on a famous man, for whom his country had recently mourned. In another feature of the genre, he included numerous descriptions of unjust death that he and his listeners needed to make sense of.[36] Like the tragic hero, too, Khrushchev’s Stalin was the object of ambivalence.[37] Early in the speech, Khrushchev elevated Stalin, speaking of his positive role in the revolution, civil war, and the construction of socialism in the first decade after Lenin’s death.[38] Yet, in the bulk of the text, he (selectively) catalogued Stalin’s misdeeds—among them, the execution of thousands of Party members, state officials, and ordinary citizens in 1937-1938; his disastrous leadership during the Second World War; the postwar Leningrad Affair and Doctors’ Plot; and the creation of a personality cult. According to Khrushchev, Stalin had begun to change in 1934, after the Seventeenth Party Congress, and reached a nadir in the postwar years. Still, he had not become unequivocally negative. “Everything was viewed by him,” Khrushchev explained, “from the position of the defense of the interests of the working class, the interests of the toiling people, and the interests of the victory of socialism and communism. In this was a true tragedy!”[39]

The extent to which Khrushchev understood the features of the genre he invoked is unclear. Khrushchev was certainly not known for literary or artistic sophistication, and it is not my intention to claim that he knowingly performed a tragedy. As scholars and theorists have long shown, the genres that circulate in a culture shape the expression of sophisticated and unsophisticated members of that culture alike. For genres are themselves the outgrowth of historical circumstances that make their existence logical. And, as I have tried to demonstrate, the early post-Stalin years lent themselves to tragic expression. Khrushchev was not immune to the trend. Indeed, the list of tragic features in Khrushchev’s speech is easily extended. For instance, the reasons cited for Stalin’s transformation into a tragic ruler bear the marks of the genre as well. Like other tragic characters in the film, theater, and literature of 1954-1955, Khrushchev’s Stalin was neither evil nor ill-intentioned; rather, he was fallible. Stalin was human and simply made “mistakes.”[40] That said, his personality predisposed him to many of these errors. It was Lenin, Khrushchev made clear, who had first pointed to Stalin’s flaws. In his “testament,” Lenin described Stalin as rude, capricious, impatient, and thus inclined to abuses of power.[41] Stalin’s “negative qualities,” Khrushchev continued, became more pronounced over time, devolving into cowardice, suspiciousness, and outright despotism.[42]

In interpretations of the speech, it is rarely noted that Stalin was not in fact the individual spoken of most critically. This role fell to Lavrentii Beria, the former head of the NKVD, arrested in June 1953 and executed later that year. If Stalin had devolved from a good to a bad communist (while never becoming unequivocally bad, or evil), Beria had always been evil. Khrushchev underlined this fact by noting that Beria had worked in the intelligence services of the Musavat, an Azerbaijani nationalist organization, just after the revolution.[43] Thus, his entire record as a revolutionary was compromised. In Greek tragedies, there are often two tragic agents: a human and non-human counterpart, who act together to bring about the tragic event.[44] The non-human may be divine, bestial, irrational, or fantastic, a being who threatens and often succeeds in upending the human world.[45] In his speech, Khrushchev spoke of Beria in animalistic and fantastic terms, referring to his “bestial” and “monstrous evil deeds.”[46] He applied a similar characterization to Beria’s “band” of NKVD agents, who “climbed from their own skins” to torture their victims.[47] Moreover, Beria, the beast and monster, had cleverly taken advantage of Stalin’s shortcomings. “[I]t was precisely Beria,” Khrushchev stated, “who planted before Stalin materials, cooked up by him and his helpers, in the form of statements, anonymous letters, various rumors, and conversations.”[48] Indeed, it is possible to read Stalin’s descent into despotism as the result of Beria’s own machinations.[49] Beria even came close to transforming Stalin into a monster himself, for Khrushchev spoke of Stalin’s “fantastical inventions” and his cult’s “monstrous dimensions.”[50]

Because the bestial and fantastic agent exists in a non-human dimension, its existence and strength need not be accounted for; it simply is, and those in positions of authority who have been witness to its crimes need not be held responsible. As is well known, Khrushchev, and the colleagues for whom he spoke, somehow had to explain how all this could have happened under their watch. In tragedy, timely action and the attendant question of blame are paramount concerns.[51] The logic of tragedy offered Khrushchev and the broader Soviet leadership some help in explaining why they had failed to act earlier, and thus why they were not to blame: they had done next to nothing because, ipso facto, they could do next to nothing. In any case, Stalin had successfully hid much of his wrongdoing from them; when they did catch a glimpse of it, they confronted him but were ignored.[52] In fact, according to the conventions of the genre, a degree of silence on the part of witnesses is often permissible, for the tragic act can be so painful as to preclude expression.[53]

If the speech had included only these points, its claim to tragic status would be strong. To return to Joyce, it is not hard to imagine a Soviet citizen, having heard the speech, feeling “in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human suffering.” What complicates this generic classification, however, is Khrushchev’s insistence that, despite what Stalin and Beria had wrought, the Soviet project had not only endured but thrived. In other words, reason had triumphed in the end. The cult of personality may have led to the deaths of tens of thousands of people—Khrushchev’s vastly understated figure—and created a culture of passivity, distrust, and fear; but, no matter, all had been overcome.[54] Some tragedies do end positively, a tendency that became more pronounced with the spread of Christianity’s idea of redemptive suffering, and even more so with the rise of a secular worldview. Yet the authors of such “positive” tragedies do not dismiss the pain and problems of the past, or the possibility of their repetition, with the swiftness of a Khrushchev.[55] Whatever else they may be, tragedies are not tidy.[56]

Here, however, we might recall the disjointed, contradictory nature of the secret speech. Listeners could find any number of narratives in the text; and, as Jones has shown, in a discussion of the speech’s performance to Party cells and other gatherings of Soviet citizens after the Congress, this is exactly what they did.[57] Listeners were profoundly confused by what they had heard; many could not reconcile the speech’s critical revelations with its optimistic narrative. They thus asked questions, which their society could not adequately answer. The extent to which Soviet citizens may have interpreted the speech in tragic terms is a question worth exploring further. Did listeners find themselves in a position like that of the tragic spectator, unsettled by a performance in which allocation of blame was untimely, incomplete, and unclear?[58] Put differently, did they tremble before the manifest failure of reason? And, if so, how might this influence our interpretations of the post-Stalin Soviet Union?[59]

To return to “The Concept of Tragedy in Russian and Soviet Literature,” Muchnic offers another way in which we might read Khrushchev’s speech as tragedy. Despite the bright outcome, perhaps tragedy is still alive in the speech, but buried somewhat, beneath the guise of optimism. Indeed, if we look closer, we find “tragic events” in an “ultimately untragic context,” as in the work of Khrushchev’s more talented predecessors, Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy. Khrushchev, then, appears to have followed in Sholokhov’s footsteps and “created a tragic hero in spite of himself.”[60] In closing, Muchnic includes a political lament. Today’s reader might consider it a regrettable one, an unsavory remnant of the Cold War era in which she wrote. Yet Muchnic’s conclusion does not lack a certain grace; she writes of Doctor Zhivago as “the reassertion of values which are the glory of pre-Soviet Russian literature, and which have been so tragically hounded in the USSR.”[61] One wonders about the extent to which Muchnic invested the adverb, tragically, with the definition of the genre elaborated in her essay, and the extent to which tragedy, for her, endured in Russian life, not just in literature. Such a claim would have been somewhat Zhivago-like, a pretense to speak not only to the present but to the future, for tragedy implies repetition. In this sense, it is tragedy itself that has the power to stop time, because it points to what is constant.

Anatoly Pinsky is a visiting fellow at the Aleksanteri Institute at the University of Helsinki.

My sincere thanks to Aleksandra Bessonova, Joshua First, Jochen Hellbeck, Pavel Khazanov, Erik Scott, and Nari Shelekpayev for their comments on drafts of this essay.

[1] Helen Muchnic, “The Concept of Tragedy in Russian and Soviet Literature,” The Russian Review 23, 1 (January 1964): 25-34. The essay, in identical form, was republished in idem, Russian Writers: Notes and Essays (New York: Random House, 1971), 258-69.

[2] Muchnic, Introduction to Russian Literature (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Co., 1947); idem, From Gorky to Pasternak: Six Modern Russian Writers (New York: Random House, 1961).

[3] Sidney Monas, “Public and Private Muse,” The Hudson Review 20, 1 (1967): 123; idem, “Poets and Literary Men of Russia,” The Massachusetts Review 5, 3 (1964): 578.

[4] George Steiner, The Death of Tragedy (London: Faber and Faber, 1961), esp. 23, 114, 118, 135, 175, 193, 291, 293, 315, 319-21, 342.

[5] Muchnic, “The Concept of Tragedy,” 26.

[6] For Steiner’s definition, see The Death of Tragedy, 3, 8-10, 128-29, 167, 169, 222. For his quotation of Joyce, see ibid., 164. For Muchnic’s quotation of Joyce, an abridged version, see “The Concept of Tragedy,” 25.

[7] Muchnic, “The Concept of Tragedy,” 33, 25. As regards the Russian nineteenth century, Steiner notes that it featured an exception to his scheme, Pushkin’s Boris Godunov, “one of the few genuine tragedies written in the nineteenth century” (see Steiner, The Death of Tragedy, 159; also 160).

[8] Muchnic, “The Concept of Tragedy,” 26.

[9] Muchnic, “The Concept of Tragedy,” 29.

[10] Rufus Mathewson, The Positive Hero in Russian Literature (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1975 [1958]), 233-36, where Mathewson presents, too, a view of The Silent Don that resembles Muchnic’s later interpretation. For a similar discussion of the fate of tragedy between 1917 and the early 1930s, see Harold B. Segel, Twentieth-Century Russian Drama: From Gorky to the Present, Updated Edition (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 31-33, 45-46. For a related treatment, see Yuri Slezkine, The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 629-39. On tragedy in this key in literary criticism of the late Stalin years, see Leonid Heller, “A World of Prettiness: Socialist Realism and Its Aesthetic Categories,” in Socialist Realism without Shores, ed. Thomas Lahusen and Evgeny Dobrenko (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997), 68-69.

[11] For Steiner’s own agreement, see The Death of Tragedy, 341-44.

[12] Mark Steinberg, Proletarian Imagination: Self, Modernity, and the Sacred in Russia, 1910-1925 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002), 4, 16, 93, 136-41, 146.

[13] Arkady Ostrovsky, “Shakespeare as a Founding Father of Socialist Realism: The Soviet Affair with Shakespeare,” in Shakespeare in the World of Communism and Socialism, ed. Irena R. Makaryk and Joseph G. Price (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006), 65-66, 71-72, 75-77, 80. See also Jeffrey Veidlinger, The Moscow State Yiddish Theater (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), 115, 139-46, 210-11; Irena R. Makaryk, “Wartime Hamlet,” in Makaryk and Price, Shakespeare in the World of Communism and Socialism, esp. 121, 125; Katerina Clark, Moscow, The Fourth Rome: Stalinism, Cosmopolitanism, and the Evolution of Soviet Culture, 1931-1941 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 189-90, 246-47, 274; and Natalia Khomenko, “Introduction: Shakespeare after the October Revolution,” in The Shakespearean International Yearbook 18: Special Section, Soviet Shakespeare, ed. Tom Bishop, Alexa Alice Joubin, and Natalia Khomenko (New York: Routledge, 2020), 6.

[14] Eleonor Rowe, Hamlet: A Window on Russia (New York: New York University Press, 1976), 147-66; Aleksei Semenenko, “Pasternak’s Shakespeare in Wartime Russia,” in Shakespeare and the Second World War: Memory, Culture, Identity, ed. Irina R. Makaryk and Marissa McHugh (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012), 145, 151-53; Anna Kay France, Boris Pasternak’s Translations of Shakespeare (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), 6. On tragedy in the 1930s, see also the discussion of Andrei Platonov in Pavel Khazanov, “Honest Jacobins: High Stalinism and the Socialist Subjectivity of Mikhail Lifshitz and Andrei Platonov,” The Russian Review 77, 4 (2018): 590-91, 598.

[15] Joan Neuberger, This Thing of Darkness: Ivan the Terrible in Stalin’s Russia (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2019), 3, 25, 33, 42, 72, 181-86, 193, 235, 338. On the influence of Shakespeare, see ibid., e.g., 5, 18. For discussions of Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible as a revenge tragedy, see James Goodwin, Eisenstein, Cinema, and History (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993), 186-87; and Katerina Clark, “Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible and the Renaissance: An Example of Stalinist Cosmopolitanism?” Slavic Review 71, 1 (2012): 52, 59-62.

[16] Kevin M.F. Platt and David Brandenberger, “Terribly Romantic, Terribly Progressive or Terribly Tragic: Rehabilitating Ivan IV under I. V. Stalin,” The Russian Review 58, 4 (1999): 640, 642, 648-49, 652-53. Platt and Brandenberger’s reading of Eisenstein’s Ivan appears to differ from Neuberger’s. For Platt and Brandenberger, Eisenstein’s Ivan is “progressive” and “redempt[ive]” (ibid., 649, 653). Compare with Neuberger, This Thing of Darkness, 186, 344.

[17] Susan Letzer Cole, The Absent One: Mourning Ritual, Tragedy, and the Performance of Ambivalence (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1985).

[18] For a suggestive point in this regard, see Platt and Brandenberger, “Terribly Romantic,” 654.

[19] Rowe, Hamlet, 127-46; Spencer Golub, The Recurrence of Fate: Theatre and Memory and Twentieth-Century Russia (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1994), 176-78; Semenenko, “Pasternak’s Shakespeare in Wartime Russia,” 157; Michelle Assay, “What Did Hamlet (Not) Do to Offend Stalin?” Actes des congrès de la Société française Shakespeare 35 (2017) (http://journals.openedition.org/shakespeare/3840). For the quotation, see Neuberger, This Thing of Darkness, 328-29.

[20] Adrian Poole, Tragedy: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 35.

[21] Arthur P. Mendel, “Hamlet and Soviet Humanism,” Slavic Review 30, 4 (1971): 734; Golub, The Recurrence of Fate, 179; Laurence Senelick, “‘Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all’: New Documentation on the Okhlopkov Hamlet,” in Shakespeare in the World of Communism and Socialism, ed. Makaryk and Price, 136-56, esp. 141, 150-51; Assay, “What Did Hamlet (Not) Do to Offend Stalin?” In addition, Peter Brook’s English production of Hamlet came to Moscow in 1955. See Senelick, “‘Thus conscience,’” 153.

[22] Il’ia Erenburg, “Ottepel’, povest’,” Znamia 5 (1954): 14-87; idem, Ottepel’: povest’ (Moscow: Sovetskii pisatel’, 1954), for Hamlet, 87-90, 126, 134, 136, for the quotation, 87. Hamlet had in fact not disappeared under Stalin (as Erenburg himself suggests), but the idea was a powerful myth. On this, see Assay, “What Did Hamlet (Not) Do to Offend Stalin?”

[23] On Othello under Stalin, see Aydin Dzhebrailov, “The King is Dead. Long Live the King! Post-Revolutionary and Stalinist Shakespeare,” trans. Cathy Porter, History Workshop 32 (Autumn, 1991): 10; Ostrovsky, “Shakespeare as a Founding Father of Socialist Realism,” 61, 68; and Assay, “What Did Hamlet (Not) Do to Offend Stalin?”

[24] See, for example, Laurie E. Osborne, “Filming Shakespeare in the Cultural Thaw: Soviet Appropriation of Shakespearean Treacheries in 1955-6,” Textual Practice 9, 2 (1995): 325-47; Andrei Shemiakin, “Dialog s literaturoi, ili opasnye sviazi,” in Kinematograf ottepeli: kniga pervaia, ed. Vitalii Troianovskii (Moscow: Materik, 1996), 135-38; and Josephine Woll, Real Images: Soviet Cinema and the Thaw (London: I.B. Tauris, 2000), 42-43, 61. The previous year saw a production of Romeo and Juliet (see Osborne, “Filming Shakespeare,” 325).

[25] Katharine Hodgson, Voicing the Soviet Experience:The Poetry of Ol’ga Berggol’ts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 32-33, 97-98, 104-16. The Stalin-era understanding of tragedy co-existed with the above, of course. See Irene Masing-Delic, Abolishing Death: A Salvation Myth of Russian Twentieth-Century Literature (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992), 299.

[26] Senelick, “‘Thus conscience,’” 150-52.

[27] Erenburg, Ottepel’, 137-38. An intriguing tension persists, however, since Ophelia, whom Tanechka portrays, comes to a tragic end in the play, and it is Tanechka’s desire to play her correctly. On the problematic nature of Ophelia in Soviet culture, see Natalia Khomenko, “The Cult of Shakespeare in Soviet Russia and the Vilified Ophelia,” Borrower and Lenders: The Journal of Shakespeare and Appropriation 9, 2 (2014), https://openjournals.libs.uga.edu/borrowers/article/view/2293.

[28] Shemiakin, “Dialog s literaturoi,” 137-38.

[29] Muchnic, “The Concept of Tragedy,” 33. For another discussion of Doctor Zhivago as tragedy, see Raymond Williams, Modern Tragedy (New York: Broadway Press, 2006 [1966]), 192, 200-8.

[30] Petr Vail’ and Aleksandr Genis, 60-e: Mir Sovetskogo cheloveka (Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 1996 [1988]), 30. See also ibid., 160, 220-28.

[31] Vail’ and Genis in fact read the Soviet 1960s through the lens of a kind of tragedy (see Vail’ and Genis, 60-e, esp. 72-73, 266-67, 310, 316). It may be interesting to explore further their meaning of the term.

[32] Polly Jones, Myth, Memory, Trauma: Rethinking the Stalinist Past in the Soviet Union, 1953-1970 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 18-24. For another recent analysis of the speech, see Kevin M.F. Platt “Secret Speech: Wounding, Disavowal, and Social Belonging in the USSR,” Critical Inquiry 42 (Spring 2016): 647-76.

[33] On Khrushchev departing somewhat from the text of the prepared report during his speech, see V.Iu. Afiani and Z.K. Vodop’ianova, “Arkheograficheskoe predislovie,” in K. Aimermakher, ed., Doklad N.S. Khrushcheva o kul’te lichnosti Stalina na XX s”ezde KPSS: Dokumenty (Moscow: ROSSPEN, 2002), 44.

[34] Dzhebrailov, “The King is Dead,” 12-16. Dzhebrailov’s interpretation differs from Ostrovsky’s; this is likely because Dzhebrailov relies more on the text of the play, translated by Radlov’s wife, Anna Radlova, than on accounts of the performance.

[35] On Stalin as Ivan, see, for example, Neuberger, This Thing of Darkness, e.g., 2, 6, 123, 342, 344. On Eisenstein’s view of Stalin as lacking remorse, see ibid., 173, 236, 342.

[36] Poole, Tragedy, 41-42, 105-6, 114-15, 118.

[37] On ambivalence in tragedy, see Cole, The Absent One.

[38] Aimermakher, Doklad N.S. Khrushcheva, 51; also 112, 115.

[39] Aimermakher, Doklad N.S. Khrushcheva, 115-16.

[40] J.M. Bremer, Hamartia: Tragic Error in the Poetics of Aristotle and in Greek Tragedy (Amsterdam: Adolph M. Hakkert, 1969); Tom McAlindon, “What is a Shakespearean Tragedy?” in The Cambridge Companion to Shakespearean Tragedy, ed. Claire McEachern (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 11. On “mistakes,” as well as “shortcomings,” see Aimermakher, Doklad N.S. Khrushcheva, 90-91, 113.

[41] Aimermakher, Doklad N.S. Khrushcheva, 53-56.

[42] Aimermakher, Doklad N.S. Khrushcheva, 53-57, 60, 63, 65, 81, 89, 95, 98, 103, 114-15, 117. In these pages, Khrushchev referred as well to nervousness, hysteria, irritability, arrogance, and self-aggrandizement, cast also as “negative features” and “weaknesses.”

[43] Aimermakher, Doklad N.S. Khrushcheva, 99.

[44] Poole, Tragedy, 45-46, 50; Ruth Scodel, An Introduction to Greek Tragedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 72-84. On a related phenomenon in Shakespearean tragedy, see McAlindon, “What is a Shakespearean Tragedy?” 11, 16; and John Givens, “Shakespearean Tragedy in Russia: In Equal Scale Weighing Delight and Dole,” in The Oxford Handbook of Shakespearean Tragedy, ed. Michael Neill and David Schalkwyk (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 770-71.

[45] Poole, Tragedy, 5-6, 21, 26, 49-50.

[46] Aimermakher, Doklad N.S. Khrushcheva, 101-2.

[47] Aimermakher, Doklad N.S. Khrushcheva, 82-83, 95.

[48] Aimermakher, Doklad N.S. Khrushcheva, 95. See also ibid., 99, 102-3.

[49] Aimermakher, Doklad N.S. Khrushcheva, 95.

[50] Aimermakher, Doklad N.S. Khrushcheva, 103, 110. For further examples, see ibid., 95, 108. This language also colors statements about Stalin’s “boundless, unlimited power” (ibid., 52; also 81).

[51] Olga Taxidou, Tragedy, Modernity, and Mourning (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004); Caryl Emerson, “Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky at the Edge of the Stalinist Shakespeare Industry, 1933-1938,” Russian Studies in Literature 50, 3 (2013): 13-14.

[52] Aimermakher, Doklad N.S. Khrushcheva, 88-90, 95-96, 99-100, 102-3, 108-15. 

[53] Harvey Rovine, Silence in Shakespeare: Drama, Power, and Gender (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1987).

[54] Aimermakher, Doklad N.S. Khrushcheva, 60, 80, 108, 110-11, 118. For the figure “tens of thousands,” see ibid., 102. This figure is in fact linked directly to Beria (“Beria […] annihilated tens of thousands of Party and Soviet workers”; for related discourse, see also ibid., 95, 99). In relation directly to Stalin the highest number of deaths cited was “many thousands” (ibid., 80).

[55] Williams, Modern Tragedy, 53, 55-58, 61; Terry Eagleton, Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003), 2, 27; Poole, Tragedy, 27-29, 114-17, 119-23.

[56] On divergent interpretations of tragedy, see Eagleton, Sweet Violence, 1-22.

[57] Jones, Myth, Memory, Trauma, 17-56.

[58] Peter D. Arnott, Public and Performance in the Greek Theatre (London: Routledge, 1991), 11, 20, 22-23, 36, 38, 79, 113; Simon Goldhill, “The Audience of Athenian Tragedy,” in The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy, ed. P.E. Easterling (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 54, 57, 67.

[59] An effort to answer this question would have little in common with projects like Martin Malia, The Soviet Tragedy: A History of Socialism in Russia, 1917-1991 (New York: The Free Press, 1994), since a starting point would be the discourse of Soviet citizens themselves.

[60] Muchnic, “The Concept of Tragedy,” 31.

[61] Muchnic, “The Concept of Tragedy,” 34.