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Subject essay: James von Geldern

In 1947 Andrei Zhdanov (1896-1948) was at the height of his power, issuing authoritative statements on matters of international relations and culture. Zhdanov had joined the Bolsheviks in 1915, but his mentality was much of the generation that had purged and supplanted the Old Bolsheviks. Based in Leningrad, he rose to Politbiuro status in 1939, and helped lead his city’s defense during the blockade of 1941-1944. Close relations with Stalin brought him to the pinnacle of power after the war. His reign over party doctrine ended with his sudden death in August, 1948. His grateful comrade renamed his Ukrainian birthplace Mariupol into Zhdanov in his honor.

The somber name zhdanovshchina has become associated with the three years of his greatest power, 1946-1948, when he severely tightened ideological guidelines. He was behind the August 1946 attack on the literary journals ZVEZDA and LENINGRAD, based in his home city, for publishing the allegedly anti-social works of the satirist Mikhail Zoshchenko and the poet Anna Akhmatova. It was an attack by implication on all such cultural leanings, and led to an assault on “cosmopolitanism,” that left the cultural world in shambles. Whether out of fright or cowardice, artists competed to appear most servile to the party; and those who did not fell silent. By 1947 Zhdanov’s hold on the cultural world was fierce. That year he was also responsible for the creation of Cominform, the propaganda arm for the new-formed eastern bloc that attempted to impose similar discipline on those countries.

Even in totalitarian states power can be fleeting. Zhdanov’s sudden death left his faction in the ruling circle leaderless and exposed to the opposing block led by Georgii Malenkov and Lavrentii Beria. Within months a purge resulted in the execution and imprisonment of thousands of party officials and managers, most from the leadership of Leningrad and the Russian Federation.

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