On this Day:
Khrushchev’s secret speech, (February 25, 1956), in denunciation of the deceased Soviet leader Joseph Stalin was made by Nikita S. Khrushchev to a closed session of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The speech was the nucleus of a far-reaching de-Stalinization campaign intended to destroy the image of the late dictator as an infallible leader and to revert official policy to an idealized Leninist model.
In the speech, Khrushchev recalled Lenin’s Testament, a long-suppressed document in which Vladimir Lenin had warned that Stalin was likely to abuse his power, and then he cited numerous instances of such excesses. Outstanding among these was Stalin’s use of mass terror in the Great Purge of the mid-1930s, during which, according to Khrushchev, innocent communists had been falsely accused of espionage and sabotage and unjustly punished, often executed, after they had been tortured into making confessions.
Khrushchev criticized Stalin for having failed to make adequate defensive preparations before the German invasion of the Soviet Union (June 1941), for having weakened the Red Army by purging its leading officers, and for mismanaging the war after the invasion. He condemned Stalin for irrationally deporting entire nationality groups (e.g., the Karachay, Kalmyk, Chechen, Ingush, and Balkar peoples) from their homelands during the war and, after the war, for purging major political leaders in Leningrad (1948–50; see Leningrad Affair) and in Georgia (1952). He also censured Stalin for attempting to launch a new purge (Doctors’ Plot, 1953) shortly before his death and for his policy toward Yugoslavia, which had resulted in a severance of relations between that nation and the Soviet Union (1948). The “cult of personality” that Stalin had created to glorify his own rule and leadership was also condemned.
Khrushchev confined his indictment of Stalin to abuses of power against the Communist Party and glossed over Stalin’s campaigns of mass terror against the general population. He did not object to Stalin’s activities before 1934, which included his political struggles against Leon Trotsky, Nikolay Bukharin, and Grigory Zinovyev and the collectivization campaign that “liquidated” millions of peasants and had a disastrous effect on Soviet agriculture. Observers outside the Soviet Union have suggested that Khrushchev’s primary purpose in making the speech was to consolidate his own position of political leadership by associating himself with reform measures while discrediting his rivals in the Presidium (Politburo) by implicating them in Stalin’s crimes.
In his speech, Khrushchev said,
“The question arises: Why is it that we see the truth of this affair only now, and why did we not do something earlier, during Stalin’s life, in order to prevent the loss of innocent lives? It was because Stalin personally supervised the Leningrad affair, and the majority of the Political Bureau members did not, at that time, know all of the circumstances in these matters, and could not therefore intervene…]”.
In this way, Khrushchev disassociated himself and others from the arrests, imprisonments and executions which he was describing.
The secret speech, although subsequently read to groups of party activists and “closed” local party meetings, was never officially made public. (Not until 1989 was the speech printed in full in the Soviet Union.)
It caused shock and disillusionment throughout the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc, harming Stalin’s reputation and the perception of the political system and party that had enabled him to gain and misuse such great power. It also helped give rise to a period of liberalization known as the “Khrushchev thaw,” during which censorship policy was relaxed, sparking a literary renaissance of sorts. Thousands of political prisoners were released, and thousands more who had perished during Stalin’s reign were officially “rehabilitated.” A moderate opening of the press was permitted and control of popular culture was somewhat relaxed.
The speech also contributed to the revolts that occurred later that year in Hungary and Poland, further weakening the Soviet Union’s control over the Soviet bloc and temporarily strengthening the position of Khrushchev’s opponents in the Presidium.
The split within the Communist Party leadership between reformers and hardliners continued for the remainder of the Soviet Union’s existence. Khrushchev himself was removed from power in 1964 and replaced by the more hardline Leonid Brezhnev. Much later, in 1985, another reformer came to power: Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev’s reforms were an important link in the chain of events which led to the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and most of Eastern Europe between 1989 and 1991.
First, a Joke:
One day, a man ran through Red Square in Moscow, shouting at the top of his lungs, “Khrushchev is a fool!”
He was subsequently arrested for revealing state secrets.
Second, a Song:
Officially called ‘On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences’, Khrushchev’s speech was a vehement denunciation of Stalin’s abuses of power and his creation of a personality cult. It therefore laid the foundation for his wide-reaching de-Stalinisation campaign.
Thought for the Day:
Any fool can start a war, and once he’s done so, even the wisest of men are helpless to stop it – especially if it’s a nuclear war.
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Have a great day!
Dave & Colleen
© 2022 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky