On 25 February 1956, Nikita Khrushchev delivered a speech to a closed session of party leaders in which he dismantled the legend of the recently-deceased Joseph Stalin and, over four hours, criticized almost every aspect of Stalin’s method of rule. The speech entitled On the Cult of the Individual and Its Consequences would become known as simply Khrushchev’s ‘Secret Speech’.
Why stir up the past?
Joseph Stalin had died three years earlier, on 5 March 1953. In late 1955, Nikita Khrushchev had been mulling over the idea of ‘investigating Stalin’s activities’ for some months. It was a momentous prospect – Stalin had ruled the Soviet Union with an iron fist for the best part of three decades; he had taken the nation to victory over the fascist Germans; and his legacy was still everywhere to be seen.
Khrushchev’s colleagues were aghast at his proposal, especially the ones who had served in senior positions under Stalin, men like Kliment Voroshilov and Stalin’s foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov (both pictured here with Stalin). These were men with blood on their hands, who, under Stalin’s orders, had facilitated and organised the liquidation of tens or hundreds of thousands of their countrymen and women. Not surprisingly they asked, ‘Why stir up the past?’
And Khrushchev himself was far from blameless, having been the regional boss in the Ukraine during the mid-1930s, a time of mass terror, liquidations and deportations. But, as Khrushchev pointed out, ‘if we don’t tell the truth at the Congress, we’ll be forced to tell the truth some time in the future. And then we won’t be the people making the speeches; no, then we’ll be the people under investigation.’
Khrushchev ordered a report on Stalin and his activities. The investigative team, headed by one Comrade Pospelov, spent months shifting through huge amounts of files and paperwork. Khrushchev knew what he wanted to say – that Vladimir Lenin, the first Bolshevik leader, had used terror but had employed it in an legitimate manner – against class enemies and to safeguard the progress of the October Revolution; whereas, as his successor, Joseph Stalin had misused his power, employing terror in an arbitrary and illegitimate manner. Pospelov’s report, when finally it came, provided him with the ammunition.
Our greatest friend
Khrushchev wanted to criticise Stalin’s ‘Cult of the Personality’. Lenin had become a cult but an unwilling one: ‘Wherever you look,’ said Lenin, ‘they are writing about me. I consider this un-Marxist emphasis on the individual extremely harmful.’
Stalin, on the other hand, had glorified in the adoration and indeed both expected it and received it. In 1937, one of Stalin’s sycophants referred to Stalin as ‘our great leader’, ‘our greatest friend’, ‘genius’, etc, more than fifty times in the course of just three speeches. This particular sycophant was none other than Nikita Khrushchev himself.
But despite being aware of this, despite the deeply-held reservations of his colleagues, and despite the upset he knew it would cause, Khrushchev went ahead and delivered his speech. It took huge ‘political courage’, as Mikhail Gorbachev, who’s own grandfather in 1938 was arrested and tortured, was to say exactly forty years later. It was at the end of the eleven-day Twentieth Party Congress, the first national gathering of the Soviet leadership since Stalin’s death, just past midnight on 25 February 1956. It was a closed session; there were no guests in the auditorium, no foreigners, no journalists – just the very upper echelons of the party leadership.
Khrushchev’s Secret Speech
For over four hours, Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s methods, his abuse of power and criticized the regime built on ‘suspicion, fear and terror’. Khrushchev, aware of the impact his words were having, described how Stalin had chosen ‘the path of repression and physical annihilation.’ He described Stalin as a ‘very distrustful man, sickly suspicious … He could look at a man and say: “Why are your eyes so shifty today?”’
Khrushchev talked of Lenin’s ‘Testament’, in which Lenin had written of his doubts over Stalin’s capacity to lead the party; in which he called Stalin rude, impolite and capricious; and suggesting that his ‘comrades think about a way of removing Stalin.’ Following Lenin’s death in January 1924, the document had been suppressed and for most in the audience, it was the first they’d ever heard of it.
Khrushchev damned Stalin’s ‘cruel repressions’ and highlighted the catalogue of Stalin’s terror, starting with the assassination in December 1934 of Sergei Kirov, Stalin’s man in Leningrad, implying that Kirov had not been the victim of a counterrevolutionary conspiracy, as always maintained, but that Stalin, fearful of Kirov’s increasing popularity, had sanctioned Kirov’s murder himself. But Khrushchev focussed on the political repressions, mentioning only in passing the mass repression of the population as a whole. And by cataloguing the terror from 1934 onwards, he ignored the mass man-made famines caused by Stalin’s policies of collectivisation, and the liquidation of the kulaks, the better-off peasants.
He condemned Stalin’s conduct during the war, calling Stalin a coward who ‘not once… visited the front during the whole war.’ He refused to take seriously warnings, even from Winston Churchill, that Hitler was planning an invasion of the Soviet Union. Indeed, the shock was such that days after the Nazi invasion, Stalin suffered something akin to a breakdown.
Khrushchev described the ‘deathly hush’ that followed his speech as his pale-faced audience absorbed the heretical attack on the man who had ruled over them for so long. Many cried. Some of those present reputedly suffered heart attacks in the weeks that followed; some committed suicide. ‘De-Stalinization’ had started.
The text of Khrushchev’s secret speech, although secret and not officially made public in the Soviet Union until 1988, soon spread across Russia and abroad, causing shock that the great man’s name should be so besmirched but also relief that, through Khrushchev’s secret speech, the tyranny that had overshadowed the Soviet Union for so long was now something of the past.
But the speech caused riots in Georgia, Stalin’s country of birth, where they still viewed him as a hero (and many still do to this day): ‘Glory to the great Stalin,’ they chanted.
The first signs of post-Stalin unrest came before Khrushchev’s secret speech, with the brief and unsuccessful East German Uprising in June 1953, just three months after Stalin’s death.
But following Khrushchev’s Secret Speech, the expectation of greater freedom from centralised, Kremlin rule intensified. In June 1956 in Poland, in a repeat of the East German Uprising of 1953, the workers revolted demanding economic reform. The Polish government, in a conciliatory gesture to their people, replaced their hardline leader with the popular and reformist Wladyslaw Gomulka. The Poles had taken Khrushchev at his word and were following a ‘different road to socialism’. But Khrushchev was not impressed. Furious, he flew unannounced to Warsaw for a showdown with the Poles. Gomulka held his ground but promised that Poland would remain loyal to Moscow. Satisfied with this, Khrushchev withdrew.
But it was the Hungarian Uprising in October 1956 that truly tested the extent of the Soviet Union’s resolve. Following the relative success in Poland, students and workers took to the streets, tearing down a huge statue of Stalin and demanding greater freedom, the right to worship, and protesting against the excesses of the AVO, the Hungarian secret police. Khrushchev ordered in Soviet troops but replaced the unpopular Hungarian leader with the reformist Imre Nagy. With Nagy in place, Khrushchev withdrew his troops to the Hungarian border.
But within days, Khrushchev ordered the tanks back in. This time, with brutal efficiency, Nagy was removed and the uprising was crushed.
Khrushchev may have denounced Stalin as a tyrant, but when need be, he could be equally as ruthless.
The Dead Stalin
In 1924, Lenin’s corpse was embalmed and placed in a mausoleum where people would queue for hours to pay their respects to the founder of the Soviet state. (He is still there today although the queues are considerably shorter). In 1953, Lenin was joined by Stalin, and the two ‘great men’ lay side by side. But in 1961, Khrushchev decided that Lenin’s sanctuary had to be freed from Stalin’s contamination: ‘The further retention in the mausoleum of the sarcophagus with the bier of J. V. Stalin shall be recognized as inappropriate since the serious violations by Stalin of Lenin’s precepts, abuse of power, mass repressions against honourable Soviet people and other activities… make it impossible to leave the bier with his body in the mausoleum of V. I. Lenin.’
In the dark hours of 31 October 1961, the dead dictator was removed from the Lenin-Stalin Mausoleum. There was no solemnity, no ceremony, no speeches, just a few workmen doing a matter-of-fact task – by moonlight. The not-so Great Man was reburied behind the Kremlin Wall. A few weeks later, a granite stone marked the grave with the inscription, ‘J. V. STALIN 1879-1953′.
For the full text of Khrushchev’s Secret Speech, all 23,000 words of it, click here.
Learn more about Stalin and the Cold War in Stalin: History In An Hour and The Cold War: History In An Hour, both by Rupert Colley and published by Harper Press and available in various digital formats only 99p / $1.60, and as downloadable audio.
See also Khrushchev and de-Stalinization.
Rupert Colley’s novella, My Brother the Enemy, a dramatic story set during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, is now available.