Nikita Khrushchev’s Secret Speech

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.

Stalin with Molotov and VoroshilovKhrushchev’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?’

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The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 – a summary

In October 1956, the people of Hungary stood up against the oppression of Soviet rule. The subsequent uprising almost succeeded but the Soviet Union, in a full show of force, re-established its control and the revolution was quashed as quickly as it had erupted.

Slices of Salami

Budapest, II. Weltfestspiele, Festumzug, EhrentribüneFrom March 1944, during the Second World War, Hungary was occupied by the forces of Nazi Germany, being liberated by the Soviet Union’s Red Army on 4 April 1945. Backed by Joseph Stalin, Hungary’s fledging communists, led by Mátyás Rákosi (pictured), the self-styled ‘Stalin’s best pupil’, bullied their way into power. Having destroyed all political opponents by ‘cutting them off like slices of salami,’ as Rákosi later boasted, the communists consolidated their grip on power and in 1949, Hungary had officially become the People’s Republic of Hungary with Rákosi at its helm.

In just a matter of years, over 300,000 Hungarians were purged under Rákosi’s rule: exiled, imprisoned or killed. Stalin would have thoroughly approved of Rákosi’s hardline tactics but within four months of the Soviet leader’s death, on 5 March 1953, the Soviet politburo replaced Rákosi with Imre Nagy, whose softer approach gained him popular consent. Life improved, goods appeared in shops, and political prisoners were released. But Nagy became too popular for the Kremlin’s liking and in April 1955 Rákosi was put back in charge and the oppression started anew. But Nagy remained a hero.

A year after his re-appointment, Rákosi was replaced by fellow hard-line Stalinist, Erno Gero. (The Kremlin, finally realising how unpopular Rákosi was, told him to resign on grounds of ill health and fly to Moscow for treatment. He did, never to return to his home country. He was not missed). But under Erno Gero, nothing changed – arrests continued, the AVO, the Hungarian secret police, was busier than ever, while discontent simmered and people longed for the return of Imre Nagy.

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The Cuban Missile Crisis – a summary

The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 epitomized the Cold War as the two superpowers, the US and the Soviet Union, brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.

In January 1959, after a two-year guerrilla campaign, Fidel Castro (pictured), a Marxist, aided by the charismatic Che Guevara, had disposed of Cuba’s thirty-year-old dictatorship. The Soviet Union’s premier, Nikita Khrushchev, was delighted by this turn of events and that a communist coup had taken place without Soviet encouragement (or bullying).

When Castro nationalized American assets in Cuba, the US responded by placing a trade embargo against Cuba. The Soviet Union came to Cuba’s rescue and the two nations bonded, Castro aligning Cuba to the Soviet cause. When they met at the United Nations in September 1960, Khrushchev and Castro embraced. ‘I do not know if Fidel is a communist,’ said the Soviet leader, ‘but I know I am a Fidelista.’

Bay of Pigs

The US, alarmed by this communist presence in their backyard, resolved to have Castro removed from power. On 17 April 1961 a US-backed band of Cuban exiles landed at the Bay of Pigs hoping to raise a counter-uprising against Castro, despite the assurances of the new US president, John F Kennedy, five days before, that the US would not intervene militarily to overthrow Castro. The invasion failed and over a thousand Cuban rebels were captured by Castro’s forces. Kennedy was heavily criticized, and internal support for Castro deepened as Cuba became firmly anti-American.

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Famous Quotes – Cold War

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“We have to get tough with the Russians. They don’t know how to behave. They are like bulls in a china shop. They are only 25 years old. We are over 100 and the British are centuries older.  We have got to teach them how to behave.”
Harry Truman, April 1945″From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.”
Winston Churchill, March 5, 1946

“The seeds of totalitarian regimes are nurtured by misery and want.”
Harry S. Truman, March 3, 1947 (ahead of the Marshall Plan).

“People of this world, look upon this city and see that you should not and cannot abandon this city and this people.”
Ernst Reuter, Mayor of West Berlin during the Berlin blockade, September 9, 1948

“The reason why we find ourselves in a position of impotency is not because the enemy has sent men to invade our shores, but rather because of the traitorous actions of those who have had all the benefits that the wealthiest nation on earth has had to offer – the finest homes, the finest college educations, and the finest jobs in Government we can give.”
Joseph McCarthy, February 9, 1950.

“In the simplest of terms, what we are doing in Korea is this: We are trying to prevent a third world war.”
Harry S. Truman, April 16, 1951

“He suddenly opened his eyes and looked at everyone in the room. It was a terrible gaze, mad or maybe furious and full of fear of death… Then something incomprehensible and frightening happened. … He suddenly lifted his left hand as though he were pointing to something above and bringing down a curse on us all. … The next moment, after a final effort, the spirit wrenched itself free of the flesh.”
Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, recounting her father’s death on March 3, 1953.

“Senator; you’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”
Joseph Welch, US Army Attorney, to Joseph McCarthy, June 9, 1954.

“If you don’t like us, don’t accept our invitations and don’t invite us to come to see you. Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you.”
Nikita Khrushchev, November 18, 1956

“America has been in existence for 150 years and this is the level she has reached. We have existed not quite 42 years and in another seven years we will be on the same level as America. When we catch you up, in passing you by, we will wave to you.”
Nikita Khrushchev, July 24, 1959

“The Earth is blue… how wonderful. It is amazing”
Yuri Gagarin, April 12, 1961 (during his space flight)

“Nobody intends to put up a wall!”
Walter Ulbricht, Leader of the GDR, June 15, 1961 – 2 months before the Berlin Wall was erected.

“A wall is a hell of a lot better than a war.”
John F. Kennedy, August 1961 (on the construction of the Berlin Wall)

“Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind.”
John F. Kennedy, September 25, 1961

“I am a Marxist-Leninist and I will be one until the last day of my life.”
Fidel Castro, December 2, 1961

“A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on. Ideas have endurance without death.”
John F. Kennedy, December 14, 1962.

“Berlin is the testicles of the West, every time I want the West to scream, I squeeze on Berlin.”
Nikita Khrushchev, 1962.

“Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free. When all are free, then we can look forward to that day when this city will be joined as one and this country and this great Continent of Europe in a peaceful and hopeful globe. When that day finally comes, as it will, the people of West Berlin can take sober satisfaction in the fact that they were in the front lines for almost two decades. All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words Ich bin ein Berliner.”
John F. Kennedy, June 26, 1963.

“There are many people in the world who really don’t understand, or say they don’t, what is the great issue between the free world and the Communist world. Let them come to Berlin. There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin. And there are some who say in Europe and elsewhere we can work with the Communists. Let them come to Berlin. And there are even a few who say that it is true that communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress. Lass’ sie nach Berlin kommen. Let them come to Berlin.”
John F. Kennedy, June 26, 1963.

“[Communism] has never come to power in a country that was not disrupted by war or internal corruption or both.”
John F. Kennedy, July 1963

“The survivors (of a nuclear war) would envy the dead.”
Nikita Khrushchev, July 20, 1963

“In free society art is not a weapon…Artists are not engineers of the soul.”
John F. Kennedy, October 26, 1963

“If you (the USA) start throwing hedgehogs under me, I shall throw a couple of porcupines under you.”
Nikita Khrushchev, November 7, 1963.

“We are not going to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.”
Lyndon B. Johnson, October 21, 1964 on US involvement in the Vietnam War.

“Capitalism is using its money; we socialists throw it away.”
Fidel Castro, November 8, 1964

“You have opened a new chapter in the relations of the American and Chinese people… I am confident that this beginning of our friendship will certainly meet with majority support of our two peoples.”
Chou En-lai, Chinese premier, April 14, 1971 on the US ping-pong team’s visit to China.

“There can be no whitewash at the White House.”
Richard Nixon, April 30, 1973

“No words can describe the depths of my regret and pain at the anguish my mistakes over Watergate have caused the nation and the presidency – a nation I so deeply love and an institution I so greatly respect.”
Richard Nixon, September 8, 1974.

“When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.”
Richard Nixon, May 19, 1977

“Under Lenin the Soviet Union was like a religious revival, under Stalin like a prison, under Khrushchev like a circus, and under Brezhnev like the U.S. Post Office.”
Jimmy Carter, November 7, 1977

“This is the moment of your defeat; you have just put in the last nails in the coffin of communism.”
Lech Walesa, December 13, 1981

“Regimes planted by bayonets do not take root.”
Ronald Reagan, June 8, 1982

“I like Mr Gorbachev, we can do business together.”
Margaret Thatcher commenting on the new Soviet leader, December 17, 1984.

“Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Ronald Reagan, June 12, 1987

“The threat of a world war is no more.”
Mikhail Gorbachevfarewell speech signifying the end of the USSR and the Cold War, December 1991.

“By the grace of God, America won the cold war.”
George Bush, Snr., January 28, 1992

Read about the Cold War in The Cold War: History In An Hour by Rupert Colley, published by Harper Press and available in digital formats and audio.

If you would like to suggest a quote, please contact us.


The Man Who Tried to Bury Stalin – Khrushchev and De-Stalinization

On 31 October 1961, a small but symbolic event took place in Moscow. The embalmed body of former Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin, was re-interred behind the Kremlin Wall. It was a symptomatic relegation for the man once known as the Great Leader who, for the eight years since his death, had lain on public display alongside Vladimir Lenin, founder of the Soviet state. The man who ordered that Stalin be reburied under several layers of concrete, was his successor and former protégé, Nikita Khrushchev.

But no amount of concrete can keep down the ghost of Joseph Stalin.

Nikita KhrushchevThere is no excuse for repression

Fifty years on, few speak of Khrushchev (pictured). But Stalin’s shadow still looms large over Russian society. A poll run in April this year, by the VTsIOM (All-Russia Centre for the Study of Public Opinion), found much support for Stalin, the man who ‘received the country with a wooden plough, and left it with a nuclear missile shield’.

In 2009, a new plaque was unveiled at a Moscow metro station that included a line from the former Soviet national anthem: ‘Stalin brought us up to be loyal to people, inspired us to labour and feats’. Imagine today seeing a quote from Hitler in the Berlin underground?

It gets worse – in July 2011, a new statue of Stalin was unveiled in the Russian town of Penza, 390 miles southeast of Moscow. Sixty years ago, Khrushchev went to great pains to have two Stalin statues removed from the same town.

Putin and Medvedev – who won the war?

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The Kitchen Debate – Cold War: Hot Kitchen

The Cold War and its ongoing ideological, political, cultural battle was encapsulated by two men, both seemingly polite, arguing in a showroom kitchen in what has become known as the ‘Kitchen Debate’.

The two men were Nikita Khrushchev, Soviet Premier, and Richard Nixon, the US Vice President. The occasion, on 24 July 1959, was the American National Exhibition in Sokolniki Park in Moscow, part of a cultural exchange between the two superpowers. Although in Moscow, this was an American exhibition and Nixon, for the benefit of Khrushchev, was its proud host.

Communism v. Capitalism

At times polite, at times restrained, mocking, jibing, or heated, the two men debated the relative merits of communism and capitalism, from nuclear weapons to washing machines, over several hours across many venues. At one point Nixon makes his point by jabbing his finger into Khrushchev’s chest whilst the Soviet leader listens, his bottom lip jutting out in anger.

But it was the image of Nixon and Khrushchev leaning on the railing in front of the model General Electric kitchen, surrounded by interpreters and reporters that captured the moment. The Cold War in a make-believe kitchen. Standing behind Nixon, looking somewhat distracted, is future Soviet premier and Khrushchev’s successor, Leonid Brezhnev.

The make-believe kitchen

The kitchen was part of a showroom house which, according to Nixon, almost any worker in America could afford. “We have such things,” said Khrushchev, adding that they had much the same for the Russian worker, but better built.

Nixon boasted of the processes and appliances available to the modern American housewife, “In America, we like to make life easier for women”. Khrushchev shot back, “Your capitalistic attitude toward women does not occur under communism”.

Khrushchev, exasperated and perhaps intimidated by the display of modernity, asked, “Don’t you have a machine that puts food into the mouth and pushes it down? Many things you’ve shown us are interesting but they are not needed in life. They have no useful purpose. They are merely gadgets.”

“We will wave to you.”

In one notable exchange Khrushchev asks Nixon how long America had been in existence, “Three hundred years?” he asks, making the mistake to emphasis a point. 150 years, Nixon corrects him.

Khrushchev’s answer captured the essence of the Soviet Union’s paranoia and jealousy of the USA: “One hundred and fifty years? Well then, we will say America has been in existence for 150 years and this is the level she has reached. We have existed not quite 42 years and in another seven years we will be on the same level as America. When we catch you up, in passing you by, we will wave to you.”

Of course it didn’t quite work out that way.

 Rupert Colley

Read more about the Cold War in The Cold War: History In An Hour available in various digital formats and audio.

See also article on Ping-Pong Diplomacy.