25 abril 2017

Krushchev and the Secret Stalin Speech

At the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in February of 1956, delegates were told to return to the Great Hall of the Kremlin for a surprise “closed session.” It was very clear that journalists and international guests were not invited. What was going on? Nikita Krushchev appeared on stage past midnight. But the delegates likely had no trouble staying awake once he began to talk: Krushchev announced that three years after Stalin’s death, it was time to tell the truth about his legacy.

The dictator had been treated and feted as “a superman possessing supernatural characteristics, akin to those of a god.” But Krushchev denounced him, as a man of “brutal violence…capricious and despotic.” Stalin had caused “mass terror” against “the honest workers of the Party and of the Soviet state.” Stalin had ignored the signs and warnings that the Nazis were going to invade in 1941. When the invasion came, Stalin took credit for the heroism of the Soviet people. And he had encouraged a cult of “loathesome adulation.” Nikita Krushchev said all of this was lies. And lies must be exposed to the people. Gradually, yes, but the people must know.

Note that Krushchev had happily been working under Stalin for years. So why did he speak up only now? Well, for one thing, Krushchev had power. And he was in a struggle for control with leaders who had more directly aided Stalin’s terror. The speech let him assure the few thousand party delegate in the party congress that Krushchev would not become the excessive tyrant they had just lived through. Krushchev was not criticizing mass repression, nor brutal collectivization and the starvation that accompanied it. But he was turning his back on the very worst features of Stalinist totalitarianism. The speech did not completely succeed with the party elite. But it worked enough to keep Krushchev in power, and it turned the Soviet Union on a different path.

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