When Nikita Khrushchev took the podium on the final day of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the speech he gave was so surprising and unexpected that some members of the audience actually fainted.
It was Feb. 25, 1956, three years after the death of Josef Stalin and Khrushchev’s accession as first secretary of the party. Although the speech was made in closed session, and has been known forever after as the “secret speech,” it did not remain secret for long. The text had been given to local Soviet organizations to be read aloud and to East European Communist parties. A Polish version soon reached the West, and although its authenticity was denied for a long time by Moscow, it soon became obvious it was genuine.
Why was the speech so shocking? Because it came at the end of decades of totalitarian terror during which millions of people died, in a country where the misuse of power had gone virtually unquestioned and unchecked (and where anyone who dared question the state’s authority was courting arrest). Yet on that February day, 50 years ago this week, Khrushchev cut through years and years of unwavering propaganda to reveal not all, but many, of the crimes of Stalin — his predecessor and mentor — to the world.
Officially, the speech was an attack on the “cult of personality” that had grown up around Stalin. This may sound like little more than a critique of a certain vanity and self-advertisement on the part of the longtime vozhd, or great leader, and that was certainly part of it.
“It is impermissible and foreign to the spirit of Marxism-Leninism to elevate one person,” Khrushchev said, “to transform him into a superman possessing supernatural characteristics akin to those of a god.”
But the full text went a good deal further, citing “grave perversions of party principles.” Stalin (although Khrushchev defended him against Trotskyites and other “deviationists”) came out badly. He had, according to Khrushchev, made fearful mistakes in World War II; he had ruined the country’s agriculture; V.I. Lenin, the revolutionary Bolshevik leader who governed the country after the revolution, had condemned him; he had wrongly broken with Josip Broz Tito, the Yugoslav leader.
Even more shocking than these criticisms were the “glaring violations of revolutionary legality” Khrushchev referred to, particularly in Stalin’s treatment of those of his followers he had purged and executed.
[Read on at Statesman Journal]
[Read the real speech here]