Fifty years ago this month, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev delivered to a closed session of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union remarks about his predecessor Josef Stalin and the latter's "cult of personality" that have passed into history as "the secret speech."
On the basis of his later comments, Khrushchev appears to have decided to deliver that speech as both a tactical move against his opponents within the Soviet leadership and as a broader effort to enhance the legitimacy of the communist system. But whatever his intentions, his remarks on 24-25 February 1956 had a far broader and deeper set of implications. Indeed, by what he said in that speech and even more by what he left unsaid, Khrushchev, in the words of Anatoly Chubais, drove "the first nail into the coffin" of that system.
Himself one of Stalin's closest lieutenants, Khrushchev faced an impossible task, even in his own terms. In order to reassure his party comrades that there would be no going back to the arbitrary violence of the past, he had to blame Stalin for all the evils of the system over which the late Soviet dictator had presided for so long without implicating himself and his supporters in those crimes or disowning the accomplishments of the system - the collectivization of agriculture, the construction of a powerful industrial base, and the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II.
Khrushchev devoted almost all of his speech to the ways in which Stalin arbitrarily and brutally destroyed Lenin's legacy and the cream of the Communist Party, forcing party leaders to confess to crimes they had not committed and then executing them. All of the cases that the party had examined after Stalin's death, Khrushchev said, were found to have been "fabricated," and consequently he and the leadership were moving to "posthumously rehabilitate" them - perhaps guaranteeing that that term will be as closely linked to Khrushchev as the phrase "enemy of the people" that Khrushchev insisted - incorrectly - that Stalin had invented is with him.
Throughout that part of his speech, Khrushchev repeatedly insisted that "Stalin decided everything." But as he documented the crimes of his predecessor - the torture, the forced confessions to crimes no one had committed, and the killing of so many leading party members - Khrushchev in 1956 was not able to avoid mentioning those who had been Stalin's henchmen: Khrushchev talks about one official who served Stalin loyally as having "the brain of a bird and being completely degenerate morally," and he describes as especially evil Stalin's secret police chief, Lavrenti Beria.
Khrushchev was obviously aware that some in his audience would be asking themselves just where Khrushchev and other members of the Politburo had been when all this was taking place. And not surprisingly, Khrushchev went to great lengths to address that as-yet unspoken question. Pointing out that Stalin was prepared to kill anyone he suspected of resisting him in any way, Khrushchev suggested that senior officials were thus put in "a difficult position" whenever they in fact disagreed with the dictator.
Another section of the speech was devoted to demolishing Stalin's efforts to promote himself as an equal of Lenin and as a brilliant wartime leader. Neither is accurate, Khrushchev said, and again he provided details about Lenin's now famous testament calling for the party to remove Stalin as party secretary because of his "rudeness," about Stalin's editing of his own biography and that of others concerning the revolution, and his failure to prepare the Soviet Union for the war with Hitler that so many people had warned him of - and then his disastrous involvement in the planning of military actions.
And in yet a third section of his long speech, Khrushchev detailed Stalin's increasing suspiciousness and capriciousness in the postwar years, a period when members of the Communist Party and the Soviet people expected that their remarkable and heroic efforts in that conflict would be rewarded. But instead of doing that, Stalin dreamed up conspiracies that never were, from the Leningrad Affair to the Doctors' Plot, to justify a return to the kind of repression he had overseen before 1941.
In only two places, however, did Khrushchev even mention the consequences of Stalin's crimes for those other than the party and state elite itself. He did discuss Stalin's baseless and criminal decision at the end of World War II to exile entire peoples from the Caucasus to Central Asia. And he suggested that Stalin's capriciousness had unsettled many Soviet citizens and meant that they worked less effectively for the party and the common cause of building communism.
But those few remarks had the effect of calling attention to what Khrushchev had avoided talking about - the party's lack of concern for the people in whose name it ruled and its willingness to try to defend its own members regardless of what happened to others.
Thus, Khrushchev did not mention the millions of deaths from the Soviet dictator's "terror famine" in Ukraine and elsewhere. He did not talk about the millions of ordinary Soviet citizens who were swept up in the terror of the late 1930s and sent to build the factories in which Khrushchev took such pride. And he did not talk about the destruction of the culture and way of life of all the peoples of the Soviet Union, Russian and non-Russian alike.
Khrushchev was clearly aware at the time of the danger of any broader discussion of the issues he had raised and not raised. At the end of his speech, Khrushchev told his comrades, "We cannot let this matter get out of the party, especially not to the press.... We should not give ammunition to the enemy; we should not wash our dirty linen before their eyes." But within hours of the moment at which his remarks were received with what the transcript describes as "tumultuous applause," Khrushchev's "secret speech" had been leaked to the West and, thanks to the efforts of international broadcasters like Radio Liberty, Radio Free Europe, and the Voice of America, reached the peoples of the Soviet bloc and the Soviet Union in particular.
Their reactions were rather different than those of Khrushchev's fellow party members, and as a result, the man who only a few years later would claim that Communism would "bury" the West had taken the first step on a road that ultimately meant that he, like others who tried to save that system or who now hope to revive it by posing only some questions while ignoring others, is now recognized as one of the most important gravediggers of that system.
'The first nail in the coffin of communism'