KHRUSHCHEV’S SECRET SPEECH
As with a stone tumbling down a hill that inexorably sets off an avalanche, there are some words that once spoken cannot be recalled and lead to the most profound of changes. Oftentimes beyond what the speaker had intended.
Fifty years ago, First Secretary Nikita Sergeievitch Khrushchev strode to the podium of the 20th Party Congress of the Communist Party of the mighty Soviet Union. Gathered there were the elite of the great Communist empire, now a nuclear superpower like capitalist America. Khrushchev had established his primacy in the Politburo’s “collective leadership” after Stalin’s death by de-fanging the dead dictator’s dreaded security appratus, the NKVD, executing its master Lavrenty Beria and demoting it from a ministry to a mere ” state committee”, tightly supervised by the CPSU Central Committee. He was not without rivals either at home or abroad where Mao ZeDong felt little need to defer to Khrushchev as he once had to his ” elder brother” in revolution, Joseph Stalin.
Let us not romanticize Nikita Khrushchev. He was an extremely brutal man who needed an exceptional ruthlessness and cunning to have reached and survived at the pinnacle of the Stalinist system for as long as he did. Moreover, all of his Politburo rivals were, like himself, hardened Stalinists and seasoned mass-murderers who signed the same grim death-lists and arrest warrants that the dictator had put before them time and again, containing even their own colleagues, friends, relatives and even their wives and children. The stakes in Soviet politics at that time resembled nothing so much as the Roman empire in the days of Caligula or Domitian.
Yet Khrushchev made a speech – ” the secret speech” - that shattered the ideological foundations of the Soviet system but briefly reconnected the regime on a moral level with the Russian people. The audience in the hall was in shock – it was as if the new Communist Pope had just condemned his predecessor as the Antichrist before the College of Cardinals:
“The vicious practice was condoned of having the NKVD prepare lists of persons whose cases were under the jurisdiction of the Military Collegium and whose sentences were prepared in advance. Yezhov would send these [execution] lists to Stalin personally for his approval of the proposed punishment. In 1937-1938, 383 such lists containing the names of many thousands of Party, Soviet, Komsomol, Army, and economic workers were sent to Stalin. He approved these lists.
A large part of these cases are being reviewed now. A great many are being voided because they were baseless and falsified. Suffice it to say that from 1954 to the present time the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court has rehabilitated 7,679 persons, many of whom have been rehabilitated posthumously.
Mass arrests of Party, Soviet, economic and military workers caused tremendous harm to our country and to the cause of socialist advancement.
Mass repressions had a negative influence on the moral-political condition of the Party, created a situation of uncertainty, contributed to the spreading of unhealthy suspicion, and sowed distrust among Communists. All sorts of slanderers and careerists were active. “
Khrushchev did not list all of Stalin’s crimes, not by half. Nor did he dwell on his own crimes or those of the delegates in the hall who loyally and probably enthusiastically helped carry out their share of the Great Terror the way Nazi functionaries carried out the Holocaust. But he did empty the slave labor camps and restrict the machinery of terror. He even allowed some criticism to see the light of day, permitting Novy Mir to publish Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Khrushchev paid for that and for other things at the hands of Brezhnev, Kosygin and Suslov, the last being Stalin’s only remaining Politburo member to cling to power into the 1980’s and who was one of the authors of the calamitous invasion of Afghanistan.
Such frank words though did not come again until thirty years later, at the tail end of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika campaign, when the truth in them unravelled the fabric of the Soviet Union itself.
SECRET SPEECH ANNIVERSARY LINKS:
NYT Taubman Op-Ed