“The things that were said…God knows what we’re supposed to think!”
Khrushchev delivering the “secret speech”
Nikita Khrushchev, First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, delivered a dramatic speech at a closed meeting of the Twentieth Party Congress on 25th February 1956. The speech was a stunning break with Stalin and his rule. Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s purges, the killing of innocent people, Stalin’s foreign policy mistakes and his cult of personality. It has become known as the ‘Secret Speech’.
It was, at least, partly secret. No mention of it was made in the Soviet media. But copies were sent out to regional party secretaries who, in turn, briefed local party members.
Copies were also sent to leaders of Soviet satellite countries with strict instructions that no copies should be made. However some copies were made in Poland and a secretary borrowed one for her boyfriend, a Polish journalist who was a fervent Zionist. He had it photographed and passed the film on to Israeli intelligence which handed it to the US Central Intelligence Agency. With the approval of President Eisenhower, the full text was published by the New York Times on 5th June 1956. It caused a sensation. Though the speech had been made in a private session it became the most famous speech in the history of communism.
Previously, though plenty of people in the west had condemned Stalin’s purges and the Gulag, there were still defenders of Stalin’s regime. But now Stalin was being condemned by his own successor: a communist and one of Stalin’s lieutenants – someone very close to all that had been done.
Khrushchev was known for his direct – even brash – personal style. In 1960, he brandished his shoe – or banged it on his desk, depending on the account – at the United Nations in protest at a speech that was critical of political and civil rights in the Soviet Union.
He had come to power in 1953 after a fierce power struggle with several rivals in the course of which Lavrenty Beria, the state security chief, had been executed and Georgy Malenkov, who had been Stalin’s heir apparent, removed from power.
Khrushchev delivered the speech in a typically “spirited” tone even though the words were carefully chosen. Reports of the reaction to the speech in the hall have varied. One stated that audience members sank into a depression or fainted with shock. A later report asserted that parts of the speech were met with laughter and applause. Upon hearing the speech Dmitri Goriunov, the chief editor of Komsomolskaya Pravda (“Komsomol Truth” – Komsomol was a syllabic abbreviation of the Russian words meaning “All-Union Leninist Young Communist League”), reportedly had to take five nitroglycerin pills to calm his weak heart.
Sergei Mezentsev, editor of the Kommunist journal returned from the Congress looking “white as snow – or more gray than white, like the color of salt marshes”. Asked what had been said, he had difficulty speaking and eventually said, “The things that were said…God knows what we’re supposed to think…What will happen next? What will we do?” He added, “They stipulated that there should be no leaks. Otherwise our enemies will chop us down at the roots.”
Khrushchev began the speech by quoting criticism of Stalin made by Vladimir Lenin, the leader who brought the communist regime to power in Russia and who was regarded in the Soviet Union as an unquestionable authority. Khrushchev contrasted the two men. Lenin had used violence or “severe methods” only when the exploiting classes were still in place, said Khrushchev. But Stalin had used extreme methods and mass repressions at a time when:
“…the revolution was already victorious, when the Soviet state was strengthened, when the exploiting classes were already liquidated, and Socialist relations were rooted solidly in all phases of national economy, when our party was politically consolidated and had strengthened itself both numerically and ideologically. It is clear that here Stalin showed in a whole series of cases his intolerance, his brutality, and his abuse of power. Instead of proving his political correctness and mobilising the masses, he often chose the path of repression and physical annihilation, not only against actual enemies, but also against individuals who had not committed any crimes against the party and the Soviet Government. Here we see no wisdom but only a demonstration of the brutal force which had once so alarmed V.I Lenin…”.
Vorkuta Gulag: 1200 miles north-east of Moscow
Khrushchev went on to detail specific examples of Stalin’s persecution of his enemies. He recounted the imprisonment and eventual execution of Robert Eikhe.Eikhe had been posthumously pardoned and rehabilitated prior to the secret speech. Khrushchev said that Stalin’s treatment of Eikhe was a “criminal violation of revolutionary legality”.
Robert Eikhe after his arrest by the NKVD. He was severely tortured.
Khrushchev also referred to the 1949-52 “Leningrad Affair” – a post-war Stalinist purge of the Soviet Union’s political elite. The alleged crimes, “we have now proven… [were] fabricated”, said Khrushchev. Modern historians agree that, between 1949 and1950, fabricated claims of corruption were made against Alexey Alexandrovich Kuznetsov, Nikolai Voznesensky, Leningrad’s leaders, Pyotr Popkov, Yakov Kapustin and former Leningrad officials including Mikhail Rodionov, prime minister of the Russian Republic. They were arrested in 1949, and after being interrogated, were shot in October 1950. Two thousand other people with tenuous links to the accused were imprisoned or exiled over the following months and years.
Khrushchev went on:
“The question arises: Why is it that we see the truth of this affair only now, and why did we not do something earlier, during Stalin’s life, in order to prevent the loss of innocent lives? It was because Stalin personally supervised the Leningrad affair, and the majority of the Political Bureau members did not, at that time, know all of the circumstances in these matters, and could not therefore intervene…]” .
In this way, Khrushchev disassociated himself and others from the arrests, imprisonments and executions which he was describing.
Khrushchev with Stalin in the 1930s
One witness said that the speech was peppered with explosive asides which were not in the official transcript. Khrushchev taunted Kliment Voroshilov, Chairman of the Praesidium of the Supreme Soviet, reportedly saying “Hey you, Klim, cut out the lying. You should have done it long ago.” Voroshilov had played a central role in Stalin’s Great Purge, personally signing execution lists. According to a witness of the speech, Voroshilov’s face “reddened to the roots of his hair” .
Khrushchev also criticised Stalin for his purge following the so-called “Doctors’ Plot” in 1953:
Let us also recall the affair of the doctor plotters. [Animation in the hall.] Actually there was no affair outside of the declaration of the woman doctor Timasbuk, who was probably influenced or ordered by someone… to write Stalin a letter in which she declared that doctors were applying supposedly improper methods of medical treatment. Such a letter was sufficient for Stalin to reach an immediate conclusion that there are doctor plotters in the Soviet Union. He issued orders to arrest a group of eminent Soviet medical specialists. He personally issued advice on the conduct of the investigation and the method of interrogation of the arrested persons. He said that the academician Vinogradov should be put in chains, another one should be beaten. Present at this Congress as a delegate is the former Minister of State Security Comrade Ignatiev. Stalin told him curtly, “If you do not obtain confessions from the doctors we will shorten you by a head.”
The secret speech was also damning about elements of Stalin’s foreign policy. Stalin had claimed that Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 had been unforeseeable. “This is completely untrue”, said Khrushchev, saying the military of build-up in Germany prior to the invasion had been clear and the destruction of Communism had been an openly stated aim of the Nazi regime for many years21. He appeared to be furious with Stalin in relation to wartime defeats at Kiev and Kharkov in 1941 and 1942. He has been quoted as saying, “He [Stalin] was a coward. He panicked. Not once during the whole war did he dare go to the front.”
Khrushchev also criticised Stalin’s role in the breakdown in relations between the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia in 1948. Stalin had attempted, unsuccessfully, to remove the Yugoslav leader, Tito, from power.
“It was a shameful role which Stalin played here,” Khrushchev said.
He quoted Stalin as having said, “I will shake my little finger and there will be no more Tito. He will fall”. Stalin had, in fact, made several attempts to have Tito assassinated though Khrushchev did not spell this out.
The speech concluded with Khrushchev telling the Congress: “Comrades, we must abolish the cult of the individual decisively, once and for all”. He said that the party should return to its roots with “the people as the creator of history and as the creator of all material and spiritual good of humanity, [and] the decisive role of the Marxist party in the revolutionary fight for the transformation of society, about the victory of communism”.
The speech positioned Khrushchev as part of the liberal, reformist section of the Communist Party. Some argue that Khrushchev might also have wanted to exonerate himself and the party. He might have sought to do this by pinning the blame for crimes and injustices solely on Stalin and his closest adherents such as Georgy Malenkov. Malenkov, with others, later led an attempted coup against Khrushchev largely in response to the speech. The coup failed and Malenkov and the other plotters were removed from the Communist Party and exiled to Kazakhstan in 1957.
The relatively liberal policies of Khrushchev were also criticised by Chairman Mao, leader of the Chinese Communist Party. He condemned them as “revisionist” and may have seen the condemnation of the cult of personality as a challenge to his own cult. In the eventual Sino-Soviet split of 1962, relations between China and Soviet Union broke down to such an extent that open conflict almost broke out. Albania, another hard-line communist country, broke away from the Soviet Union in 1961 because of Khrushchev’s “revisionism” and aligned itself with China.
The speech acted as an encouragement to opponents of communist rule in Hungary and may have been a factor in bringing about the Hungarian Revolution eight months later in 1956.
Soviet tanks in Budapest, 1956
The speech was also a vindication for many in the West who had criticised Stalin. It was met with dismay by many Western communists. The Communist Party in the USA lost 30,000 members in the weeks immediately following the speech’s publication. The Communist Party of Great Britain lost between a quarter and a third of its membership in 1956, partly as a result of the secret speech and partly due to the Soviet Union’s forcible suppression of the Hungarian Revolution.
The speech has been seen as a milestone in the “Khrushchev’s Thaw” – a marked reduction in the repression that had characterised Stalin’s regime. Several thousand political prisoners were released initially. Then further releases took place over time, eventually resulting in the release of millions. A moderate opening of the press was permitted and control of popular culture was somewhat relaxed.
The split within the Communist Party leadership between reformers and hardliners continued for the remainder of the Soviet Union’s existence. Khrushchev himself was removed from power in 1964 and replaced by the more hardline Leonid Brezhnev. Much later, in 1985, another reformer came to power: Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev’s reforms were an important link in the chain of events which led to the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and most of Eastern Europe between 1989 and 1991.
https://www.nytimes.com/1956/06/05/archives/khrushchev-talk-on-stalin-bares-detailsof-rule-based-on-terror.html and https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/opinions/1994/03/27/the-leak-of-the-century/2c3a48ca-5212-442b-a3a8-52e7703d4b26/?no_nav=true&tid=a_classic-iphone
Taubman, William (2003), Khrushchev: The Man and His Era, W.W. Norton & Co., pp. 475–476
Taubman, William (2003), Khrushchev: The Man and His Era, W.W. Norton & Co., p 273
Ibid p. 274
Ibid p. 274
Benjamin Tromly (2004) The Leningrad affair and Soviet patronage politics, 1949–1950, Europe-Asia Studies, 56:5, 707-729, DOI: 10.1080/0966813041000235119
Taubman, William (2003), Khrushchev: The Man and His Era, W.W. Norton & Co., p 273
A.J. Davies, To Build A New Jerusalem. London: Abacus, 1996, p. 179