Vladimir Tismaneanu: The speech that planted the seeds of freedom in Russia





[Mr. Tismaneanu is professor of politics at the University of Maryland (College Park) and author, most recently, of "Stalinism for All Seasons: A Political History of Romanian Communism" (California, 2003).]

Fifty years ago, on Feb. 25, Nikita Khrushchev launched his full-bore attack on the Stalin myth. At the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, a shocked audience of 1,436 delegates took in what came to be known as the "Secret Speech," one of the most important political documents of the last century. It was secret because no foreign guests or journalists were allowed to attend, and the text was not published in the U.S.S.R. until Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost. For decades, the Soviets refused to acknowledge its existence.

Yet it was very real and had immediate consequence. The Polish leader and Stalinist Boleslaw Bierut, in Moscow for the Congress, fell ill with pneumonia before Khrushchev spoke and, upon reading the Secret Speech in the Kremlin hospital, had a heart attack and died on March 12. Several months later, the speech was leaked to the West through Poland, appearing in the New York Times when its authenticity was confirmed. Western radio stations broadcast it back to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

From then on, neither the U.S.S.R. and its satellites nor the world communist movement were ever the same. Mao and other unrepentant Stalinists saw Khrushchev as an arch-revisionist and a renegade, the gravedigger of communism, though it took another few decades for it to die.

In his speech, Khrushchev denounced Stalin's "cult of personality," which was a euphemism for the horrors inflicted on his country and region during the three decades that the Georgian stayed in power. His audience was dumbfounded. Many felt liberated, others betrayed and offended. The four-hour discourse documented Stalin's "grave abuse of power," his murderous persecution of the party elite, his leading role in the Great Terror, the ferocious treatment of major party personalities, and his failures as a military commander. Khrushchev declared the worshipped leader, in life and in death, guilty of the destruction of so many human lives, the brutal deportations of whole ethnic groups, the absurd agricultural schemes that starved millions in Ukraine and other rural regions to death, and his "loathsome adulation" masquerading as "party history."

The approach was obviously limited. Khrushchev pledged to restore "the Leninist principles of Soviet socialist democracy" and "to fight the arbitrariness of individuals abusing power." For today's readers, the emphasis on the "healthy" Leninist principles sounds naïve. But in 1956, this attack on Stalin's ghost was remarkably daring. Stalinists never forgave him.

From the 20th Congress came, without exaggeration, the Sino-Soviet split, the Polish upheavals in spring 1956 and the Hungarian revolution that fall. The Secret Speech was the catalyst for a revolt of the mind among critical intellectuals known as Marxist revisionists. Unconditional solidarity with the U.S.S.R., Stalin's "touchstone" of proletarian internationalism, was no longer mandatory. Denouncing the cult of Stalin's personality, Khrushchev smashed a whole pyramid of lies and illusions. Yesteryear's genius was reborn as a psychopathic monster.

Communist leaders in the "people's democracies" were outraged. For the little Stalins of Poland, Romania, East Germany or Czechoslovakia, this onslaught marked the betrayal of the highest principles. They felt threatened and they were right. For years, until the 1980s, angry French communists referred disparagingly to the Secret Speech as "the report attributed to Khrushchev."

Years later, Mr. Gorbachev, who was in the audience back in 1956, told the ideologist of the Prague Spring, Zdenek Mlynar, that the speech was heartbreaking for him and his generation of party apparatchiks. Aleksandr Yakovlev, Gorbachev's ally and the architect of glasnost, called that day the beginning of his political awakening. Thus were the seeds of Gorbachev, and the Soviet Union's demise, planted.

As an ideology-driven regime, the old U.S.S.R. was based on the assumption of the Communist Party's infallibility and its leader's God-like status. For Stalin, the myth of the party's predestined leading role coincided with the continuous growth of his own personal power. While murdering the Bolshevik Old Guard, he claimed to be Lenin's most loyal disciple. World War II fed his narcissism. His terrible misdeeds, like the liquidation of the Red Army high command and the infamous pact with Nazi Germany, were forgotten, including by Western politicians. He appeared as the wise strategist and statesman. Stalin initiated the Cold War to foster his domination of the satellites countries of East-Central Europe. When Yugoslav Communists headed by Tito challenged him in 1948, Stalin excommunicated them as a "gang of spies and murderers."

His terminal paranoia led to imagine Zionist plots that were meant to kill him and destroy socialism. By the end of his life, Stalin was presiding over docile, sycophantic henchmen whose only worry was mere survival. One of these was Nikita Khrushchev, who, six months after Stalin's death in March 1953, became the party first secretary. Initially, the impulsive Khrushchev shared power with Stalin's other lieutenants. The slogan was the return to the Leninist principle of "collective leadership." Hundred of thousands of Gulag prisoners returned to their homes during the post-1953 "thaw." With Moscow's blessing, Imre Nagy initiated a "New Course" in Hungary. The anti-Tito hysterical propaganda came to an end.

Khrushchev was aware of the vulnerability of his position and tried to strengthen it by denouncing his predecessor. By 1955, a commission was working secretly to document Stalin's reign of terror. Its chairman was party historian Piotr Pospelov, a former Stalin lackey. Khrushchev took advantage of the 20th Congress to topple Stalin's myth. He also unearthed Lenin's will, which called for Stalin's replacement as party boss, and distributed it to the delegates....



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