The real secret of Khrushchev's 1956 speech
Many of those who were present recall the "deathly silence" that fell across the hall. It was the evening of February 25 1956. Unexpectedly, delegates at the 20th congress of the Communist party had been ushered into a final, closed session at central committee headquarters in Moscow. When the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, took the tribune and began to speak, some members of the audience fainted. Others clawed their heads in despair. Most could not believe their ears.
Without warning, Khrushchev had launched a fierce attack on his predecessor, the revered Joseph Stalin. The great vozhd (chief) who had guided the country through the second world war and died three years earlier was a "capricious and despotic character", Khrushchev said. In a four-hour indictment he condemned Stalin for creating a personality cult and unleashing "brutal violence" on anyone who stood in his way.
Uttered 50 years ago tomorrow, this was Khrushchev's secret speech: a coruscating indictment of Stalinism that would roll out across the world; the beginning of the "thaw" and the end of terror in a country where hundreds of thousands had been shot or sent to the gulags.
In the west, the speech has mostly been interpreted as a brave and moral step that changed the fate of the country. Earlier this month Khrushchev's granddaughter Nina, a lecturer who lives in the US, lauded him in the Washington Post for "outing Stalin as a monster".
Yet in Russia, amid muted celebrations of the anniversary, there is growing evidence that Khrushchev's speech was a cynical ploy to save his skin and that of his party cronies. "Khrushchev was trying to dump all the blame on Stalin when his own hands were drenched in blood," says Yuri Zhukov, a historian from the Russian Academy of Sciences who has studied newly declassified archives on the period.
The re-evaluation comes as critics accuse President Vladimir Putin of leading a drift towards an authoritarianism that resembles the rule of the communist strongmen who dominated the 20th century. New measures have included increased state control over broadcast media and the replacement of elected governors by appointees.
While he is not actively promoted by the Kremlin, Stalin remains hugely popular, with higher approval ratings than Khrushchev. Few politicians dare criticise his legacy despite pleas to do so from victims of his oppression. A survey by the All-Russia Centre for the Study of Public Opinion found that 50% of Russians believe Stalin played a positive role, up from 46% in 2003.
In 1956 Khrushchev's speech was certainly a rent with the past. Stalin, he said, had committed "serious and grave perversions of party principles" and triggered the "cruellest repression" by inventing the concept of the "enemy of the people". In 1937 and 1938, 98 of the 139 members of the central committee had been shot on Stalin's orders, Khrushchev revealed.
Many of the 1,400 people at the congress had only heard innuendo about such events and their shock was real; as was the fury of Stalin's supporters. "My impression was very negative," says Nikolai Baybakov, 94, then head of Gosplan, the Soviet central planning agency, and whose voice is still dark with fury at the insult meted out to his hero. "Yes, negative. Compared to Stalin, Khrushchev was a zero."
No debate was allowed, however, and the delegates went home in awe. Many were sunk in depression; two committed suicide within weeks.
Almost immediately, changes began. Although the full text of the speech was not published in the Soviet Union until the late 80s, excerpts were passed to local party officials and read at meetings. Political prisoners were rehabilitated, the press was given limited freedom and ties were re-established with foreign powers such as France and the US. Khrushchev's political enemies were sidelined, but they escaped the death sentence that would have been automatic under Stalin. Abroad, the speech sparked intense interest after it was leaked by foreign communists. The Observer devoted an entire issue to the 26,000-word text.
But while Khrushchev set unstoppable changes in motion, experts say he concealed his own role in bloody repressions. Only in the past five years has the full extent of his complicity in Stalin's terror become evident.
A telegram discovered in Politburo archives by Mr Zhukov shows that Khrushchev sent a request to Moscow to kill or imprison 30,000 people when he took over the leadership of Ukraine in 1938. A brutal purge of intellectuals and "hostile elements" was soon under way.
The year before, when he was party chief in the Moscow region, documents show Khrushchev asked permission to shoot 8,500 anti-Soviet "traitors" and dispatch almost 33,000 to camps. "These persecutions were real and they were carried out on Khrushchev's orders," Mr Zhukov says.
Dima Bykov, a young Russian intellectual, says Khrushchev was a willing servant of Stalin. "When I was a teacher I explained the 20th congress to my pupils using an analogy: imagine Himmler giving an anti-fascist speech at a Nazi congress after Hitler's death."
The limits of Khrushchev's thaw were evident a few months after the speech when he sent Soviet tanks to crush the Hungarian uprising. And while he allowed Alexander Solzhenitsyn to publish a novel about the gulags, he banned Boris Pasternak's Dr Zhivago for its unsympathetic portrait of the aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution.
Nikita Khrushchev, 46, a journalist who was named after his grandfather, admits the Soviet leader was not the hero he is often made out to be. "Of course, grandpa participated in the repressions," he says. "Of course, you can see his signatures on the lists of those to be dealt with. And, of course, many documents have yet to be released from the archives. But the fact that he dared to expose Stalin was his own courageous step. It was a real feat ... It meant he had overcome the Stalinist inside himself."
Mr Bykov says Khrushchev was a brave man who recognised his faults and attempted reform, but lacked the will to smash the system completely. "Khrushchev was half dictator, half liberal," he says. "Putin is just the same. The difference is that in Khrushchev's time the main movement was towards freedom. Now it is backwards. Krushchev initiated freedom. Putin is its graveyard."
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