In history, some events at first appear insignificant, or their significance is hidden, but they turn out to be earthshaking. Such a moment occurred 50 years ago, with Nikita Khrushchev’s so-called “Secret Speech” to the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. It ranks, I believe, just below the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the start of Hitler’s War in 1939 as the most critical moment of the twentieth century.
At that moment, the communist movement appeared to be riding the tide of history, and not only for those in the Soviet Union. In the mid-1950’s, communism was on the offensive in Europe, as well as in the emerging Third World. Capitalism seemed to be dying. All of communism’s imperfections were deemed temporary, just bumps on the way to the just society that was then being born. A third of humanity saw the Soviet Union as leading the world toward global socialism.
The Twentieth Congress put an end to that. It was a moment of truth, a cleansing from within of the brutality of Stalinism. Khrushchev’s speech to the Congress inspired doubt and second thoughts throughout the worldwide Communist movement.
Khrushchev’s motives as he took the podium on the morning of February 25, 1956, were, in his mind, moral ones. After his ouster from power, in the seclusion of his dacha, he wrote: “My hands are covered with blood. I did everything that others did. But even today if I have to go to that podium to report on Stalin, I would do it again. One day all that had to be over.”
Khrushchev had, of course, been an intimate part of Stalin’s repressions, but he also didn’t know half of what was going on. The whole Stalinist system of government was built on absolute secrecy, in which only the General Secretary himself knew the whole story. It wasn’t terror that was the basis of Stalin’s power, but his complete monopoly on information. Khrushchev, for example, was stunned when he discovered that in the 1930’s and 1940’s, some 70% of Party members were annihilated.
Initially, Khrushchev didn’t plan to keep his denunciation of Stalin a secret. Five days after the Congress, his speech was sent to all the leaders of the socialist countries and read at local party meetings across the Soviet Union. But people didn’t know how to discuss it. And with good reason, for the problem with the de-Stalinization process was that, although the truth was partly revealed, no answer regarding what to do next was offered.
After the Congress, it became clear that the communist gospel was false and murderously corrupt. But no other ideology was offered, and the crisis – the slow rot of the system that became clear during the era of stagnation under Leonid Brezhnev – that began with Khrushchev’s speech lasted another 30 years, until Mikhail Gorbachev took up his mantle of change.
The doubts inspired at the Congress may have been inchoate, but they nonetheless sowed genuine unrest. In the first of the protests that rocked the communist world in 1956, huge crowds in Georgia demanded that Khrushchev be fired and Stalin’s memory reinstated. An uprising in Poland and the far more tumultuous Hungarian Revolution argued for the opposite. The Poles demanded communism with a human face, and the Hungarians, after Imre Nagy sought to reform communism, ended up wanting no communism at all.
All of these protests were brutally crushed, which resulted in many West European Communists leaving the Party in utter disillusion. Khrushchev’s speech also ignited the feud between Mao’s China and the USSR, for it allowed Mao to claim the crown of world revolutionary leadership.
Worried by the protests, Khrushchev tried to cool off the anti-Stalin campaign. The release of the Gulag prisoners that followed his speech continued, but it was done in silence. Party membership was restored to purge survivors, and they received new jobs, but they were forbidden from discussing the horrors that they had endured.
That silence lasted until 1961, when Khrushchev permitted new revelations of Stalin-era crimes. These were publicly reported and discussed on TV and radio. Stalin’s body was removed from Red Square, Stalin monuments were destroyed, and cities restored their original Soviet names. Stalingrad became Volgograd.
The idea of the Gulag entered our literature with Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. This second anti-Stalinist campaign lasted two years, which was not nearly enough to change the country’s mentality.
The Twentieth Congress shattered the world Communist movement, and it turned out to be impossible to cement the cracks. The Soviet Union and other socialist countries faced a crisis of faith, as the main threat to communism was not imperialism, or ideological dissidents, but the movement’s own intellectual poverty and disillusion.
So, although it is common today in Russia to blame Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin for the collapse of the USSR, it is both useless and unfair to do so. The system was dead already, and it is to Yeltsin’s great credit that he was able to bring Russia out of the ruins in one piece. Although Russia’s future is uncertain, its history is becoming clearer, in part because we now know that the Twentieth Party Congress started the process that brought about the end of Soviet despotism.