Political speeches are usually one-day wonders. Fifty years ago next week, Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev made a “secret speech” that was very different. Late in the evening of 24 February 1956 delegates to the 20th congress of the Soviet Communists were called back from their hotels to the Kremlin in the greatest secrecy.
Just after midnight, as 25 February began, they heard Khrushchev begin to speak. What he said was so explosive that it would not be published publicly in the Soviet Union until 1988. But in the following weeks it was read out at meetings across the country. It was also sent to fraternal Communist Parties and it soon got out to the West.
The speech made history. Khrushchev ripped aside the propaganda image of the former dictator Joseph Stalin, who had died three years earlier. He did it from the centre of power.
But as he spoke he was also anxious to contain the damage his revelations might cause. “We should not,” he said soon after, “give ammunition to the enemy [or] wash our dirty linen before their eyes.” But the enemy he was worried about was not the US, but the Russian people.
Stalin had claimed that his Russia had been built on the Bolshevik socialist revolution of October 1917, which overthrew the dictator, the tsar. In reality his power had grown out of its ashes. Stalin had helped to pile them up.
Those closest to the real revolution became his opponents, then his victims. As they disappeared Stalin and his supporters changed the whole idea of socialism. The task was now to play capitalism at its own game.
It was “to catch up and overtake” the West by building up the economy and heavy industry, and developing the Soviet army to match any in the world.
They called this socialism because the state took control and tried to direct development. But state power was also used to crush any democracy and to squeeze workers and peasants.
Living standards plummeted. The authority of managers was asserted in the factories. By 1939 even arriving late for work was a criminal offence and several millions were punished.
Those on the left who criticised Stalin’s regime were denounced as fascists. The closest allies of the leader of the 1917 revolution, Vladimir Lenin, were put on trial and made to confess to grotesque crimes.
Stalin had made the mistake of exiling Leon Trotsky, another leader of the 1917 revolution. From abroad he kept up a lonely campaign against Stalin until he too became a victim, killed by a Russian agent in Mexico in 1940.
The Russian economy did move forward and, affected by propaganda, many fell for the myth that Stalin was building a new world. Critics were “miserable nonentities [who] raised their treacherous hands against comrade Stalin. Stalin–our hope. Stalin–our desire. Stalin–the light of advanced and progressive humanity. Stalin–our will. Stalin–our victory.”
Such praise was commonplace. This came from the young Nikita Khrushchev as he tried to ride up into the new ruling class that was forming around Stalin in the 1920s and 1930s.
Russia was being driven forward by accelerated industrialisation, a process which had taken generations in the West. It was immensely wasteful and millions died. Millions more were put into prison camps and colonies that became known as the gulags.
This was enough to provide the resources to help defeat the Nazis in the Second World War. The cost of the war was enormous. Huge areas were destroyed and as many as 29 million died. Ten million more became disabled war veterans.
Yet Stalin redoubled the process of industrialisation as the Cold War with the US began. There was also the need to defend the empire that had been created in Eastern Europe after the Russians had pushed the Nazis back.
Famine in 1946-7 killed perhaps two million people. The camps and colonies filled to their highest numbers, with up to six million prisoners in 1952-3. The logic was the same–squeeze the population to generate more resources for investment and accumulation.
But Stalin’s paranoia also grew. “You are blind kittens. What will happen without me?” he told those at the top. “The country will perish because you cannot recognise enemies.”
Allies were arrested and sent to camps. “Cosmopolitanism” was denounced as Russian nationalism grew. But attacks on cosmopolitanism were a coded form of anti-Semitism, which was becoming more evident.
Stalin’s death in March 1953 brought the possibility of relief from this lunacy. It also brought the possibility of beginning to rationalise the system. If competition with the West was to be a long-term affair the old methods of brute force would no longer work.
Workers needed a better standard of living and peasants could not grow enough food if they were malnourished. Scientists could not build an atomic programme, rockets and missiles in the gulags. The difficulty was to know how far to go and how far to confront the past. At first the steps were tentative. One novelist likened it to a “thaw”.
At the start of 1956 it seemed that more was necessary. This much was agreed at the top. But in his secret speech Khrushchev went further.
Stalin, he argued, had not followed Lenin. Lenin had written a testament saying that Stalin had too much power and should be removed. Stalin had not been the great leader. Behind his cult lay a less impressive figure who, when the war had began, had collapsed.
More devastating still was the relentless detail of the repression of the 1930s. Hundreds of thousands of victims had been shot, and whole peoples had been deported in the war.
The details confirmed most of what right and left wing critics of the Soviet Union had said. Khrushchev had to be careful. He needed to clear the baggage of Stalin as a way of modernising the regime.
He also needed to knock his fellow leaders off balance in the struggle for power. Stalin had created the regime and Khrushchev, like the others, was its beneficiary. He therefore tried to limit the criticism in four main ways.
Firstly, there was no intention of allowing the position of Russia to be weakened internationally. “When it comes to combating imperialism we are all Stalinists,” Khrushchev said.
Secondly, industrialisation and the collectivisation of the peasantry, whatever its human costs, remained the basis of Soviet power and could not be seriously questioned.
Thirdly, the rehabilitation of Stalin’s victims would be restricted. Those Bolsheviks who had opposed him such as Nikolai Bukharin and Trotsky remained cast out because they had offered a different vision of the future and a more fundamental challenge than the loyalist victims who came later.
Finally, to explain how things had gone wrong Khrushchev began to develop the idea of the “cult of personality”. The core of the regime had been distorted by an individual and the cult that had grown up around him.
Even within these limits the shock was enormous. In Eastern Europe the speech helped to undermine the credibility of leaders who had depended on Stalin’s support. It helped to encourage a wave of discussion across the Eastern bloc. Demonstrations for reform broke out in Poland and finally, later in 1956, there was revolution in Hungary.
In the West too the Communist Parties experienced turmoil. As Soviet tanks rolled into Hungary it was obvious to most party members that the problem went to the heart of the regime.
Many people left the Communist Parties and even the majorities which stayed within the Western parties now had fewer illusions. Membership of the party would mean a more pragmatic concern with industrial issues at home. The Soviet Union might eventually, they hoped, become a land flowing with milk and honey but it had never been that under Stalin.
The Russian leadership were now unsure how to move on. Khrushchev faced enemies. In 1957 they tried and failed to overthrow him. But he could not build a basis for effective reform.
In the next years Khrushchev zigged one way and zagged another. The fact that the Soviet Union appeared to be growing more powerful and more rational suggested that this might be enough. Sputnik satellites were launched, men flew into space and the US granted the Soviet Union a new respect even as Khrushchev fell out with China. The Chinese leadership was still pursuing the path of industrialisation and the Stalin model continued to look more attractive.
In 1961 Khrushchev made a sharper attack on Stalin. He revealed that Stalin had signed the death warrants of tens of thousands. Stalin’s body was removed from Red Square and reburied.
Two years later Khrushchev was swinging back. “Even now we feel that Stalin was devoted to Communism, he was a Marxist, this cannot and should not be denied,” said Khrushchev.
This was nonsense. Stalin was a murderous thug who had destroyed the revolution. Khrushchev was not a socialist. He stood at the head of a ruling class contesting for world power. He could not completely throw away Stalin, and he also could not develop a consistent approach to his legacy .
In 1964 Khrushchev was booted out of power. Few mourned this. The spring thaw had not developed into a summer. His successors created more stability but it came at a price. There would be no more inconsistency. “We should not pour muck on ourselves,” said new leader Leonid Brezhnev. The Stalin problem would now be dealt with by suppressing discussion of it.
Outside Russia the myth of Stalin had been weakened. Inside, the regime had partly opened up but it still depended on Stalin’s structures. It would take another generation before growing crisis would force them to take another step.
The secret speech can be read at www.marxists.org/archive/khrushchev/1956/02/24-abs.htm
Russia: Class and Power 1917-2000 by Mike Haynes (£8) is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarks.uk.com