Feb. 25, 1956—In an address that shredded the hopes placed in the Soviet Union by believers around the world, Nikita Khrushchev (pictured) disclosed to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party that the nation’s former leader, Joseph Stalin, had subjected opponents of his rule to “moral and physical annihilation.”
The night before the speech, Khrushchev faced down high-level Soviet leaders who did not want any news of this kind to come out. They rightly feared that some would ask why they had not acted to stop the terror.
Khrushchev may have wondered the same thing about his own role. His decade as First Party Secretary would be characterized by a hypomania marked by what one psychoanalyst described in a 1960 CIA assessment as exuberance coupled with feeling “covertly ... guilty about aggression towards others, incapable of being alone ... corruptible and lacking a systematic approach in cognitive style.” He improvised a great deal of the speech, even appearing overwrought at times, maybe remembering his own role in carrying out Stalin’s tyranny. (As Moscow leader in the 1930s, Khrushchev ordered the shooting of more than 55,000 officials, according to Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar.)
During Stalin’s nearly three decades as Soviet dictator, it was suicide to criticize or even joke about him. Nearly three years after his death, nobody still dared to breathe a word about his crimes. Nor, even now did Khrushchev address Stalin’s brutality against the Soviet people at large, let alone other nations undermined and absorbed within the Soviet empire. (Moreover, the first Soviet leader, V.I. Lenin, was upheld as a shining example of everything Stalin had destroyed, with his own crimes not detailed until Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago in the 1970s.)
So when Khrushchev now got around to denouncing Stalin, it was in the context of what mattered most to his immediate listeners, for having “ignored the norms of party life and trampled on the Leninist principle of collective party leadership.” Tumult broke out in the hall when Khrushchev laid out, in categorical detail, a particular example of this: “of the 139 members and candidates of the party's Central Committee who were elected at the 17th congress, 98 persons, that is, 70 percent, were arrested and shot (mostly in 1937-38).”
Like so much about the Iron Curtain, these shattering revelations were made behind closed doors and initially unbeknownst to most Soviet citizens, leading it to be dubbed “The Secret Speech.” But even as it was being delivered (estimates I’ve seen vary as to its length, ranging from four to eight hours), Khrushchev’s belated denunciation of his predecessor’s “cult of personality” had an immediate impact.
The delegates present uniformly listened in shocked, numb silence. The editor of Pravda, concerned that he might have a heart attack, gulped down five nitroglycerin pills, while the head of the Polish Communist Party, being treated in the U.S.S.R. for pneumonia, did suffer a fatal heart attack right after reading it. Still other delegates are believed to have killed themselves afterwards.
In terms of Communist believers beyond the walls of the Kremlin, the effects were not as visceral but ultimately more important for the propaganda war that the U.S.S.R. was waging against the United States and its allies in the Free World. The speech was read once only to party members throughout the Soviet Union in factories, farms, offices and universities.
Polish printers, having obtained the full text meant for distribution to Central European communist allies, printed thousands more than the authorized number. One of these copies came into the hands of Israeli intelligence, who, in the early spring, gave it to the CIA, which in turn leaked it to The New York Times and the British Kremlinologist (and eventual Khrushchev biographer), Edward Crankshaw. After the Times printed it in early June, the speech became fodder for the Voice of America and the U.S. Information Agency in their campaign against “Red Colonialism.”
In Poland and Hungary especially, the speech catalyzed resentment against Soviet puppet regimes, and though this unrest was smothered in the former and brutally crushed by Soviet troops in the latter, ordinary citizens now knew the extent of the crimes of their Communist overlords.
For longtime American apologists of the Soviet regime, the speech put them face to face with what they had long tried to avoid. As Harvey Klebr, John Hayes, and Kyrill Anderson write in The Soviet World of American Communism:
“For more than 20 years, both the mainstream press and scholarly books had carried hundreds of stories, refugee accounts, and exposes of the nature and horrors of Stalin's regime. Yet although the insistence of American Communists that the news was a revelation was literally false, it was psychologically true. Since the beginning of the movement, American Communists had worn special glasses that allowed them to see only what Moscow saw and that rendered all else invisible. But when Moscow finally opened its own eyes, when Khrushchev pointed to the bodies of Stalin's victims littering the Soviet landscape, American Communists saw those bodies as well. And this vision offered a shattering revelation.”
Like Mikhail Gorbachev three decades later, Khrushchev mistakenly believed that the Soviet Union could be reformed from within. The revelations about Stalin were meant to energize a rank and file still suffering from the impact of Stalinist terror. As painful as his knowledge of his complicity was, he felt, light had to be shed on this shadowy past. "All of us were involved in this,” he recalled in his memoir. “And we have to tell the truth about everything."