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Russia: Khrushchev's 'Secret Speech' Remembered After 50 Years

Nikita Khrushchev in a 1964 file photo (ITAR-TASS) Russia today marked the 50th anniversary of Nikita Khrushchev's "secret speech," in which he denounced the crimes committed under dictator Josef Stalin and the cult of personality surrounding the deceased Soviet leader. Today was an occasion for Russians to reexamine the impact of this legendary speech on their country's history.

MOSCOW, 15 February 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Khrushchev's speech at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union -- held 14-25 February 1956 -- entered history as the first step toward de-Stalinization.

In this speech, Khrushchev accused his predecessor, Josef Stalin, of creating a regime based on "suspicion, fear, and terror." Khrushchev added that he wanted to break the cult of Stalin, who had died three years before.

He condemned the mass repressions that took place between 1936 and 1938, lashed out at Stalin's foreign policy during World War II, and accused him of nationalism and anti-Semitism.

Heart Attacks Among Audience Members

Khrushchev was the first official publicly to denounce Stalin's policies, and his sensational speech stunned the senior party officials gathered at the congress.

According to delegates who witnessed the speech, it provoked deep shock among the audience -- many delegates were reportedly crying, others were holding their heads in despair, and several even had heart attacks in the conference hall.

Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalinism became known as the "secret speech," since it was delivered behind closed doors and was not made public until 18 March 1956.

Prisoners Freed After Speech

Roy Medvedev, a historian who in 1956 was a school director in a provincial Russian city, describes how he first heard the content of the speech.

"They gathered activists, all the party members, all the Komsomol members, the directors of kolkhozs [communal farms[ and sovkhozs [state farms]," Medvedev says. "The instructor of the district Communist Party arrived, took out a red book, and told us: 'I am going to read you the secret speech of Nikita Sergeevich Khrushchev at the 20th congress.' For four hours, we listed to this report. There were people present who had fought in World War II and worshipped Stalin. There were people like me, whose father was repressed and died in prison and who knew about torture and camps."

In the aftermath of the speech, tens of thousands of political prisoners were set free. Khrushchev's words also had huge repercussions in Eastern Europe, where it fuelled hopes of political change, particularly in Poland and Hungary.

Secrecy, however, shrouded the speech for many years -- the full text was not published in Russia until 1988, some 32 years later.

'Colossal Historical Significance'

Medvedev says it took a long time for him to realize its full impact.

"The press was not reporting anything," Medvedev says. "There was no television back then, no information. Very serious processes were set in motion about which we knew nothing. Two days or so after the congress, Western Communist parties protested. They asked why this had to be done. A secret correspondence immediately started with the Chinese Communist Party, which resolutely condemned the 20th congress. It was an event of colossal historical significance."

Khrushchev delivering his "secret speech" (AFP)

Today, Russians remain divided on the legacy of the "secret speech."

While most communists still view it as an act of treason and say it has done more harm than good, many observers hail it as the beginning of the end of the repressive Stalinist era.

Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev said yesterday that Khrushchev's speech had much wider implications than just demolishing the cult of Stalin.

He said it laid the foundation for perestroika by addressing, in his words, "not only the cult of personality, but also democratic problems and ways to manage the country."

Historians have often described Khrushchev as a liberal reformer. They stress, however, that this "liberalism" soon showed its limits. Just nine months later, in November 1956, Soviet tanks were crushing an anti-Soviet uprising in Hungary, killing thousands of protesters.

Two Recollections Of The Secret Speech

Two Recollections Of The Secret Speech
Below, RFE/RL presents recollections of Nikita Khrushchev's 1956 speech to the 20th congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union by former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and Sergei Khrushchev, Nikita Khrushchev's son.

"A POWERFUL TEXT": Former Soviet President MIKHAIL GORBACHEV, speaking about the secret speech in 1994, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Nikita Khrushchev:

I was among those who were acquainted -- after all, not everyone was -- with the speech. At the time, I was the deputy chief of the agitation and propaganda department of our region's Komsomol. I had the opportunity to be invited to the party's district committee, where I became acquainted with this text.
This acquaintance took place in a closed environment, and the speech was taken away five days later. This is why, after I read it, I never saw it again until perestroika. Later, many found out about the text, but slowly. In the West, on the other hand, it was published and became popular.
It was a powerful text. It isn't marked by strong analysis, or a deep approach to the roots of all these phenomena, like why the personality cult became possible -- you won't find these things there. But there is something there that moves and touches the soul. It talks about what was happening to us, what was happening to people, to outstanding people -- how they left and were turned to sand and everything vanished...and people's fates.... This is simple and terrifying. In that sense, the speech creates a strong impression.
I remember how my grandfather was arrested. When the revolution happened, his family got land, and it was apparent to them that it was theirs to manage. So he became a communist. He created kolkhozes [collective farms]; he was the chairman of a kolkhoz for many years. Then, suddenly, in 1938, he is an enemy of the people! This is why, in this sense, I was prepared for the speech and interpreted it differently than others.
But even I was haunted by the question: Was it really like that? Can it be?! My grandfather, who survived torture, returned to the village alive. The grandfather Raisa Maksimovna [Gorbachev's wife -- ed.] was also a peasant and was shot as a Trotskyite. It was a shame, because he did not know what a Trotskyite was. This was in the Altai region.
I interpreted it to some extent as -- yes, this is what happened, this is what happened in my family, and this is what happened in the entire country. It was a tragedy, many people died, a nation was drained of blood and, to a certain extent, decapitated. The intellectual part of the army, and of the politicians, and the administrators was annihilated, decimated -- and the artistic intelligentsia.... But around the world, I noticed a shocking confusion. It was hard not to believe, but some still didn't. Can it really be that it happened this way? But the most important question that arose was: Why did all this collapse and why in this way?
I think this is exactly what Khrushchev must be credited with. They say he trembled while he read the speech, but he read it nonetheless. I think this is where we begin our difficult, dramatic separation from Stalinism and everything it bore.

From left to right, Vyacheslav Molotov, Nikita Khrushchev, and Josef Stalin watch a parade from the top of Vladimir Lenin's mausoleum in 1938 (TASS)

"TO TELL THE TRUTH": In February 1996, RFE/RL correspondent Vladimir Tolz spoke with SERGEI KHRUSHCHEV, Nikita Khrushchev's son, about his recollections of the 1956 secret speech.

Sergei Khrushchev: I found out about the speech not from my father, but later, when people came and said, "You know, there was this report...." Then I rushed to him with questions.

RFE/RL: And what did he tell you?

Khrushchev: He actually didn't tell me anything. He said, "Well, you know, we decided that we had to..." -- I forget his exact words now -- "tell the truth." He probably said it a bit differently, but in any case he gave me the text and said, "Here, read it. I'm tired of talking...."

RFE/RL: Do you remember your impression? Was it somehow discussed in your family?

Khrushchev: It wasn't even discussed in our family. We all kept to ourselves because we all had -- I assume -- thoughts of our own about the matter. For me, it was the end of the world. Later, when I asked my father about this and he told me about his friends who died, I became an anti-Stalinist, and it seemed to me at that moment that it would be impossible to resurrect the name of Stalin and speak of it positively. But as you see, we were all wrong about that.