On the last day of the twentieth Congress of the Communist Party [Feb. 14–25, 1956] of the Soviet Union the doors were closed. Delegates were forbidden from taking notes. There was no stenographer and there was to be no discussion. It was then that Nikita Khrushchev, first secretary of the Communist Party, delivered his paper on the cult of the individual. It is a remarkably outspoken document, especially by the standards of communist newspeak: Khrushchev gets straight down to business, naming Stalin, who had died three years earlier, as the individual in the “cult of the individual”. Viewing Stalin as some kind of infallible superman was alien to the precepts of Marxist Leninism. And there, right at the beginning, is the rub. For this is also a very self-serving document. In later years Khrushchev admitted that he had blood on his hands, but that he was convinced the secret report was the right thing to do: the madness had to stop. However, it was also an attack on the Stalinist old guard that might threaten his position within the party. Khrushchev is careful to praise communism – in particular Lenin – while damning Stalin and, to a lesser extent, Beria.
A literary scholar might note the irony of Khrushchev condemning the cult of the individual while at the same time perpetuating it. The Stalin of his secret paper was a superman, cowing an entire nation, singlehandedly (mis)directing the war effort, and escaping the watchful eye of his Communist Party comrades.
There was undoubtedly a “cult of the individual,” but Khrushchev attacks far more than the mere glorification of Stalin and the propagandist historical and military films that “make us feel sick”. By laying all the blame at the feet of one individual, Khrushchev hoped to effect change – but not too much change. He wrote: “We were scared – really scared. We were afraid the thaw would unleash a flood which we would not be able to control and which would drown us”.
During his speech Khrushchev read from a letter that had been suppressed and which has come to be known as “Lenin’s testament”. In it Lenin complains of Stalin’s rudeness and recommends that he not be made General Secretary (“commotion in the hall”). Khrushchev moves quickly from there to Stalin’s “grave abuses” of power and the mass repression of the 1930s. Here too he treads carefully, contrasting Lenin, whose ruthlessness was directed at class enemies, and Stalin, who knew no such bounds, killing fellow communists when the revolution had already been won. Lenin had abolished the death sentence even before the White Guard had been entirely defeated.
It may be noted that, with the exception of his condemnation of the deportation of, among others, the Chechens, Khrushchev has little or nothing to say about Stalin’s crimes against non-communists. To be charitable to Khrushchev, when castigating Stalin for cruelty to communists, he may have understood ‘communist’ as synonymous with ‘any soviet citizen’.
There are details of some of Stalin’s crimes and the incredible statistic: of 139 members of the Party’s central committee elected at the seventeenth congress, 98 were arrested and shot. 1,108 of the 1,966 delegates present were subsequently arrested for revolutionary crimes. Khrushchev’s assessment of Stalin’s waging of the war is also damning. Liquidation of the officers reached down to company and battalion commanders and naturally effected the ability of the Soviet Union to fight Germany. Even after Germany invaded, Stalin, according to Khrushchev, still did not believe it was really happening (Churchill and Russia’s own intelligence services had warned of invasion months earlier). Stalin preferred to think that the invasion was the isolated action of undisciplined soldiers and ordered that fire not be returned. Describing Stalin’s military incompetence, he said: “I telephoned to Vasilevsky and begged him: ‘Alexander Mikhailovich, take a map … and show Comrade Stalin the situation which has developed.’ We should note that Stalin planned operations on a globe. [Animation in the hall.] Yes, comrades, he used to take the globe and trace the front line on it.”
Khrushchev plays the crowd too, winning thunderous applause as he assures them that they – and not Stalin – won World War II. After the war, he continues, “Stalin became even more capricious, irritable and brutal; in particular his suspicion grew. His persecution mania reached unbelievable dimensions”. He cut himself off from the collective, which Beria took advantage of, Khrushchev claims, letting other apparatchiks off the hook. Stalin, we learn, was so divorced from reality that he believed the propaganda about successful collective farms. It is not clear from the transcript if Khrushchev was aware of the irony that communist propaganda could only be believed by a communist leader: “He knew the country and agriculture only from films. And these films had dressed up and beautified the existing situation in agriculture. Many films so pictured kolkhoz life that the tables were bending from the weight of turkeys and geese. Evidently, Stalin thought that it was actually so.”
Roy Medvedev has said the twentieth Congress started the process that led to the end of Soviet despotism, but the thaw had already begun soon after Stalin’s death in 1953. Jacek Kuroń and Jacek Żakowski report how some Poles cried openly and unaffectedly at his death, but jokes were circulating within days. Solzhenitsyn memorably described the scene in the Gulag when the prisoners learned of the Great Leader’s death. As one man they threw their caps in the air.
Poles tuning in to Radio Free Europe were treated to views behind the scenes of the life of the Party and the secret service. A cultural change took place as people played jazz and turned from public themes imposed by socialist realism towards more private, intimate matters in the arts. (In December of 1956, a journalist covering the Polish Writers Conference was to write: “And so socialist realism was buried modestly, without honours. There wasn’t even a wake”.)