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“Tumultuous, prolonged applause ending in ovation. All rise.” Khrushchev’s “Secret Report” and Poland

The report did not remain secret for long. For several weeks Trybuna Ludu, Poland’s official Party organ, said little or nothing about it, though plenty of speeches were printed (in one issue six speeches are given, all ending with: “the speech was interrupted frequently by thunderous, lengthy rounds of applauses”). On Febuary 26th, the Congress resolution was printed in full, including a condemnation of the cult of the individual – with no further details. Then, on March 27th, an article by Jerzy Morawski appeared on page 3 under the title Lessons of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. After an unpromising start, he turns to the cult of the individual and follows the lines of Khrushchev’s secret report.

The report was also read at open Party meetings. It had been distributed to the leadership of the Eastern bloc communist parties but only Poland had translated and circulated it. The commonly available version (http://www.trussel.com/hf/stalin.htm), which was published in New York in June 1956, shows evidence of having been translated from Polish.

Piotr Osęka reports that people fainted during Khrushchev’s initial speech in Moscow. In Poland there was shock and disbelief among listeners. One meeting held to discuss the report lasted 27 hours. Sometimes the reading of the report was met with an embarrassed silence. A Kraków resident wrote that he had been knocked off his feet by the news and was lying in bed, ill. The revelations posed a problem to educators, who wondered what to teach about the so recently worshipped leader. Should his portraits be removed from classrooms?

Not surprisingly, a recurring question was: did Stalin’s comrades know abut the cult of the individual and if so, why didn’t they do anything? This is a question Khrushchev addressed rather unconvincingly in his speech: “First of all, we have to consider the fact that the members of the Political Bureau viewed these matters in a different way at different times”. In defence of the Party he offers the excuse that in later years Stalin seldom held Political Bureau meetings or Central Committee plenary sessions.

Osęka quotes Jan Józef Lipski, who said at a gathering of the State Publishing Institute: “What do you mean, none of you knew? Every market trader in Warsaw knew. People spoke about it on trams and in markets”. Indeed, it seems hard to believe that Stalin’s crimes could have come as a surprise to many and one of the reasons advanced by Martin Malia for Khrushchev’s delivery of the speech was that, with former Gulag inmates streaming home, the truth was already on the way out. Osęka suggests that by giving the official imprimatur to what was widely known Khrushchev forced people to face the truth.

At political meetings held to discuss the secret report many asked if the arrest of Gomułka, one-time general secretary of the Polish Workers Party, had been justified and if his party card would be returned. In fact Gomułka was not only readmitted to the party – he was made first secretary in October 1956 after a turbulent few months when people openly questioned the State’s subordination to the party’s authority. In Russia too there was more freedom of speech but the effect was not as dramatic as in Hungary, or Poland, where Jacek Kuroń describes a system melting before the people’s eyes.

In June, workers took to the streets of Poznań, tearing up red flags. The authorities opened fire, killing around 70 civilians. In an attempt to smear the demonstrators, party apparatchik Cyrankiewicz declared: “Any madman or provacateur who dares raise a hand against the people’s authority can be certain that the people’s authority will cut off his hand in the interest of the working class, in the interest of the working people of town and country”. But claims that a fifth column was responsible were denied even in Trybuna Ludu, where Krzysztof Wolicki wrote that the dead were simply workers protesting. With the approach of the eighth plenum of the Central Committe of Poland’s Communist Party in October, unrest grew. Thousands demonstrated daily and an open letter to all Polish students demanded democratisation, the curbing of censorship and destalinisation. It was widely believed, according to Kuroń, that a faction within the party, supported by the Russians, would carry out a coup. Rumour had it that armed columns were advancing on Warsaw.

In the event Russians did come to Warsaw: Khrushchev, along with Kaganovich, and Molotov, flew in for negotiations, only to be told by first secretary Edward Ochab something Stalin would never have heard: “we will not conduct talks with a pistol held to our head”. As a result of the talks Gomułka was made first secretary. Khrushchev accepted the “Polish path to socialism” in exchange for a declaration of loyalty to Moscow. Collectivisation in Poland ended, the Church gained considerable autonomy, Soviet officers were withdrawn from the Polish army and Poland’s debts to the USSR were written off.

Gomułka delivered a thundering anti-Stalin speech against a background of mass meetings still taking place all over the country (300,000 rallied to him a few days later). He admitted that the leaders of Poland had been to blame for the killings in Poznań and said that the twentieth Congress had been “an important stimulus for change in the political life of the country”. But, like Khrushchev, there was something self-serving about his bold declaration: he himself had not been a party member when the workers were killed in Poznań.

Sources:

Khrushchev, Nikita, On the Cult of the Individual and its Consequences

Jacek Kuroń and Jacek Żakowski PRL dla Początkujących, 1995

Martin Malia, The Soviet Tragedy, 1994

Roy Medvedev, 2


History

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