This week in history: Khrushchev denounces Stalin in secret speech

By Cody Carlson

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 26 2014 5:54 p.m. MST

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev embraces Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro in the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 20, 1960, in this file photo.

Marty Lederhandler, AP

Enlarge photo»

On Feb. 25, 1956, at a meeting of the Twentieth Party Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev denounced his predecessor, Joseph Stalin.

Since the late 19th century, Russian Social Democrats — the forerunners of the Communist Party — had held party congresses every few years. After the 1917 Russian Revolution, these events became grand party functions in which Communist Party members from throughout the Soviet Union attended. Theoretically, the body created party policy, though as usual the really big decisions were left to the party's elite who used the congresses as a rubber stamp.

During the late 1920s and 1930s, though he theoretically held only the important party position of general secretary, Stalin was the undisputed ruler of the Soviet Union. He alone set the tone and made the major decisions for the party, and by extension the Soviet state. Stalin was also responsible for death and misery on an unprecedented scale. His forced famine in the Ukraine caused millions of deaths, while his Five Year Plans, attempts to industrialize the Soviet Union, resulted in the same.

Under Stalin, Soviet citizens could be arrested on the flimsiest of pretexts, such as arriving 10 minutes late for work. After their arrests, they could be sent off to work camps throughout the Soviet Union, many in Siberia, where they could contribute to the state's industrialization drive. From the beginning of World War II in 1939 until 1952, Stalin did not see a reason to hold a party congress, and the practice was unofficially suspended. With his death in March 1953, the October 1952 party congress was the occasion of Stalin's last pubic speech.

Years of political uncertainty followed Stalin's death, though eventually Khrushchev, an intimate of Stalin, was able to maneuver himself into the party's leading position. From the start, however, Khrushchev's tenure as general secretary was not intended to be as autocratic as Stalin's. Rather, other members of Communist Party and the Politburo (the Political Bureau, which represented the highest level of Communist Party leadership under the general secretary) held much more power.

As the years after Stalin's death went by, there was increasing pressure on the party to define the deceased leader's life and legacy within communist ideology. The Twentieth Party Congress was convened on Feb. 14, 1956, largely to address this issue, though that was not the publicized reason.

In his book "A History of Modern Russia: From Nicolas II to Vladimir Putin," historian Robert Service wrote: “On 13 February 1956, a day before the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, (Khrushchev) proposed to the (Soviet leadership) that a speech should be delivered on 'the Cult of the Individual and its Consequences.' This constituted a call for discussion of the horrors of the Stalin period. Khrushchev argued not from moral but from pragmatic premisses: 'If we don't tell the truth at the Congress, we'll be forced to tell the truth some time in the future. And then we shan't be the speech-makers; no, then we'll be the people under investigation.' "

Though Vyacheslav Molotov, another Stalin crony, called for a speech praising Stalin as Vladimir Lenin's legitimate successor, Khrushchev had the votes he needed to carry out his plan. The next day the congress opened in the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow. Attending were 1,355 voting and 81 nonvoting representatives of more than 7 million Communist Party members throughout the Soviet Union. Also in attendance were Communist Party members from Eastern European Soviet Satellite nations such as Hungary, Poland and Romania.

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