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.
Many of those attending had their own view of Stalin. To some, he was the champion of the Soviet state and people and the man who, though brutal, succeeded in industrializing the nation, won the war against the Nazi aggressors and turned the Soviet Union into a world power. By contrast, there were those who viewed Stalin as a monster whose reign of terror caused the unnecessary deaths of millions and countless more imprisonments.
Delegates noted that though the portrait of Lenin hung in its usual place of honor, there were no portraits of Stalin to be seen. Additionally, as the event opened, Khrushchev called for a few moments of silence to mark the passing of communist leaders throughout the world since the last congress — Stalin, the Czech communist leader Klement Gottwald and the Japanese communist leader Kyuchi Tokuda. Why was Stalin's memory relegated to a simple moment of silence beside two relatively minor and undistinguished communists, many wondered? Why wasn't Stalin singled out for special praise?
Over the next few days, the congress dealt with many different issues of concern to the Soviet Union and its sister communist states, with Khrushchev occasionally challenging the Stalinist line. For instance, Stalin had always held that another war between the Soviet Union and the West was inevitable. Khrushchev dismissed the notion as merely being possible.
In his biography of the Soviet leader, "Khrushchev: The Man and his Era," biographer William Taubman wrote: "After 10 days of sessions, the congress was slated to end on February 25. Foreign delegates and guests were packing their bags that morning when Soviet delegates arrived for an unscheduled secret session. Khrushchev talked for nearly four hours with one intermission. The heart of his speech was a devastating attack on Stalin."
Khrushchev attacked Stalin for his many abuses of power. He denounced the unnecessary arrests and numerous executions without trial. He noted that many people, innocent of any crimes, often confessed to treason "because of physical methods of pressure, torture, reducing them to unconsciousness, depriving them of judgment, taking away their human dignity." Khrushchev also blamed Stalin for the disaster of 1941, when the leader's failure to prepare for Hitler's invasion nearly saw the Soviet Union collapse under the Wehrmacht's onslaught.
Khrushchev was careful to note that he and the other members of the government were not responsible for any wrongdoing under Stalin — they were victims as well. "The majority of Politburo members did not, at the time, know all the circumstances in these matters and therefore could not intervene." In this way their legitimate right to govern was not called into question. It was a calculated move to distance themselves from their former master, a man they now finally acknowledged as the monster he was.
Service wrote: "(Khrushchev's) undeclared purpose was to show the Congress that the attack on Stalin would not involve a dismantlement of the entire system. Arbitrary arrests and executions would cease; but the communist one-party state would be preserved, alternative ideologies would be suppressed and state economic ownership would remain intact."
Though Khrushchev had stated that his speech, titled "On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences" though known subsequently as "the Secret Speech," was not for public consumption, he was careful to make sure every foreign communist delegate received a written copy and even ordered the KGB to see to it that the CIA received a copy. The London Observer published the full copy of the speech a few months later. Khrushchev wanted the world to know that the Soviet Union was changing.
While many in the Soviet Union accepted the new line, and rejoiced in seeing their family members released from camps or posthumously rehabilitated, there was much discontent as well. Many who supported Stalin did not like to think of the great man as a monster. For the Communist parties in Eastern Europe, whose leaders patterned themselves along Stalinist lines, this came as a severe blow to their style of leadership. In China, communist leader Mao Zedong saw Khrushchev's denouncement of Stalin as a threat to his own rule.
While the period following the speech did create a thaw in the cold Soviet system, the Soviet Union remained a rigid totalitarian state that suppressed freedom. When Khrushchev was eventually ousted and replaced by Leonid Brezhnev in 1964, the USSR experienced a return to the harder communist line that reigned under Stalin. Brezhnev's tenure as leader was not nearly as brutal as Stalin's, however.
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In my recent “This Week in History” column on Adolf Hitler's appointment as Germany’s chancellor, a reader commented that they would like some clarification on the head of state/head of government dynamics that I mentioned.
In the American mind, our state and government are intertwined. America declared its independence in 1776 and created its Constitution in 1787. Only two years later, our republic was in place, beginning more than 200 years of uninterrupted government under the Constitution.
This is not the case in many European nations, where the state has existed for centuries but governments come and go. Take for instance, France. Its president (who has considerably more power than other European heads of state) represents the glory of the French state, from the Frankish kingdoms of the middle ages, through great monarchical period, through the French Revolution and Napoleon, down through its various republics. By contrast, its prime minister is the chief officer of the working government, in this case the French Fifth Republic, which was created in 1958.
Though the Fifth Republic also created the current office of president, the president's role theoretically extends beyond mere legislation and day-to-day governing but also encompasses ceremonial duties as well.
In Britain, Queen Elizabeth II is the head of state, while the prime minister is the head of government. Though the British have long had an evolving constitution themselves, when one refers to the government, one is referring to the specific political party constitution of parliament at that time. For instance, one would say “Blair's government,” “Brown's government” or “Cameron's government,” to denote the parties that controlled parliament under Tony Blair, Gordon Brown or David Cameron. This is not unlike the way Americans refer to presidential administrations, though that term does not denote the make up of Congress.
Presidents in European parliamentary systems are often elected. Despite that, like Queen Elizabeth II, heads of state in Europe and elsewhere in the world represent a continuity of tradition and grandeur for their nations while the heads of government often are more concerned with day-to-day governance.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at SLCC. He has also appeared on many local stages, including Hale Centre Theatre and Off Broadway Theatre. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org