On the Personality Cult and its Consequences
(О культе личности и его последствиях), commonly known as the Secret Speech
or the Khrushchev Report
, was a report to the 20th Party Congress
on February 24-25 1956
leader Nikita Khrushchev
, in which he criticized actions taken by the regime of Joseph Stalin
, particularly the purges of the military and the upper Party echelons, while maintaining support for the ideals of Communism by invoking Vladimir Lenin
The speech was a milestone in the Khrushchev Thaw. It was also a sign of a serious power struggle within the Soviet leadership, where Khrushchev made an effort to discredit those who had survived the long rule of Stalin, notably Lavrentiy Beria. On the surface, the speech was presented as an attempt to draw the Communist Party of the Soviet Union closer to Leninism. Khrushchev's aim, however, was primarily to garner public support for the arrest and execution of Beria three years earlier, as well as to legitimize his own recently consolidated power (seized from Stalin loyalists Viacheslav Molotov and Georgii Malenkov).
It was known as the "Secret Speech" because it was delivered at a closed session, and its actual text was printed only in 1989 (in the magazine "Известия ЦК КПСС" ("Izvestiya CK KPSS"; Reports of the Central Committee of the Party), no 3, March 1989), although many Party members had already been informed of the speech as soon as a month after Khrushchev delivered it.
In April 2007, The Guardian newspaper (UK) included the speech in their series on "Great Speeches of the 20th Century."
The issue of mass repressions was recognized before the speech.
The inspiration for the Secret Speech came from both Khrushchev’s political savvy and the emerging facts about the Gulag camps and their population. High-ranking Party official Anastas Mikoyan, an ally of Khrushchev, had met with recently released Gulag prisoners and found that the phenomenon of baseless arrests was both more prevalent and widespread than had been recognized; he immediately conveyed this information to Khrushchev, who was preparing to make his political maneuvers. Speaking to Mikoyan, one of the prisoners, Alexei Snegov, stated that “if you [Mikoyan and Khrushchev] do not disassociate yourselves from Stalin at the first Congress after his death, and if you do not recount his crimes, then you will become willing accomplices in these crimes.” Another prisoner, Olga Shatunovskaya, recounted a story of her encounter with a Japanese spy, who commented that, while her crime was obvious, “you cursed Bolsheviks are in prison for no reason whatsoever.”
The speech itself was prepared based on the results of a special party commission (Pospelov (chairman), Komarov, Aristov, Shvernik), known as the Pospelov Commission, arranged at the session of the Presidium of the Party central committee on January 31 1955. The direct goal of the commission was to investigate the repressions of the delegates of the 1934 XVII Party Congress.
The XVII congress was selected for investigations because it was known as "the Congress of Victors" in the country of "victorious socialism", and therefore the enormous number of "enemies" among the participants demanded explanation.
This commission presented evidence that during 1937–1938 (the peak of the period known as the Great Purge) over one and a half million individuals were arrested for "anti-Soviet activities", of whom over 680,000 were executed.
While Khrushchev was not hesitant to point out the flaws in Stalinist practice in regard to the purges of the army and Party and the management of the Great Patriotic War, he was very careful to avoid any criticism of Stalin’s industrialization policy or Communist Party ideology. When discussing mass repressions, the absence of any commentary on the haphazard arrests of ordinary citizens is notable and, it must be assumed, purposeful, since occurrences like the brutality of collectivization served the interests of the Party and the State. Khrushchev, after all, was still a staunch Party man, and he lauded Leninism and Communist ideology in his speech as often as he condemned Stalin’s actions. Stalin, Khrushchev argued, was the primary victim of the deleterious effect of the cult of personality, which had, through his existing flaws, transformed him from a crucial part of the victories of Lenin into a paranoiac, easily influenced by the “rabid enemy of our Party,” Beria.
Despite the denouncing of political repressions, the process of rehabilitation of victims of political repressions was slow, although the release of political prisoners from labor camps started soon after Stalin's death. Still, the victims of the Moscow Trials were cleared of all charges only in 1988.
Reports of the speech
Khrushchev began the speech shortly after midnight; it took some four hours to deliver. Shortly thereafter, reports of it were conveyed to the West by Reuters journalist John Rettie, who had been told about the speech by Kostya Orlov a few hours before Rettie was due to leave for Stockholm; it was therefore reported in the Western media in early March. Rettie believes the information came from Khruschev himself via an intermediary.
On March 5 1956, the Party Presidium ordered the reading of Khrushchev's Report at the meetings of all Communist and Komsomol organizations, with the invitation of non-members as well. Thus the contents of the report had become widely known in the country already in 1956, and the name "Secret Speech" is a misnomer. But as noted above, the full text was not officially released to the public until 1989. It is likely, although unprovable, that Mikoyan and Khrushchev were the architects of these local readings, as well as the leaking of the speech to Rettie through Orlov; Mikoyan's son, Sergo, and Khrushchev's son, Sergi, provide corroborating, although hardly definitive, statements of their fathers' intentions.
However, the text of the speech was only slowly disclosed in the Eastern European countries. It was never disclosed to Western communist party members by their leaders, and most Western communists became aware of the details of the text after an American newspaper published a copy in mid-1956.
The content of the speech reached the west through a circuitous route. As noted above, a few copies of the speech were sent by order of the Soviet Politburo to leaders of the Eastern Bloc countries. Shortly after the speech had been disseminated, a Polish journalist, Viktor Grayevsky, visited his girlfriend, Lucia Baranowski, who worked as a junior secretary in the office of the first secretary of the Polish Communist Party, Edward Ochab. On her desk was a thick booklet with a red binding, with the words: "The 20th Party Congress, the speech of Comrade Khrushchev." Grayevsky had heard rumors of the speech and, as a journalist, was interested in reading it. Baranowski allowed him to take the document home to read.
As it happened, Grayevsky, who was Jewish, and had made a recent trip to Israel to visit his sick father, decided to emigrate there. After he read the speech, he decided to take it to the Israeli Embassy and gave it to Yaakov Barmor who had helped Grayevsky make his trip to visit Grayevsky's sick father. Barmor was a Shin Bet representative; he photographed the document and sent the photographs to Israel.
By the afternoon of April 13 1956, the Shin Bet in Israel had received the photographs. Israeli intelligence and United States intelligence had previously secretly agreed to cooperate on security matters. James Jesus Angleton was the Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA) head of counterintelligence and in charge of the clandestine liaison with Israeli intelligence. The photographs were delivered to him. On April 17 1956, the photographs had reached the CIA chief Allen Dulles, who quickly informed U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower. After determining that the speech was authentic, the CIA leaked the speech to The New York Times in early June.
The basic structure of the speech was as follows:
- Repudiation of Stalin's personality cult
- Quotations from the classics of Marxism-Leninism, which denounced the "cult of an individual" (i.e., the cult of personality, see above)
- Lenin's Testament and remarks by Nadezhda Krupskaya about Stalin's character
- Before Stalin, the fight with the Trotskyists was purely ideological; Stalin introduced the notion of the "enemy of the people" to be used as "heavy artillery"
- Stalin violated Party norms of collective leadership
- Repression of the majority of Old Bolsheviks and delegates of the XVII Party Congress, most of which were workers and had joined the Communist Party before 1920. Of the 1,966 delegates, 1,108 were declared "counter-revolutionaries", 848 were executed, and 98 of 139 members and candidates to the Central Committee were declared "enemies of the people".
- After this repression, Stalin ceased to even consider the opinion of the collective.
- Examples of repressions of some notable Bolsheviks are presented in detail
- Stalin ordered that the persecution be enhanced: "NKVD is four years behind the schedule"
- Practice of falsifications followed, to cope with "plans" for numbers of enemies to be uncovered.
- Exaggerations of the role of Stalin in the Great Patriotic War (World War II)
- Deportations of whole nationalities
- Doctors' plot and Mingrelian Affair
- Manifestations of personality cult: songs, city names, etc.
- "After Stalin's death, the Central Committee began to implement a policy of explaining concisely and consistently that it is impermissible and foreign to the spirit of Marxism-Leninism to elevate one person, to transform him into a superman possessing supernatural characteristics, akin to those of a god. Such a man supposedly knows everything, sees everything, thinks for everyone, can do anything, is infallible in his behavior."
- "We have to consider seriously and analyze correctly this matter in order that we may preclude any possibility of a repetition in any form whatever of what took place during the life of Stalin, ... who practiced brutal violence, not only toward everything which opposed him, but also toward that which seemed, to his capricious and despotic character, contrary to his concepts. Stalin acted not through persuasion, explanation and patient cooperation with people, but by imposing his concepts and demanding absolute submission to his opinion. Whoever opposed these concepts or tried to prove his [own] viewpoint and the correctness of his [own] position was doomed to removal from the leadership collective and to subsequent moral and physical annihilation."
- "Stalin originated the concept 'enemy of the people.' This term automatically made it unnecessary that the ideological errors of a man or men engaged in a controversy be proven. It made possible the use of the cruelest repression, violating all norms of revolutionary legality, against anyone who in any way disagreed with Stalin, against those who were only suspected of hostile intent… On the whole, the only proof of guilt actually used, against all norms of current legal science, was the 'confession' of the accused himself. As subsequent probing has proven, 'confessions' were acquired through physical pressures against the accused. This led to glaring violations of revolutionary legality and to the fact that many entirely innocent individuals… became victims."
- "Vladimir Ilyich demanded uncompromising dealings with the enemies of the Revolution and of the working class and when necessary resorted ruthlessly to such methods… Lenin used such methods, however, only against actual class enemies [and] only in the most necessary cases, when the exploiting classes were still in existence and were vigorously opposing the Revolution… Stalin, on the other hand, used extreme methods and mass repressions at a time when the Revolution was already victorious, when the Soviet state was strengthened, …when our Party was politically consolidated and had strengthened itself both numerically and ideologically."
- "Many thousands of honest and innocent Communists have died as a result of this monstrous falsification of such 'cases' …as a result of the practice of forcing accusations against oneself and others. In the same manner were fabricated the 'cases' against eminent Party and state workers Kosior, Chubar, Postyshev, Kosarev, and others… The vicious practice was condoned of having the NKVD prepare lists of persons… whose sentences were prepared in advance… Mass repressions had a negative influence on the moral-political condition of the Party, created a situation of uncertainty, contributed to the spreading of unhealthy suspicion, and sowed distrust among Communists."
- "In the same vein, let us take for instance our historical and military films and some [of our] literary creations. They make us feel sick. Their true objective is propagating the theme of praising Stalin as a military genius. Let us recall the film, The Fall of Berlin. Here only Stalin acts. He issues orders in a hall in which there are many empty Chairs. Only one man approaches him to report something to him it is Poskrebyshev, his loyal shield-bearer. [laughter] And where is the military command? Where is the Politburo? Where is the Government? What are they doing, and with what are they engaged? There is nothing about them in the film. Stalin acts for everybody, he does not reckon with anyone. He asks no one for advice. Everything is shown to the people in this false light. Why? To surround Stalin with glory-- contrary to the facts and contrary to historical truth."
- "All the more monstrous are those acts whose initiator was Stalin and which were rude violations of the basic Leninist principles [behind our] Soviet state's nationalities policies. We refer to the mass deportations of entire nations from their places of origin, together with all Communists and Komsomols without any exception… Thus, at the end of 1943, when there already had been a permanent change of fortune at the front in favor of the Soviet Union, a decision concerning the deportation of all the Karachays from the lands on which they lived was taken and executed. In the same period, at the end of December 1943, the same lot befell the Kalmyks of the Kalmyk Autonomous Republic. In March 1944, all the Chechens and Ingushi were deported and the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Republic was liquidated… Ukrainians avoided meeting this fate only because there were too many of them and there was no place to which to deport them. Otherwise, [Stalin] would have deported them also." [laughter]
- "I recall the first days when the conflict between the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia began to be blown up artificially. Once, when I came from Kiev to Moscow, I was invited to visit Stalin, who, pointing to the copy of a letter recently sent to Tito, asked me, 'Have you read this?' Not waiting for my reply, he answered, 'I will shake my little finger and there will be no more Tito. He will fall.' We have paid dearly for this 'shaking of the little finger.' This statement reflected Stalin's mania for greatness, but he acted just that way: 'I will shake my little finger and there will be no Kosior'; 'I will shake my little finger once more and Postyshev and Chubar will be no more'; 'I will shake my little finger again and Voznesensky, Kuznetsov and many others will disappear.' But this did not happen to Tito. No matter how much or how little Stalin shook, not only his little finger but everything else that he could shake, Tito did not fall. Why? The reason was that, in this instance of disagreement with [our] Yugoslav comrades, Tito had behind him a state and a people who had had a serious education in fighting for liberty and independence, a people who gave support to its leaders. You see what Stalin's mania for greatness led to. He completely lost consciousness of reality. He demonstrated his suspicion and haughtiness not only in relation to individuals in the USSR, but in relation to whole parties and nations."
- "We must abolish the cult of the individual decisively, once and for all; we must… return to and actually practice in all our ideological work the most important theses of Marxist-Leninist science about the people as the creator of history and as the creator of all material and spiritual good of humanity... [We must] continue systematically and consistently the work done by the Party's Central Committee during the last years, a work characterized by minute observation in all Party organizations, from the bottom to the top, of the Leninist principles of Party leadership... characterized by the wide practice of criticism and self-criticism. [We must] restore completely the Leninist principles of Soviet socialist democracy, expressed in the Constitution of the Soviet Union, to fight willfulness of individuals abusing their power. The evil caused by acts violating revolutionary socialist legality which have accumulated during a long time as a result of the negative influence of the cult of the individual has to be completely corrected."
In 1956, a few months after the 20th Congress, Khrushchev's Secret Speech was published internationally. Khrushchev's speech was followed by a period of liberalisation known as Khrushchev's Thaw
. In 1961 the body of Stalin was removed from public view in Lenin's mausoleum and buried outside the Kremlin
This denunciation of such a prominent communist figure aroused fears within other communist leaders, those possessed of a similar personality cult, that they might face a similar threat to their legitimacy. Most notably, this can be said to have provided part of Mao Zedong's impetus for initiating the Anti-Rightist Movement.
The following (probably apocryphal) story circulated some years after the speech. As Khrushchev paused to take a sip of water during the sternest denunciations of Stalin's misdeeds, a delegate shouted from the back of the room "And what were you doing, Comrade Khrushchev, while Stalin was doing all that?". Khrushchev went red in the face, pounded on the lectern, and demanded to know who had said it. "Come on, stand up and say it to me face to face!" said Khrushchev, staring angrily around the room. No-one spoke. No-one rose to his feet. Minutes passed in total silence as Khrushchev glowered and scanned the room. Finally Khrushchev said softly "That, comrades, is what I was doing while Stalin did all that."