Sunday, February 26, 2006

A Look Back at a Moment in History 50 Years Ago That Changed the World Forever

How a 1956 Speech by Nikita Khruschev Denouncing Stalin's Reign of Terror Stunned the Soviet Communist Party Leadership -- And Planted the Seed that Eventually Doomed the USSR and its Empire

By John Gray
Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

Except for a handful of historians, February 25 will probably always be no more than one day in a short month. Yet it's a day that deserves a larger place in the calendar of history, especially this year. For today is the 50th anniversary of one of the defining events of the 20th century, a speech that literally changed the world.

For half a century, it has been known as the "secret speech" in which Nikita Khrushchev, then the Communist leader of the Soviet Union, denounced the reign of terror by which Josef Stalin had ruled the Soviet empire. He revealed that Stalin had not only personally ordered the executions of thousands of people but had sanctioned and specified the torture that would precede those deaths.

It is bizarre that it should be known as a secret speech. It was delivered to 1,400 delegates of the 20th Communist Party Congress; in the following days, it was read to shocked groups of Communists in the Soviet Union and around the world.

Khrushchev ordered that the speech not be reported in the compliant Soviet press, although this was a speech about crimes that everyone knew of -- albeit secretly. Millions had been arrested and millions had been executed or exiled to slave labor camps, never to return. In a huge country like the Soviet Union, such things could not be kept secret, though they were never talked about except in whispers among the most trusted of friends.

In the end, although many of the Stalin-era shackles had been removed from Soviet society and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago had told of many of the horrors of Stalin's world, Khrushchev's speech was not formally published in the Soviet Union until 1988 (in the glasnost era of Mikhail Gorbachev), 32 years after its delivery.

Speech a Huge Shock to Communists Everywhere

So it was to a muffled Soviet society that Khruschev delivered his four-hour denunciation. His most senior colleagues in the Soviet leadership tried to prevent him from making the speech; they were afraid that if Khruschev spoke out, they would be blamed for doing nothing to stop Stalin's wave of terror. Indeed, they had done nothing, because that would have meant their own deaths.

The shock of Khruschev's words can be measured in the recollections of Aleksandr Yakolev, who went on much later to become the Soviet ambassador to Canada and a trusted adviser to the reformist Gorbachev.

On February 25, 1956, Yakolev was a minor Communist Party bureaucrat who had a seat in the Great Kremlin Palace of Congresses. "I was up in the balcony," Yakolev recalled. "The hall below was sunk in silence. Not a chair creaked. Not a cough or a whisper could be heard.

"No one looked at anyone else," he continued. "Those in attendance were overcome either by the unexpected or by the fear that seemed to have taken permanent root in the psychology of the so-called 'Soviet Man' and in the very core of his being. And all the while, Khruschev kept piling fact upon fact, one more horrifying than the other. He spoke at length, departing now and then from his text; clearly, he was overwrought.

"I was so bewildered, I don't remember if there was any applause; I think not," Yakolev said. "We left with bowed heads. The shock had been indescribably severe, especially since this was the first time we'd been told officially of the crimes of Stalin himself. No one said anything. Now and then I detected a muffled, 'Mmm...yes...yes.'"

Vladimir Semichastny, who would later become head of the Soviet Secret Service, also recalled the silence in the great hall as Khruschev spoke. "There was a deathly silence. You could hear a bug fly by."

The shock must have been beyond imagination. Dimitri Goriunov, editor of the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper, gobbled five nitroglycerin pills to stave off a heart attack. The head of the Polish Communist Party, Boleslaw Beirut, was being treated for pneumonia in a Moscow hospital; he read the speech, suffered a heart attack and died.

There were similar shockwaves wherever loyal Communists were to be found -- and at that point in history, half the world looked to Moscow for political leadership and military defense if the Cold War with the West should ever had become hot.

Even tiny and inconsequential Communist parties in the West, such as Canada's, were split by Khruschev's revelations about the man whom most Communists at the time revered as an infallible god (The Communist Party in the U.S. found itself permanently marginalized after its iron-fisted leader, Gus Hall, fiercely defended Stalin and denounced Khruschev as "a revisionist traitor to socialism.")

The Fallout: The Sino-Soviet Rivalry and Anti-Soviet Revolts in Eastern Europe

Elsewhere, the fallout was even more devastating. China's Mao Tse-tung, already chafing at the Soviet Union's leadership of the Communist world, led his millions away from the shelter of the Soviet umbrella.

(Beijing ultimately became Moscow's chief rival -- an ideological clash so bitter that by the spring of 1969, the two nuclear-armed Communist giants almost went to war against each other, after a series of bloody clashes between Chinese and Soviet troops along the Sino-Soviet border. The rift never fully healed and relations between Moscow and Beijing did not begin to thaw until after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.)

In April 1956, just weeks after it was delivered, word of Khruschev's speech sparked riots against the leadership of Communist Poland. The following October, Hungarians rose in an astonishing rebellion against the Communist regime in Budapest and the Soviet troops who had occupied Hungary since the end of World War II. The rebellion was eventually crushed by 6,000 Soviet tanks and the deaths of an estimated 30,000 Hungarians.

If Hungary was quickly crushed, the ferment unleashed by Khruschev's speech was not. The Communist world was not shattered like Humpty Dumpty, but like the wall-sitting egg character of children's fairy tales, it was irrevocably cracked. Khruschev had planted a fatal seed of doubt and suspicion.

It took a long time, but 12 years after Hungary came Czechoslovakia, where its "Prague Spring" revolt was also crushed by Soviet tanks. After that came Poland (But by the time the Poles, led by Lech Walesa's Solidarity labor union, rose up against their Communist rulers, Gorbachev was in power in Moscow -- and he made it clear that he would not send in the Red Army, as Khruschev and later Leonid Brezhnev had done before him.
The Communist regimes of Eastern Europe were on their own.)

The Soviet Empire -- and the USSR Itself -- Falls

In quick succession, beginning in Poland, then East Germany and again in Czechoslovakia, the end of the 1980s saw Communist governments fall like dominoes, with nary a shot being fired.

(The two glaring exceptions were Romania, whose hard-line Stalinist dictator, Nicolae Chaucescu, was violently overthrown in a full-scale armed insurrection, and Yugoslavia, which was literally ripped apart after the death of strongman Josip Broz Tito in 1988. One Yugoslav republic after another declared its independence from Belgrade. The ensuing ethnic warfare between Serbs, Coats and Bosnians lasted for 10 years -- the bloodiest conflict in Eastern Europe since World War II.

(By the summer of 1991, only one Communist domino in Eastern Europe was left standing: The Soviet Union itself. And it was falling apart at the seams. Much like Yugoslavia, one Soviet republic after another declared its independence from Moscow. But unlike Belgrade, the Kremlin did nothing to stop them.

(Gorbachev's refusal to crack down proved too much for Communist Party hard-liners and in August, they staged a coup against the Soviet president while he was vacationing at his Black Sea dacha.

(But instead of reasserting Communist Party supremacy, the coup triggered a "people power" revolt on the streets of Moscow, led by Boris Yeltsin, a former Communist apparatchik and
party boss of Moscow who in 1990 became the first democratically elected president of the Soviet Union's largest republic, Russia.

Yeltsin would ultimately inherit Gorbachev's powers before the end of the year. Shortly before midnight Moscow time on Christmas night, in a live TV address to the world, Gorbachev -- who quit the Communist Party immediately after the coup -- formally announced his resignation as president of the Soviet Union. The 75-year-old Soviet state would die along with his presidency.

(Within seconds after Gorbachev finished his address, TV viewers around the world watched in amazement as the red hammer-and-sickle flag of the Soviet Union was lowered from the Kremlin flagpole for the last time and the white-blue-and-red tricolor of pre-Communist Russia was raised in its place, for the first time since 1917.)

From Khruschev's speech to the final collapse was an erratic progress of more than three decades and there were many setbacks and reversals along the way. Yet the fault lines were there and they could never be repaired (A fact that Gorbachev readily acknowledged in his 1987 book, Perestroika.)

Khruschev: A Man Few Were Able to Understand

Oddly, there must always be a gnawing uncertainty about why Khruschev did what he did. After all, he had been in the upper echelons of that ruthless killing machine. His friends and colleagues, inferiors and superiors, were led away to execution on Khruschev's orders while he looked the other way.

Khruschev was a complicated man. To some, a boor and a buffoon (which he demonstrated forcefully in 1960 when he took off his shoe and banged it on the desk of the Soviet delegation inside the United Nations' General Assembly chamber).

To others, he was a cunning schemer. Told to arrest 35,000 people, he arrested 41,000; told to mark down 5,000 for execution, he executed 8,500. He and the others who survived the Stalin era (especially the bloody purges of the 1930s) did so by finding victims who paid the price of their survival.

Khruschev was at times charming, at other times a cheerleader for the slaughter: "In destroying one, two or 10 of them [Enemies of the Soviet state], we are doing the work of millions. That's why our hand must not tremble, why we must march across the corpses of the enemy toward the good of the people."

William Taubman, who wrote a massive biography of Khruschev in the 1970s, speculates that his anti-Stalin speech "was also an act of repentance, a way of reclaiming his identity as a decent man telling the truth." Yet Taubman warned that "Khruschev's stunning blend of deception and self-deception is not so much an obstacle to understanding as itself the main point to be understood."

In his remaining years in power, Khruschev came dangerously close to plunging the world into nuclear war (with his "eyeball to eyeball" confrontation with U.S. President John F. Kennedy in 1962 over the placement of offensive Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba). But in the Soviet Union, at least, he is remembered as a reformer who ended Stalin's reign of terror and brought about at least some modest improvement in the Soviet standard of living.

There are still people in post-Soviet Russia today who proudly describe themselves as shestidesyatniki -- people of the '60s -- who (though far from being hippies, as that appellation might imply in the minds of Westerners) saw in Khruschev the hope that the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 was supposed to represent.

As Taubman wrote, "Khruschev's speech denouncing Stalin was at once the bravest and the most reckless thing he ever did. The Soviet regime never fully recovered. And neither did he."

Indeed, it changed the world.


Volume I, Number 13
Guest Commentary Copyright 2006, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

"'Skeeter Bites" Copyright 2006, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.

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