It is, I admit, an odd thing to celebrate: A long-winded and not entirely honest speech, made behind closed doors, addressed to the stony-faced leaders of a country that no longer exists. Nevertheless, I’m reluctant to let the 50th anniversary of Nikita Khrushchev’s famous “secret speech” — his denunciation of Stalin and Stalinism, delivered to the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party on Feb. 25, 1956 — pass without notice. We are, after all, at another important historical moment. Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. secretary of state, has just announced that we will spend $75 million promoting democracy and fighting a totalitarian regime in Iran. We have thousands of soldiers in Iraq, trying to pick up the pieces after the collapse of another totalitarian regime there. Since Khrushchev’s secret speech was the first step in what turned out to be a very long struggle to end totalitarianism in the Soviet Union, it’s worth remembering now what the circumstances that surrounded it actually were.
In essence, Khrushchev’s speech (which didn’t remain secret very long; Polish communists leaked it to the Israelis, who leaked it to the West) was a piece of theater, a four-hour harangue during which the new Soviet leader denounced the “cult of personality” that had surrounded Stalin, condemned torture and acknowledged that “mass arrests and deportation of thousands and thousands of people” had “created insecurity, fear and even desperation” in his country. But although it was an international sensation — no Soviet leader had spoken so frankly before — the speech didn’t exactly tell the whole truth. Khrushchev accused Stalin of many crimes, but deftly left out the ones in which he himself had been implicated. As William Taubman, author of “Khrushchev: The Man and His Era,” has documented, the Soviet leader had in fact collaborated enthusiastically with Stalinist terror, participating in the very mass arrests he condemned. Khrushchev’s speech was intended as much to consolidate his own power and intimidate his party opponents — all of whom had also collaborated enthusiastically — as it was to liberate his countrymen.
Still, there were high hopes for change after the speech, both within and outside the Soviet Union. But the cultural and political thaw that followed turned out to be as ambivalent as the speech itself. Some prisoners were released; some were not. Some daring works of literature were published; some were not. Khrushchev himself seemed unable to make up his mind about how much should really change, but it didn’t matter: Within a decade he was ousted from power by resentful neo-Stalinists. Two more decades were to pass before Mikhail Gorbachev, one of the young communists who had been electrified by Khrushchev’s secret speech, restarted the discussion of Stalin’s crimes, and launched, finally, the reforms that brought the system down.
Clearly there is a lesson here for those who would bring down totalitarian regimes, and it concerns timing: The death of a dictator or the toppling of his statues does not necessarily mean that a complete political transformation has occurred, or even that one will occur soon. On the contrary, it takes a very, very long time — more than a generation — for a political class to free itself of the authoritarian impulse. People do not easily give up the ideology that has brought them wealth and power. People do not quickly change the habits that they’ve incurred over a lifetime. Even people who want to reform their countries — and at some level Khrushchev did want to reform his country — can’t necessarily bring themselves to say or to do what is necessary. Certainly they find it difficult to carry out political reforms that might hasten their own retirement.
This isn’t to say dictatorships must last forever: Despite some of its current leadership’s repressive instincts, Russia itself has changed in fifty years, beyond recognition. But the transformation was often incremental, always uneven, and difficult for impatient Americans to understand or support. But then, all such transformations are difficult for impatient Americans to understand or support, and probably always will be. If history is anything to go by, we’ll have no choice but to try and do so anyway.