Speech Lessons: What Khrushchev’s famous “secret speech” can tell us about regime change.

Because he has already been lauded for his extensive research and his psychological insight, I won’t heap further praise on William Taubman, author of a substantial new biography Khrushchev: the Man and His Era. Suffice it to say that he makes extensive use of newly opened archives, carefully parses the Cuban Missile Crisis, pays due attention to Khrushchev’s role in the terror of the 1930s, and includes a healthy sprinkling of the Soviet leader’s favorite insults (“Your view of Soviet power is from inside a toilet!”). Taubman’s account will certainly become the standard work on the subject. But it is possibly more relevant, at this precise moment, to focus on just one aspect of the biography: Taubman’s discussion of Nikita Khrushchev’s “secret speech” to the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in 1956, the first important meeting of the party elite to be held after Stalin’s death in 1953.
The “secret speech”—so called because it was delivered behind closed doors and then distributed only to party members—didn’t remain secret very long. (Polish Communists leaked it to Mossad, who leaked it to the New York Times.) As its contents leaked out, they caused an international sensation. In the speech, Khrushchev publicly denounced Stalin for the first time. During Stalin’s reign, Khrushchev said, “mass arrests and deportation of thousands and thousands of people, and executions without trial or normal investigation, created insecurity, fear, and even desperation.” Investigations into “counterrevolutionary crimes” had been “absurd, wild, and contrary to common sense.” Stalin himself had personally told interrogators to “beat, beat, and once again beat” anyone they suspected of counterrevolutionary crimes.

The speech was remarkably brave. Khrushchev seems to have been genuinely angry about what had happened under Stalin; it took real moral courage to make the speech, given the political risks involved. “We were just coming out of a state of shock,” Khrushchev wrote later. “People were still in prisons and in the camps, and we didn’t know how to explain what had happened to them or what to do with them once they were free.”
But the speech was also self-serving and opportunistic: It confirmed Khrushchev’s shaky hold on power by cowing his colleagues, all of whom had loyally supported Stalin. And it left a few things out. Khrushchev mentioned many Stalinist crimes but none that he himself was involved in. He also left out a number of political crimes—arrests of people that took place in the 1920s, for example, before Stalin took charge—because to confess them would condemn not only Stalin, but the entire revolutionary project. Khrushchev’s daughter told Taubman that her father “was a man who had ridden to the top on a Stalinist wave”—and this is clear from the speech and his actions afterward. He had trouble “de-Stalinizing” his country because he himself had been an admirer of Stalin—as had millions of his countrymen. Stalin had, in fact, been Khrushchev’s mentor and had overseen his extraordinary rise from provincial commissar to Soviet leader. Along the way, Khrushchev collaborated enthusiastically. No wonder Khrushchev was wrestling with his own guilt, much like millions of other loyal Soviet citizens, and no wonder he had a good deal of difficulty owning up to the size of the crime. It is very difficult to admit that your entire life and everything you have ever believed in has been not only a mistake, but one with tragic consequences.

Given that the speech was only a partial condemnation, it can hardly be surprising that the brief period of open debate and cultural freedom—known as the “Thaw”—that followed was itself oddly ambivalent. There were a few high points, such as Khrushchev’s brave decision to publish Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel about the Gulag, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. There were also a number of low points, such as Khrushchev’s visit to the Soviet Union’s first openly “alternative” art exhibition, where he mocked the artists who had dared to defy the canons of social realism (“if that’s supposed to be a woman, then you’re a faggot”). He agreed to rehabilitate the reputations of some of those unjustly executed under Stalin’s reign, but not others. He released millions of prisoners, but never said a word against the secret policemen who had put them behind barbed wire.

In the end, ambivalence brought Khrushchev down. Because the Soviet system itself was never undermined, the old guard eventually maneuvered its way back into power—which wasn’t difficult, since it had never really been ousted from power. The Thaw eventually collapsed. Khrushchev was ousted, Solzhenitsyn was expelled from the country, and Brezhnev’s neo-Stalinist torpor descended on the country. Khrushchev did persuade a few younger Communists, Mikhail Gorbachev among them, that there might still be something fundamentally wrong with the system. But it took 30 years for Gorbachev to marshal the political power to do anything about it.

The moral of the story? There are several. One is that the mere death of a dictator cannot, by itself, transform a totalitarian society: Generational change is needed too. Another is that reformers who emerge out of a totalitarian system are not necessarily well-equipped to change it. A third is that the forces that resist reform are always stronger than you imagine. I won’t belabor the point, but there are clearly parallels to be drawn here with postwar Iraq. I hope someone out there is thinking about them.

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