Nikita Khrushchev’s ‘Secret Speech’ of 25 February 1956 to the 20th Party Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) served as the first clear, unequivocal and public notice that overdue reform had indeed come to Soviet policy. As Khrushchev made clear, for the Soviet Union it marked the full commencement of ‘de-Stalinsation’ in which Stalin’s ‘Cult of the Individual’ would be denounced; subjective history would be corrected; his paranoia and purges would be condemned; gulags would be emptied and party members rehabilitated, and; rule of law would be reinstated. It also provided a way for current CPSU leaders to win public support while shifting the blame for excesses onto the late Stalin and his executed security chief, Lavrentiy Beria. The Secret Speech and De-Stalinisation had major political effects for international communism.
De-Stalinisation had different effects in different places. To provide some (but surely not all) particular examples, the 1956 revolt and government changes in Poland were clearly results of Khrushchev’s speech and new policy. In China, Mao Zedong opposed de-Stalinisation and contributed to the Sino-Soviet split. In North Korea, Kim Il Sung viewed de-Stalinisation as a personal threat which led to an attempt to unseat him. This essay will rely predominantly on primary sources, beginning with the Secret Speech and continuing with correspondence with national leaders involved, to show that de-Stalinsation, while not dealing a fatal blow, certainly created cracks and fissures within the foundation of international communism.
De-Stalinisation and the Secret Speech
In order to understand why de-Stalinisation created such problems for international communism, it is necessary to analyse what de-Stalinisation meant. As Jones (2006:2) points out, there is more than one definition of ‘de-Stalinisation’. It can refer to the wider context of not only the program of government policy reform and programs of the Khrushchev era from 1956 to 1964, but also to social, cultural and artistic changes over the same period, a larger concept used often by post-USSR and Western journalists and academics to study all of these changes over the period. However, here de-Stalinisation will refer to the narrower concept contemporary to the era itself which focused on ‘de-mythologization of the leader cult’ (ibid.). Khrushchev’s Secret Speech (1956) reads like an instruction manual laying out what Khrushchev and the Presidium intended to achieve with the new policy and provides an explanation of what was controversial about de-Stalinisation so as to cause rifts in international communism.
Background: Soviet Succession and de-Stalinisation, 1953-1956
According to Filtzer (1993:12), ‘even before Stalin’s death the need for economic and even some political reforms had been mooted’ and ‘immediately after Stalin’s death there were cautious movements toward de-Stalinisation.’ In the period preceding Stalin’s death in March 1953 up to 1956, cautiously floating ideas for judicial, economic and political reform became part of the power struggle to succeed Stalin involving Khrushchev, Levrentiy Beria, Georgy Malenkov, and Vyacheslav Molotov (Morgan et al, 2000:103).
'In order to understand why de-Stalinisation created such problems for international communism, it is necessary to analyse what de-Stalinisation meant.'
Beria, seen as the most ready proponent of reform, was quickly out of the picture, denounced in 1953 for a supposed coup plot and eventually executed. The following month, a plenum of the Central Committee (CC) of the CPSU became a forum for the first joint criticisms of Stalin by Khrushchev, Malenkov and Molotov in private, but the public plenum report ‘fantastically’ blamed Beria for the nation’s troubles (Filtzer, 1993:13-5). No member of the CC, each struggling for power against the others, could rule alone as Stalin had and consequently had to win support for their policies. Whoever emerged as leader would have to rule the Soviet Union by persuasion rather than fear. However, each of them had come to their position in collusion with Stalin and it would be difficult to criticise him without inviting criticism of their own actions. They also worried signalling radical change too quickly could invite more political unrest as had been triggered by Stalin’s death, such as the uprising in East Berlin in June 1953. Laying the blame on Beria solved the problem for the time being (ibid.).
The power struggle continued, with Malenkov, Prime Minister and head of the government, facing off against Khrushchev, First Secretary of the CPSU and head of the party, rising to the top. Malenkov, favouring more conciliatory policy toward the West, was discredited following what was perceived as more confrontational US and NATO policy, allowing Khrushchev to become leader of the Soviet Union by 1954 (Morgan et al, 2000:104). In 1955 the CC CPSU established a committee to investigate Stalin’s crimes, but limited it to investigating his ‘abuses of power’. It distinguished between Stalin’s ‘legitimate’ or ‘necessary’ actions against supporters of other competing Bolsheviks such as Leon Trotsky and Nikolai Bukharin in the 1920’s and 1930’s as opponents of ‘Lenin’s Party’ and Stalin’s illegitimate denunciations of innocent party members, artists and intellectuals who could now be released from gulags and rehabilitated into society. Again fearing the report would trigger unrest and questions regarding the involvement of CC members, Malenkov, Molotov and others opposed it. However, a strengthened Khrushchev argued it would be better to discuss the matter now at a time of their choosing. The goal would be to place blame on Stalin and Beria to support the need for the coming policy changes. The report formed much of the basis for Khrushchev’s February 1956 ‘Secret Speech’ (Filtzer, 1993:14-6). An analysis of its contents is necessary to understand why it caused such a stir in the communist world.
The Secret Speech
Khrushchev announced the topic and set the tone of his Secret Speech (1956) with reference to the ‘founding fathers’ of the Soviet Union. He quotes Karl Marx:‘Allow me first of all to remind you how severely the classics of Marxism-Leninism denounced every manifestation of the cult of the individual…Marx stated: "From my antipathy to any cult of the individual, I never made public during the existence of the International the numerous addresses from various countries which recognized my merits and which annoyed me…Engels and I first joined the secret society of Communists on the condition that everything making for superstitious worship of authority would be deleted from its statute...’(ibid.:para 2).
He moved on to Vladimir Lenin, stating ‘Lenin at the same time mercilessly stigmatized every manifestation of the cult of the individual’ and continuing (ibid.:para 5):‘During Lenin's life the central committee of the party was a real expression of collective leadership of the party and of the Nation. Being a militant Marxist-revolutionist, always unyielding in matters of principle, Lenin never imposed by force his views upon his co-workers. He tried to convince; he patiently explained his opinions to others. Lenin always diligently observed that the norms of party life were realized, that the party statute was enforced, that the party congresses and the plenary sessions of the central committee took place at the proper intervals (ibid.:para 7).
Khrushchev made clear that the founders were firmly against the Cult of Personality; were believers in collective leadership of the party and state; discussed views rather than imposing them, and; allowed the party apparatus to function as it was organised to. Stalin had not been for these things.
Khrushchev opened direct criticism of Stalin by quoting Lenin:‘Stalin is excessively rude, that he does not have a proper attitude toward his comrades, that lies capriciously, and abuses his power...Vladimir Ilyich said: "Stalin is excessively rude, and this defect, which can be freely tolerated in our midst and in contacts among us Communists, becomes a defect which cannot be tolerated in one holding the position of the Secretary General. Because of this, I propose that the comrades consider the method by which Stalin would be removed from this position and by which another man would be selected for it, a man, who above all, would differ from Stalin in only one quality, namely, greater tolerance, greater loyalty, greater kindness, and more considerate attitude toward the comrades, a less capricious temper…’(ibid.:paras 8-9).
Khrushchev used the words of Lenin himself to begin criticism of Stalin and there is a suggestion that Khrushchev could fulfill Lenin’s wish that Stalin be replaced as head of the party by a more worthy man.
He went on to describe in detail Stalin’s transgressions as ‘grave abuse of power by Stalin, which caused untold harm to our party’ (ibid.:para 11), that ‘many prominent party leaders and rank-and-file party workers, honest and dedicated to the cause of communism, fell victim to Stalin's despotism...’ (ibid.:para 12) in a system that ‘rendered it unnecessary that the ideological errors of a man or men engaged in a controversy be proven’ which ‘actually eliminated the possibility of any kind of ideological fight or the making of one's views known on this or that issue’ and where ‘confessions were acquired through physical pressures against the accused...’ (ibid.:para 13). He carefully explained why current CC leaders could do nothing: ‘The majority of the Political Bureau members did not, at that time, know all of the circumstances in these matters, and could not therefore intervene...’(ibid.:para 55).
He built toward his conclusion, announcing ‘Comrades, we must abolish the cult of the individual decisively, once and for all; we must draw the proper conclusions concerning both ideological, theoretical and practical work’ (ibid.:para 76). He then laid out what de-Stalinsation would entail: ‘First, in a Bolshevik manner to condemn and to eradicate the cult of the individual as alien to Marxism-Leninism and not consonant with the principles of party leadership and the norms of party life, and to fight inexorably all attempts at bringing back this practice in one form or another…’ (ibid.:para 78). Secondly, to continue systematically and consistently the work done by the party's central committee during the last years…characterized, above all, by the main principle of collective leadership, characterized by the observation of the norms of party life described in the statutes of our party, and,finally, characterized by the wide practice of criticism and self-criticism’ (ibid.:para 81).‘Thirdly, to 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…’ (ibid.:para 82). He drew the speech and the 20th Party Conference to a close to resounding applause throughout the hall.
The Secret Speech made clear the Soviet view that the Cult of Personality was inimical to Marxism-Leninism and was to be eradicated; that collective leadership of the state by a functioning party apparatus was to be restored, and; that abuse of power was to end and rule of law was to be restored.
International Communism and the Problems of de-Stalinsation
A look around the communist world in Europe and Asia as it existed in 1956 reveals that it was actually home to many ‘little Stalins’ who had built their own Cults of Personality, who did not want collective leadership or a functioning party apparatus, and who were happy to continue dictatorial rule. Poland’s Boleslaw Bierut, China’s Mao Zedong and North Korea’s Kim Il Sung were men who had very much consolidated power and ruled their countries as Stalin had had ruled the Soviet Union. Criticism of Stalin meant criticism of them by implication. The people they ruled now had legitimate grounds--straight from Moscow--to grumble and criticise their own leaders. De-Stalinisation caused real problems in the relationship between Moscow and its international communist brethren.
De-Stalinisation and the Polish October
In Poland, events following the Secret Speech seemed to align in a way guaranteed to lead to turmoil. Only a week after the 20th Party Conference, Poland’s ‘little Stalin’--Boleslaw Bierut--died mysteriously in Moscow. With the goal of winning popular support and to head off any unrest following Bierut’s death as had followed Stalin’s, the Polish government distributed Khrushchev’s speech more widely than any other socialist government to show readiness to break with Stalin and for national reform. Between late March and early April 1956, over 10,000 Polish socialists had participated in meetings discussing the Secret Speech (Machcewicz, 2006: 144). These new ideas contributed to a violent uprising, beginning in the city of Poznan, and eventually led the government to invite the popular Vladislaw Gomulka, a socialist formerly imprisoned for resisting Stalin and viewed as a reformer, to become Prime Minister. He immediately began to pursue a more balanced, independent relationship with Moscow, including advocating removal of all Soviet troops from Poland. This alarmed Khrushchev and the CC who in October 1956 ordered troops poised at the Polish border to intervene. Khrushchev and most of the CC flew unannounced to Poland. In an all-night conference at the Belweder Palace in Warsaw, Gomulka was finally able to convince a furious Khrushchev that Poland was not leaving the socialist orbit and was only pursuing a looser relationship with Moscow, averting a full-scale Soviet invasion (ibid.: 149-51).
Gomulka’s Notes on the Belweder Conference
Vladislaw Gomulka’s (1956) shorthand notes reveal the great Soviet concern about the more independent Polish course. The Poles had not informed or discussed with Moscow these party and policy changes, had then ignored Moscow’s request for a conference, and left the Kremlin concerned about American media reports of a split between Moscow and Warsaw (ibid.:para 2). The Soviets made clear that ‘From Poland they need nothing’, but they were ready to invest 2.2 million roubles into a Polish iron ore facility and pointed out that Soviet officers had turned the Polish military into a ‘high calibre force’ (ibid.:paras 3-5). The Soviets urged war should be avoided and unity of socialist camp maintained (ibid.:paras 6-8) and a ‘wedge’ should not be forced between them (ibid.:para 9). They feared the Poles did not understand the danger of the situation—though it is unclear if the ‘danger’ they meant was of a Soviet invasion or that posed to the Polish government by the workers revolts (ibid.). The Soviets were very concerned with anti-Soviet sentiment in the Polish press and comparing it to criticisms in Yugoslavia, a socialist state which had left the Soviet orbit. They were also concerned with the effects if Poland were to leave the Warsaw Pact. They also were disgruntled with the continued personnel changes in the Polish communist party—a reference to Gomulka himself (ibid.:paras 9-15).
From Gomulka’s notes it is clear that the Polish events of 1956, set in motion by de-Stalinisation and the death of Bierut, caused a rift between Warsaw and Moscow which brought them to the brink of war to repair. Moscow acquiesced to Warsaw’s will for a looser relationship. Over the coming weeks, those hoping for change in Hungary as a result of de-Stalinisation would not fare as well as those in Poland.
De-Stalinsation and the Sino-Soviet Split
The effect of de-Stalinisation following the Secret Speech was equally if not more pronounced in Sino-Soviet relations. In 1959, the Soviet Foreign Ministry instructed Mikhael Zimyanin to author a report on the Moscow-Beijing relationship to assist efforts to alleviate ‘a growing rift between Moscow and Beijing—a rift that had not yet flared up in public’ (Kramer, 1995:170). Among the report’s conclusions was that the official commencement of de-Stalinisation following the 20th Party Conference had a detrimental effect upon Sino-Soviet relations (ibid.:171).
According to the report, in months following the conference ‘the CPC CC, while not speaking about this directly, took a position different from ours when evaluating the activity of J. V. Stalin’ (Zimyanin, 1959:para 4), namely one that was critical of Soviet policy toward China as a whole. The difference was exhibited during the ‘hundred flowers’ campaign in the activity of those: ‘Who denounced the Soviet Union and Soviet-Chinese friendship. The rightists accused the Soviet Union of failing to uphold principles of equality and mutuality, and they alleged that Soviet assistance was self-interested and of inferior quality. They also asserted that the Soviet Union had not provided compensation for equipment taken from Manchuria, and they insisted that the Soviet Union was extracting money from China in return for weapons supplied to Korea, which were already paid for with the blood of Chinese volunteers. In addition, they lodged a number of territorial demands against the USSR’… It is also worth noting that the Chinese friends, despite crushing the rightist elements, did not offer any open condemnation of statements expressed by them about so-called “territorial claims on the USSR”’(ibid.:para 5).
Mao Zedong’s View of De-Stalinsation
Mao Zedong makes it even clearer that de-Stalinisation contributed to the Sino-Soviet split and therefore problems for international communism as a whole. In a 1962 meeting with Albanian officials, he offered: 'At the beginning we did not foresee the effects that would flow from the spirit of the 20th Congress. Later the 21st and the 22nd Congresses were held. From them we saw that N. Khrushchev was not calm; he once again showed that he is very worried about Stalin. That is why he once again attacked Stalin at the 22nd Congress until he achieved his goal of removing Stalin’s body from the mausoleum and burning it. But we know well that N. Khrushchev is not so much afraid of dead people; he is afraid of the living, he is afraid of those that support Stalin’ (Zedong, 1962:para 14).
Mao most clearly stated his opposition to Moscow’s de-Stalinisation--lumping it together with fighting against the Japanese and Americans--in a 1969 conversation with North Korea’s Choe Yong-Geon: ‘During the years of resistance against Japan, the Korean comrades fought against the enemy together with us for a long time. During the war against the Americans, we also fought side by side with the Korean comrades…In opposing Khrushchev's revisionism, we stood together on the same side!....We have been old friends. We both opposed de-Stalinization, and we reached a consensus on this issue a long time ago’ (Zedong, 1969).
It is clear from the views of both the Kremlin and Mao Zedong himself that de-Stalinisation following the 20th Party Congress contributed greatly to the Sino-Soviet split and to problems for international communism as a whole which would only worsen in following years.
De-Stalinisation and Kim Il Sung’s Cult of Personality
The opening of de-Stalinisation following the 20th Party Congress led to a break between the USSR and North Korea in fall 1956. Khrushchev’s speech against the Cult of Personality was of direct concern to Kim, who had very much adopted Stalin’s leadership style since coming to power. Lankov (1999:46) states ‘The North Korean political and social system had been modelled on the Stalinist system, and the personality cult of Kim Il Sung—the cult of "the little leader"—had been patterned after the cult of "the big leader" Stalin; any diminution of Stalin's prestige spelled danger for Kim's own authority. Kim had good reason to fear that his rivals would employ the "little leader, big leader" analogy to accuse him of establishing his own personality cult.’ Kim had already taken steps to repress the Soviet faction of the Korean Worker’s Party (KWP) as early as 1955 (ibid.). However, at the 30 August 1956 plenum of KWP CC, only 6 months after the CPSU’s 20th Party Congress, the leaders of the so-called Yanan and Soviet factions attempted to move against Kim, denouncing him in speeches as ‘an adherent of outdated Stalinist methods and personally responsible for numerous “distortions of the socialist legality’’ and a headlong rush toward heavy industrialization’, much in the line of the general criticisms of Stalinists following the Secret Speech. In the end, Kim was able to see off the challengers, promptly expelling them from the party and arresting them, besides the few able to escape to China (Lankov, 2002:90). Following these events, Kim moved further from Moscow and closer to Beijing, consolidating his power and maintaining his Cult of Personality, which continues unabated today.
Ambassdor Ivanov’s Notes from a Discussion with Kim Il Sung
The day after the turbulent KWP CC plenum, Kim met with Soviet Ambassador Ivanov and described the events to him: ‘At the Plenum…[Minister of Trade] Yun Gong-heum arose. In his speech he brought accusations that the Workers’ Party had rejected the decisions of the Twentieth Congress and does not follow the principles of Marxism-Leninism; he described matters such that the very serious consequences of the cult of personality are being retained inside the KWP and had repudiated the general line of the party’ (Ivanov(a), 1956:para 5).
Kim was able to see off their challenge with other members of the CC who had conspired with Yun had been expelled from the KWP and some had fled to the Chinese border (ibid.:paras 6-9). It is clear that Kim considered de-Stalinisation stemming from the 20th Party Congress as the main driver of this attempted putsch.
Ambassador Ivanov’s Notes from a Discussion with PRC Ambassador Qiao
A few days later Ambassador Ivanov met with the Chinese Ambassador to the DPRK, Xiaoguang Qiao who confirmed that the KWP plenum refugees were indeed in China. Qing relayed that, according to his information, Yun’s speech had: ‘Contained malicious and libellous attacks on the leadership of the KWP. He accused the leadership of the KWP of poorly putting into practice the decree of the 20th Party Congress of the CPSU about the personality cult. As a result the leadership of the KWP had supposedly committed serious mistakes, conveying in the absence of democracy within the party incorrect distribution of cadres, and displaying incompetence in handling the difficult welfare situation of the Korean people’ (Ivanov(b), 1956:para 7).
Oddly, despite the clear references to de-Stalinisation and the 20th Party Congress, both ambassadors somehow agreed later in the meeting, seeking to dodge blame, that the Korean events ‘were not stimulated by any outside factors, Soviet or Chinese, but were a domestic process taking place within the KWP’ (ibid.:para 12). However, it is clear from these documents and events that de-Stalinisation stimulated the August 1956 KWP CC uprising against Kim and created the rift between Pyongyang and Moscow.
The official onset of de-Stalinisation following Nikita Khrushchev’s ‘Secret Speech’ to the 20th Party Congress on 25 February 1956 set in motion events throughout the world that caused great turmoil within international communism. These events were not fatal; the Soviet Union, China and its socialist partner states remained, as a bloc, a world force for at least another 35 years. Despite their differences, their ships still sailed in generally the same direction when it came to opposing the West and capitalism. Nonetheless, the 1956 revolt and party leadership changes in Poland were clearly results of de-Stalinisation; in China, Mao Zedong’s opposition to de-Stalinisation contributed to the Sino-Soviet split, and; in North Korea, Kim Il Sung viewed de-Stalinisation as a personal threat which had led to an attempt to unseat him. Though not fatal, de-Stalinisation clearly created cracks and fissures within the foundations of international communism.
Filtzer, D. (1993) The Khrushchev Era: De-Stalinisation and the Limits of Reform in the USSR, 1953-1964. London: Macmillan.
Gomulka, V. (1956) “Gomulka’s Notes from the 19-20 October Polish-Soviet Talks”. The Wilson Center. The Wilson Center Digital Archive. http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/116002
Ivanov(a), V. (1956) “Diary of Ambassador of the USSR to the DPRK V.I. Ivanov for the Period from 29 August to 14 September 1956”. The Wilson Center. The Wilson Center Digital Archive. http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/114136
Ivanov(b), V. (1956) “Memorandum of Conversation with the Ambassador of the Peoples Republic of China to the DPRK Qiao Xiaoguang”. The Wilson Center. The Wilson Center Digital Archive. http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/113373
Jones, P. (2006) “Introduction.” In The Dilemmas of De-Stalinization, edited by Jones, P., pp. 1–18. New York: Routledge.
Khrushchev, N. (1956) “Khrushchev’s ‘Secret Speech,’ Delivered at the Twentieth Party Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union,”. The Wilson Center. The Wilson Center Digital Archive. http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/115995
Kramer, M. (1995) “The USSR Foreign Ministry’s Appraisal of Sino-Soviet Relations on the Eve of the Split, September 1959.” Cold War International History Project Bulletin 6/7, no. 6/7: pp. 170–185.
Lankov, A. 1999. “Kim Il Sung’s Campaign Against the Soviet Faction in Late 1955 and the Birth of Chuch’e.” Korean Studies 23: pp. 43–67.
———. (2002) “Kim Takes Control: The ‘Great Purge’ in North Korea, 1956-1960.” Korean Studies 26 (1): pp. 87–119.
Machcewicz, P. (2006) “The Polish 1956.” In 1956 European and Global Perspectives, edited by Fink, C., Hadler, F., and Schramm, T. Leipzig: K&M.
Morgan, P., Nelson, K., and Arbatov, G. (2000) Re-Viewing the Cold War: Domestic Factors and Foreign Policy in the East-West Confrontation. New York: Greenwood.
Zedong, M. (1962) “Memorandum of Conversation, Albanian Labor Party Delegation with Mao Zedong”. The Wilson Center. The Wilson Center Digital Archive. http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/117679
———. (1969) “Mao Zedong’s Conversation with North Korean Official Choe Yong-Geon (Excerpt)”. The Wilson Center. The Wilson Center Digital Archive. http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/111509
Zimyanin, M. (1959) “Mikihail Zimyanin’s Background Report for Khrushchev on China (Excerpt)”. The Wilson Center. The Wilson Center Digital Archive. http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/117030