Excerpt from "Crimes of Stalin Speech"
Published in A Treasury of the World's Great Speeches, published in 1954
"After Stalin's death the Central Committee of the Party began to implement a policy of explaining concisely and consistently that it is impermissible … to elevate one person, to transform him into a superman possessing supernaturalistic characteristics akin to those of a god. Such a man supposedly knows everything, thinks for everyone, can do anything, is infallible in his behavior."
On the night of February 24, 1956, during the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party being held at the Kremlin, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971) ordered a select group of delegates to a secret meeting under tight security. The Kremlin was a centuries-old fort in Moscow that was used as the headquarters of the Communist Party. As the delegates approached the doors of the room where the unscheduled night meeting was to occur, they were apprehensive. Some, no doubt remembering the Stalin purges, were quietly terrified. What would befall them in the next hour was completely unknown.
The gathering of the Twentieth Congress had been going on for ten days, since February 14. The last day would be Saturday, February 25. The number of delegates with voting rights in attendance was 1,355, with 81 more delegates there as advisors. The conference session had covered all aspects of Soviet society from economy, agriculture, and health, to the problems of unemployment of youth. There were a few subtle changes from previous Congresses. Noticeably absent was the picture of former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin (1879–1953) in the main hall. In addition, Khrushchev, First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, addressing a general meeting, had delivered a seven-hour report with hardly a mention of Stalin.
Unknown to those entering the secret Friday night meeting was that there was little to fear. Gone were the days when Stalin would simply look into a man's eyes and, depending on what he thought he read in those eyes, the man's life would continue or be shortly ended. A new day had dawned in the Soviet Union. No longer were all problems, perceived problems, or controversies settled by torture and murder as they had been under Stalin. When Stalin died, so did the terror. Nikita Khrushchev spoke to the delegates gathered on Friday night as no Soviet official had dared to speak for three decades. In a several-hour speech, he carefully explained the years of rule by Stalin and pointed out the flaws and crimes of the communist past. The speech became known as Khrushchev's "Crimes of Stalin Speech."
Things to remember while reading "Crimes of Stalin Speech":
- For thirty years, most of the delegates at the conference had been terrified of Stalin. A secret meeting could have easily meant the announcement of their death sentences.
- Stalin's legacy as a dictator was the Great Terror. The Terror involved execution or exile of millions of both opponents and supporters of the Communist Party.
- The Twentieth Congress was the first all-Party member conference since Stalin's death in 1953.
Excerpt from "Crimes of Stalin Speech"
Comrades! [fellow communists, friends] …
After [Joseph] Stalin's death the Central Committee of the Party began to implement a policy of explaining concisely and consistently that it is impermissible and foreign to the spirit of Marxism-Leninism [the founding theory of communism] to elevate one person, to transform him into a superman possessing supernaturalistic characteristics akin to those of a god. Such a man supposedly knows everything, thinks for everyone, can do anything, is infallible in his behavior.
Such a belief about a man, and specifically about Stalin, was cultivated among us for many years.…
In December 1922, in a letter to the Party Congress, Vladimir Ilyich [Lenin] wrote: "After taking over the position of Secretary General [head of the Communist Party and consequently of the Soviet Union as well], Comrade Stalin accumulated in his hands immeasurable power and I am not certain whether he will be able to use this power with the required care.… 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 direction, namely, greater tolerance, greater loyalty, greater kindness and a more considerate attitude toward the comrades, a less capricious temper, etc."…
Some years later, when socialism in our country was fundamentally constructed, when the exploiting classes were generally liquidated, when the Soviet social structure had radically changed, when the social basis for political movements and groups hostile to the Party had violently contracted, when the ideological opponents [opposition to communism] of the Party were long since defeated politically—then the repression against them began.
It was precisely during this period [1935 to 1938] that the practice of mass repression through the government was born, first against the enemies of Leninism … and subsequently also against many honest Communists, against those Party cadres who had borne the heavy load of the civil war [the Bolshevik Revolution of 1918] and the first and most difficult years of industrialization and collectivization.
Stalin originated the concept "enemy of the people." This term … made possible the usage of the most cruel repression … against anyone who in any way disagreed with Stalin, against those who were only suspected of hostile intent, against those who had bad reputations.
This concept, "enemy of the people," actually eliminated the possibility of any kind of ideological fight or the making of one's views known on this or that issue, even those of a practical character. In the main, and in actuality, the only proof of guilt used … was the "confession" of the accused himself, and, as subsequent probing proved, "confessions" were acquired through physical pressures [torture] against the accused.
This led to … the fact that many entirely innocent victims, who in the past had defended the Party line [communist ideals], became victims.…
It was determined that of the one hundred thirty-nine members and candidates of the Party's Central Committee who were elected at the Seventeenth Congress, ninety-eight persons, i.e., 70 percent, were arrested and shot [mostly 1937 to 1938]. [Indignation in the hall.]
Facts prove that many abuses were made on Stalin's orders.… He could look at a man and say: "Why are your eyes so shifty today?" or, "Why do you turn so much today and avoid looking me directly in the eyes?" This sickly suspiciousness created in him a general distrust, even toward eminent party workers whom he had known for years. Everywhere and in everything he saw "enemies," "two-faces," and "spies."
Possessing unlimited power, he indulged in great willfulness and choked a person morally and physically [destroyed the person]. A situation was created where one could not express one's own will.…
Comrades, let us reach for some other facts. The Soviet Union is justly considered as a model of a multinational State because we have in practice assured the equality and friendship of all nations which live in our great Fatherland.
All the more monstrous are the acts whose initiator was Stalin and which are rude violations of the basic Leninist principles of the nationality policy [communism] of the Soviet State. We refer to the mass deportations from their native places of whole nations,… this deportation action was not dictated by any military considerations.…
I recall the 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 a copy of a letter sent to [Yugoslavian leader Josip] 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 reflects Stalin's mania for greatness, but he acted just that way: "I will shake my little finger—and there will be no Kossior"; "I will shake my little finger again and Postyshev and Chubar will be no more"; "I will shake my little finger once more—and Voznesensky, Kuznetsov [all Soviets that disappeared] and many others will disappear."
But this did not happen to Tito. No matter how much or little Stalin shook, not only his little finger but everything else that he could shake, Tito did not fall.…
The question arises why [Lavrenty] Beria [head of the Soviet secret police, Stalin's main enforcer], who had liquidated tens of thousands of Party and Soviet workers, was not unmasked during Stalin's life? He was not unmasked earlier because he had very skillfully played on Stalin's weaknesses; feeding him with suspicion, he assisted Stalin in everything and acted with his support.…
Stalin's reluctance to consider life's realities and the fact that he was not aware of the real state of affairs in the provinces can be illustrated by his direction of agriculture. All those who interested themselves even a little in the national situation saw the difficult situation in agriculture, but Stalin never even noted it. Did we tell Stalin about this? Yes, we told him, but he did not support us. Why? Because Stalin never traveled anywhere, did not meet city and kolkhoz [collective farm] workers; he did not know the actual situation in the provinces. He knew the country and agriculture only from films. And these films had dressed up and beautified the existing situation in agriculture. Many films so pictured kolkhoz life that the tables were bending from the weight of turkeys and geese. Evidently Stalin thought it was actually so.…
Comrades! The Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union has manifested with a new strength the unshakable unity of our Party, its cohesiveness around the Central Committee, its resolute will to accomplish the great task of building communism. [Tumultuous applause.] And the fact that we present in all their ramifications the basic problems of over-coming the cult of the individual which is alien to Marxism-Leninism, as well as the problem of liquidating its burdensome consequences [righting the wrongs done under Stalin], is an evidence of the great moral and political strength of our party. [Prolonged applause.]
We are absolutely certain that our Party, armed with the historical resolutions of the Twentieth Congress, will lead the Soviet people along the Leninist path to new successes, to new victories. [Tumultuous, prolonged applause.]
Long live the victorious banner of our Party—Leninism. [Tumultuous, prolonged applause ending in ovation. All rise.]
What happened next …
The relief in the hall was overwhelming. Astonished at Khrushchev's words, the delegates broke out in thunderous, sustained applause. Copies of the speech were released to party leaders. Following the epic speech, special Communist Party meetings were held throughout the Soviet Union to carry forward Khrushchev's message. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) managed to get a copy of the speech out of Moscow. On June 4, 1956, a translated copy was released to the press by the U.S. State Department.
The Communist government in China under Mao Zedong (1893–1976) highly disapproved of Khrushchev's speech. To the Chinese, it broke from traditional communist doctrine. The speech also caused shock in Eastern European countries. Unintentionally, it fostered a mood of rebellion against communist rule, especially against hard-line Stalin supporters. The rebellious mood in Hungary broke into open revolt on November 1956. Khrushchev felt compelled to crush the revolt, killing soldiers and civilians alike. With his actions in Hungary, the prestige he had gained within the international community was lost.
Nevertheless, Khrushchev indeed went down a different path from Stalin. Rather than secluding himself in the Kremlin, he traveled widely across the Soviet Union and to foreign countries, including Great Britain and the United States.
Did you know …
- Khrushchev, to survive the purges of Stalin, worked with Stalin as a close advisor in the 1930s and 1940s. In a January 1937 speech, he said, "Stalin is hope; … Stalin is our banner! Stalin is our will! Stalin is our victory!"
- It was not surprising to many who knew the flamboyant, independent-thinking Khrushchev that he could deliver such a risky, revolutionary speech.
- The "Crimes of Stalin Speech" is considered Khrushchev's most dramatic moment in his colorful history as leader of the Soviet Union.
Consider the following …
- According to Khrushchev, Stalin was out of touch with "life's realities," or the real conditions facing Soviet citizens. Why?
- Khrushchev spoke of "overcoming the cult of the individual." Explain what a "cult of the individual" is and why it is dangerous. Can you think of any European leaders during World War II who enjoyed "cult of the individual" status?
- If Stalin "shook his little finger" at you, what would happen?
For More Information
Antonov-Ovseyenko, Anton. The Time of Stalin: Portrait of a Tyranny. New York: Harper & Row, 1980.
Conquest, Robert. Stalin: Breaker of Nations. New York: Viking, 1991.
Djilas, Milovan. Conversations with Stalin. London: Penguin, 1962.
Lewis, Jonathan, and Phillip Whitehead. Stalin: A Time for Judgement. New York: Pantheon Books, 1990.
Peterson, Houston. A Treasury of the World's Great Speeches. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1954.
Tucker, Robert C. Stalin in Power: The Revolution from Above, 1928–1941. New York: W. W. Norton, 1990.
Zubok, Vladislav M., and Constantine Pleshakov. Inside the Kremlin's Cold War: From Stalin to Khrushchev. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.