Tuesday 24 November 2009

Khrushchev contra Stalin

To begin with it should be noted that the whole speech was built on the oddest of paradoxes: a denunciation of Stalin's personality cult and authoritarian style by a man who had spent the three years since the dictator's death in undermining collective leadership, and establishing his own unparalleled power! By the time of the 20th Congress, in other words, Khrushchev’s political authority was almost as great as that previously enjoyed by Stalin.

Delegates at the Congress were given no advance warning of what to expect. Indeed, proceedings were opened by Khrushchev’s call for all to stand in memory of the Communist leaders who had died since the previous Congress, with Stalin being mentioned in the same breath as Klement Gottwald. Hints of a new direction only came out gradually over the next ten days, which must have left those present highly perplexed. On the 25 February, the very last day of the Congress, it was announced that an unscheduled secret session had been called for the Soviet delegates.

The speech itself began with vague references to the harmful consequences of elevating a single individual so high that he took on the "supernatural characteristics akin to those of a god." Khrushchev went on to say that such a mistake had been made about Stalin. He himself had been guilty of what was, in essence, a distortion of the basic principles of Marxism-Leninism. The attention of the audience was then drawn to Lenin's Testament, copies of which had been distributed, criticising Stalin's 'rudeness'. Further accusations, and hints of accusations, followed, including the suggestion that the murder of Sergey Kirov in 1934, the event that sparked of the Great Terror, could be included in the list of Stalin's crimes. While criticising the Man, Khrushchev carefully praised the Party, which had the strength to withstand all the negative effects of imaginary crimes and false accusations. The Party, in other words, had been a victim of Stalin, not an accessory to his crimes. He finished by calling on the Party to eradicate the cult of the personality and return to "the revolutionary fight for the transformation of society."

So, what were his motives? Was it really a call for a return to Leninist 'collective leadership' destroyed by Stalin? Well, here we have to remember that Lenin himself had only called for collective leadership in his final days, in the belief that no single individual was fit to follow in his singular path. Khrushchev himself, moreover, had, as I have said, effectively destroyed the new forms of collectivity that emerged after Stalin's death in 1953. In a sense, the Secret Speech was his own triumphal declaration, and he used it to undermine still further some senior Soviet politicians, including Georgy Malenkov and Kliment Voroshilov.

The implication was clear enough: he was innocent and the rest were guilty, though the simple truth was that he was just as bloody as any of the others. He was simply shifting the burden of responsibility. Exempting himself and blaming others: the whole speech was not about principles and ideals-it was about politics, and it was about power. Khrushchev had to demolish Stalin to establish his own imperium; Augustus had to give way to Tiberius. It may be of passing interest to make note of the fact that Stalin's portrait continued to hang in Khrushchev’s office long after 1956, as a kind of spiritual avatar. And those who took the speech at face value were soon to face the simple truth that the ideal was not reborn


  1. Khrushchev was indeed as maniacal as Stalin. One is reminded of the scene at the UN when Macmillan was speaking and Khrushchev keep attempting to shout him into silence. Super Mac of course handled it as only an elegant old Etonian could do. Thank goodness for the reign of Brezhnev, who as I said the other week, ended the Cold War and acted as essentially a Tsar in all but name--and as you know I am an unapologetic Tsarist.
    This is leading up to another request for a blog(since you've been so amiable in this respect), but I find it curious how Eisenhower, in his later years became such a strong critic of the Cold Warring military dictatorship the US had become. Whilst unlike maybe I think his War leadership was deplorable(I would have preferred the far more intelligent General Alexander to have led the Allied forces), I find it odd that his broader latter day messages of warning against an escalated Cold War on behalf of NATO were lost on so many Tories, excepting of course Enoch Powell who understood the farcical nature of the whole thing rather early on.
    It was something rather lost on Thatcher who devoted much to much of her early energies to this area, when she should have been saying about the EEC what she only did in earnest starting in 1988.
    As I've said before--the Communist threat ceased to originate from the USSR after about 1965. The biggest Communist threat since has local councils who want to ban and tax freedoms into oblivion. I'd only hope Dave would abolish the GLA as Maggie abolished the GLC.
    I'm sure you've got thoughts on such matters--perhaps if I continue to spend more time here and not in the other place, I'll fine them!

  2. Interesting view, Adam, though I disagree with much of what you say. Almost to the end of the Soviet state we were fighting a third world war by proxy, in places as diverse as Chile, Angola, Afghanistan and Cambodia.

  3. Yes, I understand what you mean. Communism in the third and non-Soviet second world was still a creping threat through the 80s. The war was of course won in Chile, lost in Angola, Cambodia etc, but the idea of Soviet tanks rolling down the streets of Paris and Madrid was rather fanciful by the Brezhnev era--this is what I refer to as the European Cold War being over. It's a question of who 'we' are, that makes the pendulum swing in favour of my argument or yours. Whilst I applaud Pinochet and decry Angola, I don't think it's our job to 'save' anyone from Communism, any more than for example you thought it was the tax payer's job to save the coal industry in the 80s.