Khrushchev Denounces Stalinist Regime

In a stunning four-hour speech made behind closed doors to the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Soviet premier Nikita S. Khrushchev denounced for the first time the political repression under Joseph Stalin.

Summary of Event

Joseph Stalin’s victory over his political rivals and his accession to power as the leader of the Soviet Union in 1928 marked the beginning of a quarter-century of brutal suppression of the Soviet people’s political and ideological freedoms. It signaled a reversal of rather moderate and more flexible policies espoused by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in the early to mid-1920’s, and the initiation of forced-draft industrialization and coercive agricultural collectivization. The result was the imposition of one of the most powerful and oppressive dictatorships in modern history. “Stalinism,” as this political system came to be called, rested in part on mass terror and the cult of the personality of the man behind it. The most visible victims of Stalin’s autocratic rule ranged from the Soviet Union’s political elites to the better-off peasants or kulaks. Communist Party, Soviet;destalinization
Soviet leadership;Nikita S. Khrushchev[Khrushchev]
Secret Speech (Khrushchev)
[kw]Khrushchev Denounces Stalinist Regime (Feb. 25, 1956)
[kw]Stalinist Regime, Khrushchev Denounces (Feb. 25, 1956)
[kw]Regime, Khrushchev Denounces Stalinist (Feb. 25, 1956)
Communist Party, Soviet;destalinization
Soviet leadership;Nikita S. Khrushchev[Khrushchev]
Secret Speech (Khrushchev)
[g]Europe;Feb. 25, 1956: Khrushchev Denounces Stalinist Regime[05130]
[g]Soviet Union;Feb. 25, 1956: Khrushchev Denounces Stalinist Regime[05130]
[c]Government and politics;Feb. 25, 1956: Khrushchev Denounces Stalinist Regime[05130]
Khrushchev, Nikita S.
[p]Khrushchev, Nikita S.;de-Stalinization
Stalin, Joseph
[p]Stalin, Joseph;de-Stalinization
Beria, Lavrenty

Stalin’s narrow base of support came from a byzantine network of extralegal secret police and sections of the government bureaucracy that were accorded special privileges. The tremendous centralization of administrative and coercive powers reflected Stalin’s single-minded pursuit and consolidation of power without regard to human cost. No one was fully immune from the dictator’s abuse of power during the successive waves of purges that were carried out in the 1930’s, not even high-level members of the Politburo (political bureau of the Communist Party), in which Soviet political power was concentrated.

The first sign of a pattern of political excesses came most clearly during the forced collectivization drive that began in late 1929. This rural transformation, which occurred at breakneck speed, led to special hardships for the kulaks whose property was confiscated, but it wreaked havoc on ordinary peasants as well. Nearly 60 percent of Soviet agriculture was collectivized in a little more than one year. Entire villages were emptied, and the rural economy suffered, with harvests falling precipitously. The shortfall in 1932 produced a famine that killed one million peasants.

If the government was willing to sacrifice sections of the peasantry for its economic goals, it went even further in the political sphere. Until 1934, the victims of the Soviet secret police were largely members of the bourgeoisie, royalists and political opponents of the Bolsheviks (as the ruling Soviet communists were originally called). Soon, however, the Communist Party itself felt the full brunt of terror. The slaughter of party members Soviet Union;purges
Communist Party, Soviet;purges began in earnest in 1934 following the assassination of Sergei Kirov Kirov, Sergei , a member of the Politburo and a party boss in Leningrad. Although the circumstances surrounding his death remain unclear, it set off an unparalleled campaign of repression by the secret police against alleged antileadership elements within the party.

A hallmark of the great purges was the series of show trials that reached their climax from 1936 to 1938. Arthur Koestler’s novel Darkness at Noon
Darkness at Noon (Koestler) (1940) offers an allegorical glimpse into the frightening fall of the party leadership and intelligentsia. The first of the great public trials began in August, 1936; all sixteen defendants were executed, including two party stalwarts, Grigori Zinoviev Zinoviev, Grigori and Lev Kamenev Kamenev, Lev , who had in fact been top candidates to succeed Vladimir Ilich Lenin, the founder of the Soviet state.

The purges cast an ever-widening net fanning out from party officials to trade unionists, leading writers, scholars, scientists, and engineers, and drawing in relatives, friends, and associates, thereby threatening the whole spectrum of Soviet society. Several draconian laws were passed, paving the way for the terror Human rights;Soviet Union that ensued. Among them was the decree of April, 1935, making children aged twelve years or over subject to criminal charges. Laws passed in 1934 and 1937 permitted persons charged with the most serious antistate crimes to be tried secretly, in absentia, and without counsel. The number of unnatural deaths under Stalin has never been conclusively calculated, but millions of innocent men, women, and children were arbitrarily arrested, executed, or imprisoned in labor camps.

Nikita S. Khrushchev’s speech to the Twentieth Party Congress Twentieth Party Congress, Soviet on February 25, 1956, was a turning point in Soviet political life. It represented the first formal acknowledgment of one of the bleakest chapters in the country’s history and provided encouragement to the gradual liberalization that began occurring after Stalin’s death on March 5, 1953. Even before the speech by Stalin’s successor, steps had been taken to undo some of the dictator’s damages. Between 1953 and 1956, Khrushchev rebuilt important organs of the party and in the process rooted out a number of Stalin’s lieutenants.

The first indication of post-Stalin change was the release in April of the Kremlin doctors who had been arrested under Stalin four months earlier for plotting to assassinate important Soviet leaders. The plot was officially denounced as a pure fabrication, thereby thwarting Stalin’s last terror episode. Soon afterward, Lavrenty Beria, the chief of the secret police, was arrested and, along with six other top police officials, executed as part of a dramatic drive to tame this institutional rogue elephant.

Many people were released from prisons, and others who had been attacked as “enemies of the people” were “rehabilitated” (readmitted to history or society in a favorable light), often posthumously. Of the twelve to thirteen million people believed to have been in labor camps during Stalin’s time, approximately sixteen thousand were released in the first three years after his death. Although relatively small in number, this group comprised influential people from the government and the party, and their resumption of active political life hastened the changing of the attitudes of the elite.

From 1955, systematic reexamination was undertaken of all cases of persons previously convicted of political crimes. In anticipation of large-scale releases of prisoners, temporary judicial commissions were created and allowed to hold hearings at the camps themselves. Reliable estimates suggest that in 1956 and 1957, nearly eight million people were freed and another six million posthumously rehabilitated.

In other legal affairs, military courts that had previously had a wide jurisdiction in civil matters, especially in political crimes, were deprived of all authority over civilians except in the case of espionage. The law on state secrets was significantly relaxed and amended to include a more precise and less sweeping description of what constituted a state secret. Confessions alone were no longer acceptable as incriminating unless they were corroborated by independent evidence. The burden of proof, which under Stalin had fallen on the accused in political crimes, now shifted to the prosecutors.

In the wake of Stalin’s death, a very cautious policy of encouraging greater intellectual freedom was also initiated. Censorship was maintained but relaxed; criticism of abuses, shortages, and inefficiencies of the political economy was tolerated. Writers and artists began faulting the rigidity and “formalism” under Stalin. For example, one of the country’s most eminent composers, Dmitri Shostakovich, called for greater freedom in music without suffering any consequences.

The everyday welfare of the Soviet people, which had been subordinated under Stalin to the dictates of rapid industrialization to compete with the West, was given higher priority by Khrushchev. For example, greater emphasis was placed on agricultural products and consumer goods over heavy industry. The new leader launched a highly publicized campaign to catch up with the United States in the per-capita production of meat, milk, and butter. The harsh criminal penalties to maintain labor discipline under Stalin were abandoned, and the workweek was reduced from forty-eight to forty-one hours. A minimum wage was instituted that greatly benefited the lower classes.

Although Khrushchev’s speech itself was delivered in secret and never published in the Soviet Union, it was circulated in official meetings across the country, and its contents became widely known at home and abroad. Khrushchev attacked Stalin’s despotic rule with detailed accounts of the dictator’s personal responsibility for repression, self-glorification, and historical falsification. Stalin was portrayed as a morbidly paranoid man who exacted complete servility from his subordinates. The speech was studded with harrowing passages read from letters sent by victims languishing in prison camps.


Khrushchev’s speech was electrifying, offering hope that the gradual thaw following Stalin’s death would turn into a full-blown “spring.” At that first party congress since Stalin’s death, Khrushchev vowed never to resume Stalin’s repressive methods of rule.

In cultural and intellectual spheres, censorship of forbidden themes began to be erased. At times, Khrushchev personally intervened in support of publishing topics that had been taboo, including, for example, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novella Odin den Ivana Denisovicha (1962; One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, 1963), set in a prison labor camp. Solzhenitsyn was even nominated for the Lenin Prize, the Soviet Union’s highest literary honor, for the novella. In the theater and in literature, interrogation of the perpetrators of crimes under Stalin was portrayed more and more openly.

Soviet novelists of rural life also began questioning the myth of collectivization as a purely voluntary, spontaneous, and benign movement by chronicling the harsh methods employed to enforce collectivization in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. Indeed, many of the social and political criticisms of Stalinism that surfaced in later dissident writings were anticipated in the official and unofficial publications of the Khrushchev period.

One important aspect of Khrushchev’s democratization effort was a huge increase in political participation. For example, a government decree required greater and more immediate attention to citizen demands. Membership in the Communist Party increased nearly 50 percent between 1957 and 1964. Greater autonomy for such organizations as trade unions and the rejuvenation of citizen committees for local government were evident. In the new environment, more independent and scholarly research in the social sciences was encouraged for the first time in thirty years.

The effects of de-Stalinization under Khrushchev reached a peak in October, 1961, at the Twenty-second Party Congress, in which a more radical version of official anti-Stalinism was sanctioned. Most important, the attack on the former leader was conducted in public, with the Soviet media providing daily coverage of speaker after speaker denouncing Stalin’s excesses in detail for a full two weeks. In the impassioned atmosphere of the congress, numerous resolutions designed to chip away at the legacy of Stalin were passed, including ones to remove Stalin’s body from the Lenin Mausoleum on Red Square and obliterate his name from thousands of buildings, monuments, and towns.

Khrushchev’s campaign to reveal the truth about his predecessor and to begin to purge Soviet society of Stalinist remnants, however, always contained contradictions and had its share of powerful opponents. The democratization process was ultimately not allowed to blossom fully, partly because of Khrushchev’s own tentativeness and partly because of a conservative reaction that weakened his position. For example, in the artistic sphere, Khrushchev at times sent out mixed signals. Although the government espoused freedom of expression in general, it frowned upon avant-garde experimentation and continued to expect artists to adhere to Socialist Realism.

In the religious realm, the new leader proved to be more hard-line than his predecessor. The Jewish faith was circumscribed more, as was the Russian Orthodox Church. The Soviet Union’s internal relaxation also produced unexpected movement in a number of East European countries toward liberalization, especially in Hungary and Poland, with unrest in the latter and a full-fledged uprising in the former. This development threatened Soviet control in these countries and in turn provided ammunition for conservatives who had been opposing Khrushchev’s fast-paced reforms at home.

With the ouster of Khrushchev in 1964 by his opponents in the Politburo, a ten-year period of reformation in Soviet politics was ended and a lengthy era of conservatism was ushered in under his successor, Leonid Brezhnev. Khrushchev’s reformist legacy survived, however, and Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost (openness) in important ways harked back to it. Communist Party, Soviet;destalinization
Soviet leadership;Nikita S. Khrushchev[Khrushchev]
Secret Speech (Khrushchev)

Further Reading

  • Breslauer, George. “Khrushchev Reconsidered.” The Soviet Union Since Stalin, edited by Stephen F. Cohen, Alexander Rabinovitch, and Robert Sharlet. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980. Offers a balanced portrayal of Khrushchev’s attempt at reformulating the terms of political participation and government responsiveness in opposition to the Stalinist legacy. Also looks at the obstacles and opportunities facing Khrushchev and how well he managed them. Index.
  • Cohen, Stephen F. Rethinking the Soviet Experience: Politics and History Since 1917. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. An excellent and concise overview focusing on key historical events and enduring political outcomes since the communist revolution. Extended treatment is given to the Stalin question and its aftermath. Index.
  • Fürst, Juliane, ed. Late Stalinist Russia: Society Between Reconstruction and Reinvention. New York: Routledge, 2006. Focused account of the last eight years of Stalin’s regime conveys the state of the Soviet Union at the time of his death. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Khrushchev, Nikita. Khrushchev Remembers: The Glasnost Tapes. Edited by Jerrold L. Schecter. Boston: Little, Brown, 1990. This work constitutes the third volume of Khrushchev’s memoirs. Fresh and fascinating, much of it is relevant to the 1990’s upheaval in the communist world. It includes some of the most sensitive material from Khrushchev’s tapes, such as his recollections of Stalinist repression.
  • LaFeber, Walter. America, Russia, and the Cold War, 1945-2002. Updated 9th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2004. An update of LaFeber’s classic study of U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War. Illuminates Khrushchev’s foreign policy and the effects of the Cold War on his domestic agenda as well.
  • McCauley, Martin. The Khrushchev Era: 1953-1964. New York: Longman, 1995. This brief, readable text is a good resource for younger students. Includes glossary and bibliography.
  • Medvedev, Roy A. On Stalin and Stalinism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979. Written by a Soviet author living in the Soviet Union, this book is unique in that it gathers information from sources not available to outsiders. Provides detailed accounts of Stalin’s excesses through interviews with victims and places Stalinism in the broader political context.
  • Medvedev, Roy A., and Zhores Medvedev. Khrushchev: The Years in Power. New York: Columbia University Press, 1976. Offers a critical review of Khrushchev’s rise and fall from power. Records the atmosphere of the period as it was felt by those living in the Soviet Union. Offers significant information on the top personalities involved in the government. Index.
  • Nove, Alec. Stalinism and After: The Road to Gorbachev. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989. In highly accessible style, the author provides a sweeping overview of how Stalinism came to be and how it was modified after Stalin’s death. Provides valuable insights into the role of personalities, especially of Stalin and Khrushchev, in policy preferences. Offers a bibliography and index.
  • Tompson, William J. Khrushchev: A Political Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. This first complete, authoritative biography of this important historical figure draws on previously unavailable information. Bibliography and index.

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