What did Khrushchev say?

Miriam Dobson

  • Moscow 1956: The Silenced Spring by Kathleen E. Smith
    Harvard, 448 pp, £23.95, April 2017, ISBN 978 0 674 97200 1

Dressed in a shapeless black skirt and blouse and shod in ageing boots she might have worn since her days in the revolutionary underground, the 82-year-old Old Bolshevik Elena Stasova clutches the arm of Mátyás Rákosi, leader of the Hungarian Communist Party. She leans in as if whispering the latest political gossip. The pair stand in a Kremlin hallway waiting for the next session of the 20th Party Congress to begin, other delegates smoking nearby. Rákosi, his own dark suit to a contemporary eye baggy and ill-fitting, seems fascinated. Perhaps Stasova was telling this inveterate Stalinist about her work helping victims of terror gain rehabilitation.

Mátyás Rákosi and Elena Stasova in 1956
Mátyás Rákosi and Elena Stasova in 1956

This striking photograph, unearthed from the Russian archives by Kathleen Smith and presented in Moscow 1956, offers a glimpse behind the scenes at the congress, which brought together leading figures from the international communist movement and high-profile figures from the Soviet Union, many of whom had known one another for decades. As they convened in Moscow in February 1956, three years after Stalin’s death, most had little real sense of the new political course on which the party had embarked. Delegates attended long sessions in the Kremlin each day, visited factories and sampled the capital’s cultural life. They heard speeches, many about the triumphs of Soviet industry and agriculture. Most of the foreign guests travelled home with no idea of what Nikita Khrushchev had revealed to the Soviet delegates summoned to a special session on Saturday, 25 February, as the congress ended. It was a moment of high drama: a dozen prison camp survivors, recently rehabilitated, sat alongside their former colleagues as Khrushchev gave a radically revisionist account of Soviet history. He read his audience excerpts from ‘Lenin’s testament’ (in which, far from appointing the young Georgian his successor, Lenin had warned of his personal inadequacies), and harrowing testimony from the victims. Not all the information he presented was entirely new to his listeners, but the party had never admitted to the scale of the terror or attributed responsibility to Stalin before. In the weeks that followed, rumours leaked out to the West; communist leaders denied them; more rumours circulated and in June the full text was published. The sense of crisis deepened in November when the Soviet Union invaded Hungary, putting an end to the experiment with reform that had followed the ousting of the hardliner Rákosi earlier in the summer.

Western intellectuals’ disillusionment with the Soviet Union following the revelations of February and its military aggression in November is well documented, but what was 1956 like inside the USSR? Did Khrushchev’s revelations create a similar crisis at home? Or did he manage, as he hoped, to inject a new kind of revolutionary spirit into domestic life? In her eloquent account, Smith charts the course of 1956, a year she calls ‘the brightest moment of hope in a decade of unstable reform’. The cast of largely likeable characters whose stories are told in Moscow 1956 includes writers, academics, students and victims of the terror. As well as writing about some familiar figures, she discovers new heroes, including several fascinating women. Most of them had good reason to welcome the new political direction taken by Khrushchev. At the start of the year, Russian intellectuals were – in Smith’s words – on the lookout for ‘traces of melting of the harsh dictatorship’, daring to believe that an era of greater political and artistic freedom was imminent. Like many before her, Smith finds the metaphor of the ‘thaw’ (established by Ilya Ehrenburg in his 1954 novel) a tempting paradigm for the period. She observes that it is an open-ended image: does it suggest the ending of an ice age, leaving a ‘distorted, scarred landscape’ in its wake? Or is the thaw something more cyclical – a spell of warmth, of new life, before winter’s inevitable return? Subtitled ‘The Silenced Spring’, her book rather points to the second interpretation. It describes the way Khrushchev’s actions in February launched a season of ‘free thinking’ that ultimately proved short-lived.

Now universally known as Khrushchev’s Secret Speech, the four-hour lecture was in fact a badly kept secret, and it wasn’t written solely by Khrushchev. Although the text was not reprinted in the Soviet press – in contrast to the other speeches given during the congress – its content was widely disseminated to members of the Communist Party and its youth movement, the Komsomol. At meetings held in March, seven million party members and 18 million Komsomolites convened to hear their local bosses give an outline of what Khrushchev had told the high-ranking delegates on 25 February. The exact content of what they heard varied from meeting to meeting: those responsible for relaying Khrushchev’s speech took a variety of approaches to the job, some sticking close to their leader’s words, others – audaciously – drawing on their own forays into the archives to give the story a local twist; others still tried to ignore it. The account Khrushchev had given was the result of months of behind-the-scenes work by a commission charged with reviewing past injustices, followed by several weeks of hurried negotiation between leading party members about exactly what could and should be said. Stalin’s closest colleagues, Vyacheslav Molotov, Georgy Malenkov and Kliment Voroshilov, urged caution, warning Khrushchev against discrediting their party’s history; more junior members of the presidium – less tainted – argued that the party would lose authority if it did not tell the truth about the terror and Stalin’s role in it. Anastas Mikoyan hit on a solution: the year 1934 was to be presented as a pivotal turning point in Soviet history. Until then, Stalin had led the nation to great triumphs (including the first five-year plan, the collectivisation of agriculture and the defeat of the Trotskyites); after that, the leader had been allowed to deviate from the ‘correct path’. After 1934, Stalin had masterminded the arrest and torture of thousands of innocent communists, created a cult of personality around himself and bungled the war effort. Breaking with the traditions of political culture that had developed over the course of the 1930s, Khrushchev did not unmask Stalin as an enemy of the people. Instead, he portrayed him as a complex individual who had both served the party and perverted it.

In the early chapters of the book Smith focuses on a cohort who had much to gain from the new political environment ushered in by the Secret Speech: the victims of Stalin’s purges. Some returnees, particularly those who had held leading positions in the party before their arrest, were granted relatively high status following rehabilitation, even taking on key roles in the process of de-Stalinisation. The Old Bolsheviks Olga Shatunovskaya and Aleksei Snegov were arrested and sentenced at the height of the terror (1937-38), and both served long terms of penal labour followed by years of exile in distant and hostile regions of the USSR before rehabilitation in 1954. In the run-up to the Secret Speech, and over the following months, they advised Khrushchev personally on both the history of the terror and on the steps needed to eradicate its legacy. But the experience of other returnees was very different. Anna Barkova, a ‘revolutionary poetess’ and former personal secretary to Lenin’s minister of culture and education, Anatoly Lunacharsky, endured arrest and imprisonment twice before she was eventually released in January 1956. Although she returned to Moscow that summer, various bureaucratic obstacles prevented her from securing the right to permanent housing or the disability pension she was due. In 1957 she left the city, choosing to live with a loyal camp friend in a village in Ukraine, where she was again arrested, for ‘anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda’: villagers had denounced her and her friend, accusing them of listening to foreign radio stations and naming their cat after ‘a leader of the party and government’.

Former prisoners were not the only ones who now dreamed of making it to the capital and establishing a new life for themselves. A less exceptional influx in 1956 were the young people who came to Moscow to study at some of the nation’s most prestigious universities. On the campus of Moscow State University, in the lecture halls of the city’s many institutions and in the crowded dormitories where strikes might be sparked by a scandal over poor-quality sausages, young women and men from across the USSR converged, bringing their own aspirations and uncertainties, uncertainties no doubt inflamed by their encounters with the confident offspring of Moscow’s elite. They also had to make sense of the new political era ushered in by Khrushchev. By the mid-1950s, educated young people were becoming more confident. They organised their own activities, or took ownership of ones initiated by the Komsomol; they formed independent study circles to discuss academic topics that were not on the curriculum, such as genetics; they went on weekend hiking trips around the Moscow region; they turned the authorised ‘Raid Brigades’ into more autonomous bands of friends, excited by the opportunity to chase after (and fight with) hooligans. Some students used their long vacations to work on construction sites in the provinces or to help bring in the harvest in the recently cultivated Virgin Lands of Kazakhstan and Siberia. Here they voluntarily reversed the customary direction of travel, seeking a temporary escape from the institutions that governed their daily lives in Moscow: the family, the Komsomol, the classroom, the dormitory with its nightly inspection. Often what they encountered in this quest to know real life shocked them. They came up against the ‘corruption and callousness’ of provincial bosses and the ‘poverty and crassness of local populations’; they witnessed drunken brawls, inefficiency and idleness; they found worn-out equipment, dirty streets and accommodation that was barely habitable. For the most part this did not dent their idealism and collectivism. One group of friends working in the Virgin Lands discovered that the rates of pay were fundamentally unfair, with the men earning more than the women for a day’s work; their solution was to pool their wages. ‘In their self-governing groups,’ Smith writes, ‘students could practise the complementary virtues of self-reliance and mutual support that had been held up to them as ideals since childhood but that eluded them in official institutions.’

The autumn was the highpoint for those who interpreted the Secret Speech as an opportunity for free speech and greater democratisation. As at other times in Soviet history, indeed in the longue durée of Russian history, literature played a key role. The biggest literary sensation of the season was Not by Bread Alone, Vladimir Dudintsev’s novel about a lone-wolf inventor battling bureaucrats and careerists. In October, a packed meeting at the Central House of Writers held to discuss the book required mounted police to keep order outside, as the writer’s fans climbed the drainpipes to look through second-floor windows. The febrile atmosphere in artistic and academic circles intensified with the outbreak, and suppression, of unrest in Budapest – or, as one rebellious mathematics student provocatively labelled it, the Hungarian revolution (rather than coup).

The wonderfully named Revolt Pimenov is one of the figures whose story is told in Moscow 1956 and his story beautifully traces the arc of the year. In March he attended every reading of the Secret Speech he could find and composed an essay on its omissions and failings; in the autumn he used a discussion of Not by Bread Alone to denounce various unfair practices in Soviet life, including the existence of Jewish quotas in higher education; after the tanks rolled into Budapest on 4 November he wrote ‘Theses on the Hungarian Revolution’, in which he called Khrushchev and other party leaders ‘the true comrades in arms and students of Joseph the Bloody’; and in December he was arrested. Pimenov’s arrest came as part of an official attempt to stamp out ‘the pathetic remnants of anti-Soviet elements’. Students’ pursuit of political discussion at their own informal gatherings, or in leaflets they drafted, shared with friends and then pasted to corridor walls in their institutes or dormitories no doubt seemed heretical to the authorities. But few were as radical in tone as Pimenov’s. For the most part, young people looked back to the revolutionary tradition and to Lenin for their inspiration, and to socialist Eastern Europe – rather than the capitalist West – for models to emulate. ‘Students! Stalinism continues to exist,’ one leaflet begins. ‘The banner of Leninism has been trampled. This is evident in the increased despotism in our country. This is evident in the events in Poland and Hungary where freedom was trampled under the treads of Soviet tanks.’ This younger generation, born in the Stalinist 1930s, was becoming more independent and dared to criticise those in authority where injustice was perceived, but remained deeply invested in the promises of 1917. Even if they were pushing the boundaries of what one historian has neatly called ‘permitted dissent’ – and this was certainly the conclusion the party leadership reached in December 1956 – in many ways they shared Khrushchev’s own commitment to rediscovering the revolutionary ethos that had been eroded under Stalin’s long dictatorship.

Smith acknowledges from the start that her story ‘tilts’ towards the intelligentsia. In part this reflects her source base: in general, collective farmers and factory workers weren’t eloquent diarists or memoirists. But the political storms of 1956 didn’t pass them by. It was of course intrinsic to the Soviet system that its political culture – however undemocratic – was one in which the proletariat actively participated. At party meetings in the workplace or local neighbourhood, cardholders from diverse backgrounds met in the weeks following the Secret Speech. Although Smith describes a handful of such meetings, she focuses on the exceptional ones where the participants, invariably students or young academics, caused trouble by taking their criticisms of Stalinism too far. Other researchers (I’m one of them) use transcripts from these meetings to probe less dramatic reactions. As Polly Jones has suggested, it was only a small portion of the Secret Speech’s audience that called for ‘a full reckoning of the damage caused to the Soviet system and Bolshevik ideology’ under Stalin. More common was the demand for guidance regarding material artefacts of the Stalin cult. We find spontaneous attempts to remove, burn or deface portraits of Stalin. There was also enraged resistance to these acts of desecration. One of the most frequent questions posed at these meetings was: ‘How are we to be with portraits of Stalin?’ And what was to happen to Stalin’s body, still lying alongside Lenin in the Red Square mausoleum?

As rumours spread outside the party, political iconography was the subject of passionate responses from ordinary people in their correspondence with political leaders, their letters dutifully read, catalogued and archived by staff at party headquarters. A night watchman composed a letter to Voroshilov calling Stalin ‘a grasping beast’ who stole from the people and asking that the country’s leaders dispose of the stinking body immediately. At the other end of the spectrum, and perhaps more typical of those who composed anguished letters to Stalin’s old comrades in the spring of 1956, a man from Stalingrad wrote to Molotov, begging him to take good care of the corpse: ‘It’s clear now that Khrushchev’s band is getting ready to liquidate Stalin’s body. Speak with Mao Zedong, and ask him whether, if this should happen, he would take the body to his country on a temporary basis.’ Many of those who wrote in defence of Stalin argued that his leadership during the industrialisation drive of the 1930s and again during the war, often pivotal moments in their own lives, should not be sullied. The Hungarian crisis at the end of the year only reinforced their belief that Stalin’s successors had embarked on a mistaken and potentially dangerous course – not because they had sent in the tanks, but because they had let the protests escalate in the first place.

The dismantling of the prison camps was also more socially divisive than Smith’s account perhaps allows. For those who welcomed back close family members it was a moment for celebration, often followed by a painful period of re-acquaintance and accommodation, and Smith’s chapters on returning party members and intellectuals describe this process very well. But the scale of the great exodus from the camps made it a complex event. The Gulag had been a brutal home not only to political prisoners but also those convicted, fairly or not, of a gamut of criminal acts. (At the time of Stalin’s death, less than a quarter of Gulag inmates were there for ‘counter-revolutionary’ acts.) The sequestered world of the prison camp had allowed criminal subcultures and networks to flourish, which meant that a small minority of prisoners released in the mid-1950s were deeply alienated from mainstream society. Even the trains conveying recently released prisoners back from Siberia saw plenty of drunkenness, violent rioting, stabbings, killings and rapes. The crisis surrounding the immediate moment of return reflected a broader social conflict in the 1950s and early 1960s. In addition to several mass disturbances – sparked by local injustices or the rise in food prices and suppressed by force – there was widespread anxiety about rising crime rates and the spread of ‘hooliganism’. From the moment that Stalin’s successors embarked on reform, some citizens concluded that the social ills they perceived around them were the result of the dismantling of the Gulag. Those who were still struggling to rebuild lives devastated by war, and for whom the Soviet economy provided only a very meagre existence, reacted just as we might expect to a massive influx of prisoners: with horror, outrage and fear. For them, the Stalinist past could be viewed as a time of stability and security, even if that hadn’t been the case. Not everyone equated Stalinism with unremitting winter.

Two key dates – 25 February and 4 November – make 1956 a year of historical significance on the world stage. In Western Europe communist parties never fully recovered, and Moscow’s global authority was tainted for ever. Inside the USSR itself the government managed to curb the crisis it had created: despite the clampdown in December and the arrests that followed in 1957, there was neither a return to mass terror nor a popular uprising on the scale witnessed in Budapest. In many ways, the party leaders were successful in turning 1956 into a new beginning. Revolutionary figures like Stasova were now well into old age but, as Smith demonstrates, the ideals they had fought for in 1917 lived on, still a source of inspiration among educated young people. They contributed to what was to become the vibrant intellectual culture, official and unofficial, of the 1960s. Smith’s account also suggests that their rather modest hopes, while not extinguished, were held in check by a political elite ultimately unwilling to expand the scope of ‘permitted dissent’ beyond a certain point. What’s underplayed in Moscow 1956, I would argue, is the extent to which ordinary people felt disoriented not only by the limits placed on the new political culture, but on the destruction of old certainties. In dismantling the cult of personality, Khrushchev had unveiled the ephemeral nature of a political spectacle that had long insisted on its own permanence. In dethroning Stalin, he suggested the instability of historical narratives and cast the meaning of ordinary people’s sacrifices into doubt. In releasing former outcasts en masse, he provided scapegoats for those who felt that their precarious lives were constantly under threat. Smith draws persuasive comparisons between the failed reforms of the Khrushchev years and the post-2000 Russian government, which has also prioritised its own survival over citizens’ democratic rights. But we may also find in this earlier period the seeds of another post-Soviet phenomenon: a longing for a mythic era in which stability and order prevailed. It was fuelled by the collapse of the Soviet social system in the 1990s, and has been strategically nurtured by the state during the Putin era, but nostalgia for a past that never really existed had already begun taking shape in the immediate aftermath of Stalin’s death.