Staunton, February 14 – Sixty-five years ago, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev delivered what has become known as his secret speech to the 20th CPSU Congress in which he denounced Stalin as a monster and, by so do, demolished the ideological foundation on which the USSR had stood and without which it could not survive.
If Stalin was as evil as Khrushchev described him, three questions immediately arose: First, where was Khrushchev and his comrades, all of whom had been elevated by Stalin, when all this was going on? No one could look at any of them as the leaders of a sacred cause ever again.
Second, how could a political system that claimed to be based on a scientific understanding of history be ruled for almost half of its then-life by a criminal responsible for the death of millions? No ideology was capacious enough to explain let alone justify that to anyone’s satisfaction.
And third, why would anyone continue to support such a regime if Stalin or his epigones were the best that it could produce? No justification for the continuation of the system thus remained for both those who had suffered or had lost relatives to his criminal regime, and everyone could see that the system needed not to be reformed but replaced.
When a system based on an ideology declared to be always true destroys the faith of those who follow it, the only things left are inertia, always a more powerful force in human affairs than anyone wants, or brute force, the use of the coercive resources of the state to keep its subjects in line.
Even before Khrushchev spoke – and he didn’t intend his words to go beyond the party leadership – hundreds of thousands if not millions of Soviet citizens knew the truth about Stalin and hated him. But after Khrushchev denounced Stalin and after his words reached the entire population, tens of millions did.
Khrushchev himself first tried to reform the system and then he and his successors tried to hold it together by force. But the glue that had held the Soviet system together no longer held. And it was just a matter of time – in this case, 35 years – until the entire edifice came crashing down. It had in fact died or been murdered long before that.
In Gorbachev’s time and the first decade of post-Soviet Russia, the anniversary of Khrushchev’s remarks always attracted enormous attention because people recognized what a critical role they played – many historians referred to his speech as having put a bomb under the USSR.
This year, however, while a few commentaries have appears – among the best is an interview St. Petersburg historian Yuliya Kantor gave to the Lenta news agency (lenta.ru/articles/2021/02/13/xx/) – the Kremlin and its propagandists have preferred to pass over this event in silence.
Putin with his commitment to the idea of a single stream of Russian history is more inclined to praise Stalin as “an effective manager” and the victor of World War II than to talk about the Soviet dictator’s crimes which were of course far more extensive and horrific than even Nikita Sergeyich was prepared to detail.
But there is a deeper reason for the Kremlin’s silence: Putin’s power rests not only on inertia and not only on his deployment of repressive force but on the population’s continuing deference to what many still see as the sacred quality of the powers that be. Khrushchev unwittingly and unintentionally contributed to the destruction of that third foundation.
And Putin and Putinists remain powerful aware that if such sentiments spread now, his regime which has also been based on crimes, albeit not so numerous as Stalin’s, will lose support just as the Soviet regime as a whole did after the secret speech on February 14, 1956.