Next Friday will mark the 50 years since Nikita Khrushchev made his famous “secret speech” at the 20th Communist Party Congress. The speech, which can be found here, denounced the Stalin’s “cult of personality,” his use of mass repression, ethnic deportations, and bungling during the War. Among the many detailed examples Khrushchev used to disclose Stalin’s crimes, he said:
Stalin acted not through persuasion, explanation and patient cooperation with people, but by imposing his concepts and demanding absolute submission to his opinion. Whoever opposed this concept or tried to prove his viewpoint and the correctness of his position was doomed to removal from the leading collective and to subsequent moral and physical annihilation. This was especially true during the period following the 17th Party Congress, when many prominent party leaders and rank-and-file party workers, honest and dedicated to the cause of Communism, fell victim to Stalin’s despotism.
The history of the Khrushchev’s speech is undoubtedly a world historical event. It redefined the 20th century. It planted the seeds for the Thaw. It split the world communist movement in half. It sparked the Hungarian uprising. It laid the groundwork for d?tente with the West. However, it is a mistake that the speech was public denunciation of Stalin. It wasn’t published when it was given, but read aloud in factories, kolkhozes and other Soviet institutions. Here is how historian Roy Medvedev remembered it:
They gathered activists, all the party members, all the Komsomol members, the directors of kolkhozs [communal farms[ and sovkhozs [state farms]. The instructor of the district Communist Party arrived, took out a red book, and told us: ‘I am going to read you the secret speech of Nikita Sergeevich Khrushchev at the 20th congress.’ For four hours, we listed to this report. There were people present who had fought in World War II and worshipped Stalin. There were people like me, whose father was repressed and died in prison and who knew about torture and camps.
Though immediately published abroad, generating shock and commendation from foreign Communist Parties, the text was not published in the Soviet Union until 1988. You can read about how John Rettie, the Moscow correspondent for Reuters brought the speech to the West in a recent article in the New Statesman. Moreover, there are rumors that there are many versions of the speech and that the copies in our possession are believed to be incomplete. An unedited transcript has yet to be found, and there is some question whether one actually exists.
This week will be filled with assessments, memories, and discussion around the historical significance of Khrushchev’s speech and, for better or for worse, some rather tired commentary on the “specter” of Stalin in contemporary Russia. In fact such reflection has already started. Here are a few links to that emerging discussion.
“Communism may be dead, but clearly not dead enough”
“Russia and Stalin on the Rise”
“Secret Speech Still Divides”
“Stalin museum is ‘an insult to millions sent to death in Gulag”
Why Does Russia Still Love Stalin Now?
“The day Khrushchev denounced Stalin”
“Debunking Stalin’s Debunkers”
Today’s LA Times has several commentaries around Khrushchev’s speech:
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By Sean — 11 years ago
It is no surprise that the imminent ninetieth anniversary of the October Revolution in Russia has become the object of widespread attention. The events of October 1917 were, indeed, an earthquake that shook the world, altering its economic, social and cultural foundations.
Many media sources depict this world-historic phenomenon as a mere coup d’état, carried out by a handful of conspirators and adventurists with the help of Western security services. All sorts of things are circulated — outright lies, distortion of the facts, and malicious slanders about the participants in and leaders of this mighty event. The old fables to the effect that the “October coup” was provoked by the “German agent” Lenin and the “Anglo-American spy” Trotsky are still being repeated, despite having been rejected by distinguished scholars from various countries. Meanwhile, the Russian people are portrayed as unwitting toys in the hands of “revolutionary extremists”, even though the revolution could neither have begun nor triumphed without the population playing a decisive role.
Not a Conspiracy, But a Social Revolution
The October Revolution was not sparked by conspirators or by agents of foreign powers. It was a social earthquake, a hurricane, a tsunami, which no-one could ever have called forth by mere appeals. The revolution arose out of the internal logic of events, when a multitude of sources of popular discontent converged into a single, all-powerful stream. To interpret it as the product of a conspiracy is strange, to say the least. If this were true, why was a new governing authority set up in place of the old in a gigantic country and in a short time, and why did the Russian people not only support this government, but defend it with arms in hand during the Civil War?
For some reason, the critics of the “October coup” forget the profound crisis into which Russia had been plunged by the tsarist monarchy and the Provisional Government which succeeded it. Mesmerised by the slogan, “War until Final Victory!”, the authorities refused to take account of the real needs of the population. Critics also forget the spontaneous disintegration of the monarchy on the eve of the revolution, despite the direct evidence in the form of the endless intrigues and conflicts within the tsar’s court, the military defeats at the front, and finally, the outright abdication of Nikolai II, the autocrat and commander-in-chief of the Russian army. The bourgeois government that replaced the monarchy also proved impotent, failing to meet the great challenges of the time — stopping the war and giving land to the peasants.
October 1917 marked the culmination of the great Russian social revolution of the twentieth century. It was led by revolutionary social democrats who earlier than others, had recognised the needs and hopes of ordinary people — the pressing problems to which the Russian society of the time required solutions. Among the leaders, it was of course Vladimir Ulyanov-Lenin and his closest collaborators who played the key roles.
None of the leaders of the October revolution were flawless, but it is just as wrong to demonise as to idolise them. The calumnies that are heaped on them nowadays have no real basis. They were not in the service of anyone, only of their revolutionary ideals. None of the earthly temptations, such as money or the other accompaniments of a philistine prosperity, had any meaning for them. They measured their lives against the supreme standard of selfless service to the freedom and happiness of the oppressed and dispossessed.
Revolutions Cannot be Reduced to Violence
The October Revolution is often termed a “violent overthrow”. Yet the actual “overthrow” in Petrograd passed off almost without human victims. While we are not advocates of violence, we recognise that it is inevitable at particular stages of historical development, when it is bound up with the presence of class and national antagonisms. Revolution is indeed associated in many respects with violence, as was clearly evident, for example, in the bourgeois revolutions in the Netherlands, England, France and so forth. The ending of slavery in the United States was accompanied by the bloodiest conflict of the nineteenth century, the American Civil War. In Russia, the ending of feudalism was also accompanied by wars and revolutions.
These developments, meanwhile, were not called forth by the machinations of political intriguers, but by the crisis of the old system and by the impossibility of solving age-old problems by evolutionary methods. People resort to revolutionary violence in specific circumstances, when the ruling classes, blinded by thirst for their own enrichment and for the maintenance of their privileges, neglect the well-being of the population. The dispossessed classes then have no choice except to take their fates in their own hands. This is the main lesson of the Russian Revolution of the twentieth century.
At the same time, social revolution cannot be reduced to violence, and especially armed violence. Its ultimate goal is to lay the basis for a new world, to create better conditions of life for everyone, not just the social elites. In this sense, such revolutions really are the locomotives of history, accelerating its progress.
What the October Revolution Yielded
The history of different countries has always included numerous struggles by workers against capitalism. Only in Russia, however, have these actions taken on so far-reaching a character. This made twentieth-century Russia the epicentre of world development, where all the main questions of the contemporary world intersected, and where the fundamental sickness of capitalism, the conflict between labour and capital, was resolved. It was only the Russian workers who had the will and decisiveness to find a way out of this conflict, not only overthrowing capitalism, but also beginning the transition to a more progressive social system — socialism.
Like the Paris Commune before it, the October Revolution placed power in the hands of the lower orders of society — the workers and peasants, and those elements of the intelligentsia that reflected their interests. The revolution affirmed the soviets as the most democratic form of political power, granting the war-weary population the long-awaited peace and land, along with the opportunity for national self-determination. By raising millions of workers to the point where they could exercise social creativity, the revolution showed clearly that it is not only the “elites” that are capable of being the subject and demiurge of history.
As a result of the October Revolution two socially counterposed systems appeared in the world, a circumstance which did much to determine the subsequent development of humanity. Thanks to the influence of October, national liberation movements arose, and reforms began in the capitalist system itself. Under the impact of the Russian Revolution the colonial empires disintegrated, while long-outdated monarchical regimes suffered total collapse.
The October Revolution set in motion a supra-national and supra-confessional unifying idea, the idea of social liberation and justice. On the basis of this idea, there arose for the first time in history a voluntary union of peoples with equal rights, the USSR. The ideas and initiatives of October were in accord with the goals and vital purpose of many titans of science and the arts — of Timiryazev and Vernadsky, Platonov and Mayakovsky, Sholokhov and Eisenstein. The progress toward the socialist future that was instigated by the October Revolution was actively supported by such outstanding twentieth-century figures as George Bernard Shaw, Picasso, Einstein and Tsiolkovsky.
Soviet History Was Diverse
The October Revolution marked the beginning of Soviet history, which did not take the form of advancing along a smooth Nevsky Prospekt. Soviet history included both great achievements and appalling tragedies. We know very well that after the peaceful transfer of power to the workers in most of the provinces of Russia, a bloody civil war began, accompanied by foreign intervention and by White and Red terror.
Lacking the relevant historical experience, the Soviet authorities naturally made many mistakes. One particular error was the policy of “war communism”, a product of the general national crisis. To their credit, the Bolsheviks decisively rejected it, and made a deliberate shift to the New Economic Policy — the first historical model in which the principles of socialism and capitalism were successfully combined. Many features of NEP were later reproduced in the context of the development of several European countries and of modern China. NEP also allowed the wounds of war to be rapidly healed, and production in the Russian economy to be raised to its pre-war level.
Relying on the experience of the New Economic Policy, Lenin worked out a plan for the further development of the Soviet state, a plan which included radical economic and political changes. These transformations were aimed above all at achieving breakthroughs in the development of energy generation, culture and education — areas which were decisive in the twentieth century and which remain so in the twenty-first. These changes presupposed democratising the political system through drawing workers into running the state, and through the renovation of the party. Here, one of the moves which Lenin projected was removing Josef Stalin from the post of general secretary. Even then, Stalin was manifesting his traits of disloyalty, boorishness and the abuse of power.
These plans, however, were fated to go unrealised. While declaring socialism to be its goal, the authoritarian regime which consolidated itself after Lenin’s death did a great deal that was incompatible with socialism. The political liberties of citizens that had been proclaimed by the revolution were comprehensively violated. The price paid for industrialisation and forced collectivisation was exorbitant. In sum, the popular power of the initial years of the revolution degenerated into rule by the bureaucracy and its leader Stalin. We consider the massive Stalinist repressions, along with the violation of the rights of the individual and of whole nationalities in the USSR, to have been a crime. All this discredited the ideals of the revolution and of socialism.
While acknowledging these facts, we do not accept scholarly-sounding lies and stupefyingly one-sided propaganda with regard to the whole of Soviet history. This history was diverse; within it, democratic and bureaucratic tendencies engaged in conflict with and replaced one another. Hence, the freedoms of the NEP years were replaced by Stalinist totalitarianism, which in turn gave way to the Khrushchev “thaw”. Later, the Brezhnev authoritarianism was replaced by perestroika, which proclaimed as its goal the creation of a humane, democratic socialism.
The history of every country is subject to argument and debate. The cruelties of the British and French colonial wars, and of slavery in the US, were scarcely better than the Soviet gulag. However, this did not negate the social and cultural achievements of these countries. Why then should such achievements be denied in the case of the Soviet people, who achieved a great victory over fascism, created an inimitable culture and literature, set up a broadly accessible system of social welfare for the population, and were the pioneers of space travel? It must not be forgotten that October unleashed an unprecedented creative energy. It set in train the founding by masses of people of a new society; it brought to realisation many of the ideas of internationalism; and it acquainted the formerly most oppressed layers of Russian society with the heights of national and world culture. Nor should one strike out from Soviet history the enthusiasm of the masses that was demonstrated in the mastering of the newest achievements of science and technology. The revolutionary romanticism and heroism of millions of Soviet citizens was clearly manifested here.
Why the Soviet Model Collapsed
It should be noted that we have a range of views on the nature of the social system that existed in the USSR. We are agreed, however, that neglect or rejection of the principles of popular power, internationalism, justice and humanism that were born out of the October Revolution will sooner or later result in catastrophe for a society that is building socialism. This is what happened in the Soviet Union.
The fetters placed on the creative initiative of the population under the totalitarian regime dramatically restricted the opportunities for the growth of the Soviet economy. A shortage of consumer goods was one of its characteristic features. As a result, we did not manage to raise the level of well-being of the working people to that found in the world’s developed countries, and this served as one of the causes of the downfall of the Soviet system. Another vital cause was the lack of real economic and political democracy, which became especially intolerable when technological and information revolution was unfolding in the world. One of the consequences of this was the complete alienation of the bureaucratic authorities and the ruling party from the workers. The attempt to overcome this alienation during perestroika did not yield the required result. In sum, the collapse of the USSR and of the Soviet government became a reality. This was seized upon by the political forces which dissolved the USSR and directed Russia along the road of installing a savage oligarchic capitalism, marked by mass joblessness, falling living standards for the population, profound social stratification, rampant nationalism and growing crime.
The failure of the Soviet model of society does not signify that the ideals of October were false. Just as the ideas of Christianity were not to blame for the practices of the Inquisition, Stalinist totalitarianism could not destroy the ideals of the revolution. Socialism as a historic cause cannot be brought to realisation all at once. A new generation of young people is now appearing, people who do not accept capitalism as a system. There is every reason to hope that this generation will be able to breathe new life into the ideals of the October Revolution.
What the Greatness of Modern Russia Depends on
The ideas of the October Revolution united not only proletarian internationalists, but also supporters of strengthening and developing the Russian state. These ideas opened the way for people who wanted to bring the national culture of Russia to the country’s borderlands and to other countries — for people who shared in patriotic sentiments and who were prepared to defend the Soviet homeland from potential aggressors. The strength of this feeling was shown clearly during the Great Patriotic War, when the sovereignty of the USSR and the conquests of October were defended.
The October Revolution showed the greatness of spirit of the Russian people, who proposed an alternative, non-capitalist road to national development. To view the revolution as a conspiracy by extremist forces is also dangerous because it provides grist to the mill of the anti-Russian interpretation of history according to which Russia, because of its unpredictability, is said to pose a constant threat to the world. From Russia, adherents of this view maintain, only unfavourable developments are to be expected; hence, the country has to be kept under tight rein, and its natural wealth, its energy potential and intellectual resources, have to be controlled and exploited.
Modern-day Russia needs to soberly assess such provocative statements, and to hold firmly to its own course. Russia’s greatness does not lie in the blind copying of foreign examples, still less in national conceit with regard to other peoples, but in relying on the talents and creative strengths of its own population, as well as in the thorough assimilation of the knowledge and experience developed by world civilisation and culture.
Russia is capable of once again becoming a great power, whose adversaries will be forced to take it into account. But this will only happen if the country overcomes the poverty and deep social stratification of its population, qualitatively improves the lives of its citizens, broadens their social and democratic rights, and retains everything that is best from its historic past.
* * *
The historic importance of the October Revolution is difficult to overestimate. Its positive consequences are obvious. A third of humanity travelled part of the way along the road which the revolution opened up. Many countries are continuing this progress today, drawing lessons from the defeats and tragedies of the past. October proved that another, more just world is possible. A range of social and political forces, countries and peoples, are now striving for this new world. This is shown by a new wave of revolutionary transformations, manifesting itself with particular force in a number of countries of Latin America and Asia.
The October Revolution was and remains our fate, and we cannot reject this crucially important part of Russian history. Always and everywhere there have been mistakes, and the great revolutions of the past did not avoid them either. Nevertheless, the anniversaries of these revolutions are celebrated in all countries, including at the state level. Only in Russia is this not the case. In Russia, the denigration of the country’s revolutionary past continues.
On the eve of the ninetieth anniversary of the October Revolution, we raise our voices against this practice. The people must have their revolutionary holiday and the truth about October returned to them. It must not be forgotten that we belong to a country whose history includes its own great revolution. We can and should be proud of it.
- Arslanov V., Dr. of art, professor, Russian Academy of Education
- Bagaturiya G. Dr. of philosophy, professor, Lomonosov Moscow State University
- Buzgalin A., Dr. of economics, professor, Lomonosov Moscow State University
- Dzarasov S., Dr. of economics, Russian Academy of Science
- Galkin A., Dr. of history, professor, Russian Academy of Science Istyagin L., Dr. of history, Russian Academy of Science
- Kelle V. Dr. of philosophy, Russian Academy of Science
- Kolganov A., Dr. of economics, Lomonosov Moscow State University
- Loginov V., Dr. of history, professor, Russian Academy of Education
- Medvedev R., Dr. of history
- Rudyk E., Dr. of economics, Russian Academy of Labor
- Serebrykova Z., Dr. of history
- Shatrov M., writer
- Slavin B., Dr. of philosophy, professor, Moscow State Pedagogical University
- Smolin O., Dr. of philosophy, professor, MP
- Voeikov M., Dr. of economics, Russian Academy of Science
- Vorobiev A., academician, Russian Academy of Science
By Sean — 8 years ago
I often tell my students that Russian politics is a zero sum game. You’re either in or you’re out. One’s political patronage begins and ends with one’s institutional authority. Without the ability to dole out favors, and more importantly protect your clients, you’re nothing in the world of Russian politics. Zip, ziltch, nada, nichego.
There’s no meaningful tradition of a Russian elder statesmen. There is no custom of ex-politicians having a visibly influential hand in politics. There are no Bill Clintons and no Henry Kissingers. And certainly no Richard Nixons. Once a powerful Russian politician retires, or what happens more often, is forced out, the sun sets on their power. It’s an old Russian practice dating back to Muscovy when Grand Princes had to sideline rival boyar clans, placate them through compromise, or for those who didn’t fall into line, simply exile or have them slaughtered. Remember when Peter the Great threw his half-sister Sophia into a convent and exiled her co-conspirator Vasily Golitsyn to the north. Or have the conspirators in the Tsykler plot executed over the exhumed corpse of Ivan Miroslavsky, the head of his stepmother Maria’s clan, and had their blood “sprinkled on the dead carcass which in some places was rotten and consumed.” Peter was good with the symbolism. And punishment was often collective. As the 1649 Law Code stated: “If someone commits treason, and after him survive a father, or mother, or brothers, or uncles, or any other member of his clan in the Muscovite state…conduct a rigorous investigation…If it is established conclusively that they knew about the treason of that traitor, punish them with death.” Interestingly, the same principle was applied during Stalin’s terror.
In the Soviet period, the way to get rid of a rival was to physically annihilate him. Remember Leon Trotsky, Nikolai Bukharin, Lev Kamenev, and Grigory Zinoviev. Khrushchev’s secret speech in 1956 changed the calculus. Rivals were no longer physically annihilated, only politically, and were allowed to live out their lives quietly. Remember Vlacheslav Molotov, Lazar Kaganovich, Georgi Malenkov, and Nikita Khrushchev. Old Molotov spent his final years in the main reading room of the Lenin Library working on his memoirs and appealing the Politburo to get his Party card back.
This zero sum game appears to have ramped up since the collapse of communism. Some even say that the Russian elite has reverted back to its feudal past and readopted the “Muscovite model” of rule. Whether Russia continues to be a feudal society is a matter of debate. It can’t be denied, however, that Putin’s presidency and Medvedev’s succession have maintained a stable oligarchy in power not seen since the 1930s. Putin’s only revision to post-communist “feudalism” is the notion of the Tandem, which thus far has maintained political stability between liberal and conservative elite factions. Still, it had to purge the major political players from the 1990s from the halls of state power to get to this point. The current oligarchy’s rivals are either dead, driven into exile, in prison, blackballed and besmirched, or, if they’re lucky, left to peacefully live in political obscurity, as long as they keep to themselves. It’s not difficult for those in power to maintain this tradition. Since many Russian power brokers gained and maintained their power through nefarious means, once they lose their position, they immediately become vulnerable. It’s not just because they no longer have the privilege of the office to hide behind. It’s also because the loss of position means being deprived of the clients who gave a patron his power in the first place. Given this, it is no surprise that investigations of theft, corruption and fraud emerge after a broker’s fall. It is because of this naked vulnerability that I believe Putin will be around for a long time. Not on account of his love for power per se, but because he doesn’t like prison or exile.
Still, why does the zero sum politics remain? My theory has to do with elite class consciousness, particularly in the old Marxist adage about a class in and for itself. Russia’s elite is a class in itself, but it has yet to become a class for itself. Meaning, the Russian ruling elite has yet to realize that it doesn’t have to cannibalize itself to maintain power. All it has to do is recognize its corporate class interests and see their rivals as essentially all part of the same gang. There can still be factions and low level conflicts, but these never seek to completely destroy a rival.
There is no better recent example of this zero sum game than ex-Moscow mayor and former major political player, Yuri Luzhkov. Luzhkov was the last of the Mandarins from the 1990s. It’s amazing that he held on as long as he did. But eventually he did fall, and what initially appeared as soft landing has now turned into a full speed head-on into the pavement. At first, Luzhkov didn’t understand the rules of the game, which is surprising since he’s been at it so long. A mere week after his firing, like so many before him, Luzhkov declared himself a “democrat” and vowed to continue in politics. That venture was short-lived because at the same time the ex-mayor was manufacturing his democratic credentials, he was also desperately trying to find an EU country willing to give him residency. Their response: Yuri go screw yourself.
The charges of mass theft, particularly on the part of his construction mogul wife, Elena Baturnia, are coming to fruition. Two weeks ago, a Moscow city audit accused Luzhkov of embezzling almost $8 billion during his tenure as mayor. The Ministry of Interior has been investigating his wife for embezzling $440 million through her company Inteko (my guess is that they’ve been keeping documents on them for a long time).
Well, the chickens have finally come home to roost as masked Interior Robocops raided Baturnia’s company. The Moscow News describes the tangled web of theft as follows:
The prosecutor’s eye is homing in on a deal in 2009, when Bank of Moscow lent 12.76 billion roubles to Premier Estate. The company was created three months before the deal, Interfax reported.
The little known company used the funds to buy a 58 hectare plot of land from Inteko for 13 billion roubles, although its charter capital was just 10,000.
The transaction took place three weeks after Moscow City Duma approved a 14.99 billion rouble transfer from city coffers to Bank Moskvy, Kommersant reported.
By selling the land, as well as some shares in Sperbank, Rosneft and Gazprom, Baturina reaped 27 billion roubles. Of this, 18 billion went to pay off debts, to Gazprombank and other creditors.
But it wasn’t just the company that benefited. “The money, received as a loan from Bank of Moscow and worth around 13 billion roubles, was transferred into the personal account of Elena Baturina,” the British Home Office’s press service told Kommersant.
Baturina’s brother says that she’s already fled the country. You’re damn right she did. Apparently, the whole Luzhkov family is stewing in Britain. No matter, the Russian authorities have no problem trying fallen oligarchs in absentia.
Others of his clan are going down too. Lukhkov’s metro boss, Dmitry Gayev, will soon find himself charged with embezzling $3.8 million. Gazeta.ru is reporting that his former head of sport has been sacked by Sobyanin. And Luzhkov’s vice mayor, Vladimir Resin, is rumored to resign in the coming days. Whether they will be investigated too remains to be seen.
The purge of Luzhkov’s people is heating up. And with that the survivors in the zero sum game begin another trot around the board.
Image: RIA Novosti