On February 25, 1956, Nikita Khrushchev, Premier of the Soviet Union, delivered a so-called “Secret Speech” to an unofficial, closed session of the Twentieth Party Communist Party Congress. The contents of the speech were leaked – some say by Khrushchev himself, and the repercussions both within and outside the USSR were monumental.
In the speech, Khrushchev enumerated and denounced Stalin’s crimes and the “cult of personality” surrounding Stalin. [Even calling Stalin’s policies “crimes” was a radical departure from the past.] Khrushchev had several aims in making this speech, one of which was the ironic goal of saving Communism by blaming its failings primarily on a particular individual (who was now safely dead). But the fallout rocked the very foundation of the USSR.
A “thaw” was initiated inside the Soviet Union, and tens of thousands of political prisoners were set free. The speech also laid the groundwork for piecemeal reforms, paving the way for Gorbachev’s perestroika (the restructuring of the Soviet economy and bureaucracy that began in the mid 1980s).
In Eastern Europe, the revelations ignited stirrings for self-determination. But Khrushchev had no intention of diminishing the might of the Soviet Union, or of liberating its satellite states. Those in the East Communist countries thinking otherwise were quickly disabused of this impression. In Poland, Russian troops were dispatched to put down a labor strike, and in Hungary, where the dream of freedom quickly turned into an uprising, Khrushchev had to resort to even more force. He could not afford for the West to perceive him as weak, and the Soviets brutally suppressed the revolution. According to political scientist William Taubman in his Pulitizer Prize winning biography, Khrushchev: The Man and His Era, “Soviet tanks and troops crushed the Hungarian Revolution at a cost of some twenty thousand Hungarian and fifteen hundred Soviet casualties.”
Inside the USSR, many were suffering guilt – even Khrushchev, for whom the speech was also an act of repentance, again according to Taubman. He reports that when Khrushchev was asked late in life what he most regretted, he said, “The blood. My arms are up to the elbows in blood. That is the most terrible thing that lies in my soul.”