The Twentieth Party Congress (1956) served as a “watershed” moment in the political history of the Soviet Union (Freeze 416). It included many new faces in the delegation, as a means for Khrushchev to consolidate power, and avoided the contentious issue of Stalin’s legacy initially (Freeze 416). That changed with Khrushchev’s “bombshell,” “late-night” speech on February 24, 1956 (Freeze 416). Given behind closed-doors, “before assembled delegates to the Communist Party’s Twentieth Congress as well as observers from foreign Communist parties,” Khrushchev gave a blistering speech denouncing the transgressions of his predecessor — Stalin (Siegelbaum).
His speech focused on the “cult of the personality and its consequences” (Freeze 416). It was a 26,000 word speech that took Khrushchev nearly four hours to deliver. In it, he detailed numerous crimes of his predecessor, dating all the way back to the murder of Kirov in December of 1934; he presented “shocking statistics” regarding the “number of party members, congress delegates, and military leaders” who were killed or who had disappeared (Freeze 417). He went even further to sharply criticize the “unpreparedness of the country at the time of the Nazi invasion in June 1941; numerous wartime blunders; the deportation of various nationalities in 1943 and 1944; and the banishing of Tito’s Yugoslavia from the Soviet bloc after the war” (Siegelbaum). And for all of these problems, Khrushchev pointed out one culprit — Stalin’s “cult of personality” (Siegelbaum).
Khrushchev’s speech was significant because it represented a shift in Soviet society away from showing loyalty to — or, at least, refraining from criticism of — the Stalin regime. Khrushchev’s regime was “cautiously” attempting to de-stalinize Soviet society, beginning as early as 1954, to dismantle “the Stalinist system of repression and secrecy” (Freeze 412). De-stalinization began at first with silence — but did not earn any more tangible footing until Khrushchev’s secret speech in February of 1956. Following his speech, a party commission set off to “interview political prisoners” to allow them to be released (resulting in the release of over 50,000 people, and the reduction of sentences for another nearly 20,000). However, Khrushchev made a careful point to distinguish the crimes of Stalin from the Communist Party itself; in fact, he used his populist mantle to ally the Communist Party with the people — to frame itself, along with the people, as the victims of Stalin’s oppressiveness and brutality.
Khrushchev’s speech, while important to the de-stalinization movement, had negative ramifications. Following its leak, and eventual publication in Western media, it had several effects. First, it galvanized opposition to Khrushchev (Freeze 419). Many party members and members of the Politburo were opposed to de-stalinization (partially to cover up their own crimes as well as Stalin’s); and Stalin’s home republic of Georgia, staunchly supportive of the deceased dictator, because strongly anti-Khrushchev as a result. Second, it “sent shock waves throughout the Communist world and caused many western Communists to abandon the movement” (Siegelbaum). In short, the “foreign and domestic turbulence” unleashed by Khrushchev’s speech “impelled” him to back down from a “public campaign against Stalin” (Freeze 420).