On the Personality Cult and its Consequences

On the Personality Cult and its Consequences

On the Personality Cult and its Consequences (Russian: «О культе личности и его последствиях») was a report, critical of Joseph Stalin, made to the Twentieth Party Congress on February 25, 1956[1] by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. It is more commonly known as the Secret Speech or the Khrushchev Report. In the speech, Khrushchev criticized actions taken by the regime of Joseph Stalin – particularly the purges of the military and the upper party echelons, and the development of Stalin's personality cult – while maintaining support for the ideals of communism by invoking Vladimir Lenin.

The speech was a milestone in the Khrushchev Thaw.[2][3] Superficially, the speech was an attempt to draw the Communist Party of the Soviet Union closer to Leninism. Khrushchev's aim, however, was primarily to garner public acceptance of the arrest and execution of Lavrentiy Beria three years earlier,[4] as well as to legitimize his own recently consolidated power (seized from Stalin loyalists Vyacheslav Molotov and Georgy Malenkov).

It was known as the "Secret Speech" because it was delivered at a closed session, and its actual text was printed only in 1989,[5] although many party members had already been informed of the speech as soon as a month after Khrushchev delivered it. In April 2007, the British newspaper The Guardian included the speech in their series on "Great Speeches of the 20th Century."[6]



The issue of mass repressions was recognized before the speech. The speech itself was prepared based on the results of a special party commission (Pospelov (chairman), Komarov, Aristov, Shvernik), known as the Pospelov Commission, arranged at the session of the Presidium of the Party central committee on January 31, 1955. The direct goal of the commission was to investigate the repressions of the delegates of the 1934 XVII Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

The 17th Congress was selected for investigations because it was known as "the Congress of Victors" in the country of "victorious socialism", and therefore the enormous number of "enemies" among the participants demanded explanation.

This commission presented evidence that during 1937–38 (the peak of the period known as the Great Purge) over one and a half million individuals were arrested for "anti-Soviet activities", of whom over 680,000 were executed.

While Khrushchev was not hesitant to point out the flaws in Stalinist practice in regard to the purges of the army and Party and the management of the Great Patriotic War, he was very careful to avoid any criticism of Stalin’s industrialization policy or Communist Party ideology. When discussing mass repressions, the absence of any commentary on the haphazard arrests of ordinary citizens is notable and, it must be assumed, purposeful, since occurrences like the brutality of collectivization served the interests of the party and the state.[7] Khrushchev was a staunch party man, and he lauded Leninism and Communist ideology in his speech as often as he condemned Stalin’s actions. Stalin, Khrushchev argued, was the primary victim of the deleterious effect of the cult of personality,[7] which had, through his existing flaws, transformed him from a crucial part of the victories of Lenin into a paranoiac, easily influenced by the "rabid enemy of our party," Beria.[8]

Despite the denouncing of political repressions, the process of rehabilitation of victims of political repressions was slow, although the release of political prisoners from labor camps started soon after Stalin's death. Still, the victims of the Moscow Trials were cleared of all charges only in 1988.[citation needed]

Reports of the speech

Khrushchev began the speech shortly after midnight; it took some four hours to deliver. Shortly thereafter, reports of it were conveyed to the West by Reuters journalist John Rettie, who had been told about the speech by Kostya Orlov a few hours before Rettie was due to leave for Stockholm; it was therefore reported in the Western media in early March. Rettie believes the information came from Khrushchev himself via an intermediary.[9]

On March 5, 1956, the Party Praesidium ordered the reading of Khrushchev's Report at the meetings of all Communist and Komsomol organizations, with the invitation of non-members as well. The contents of the report had become widely known in the country already in 1956, thus the name "Secret Speech" is something of a misnomer. But as noted above, the full text was not officially released to the public until 1989.[3]

However, the text of the speech was only slowly disclosed in the Eastern European countries. It was never disclosed to Western communist party members by their leaders, and most Western communists only became aware of the details of the text after the New York Times (5 June 1956) and The Observer (10 June 1956) published versions of the full text.

The content of the speech reached the west through a circuitous route. A few copies of the speech were sent by order of the Soviet Politburo to leaders of the Eastern Bloc countries. Shortly after the speech had been disseminated, a Polish journalist, Viktor Grayevsky, visited his girlfriend, Lucia Baranowski, who worked as a junior secretary in the office of the first secretary of the Polish Communist Party, Edward Ochab. On her desk was a thick booklet with a red binding, with the words: "The 20th Party Congress, the speech of Comrade Khrushchev." Grayevsky had heard rumors of the speech and, as a journalist, was interested in reading it. Baranowski allowed him to take the document home to read.[10][11]

As it happened, Grayevsky, who was Jewish, and had made a recent trip to Israel to visit his sick father, decided to emigrate there. After he read the speech, he decided to take it to the Israeli Embassy and gave it to Yaakov Barmor who had helped Grayevsky make his trip to visit Grayevsky's sick father. Barmor was a Shin Bet representative; he photographed the document and sent the photographs to Israel.[10][11]

By the afternoon of April 13, 1956, the Shin Bet in Israel had received the photographs. Israeli intelligence and United States intelligence had previously secretly agreed to cooperate on security matters. James Jesus Angleton was the Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA) head of counterintelligence and in charge of the clandestine liaison with Israeli intelligence. The photographs were delivered to him. On April 17, 1956, the photographs had reached the CIA chief Allen Dulles, who quickly informed U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower. After determining that the speech was authentic, the CIA leaked the speech to The New York Times in early June.[11]


The basic structure of the speech was as follows:

  • Repudiation of Stalin's personality cult
    • Quotations from the classics of Marxism-Leninism, which denounced the "cult of an individual", especially the Karl Marx letter to a German worker which stated his antipathy toward it
    • Lenin's Testament and remarks by Nadezhda Krupskaya, the former People's Commissar for Education (and wife of Lenin), about Stalin's character
    • Before Stalin, the fight with Trotskyism was purely ideological; Stalin introduced the notion of the "enemy of the people" to be used as "heavy artillery" from the late '20s
    • Stalin violated the Party norms of collective leadership
      • Repression of the majority of Old Bolsheviks and delegates of the XVII Party Congress, most of which were workers and had joined the Communist Party before 1920. Of the 1,966 delegates, 1,108 were declared "counter-revolutionaries", 848 were executed, and 98 of 139 members and candidates to the Central Committee were declared "enemies of the people".
      • After this repression, Stalin ceased to even consider the opinion of the collective.
    • Examples of repressions of some notable Bolsheviks were presented in detail.
    • Stalin ordered that the persecution be enhanced: NKVD is "four years late" in crushing the opposition, according to his principle of "aggravation of class struggle"
      • Practice of falsifications followed, to cope with "plans" for numbers of enemies to be uncovered.
    • Exaggerations of Stalin's role in the Great Patriotic War (World War II)
    • Deportations of whole nationalities
    • Doctors' plot and Mingrelian Affair
    • Manifestations of personality cult: songs, city names, etc.
      • Lyrics of the Soviet National Anthem (first version, 1944–53) which had references to Stalin
    • The non-awarding of the Lenin State Prize since 1935, which should be corrected


The speech caused such shock to the audience that, according to some reports, some of those present suffered heart attacks, and others later committed suicide.[12] The ensuing confusion among many Soviet citizens, bred on the panegyrics and permanent praise of the "genius" of Stalin, was especially apparent in the Georgian SSR, Stalin's homeland, where the days of protests and rioting ended with the Soviet army crackdown on March 9, 1956.[13]

Khrushchev's speech was followed by a period of liberalisation known as Khrushchev's Thaw. In 1961 the body of Stalin was removed from public view in Lenin's mausoleum and buried outside the Kremlin wall.

The speech was a major cause of the Sino-Soviet Split in which the People's Republic of China (under Mao Zedong) and Albania (under Enver Hoxha) condemned Khrushchev as a revisionist. In response, they formed the anti-revisionist movement, criticizing the post-Stalin leadership of the CPSU as being composed of state-capitalists and social-imperialists.[14]


  1. ^ "Khrushchev's Speech Struck a Blow at the Totalitarian System,"Mikhail Gorbachev's commentary on the Secret Speech from The Guardian's supplement
  2. ^ Tompson, William J. Khrushchev: A Political Life. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.
  3. ^ a b Taubman, William. Khrushchev: The Man and His Era, London: Free Press, 2004.
  4. ^ Riasanovsky, Nicholas V. A History of Russia, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005, pp. 530–31.
  5. ^ in the magazine Известия ЦК КПСС (Izvestiya CK KPSS; Reports of the Central Committee of the Party), #3, March 1989
  6. ^ "Great Speeches of the 20th Century", The Guardian.
  7. ^ a b Chamberlain, William Henry. “Khrushchev’s War with Stalin’s Ghost”, Russian Review 21, #1, 1962.
  8. ^ Khrushchev, Nikita S. “The Secret Speech–On the Cult of Personality”, Fordham University Modern History Sourcebook. Accessed September 12, 2007.
  9. ^ Rettie, John. "The day Khrushchev denounced Stalin", BBC, 18 February 2006.
  10. ^ a b http://www.haaretz.co.il/hasite/pages/ShArt.jhtml?itemNo=691848
  11. ^ a b c Melman, Yossi. "Trade secrets", Ha-aretz, 2006.
  12. ^ From Our Own Correspondent, BBC Radio 4, 22 January 2009.
  13. ^ Ronald Grigor Suny, The Making of the Georgian Nation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994; pp. 303–305.
  14. ^ On Khrushchov’s Phoney Communism and Its Historical Lessons for the World: Comment on the Open Letter of the Central Committee of the CPSU (IX) by Mao Zedong

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