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The speech Russia wants to forget

By Tim Whewell
BBC News

It was a speech so shocking that even 50 years on, Nikolai Baibakov refuses point-blank to describe what he heard that day - a devastating attack on the man he worshipped above all others.

Khrushchev speech in February 1956
Once the doors were locked Khrushchev spoke for four hours

The retired Communist Party official, now 91, can reel off scores of statistics of industrial production and oil extraction in the 1950s.

But he tries every stratagem to avoid recalling the cataclysmic event to which he is one of the very few surviving witnesses.

It was the secret final session of the 20th party congress on 25 February 1956, at which the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev demolished the reputation of his predecessor, Joseph Stalin.

Eventually, between gritted teeth, Baibakov concedes: "Maybe there were individual incidents of repression, but what Khrushchev denounced Stalin for, that never happened... Khrushchev just said those things to try and give himself more authority as a leader."

It is hard to exaggerate the impact Khrushchev's speech had in 1956, just three years after the dictator's death. Stalin's embalmed body was lying beside Lenin in the mausoleum on Red Square, and most Soviet citizens regarded him as little less than a god.

Torture

Stalin
Khrushchev said Stalin told interrogators how to beat victims
Many political prisoners had returned from the camps - though hundreds of thousands remained there. And Kremlin leaders were already referring to the "cult of the individual" that flourished during Stalin's rule.

But there had been nothing to prepare the 1,400 delegates of the Congress for the bitter tone and detail of the four-hour report that Khrushchev delivered behind locked doors on 25 February.

He talked of how thousands of innocent people had been tortured into confessing to crimes they never committed - and he said Stalin was personally responsible.

"He called in the interrogator, gave him instructions, and told him which methods to use, methods that were simple - to beat, beat, and once again, beat."

He described how Stalin ordered the murder of many of the Soviet Union's leading generals on the eve of World War II, his "monstrous" deportation of whole peoples to other parts of the country - and even how he was responsible for the ruination of agriculture.

No discussion

The delegates listened in stunned silence.

According to Khrushchev's biographer William Taubman, "Nobody said anything. They were uncertain even of looking each other in the eye, of revealing a gut instinct, which they shouldn't."

Lenin's body in the mausoleum
Stalin's body lay with Lenin's in the Red Square mausoleum, in 1956
And in a society still dominated by fear, many of the millions of ordinary members of the Communist Party and Young Communist League who heard the text of the speech read out to them at specially-convened meetings in the following weeks reacted in the same way.

Even if they had wanted to debate the sensational revelations, it would not have been allowed.

Each meeting began with the stern warning, "There will be no discussion, comrades - and no notes may be taken!"

And lest anyone try to spread the contents of the speech more widely, the red brochures with the text were all gathered up afterwards and returned to party headquarters.

Khrushchev's speech was considered so incendiary that it was not published in Russia until 1988, when Mikhail Gorbachev's "glasnost" policy allowed a re-examination of Stalin's crimes.

Stalin rehabilitated

But that re-examination was short-lived. Because as the Soviet Union collapsed, the rehabilitation of Stalin's victims began to be overshadowed by the rehabilitation of Stalin himself.

In a poll at the end of last year, 20% of respondents described Stalin's role in Russian history as 'very positive' and 30% as 'somewhat positive'
Now, after 15 years when many Russians have faced growing impoverishment and watched the decline of their country's power and prestige, they have begun to imagine the Stalin era as a time of discipline, order - and glory.

"The only people who thought Stalin was a criminal were the people he obstructed - the people he prevented from robbing the state," says historian Gennady Varakuta, reflecting a widespread belief that the corruption that plagues Russia today was dealt with severely and decisively in the 1930s and '40s.

Varakuta is one of many who now claim Khrushchev denounced his predecessor either because he was terrified that he himself might be accused of complicity in his crimes or - for even narrower motives of revenge - because Stalin had supposedly had Khrushchev's son Leonid executed for treason during World War II.

In fact, the story of the execution, and the treason, have been disproved by several official documents. But it is regularly repeated in an effort to discredit Khrushchev himself.

Changing mood

Varakuta's views are hardly surprising - he is the son-in-law of Leonid Brezhnev, the man who overthrew Khrushchev in 1964.

Rada Khrushchev
Rada Khrushchev: The authorities don't want to mark this date
But his admiration for Stalin is widely shared in today's Russia.

In a poll by the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Centre at the end of last year, 20% of respondents described Stalin's role in Russian history as "very positive" and 30% as "somewhat positive".

There are proposals to erect statues to the former dictator in several provincial towns - and Russian state TV is reported to have cancelled plans for a special documentary on the anniversary of the secret speech.

Khrushchev's daughter Rada, now 76, has watched the changing mood in the country and she is not surprised.

She does not directly blame President Vladimir Putin for fostering the new wave of neo-Stalinism, but she does not believe it could happen without some official approval.

"I don't feel they want very much to mark this date, the anniversary of one of the main events of our history," she says.

"One of my friends wanted to make a film about it, but then he was told, 'It's safer not to'. Then the only references I hear on the radio to my father are comic ones - the idea, for example, that he put a tax on every apple tree.

"And if that's what young journalists are thinking, I conclude it's because that's how someone wants them to think."

The Speech that Shook the Kremlin is on Radio 4 at 1100GMT on Friday 24 February or afterwards at Radio 4's Listen again page.

SEE ALSO
The day Khrushchev denounced Stalin
18 Feb 06 |  From Our Own Correspondent
Russia marks Stalin anniversary
21 Dec 05 |  Europe
Timeline: Soviet Union
02 Jul 04 |  Country profiles

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