Soviet Cold War: Destalinization

Figure 1.--Nikita Khrushchev shocked the Communist world with his Secret speech at the 20th Party Congress (1956). Foreogn delegated were at the Congress. Many were not sure how to implenent new policies. Some were afraid to liberalize, even after listening to Khrushchev. Experiences with Soviet officials had taught caution. Others were anxious to implement Destalinuzation. Rgis first occurred in Hungary and Khrushchev sent in the tanks. Reading Khrushchev auto biography ('Khrushchev Remembers') there are chapters that ring true and he honestlky reports what happened. The chapter on the Hungarian Revolution is purse fantasy leaving one to wonder if he regretshat he did. Here aboy haseached safety in Austria. The press caption read, "Concentration: A young Hungarian refugee boy worls with modelling clay. at a refugee ca,p near Tralskirchen, Austi. His name tag prevents mistaken ientity in the camp. The clay, part of the nursery equiment, was among toys, gifts and supplies sent by youngsters from the United States and 16 other ciuntries through the Junior Red Cross." The photograph appeared in a U.S. newspaper on Christmas, Deccember 25, 1956.

Many Soviet citizens hoped that the relaxation of political repression that occurred during the Great Patriotic war would continue and expand after the war. This did not occur. Instead Stalin aided by by fellow Georgian NKVD Chief Lavrentiy Beria began to retigten his grip. Bolstered by victory over Hitler and the NAZIs, that grip was unasiable. And the NKVD was an instrument of repression unparalleled in history, more formidable even than Hitler's SS. The Doctor's Plot was to usher in a sweeping repression of Soviet Jews and preceived opponents as well as a more agressive confrontation with the America and the West. Unfortunately for Stalin and fortunately for the world, one of the Jewish dictors arrested was Stalin;s own personal dictor. And while he was being beaten in the Lubyanka prison, Stalin suffered cebreal hemmorage that led to his death. Only then was a reform process possible, although not guaranteed. What followed is now referred to De-Stalinization, descontructing the murderous police state, expansive police state and personal agrandizement that Stalin created. Scholars debate the time period involved, but seems roughly concurrent with the reign of Nikita Khrushchev (1954-64). The process began with Stalin's death and the arrest and excution of Beria. It was announced by Khrushchev at the 20th Party Congress who shocked the delegates. Khrushchev himself had reign in the process after the Hungarians took him seriously. Even so, the Destalinization pricess was very real. First there were official pronouncemrnts, not all made public. Second, were major poltical policy chanbges (especiakly the end of terror as a governing tool and a return to a more collective leadership. Khrushchev did begin to wind down the Gulag. Third, there were important economic changes. Fourth, there was real, if limited liberalization of intelectial life. This was highly varible. Pasternak was persecuted during the Khrushchev era. Fifth, there were symolic changes. Here especially important was the end of the Stalin cult, meaning using the full resources of the state to litwrally deigy the leader. Destalinization was finally ended by Brezhnev who seized control from the mercurial Khrushchev (October 1964).

Stalin's Death (1953)

The Communist world was stunned in 1953 with the death of Stalin. Tass announced that he died from a stroke. Many Western historians now believe that he was poisoned. NKVD Chief Lavrenti Beri (1899-1953) is believed to have put rat poison in his wine. Beria was apparently concerned with good reason that delays in the H-bomb program had caused Stalin to prepare for his arrest. Perhaps even more important is that it was useful for Stalin to do away with secret police chiefs and had done so with two previous NKVD chiefs. It was a coinvenient ways of burying a great deal of knowledge about Stalin's complicity in state crimes. Beria was aware of this and struck first. Stalin had left orders that he not be dusturbed. Finally his guards found him in a pool of urine, but still alive. He reportedly vomited blood for 3 days. [Reed] Beria in the annals of the 20th century is a man so monsterous that he is approached only by Himmler. There seems to be considerable consensus among Western and Russian scholars that Stalin was indeed poisoned. There is less consensus as to who did it. Some Russian authors also point to Beria. Others point to Khrushchev. [Muhin and Chigirin] And it seems to be general agreement that his associates were not quick to summons medical care. And the fact that the most important doctors caring for Stalin and the Kremlin leadership were sitting in NKVD jails and about to go on trial ironically for poisoning him was probably not helpful. Beria's premtive action, if in fact he did it, in the end did him no good. Before Beria could effectively use the NKVD to place himself in power, his Politboro colleagues had him arested. He was sumarily tried and executed. The NKVD with Beria gone was reorganized with the police and security opertations separated (1954). The security operations was renamed the KGB. Interestingly, the Soviet people were never told how Stalin died, even decades later. A Russian reader at schhol in the final years of the Soviet Union (1980s) tells us, "We were told nothing about how Stalin died. There was nothing in out text books, absolutely nothing. Just 'Stalin died in 1953'. In school as 10-12 years old kids we had never heard names like Beria or Khruschev. All events that occured in the USSR were described in our books as 'under directions of the Communist Party', without individual names. We knew the names of Brezhnev, Stalin and Lenin - and no more. In secondary school in the final years of the Soviet Union we had a teacher that began to fill in the blanks, but there was nothing in the text books."

Khrushchev's Rise

A power struggle followed Stalin's death and the elimination of Lavrenti Beria and his faction (1953). Ukranian Party boss Nikita Khrushchev became the Party's First Secretary in the collective leadership which emerged. Khrushchev most effectively used Stalin's well-honed techniques of dividing and conquering his rivals and replacing them with his own loyalists. He emerged victorious in the Kremlin power struggle. He was in only 2 years, the undisputed mater of the Soviet Union. Politics under Stalin was played for keeps. The losers were shot or disappered in th Gulag. Khrushchev while a master of the Stalinist system was different. He did not kill his defeated adversaries. His approach was to exile them to meaningless poitions in far way posts such as Ambassador to Mongolia. The De-Stalinization of the Soviet Union began with Nikita Khrushchev's secret speech at the 20th Party Congress in 1956. There were limits on how far Khrushchev and other Soviet leaders were prepared to go Most had been active participants in the Great Terror. Of course Soviet officials at the time had no choice but to ethusiastically carry out Stalin's directives. Khrushchev owed his position to Stalin and in agreed with Stalin on many issues. [Taubman] His goals were the same only he did not agree with mass murder and the use of terror.

20th Party Congress: (1956)

While Khrushchev participated in the Stalinist Terror, his single most important achievement was surely launching the De-Stalinization process (1956). No one in Stalin's leadership circle could have not participted the Terror and survived. Khrushchev stunned the delegates at the end of the 20th Party Congress when he without warning delivered his 'Secret Speech' which went on for an incredible 6 hours. The delegates had no idea it was coming. He denounced both the Stalin's excesses and the dictator's personality cult as well as charging that Stalin made serious mistakes, especially not preparing for the German World War II invasion. Even after Stalin's death (1953), no one until the 20th Party Congress dared say anything negative about the former dictator. Today Khrushchev's speech seems timid given the enormity of Stalin's crimes. It was not only timid, but in many ways did not attack the underlying criminality of Stalin;s rule, in part because Khrushchev was involved in those crimes. There were three fundamental flaws in his Secret Speech. First, Khrushchev limited his denuciatons to crimes against thae Party. Cimes against the people were not mentioned. Second, he talked about the thousand killed while the body count of Soviet citizens he niredered was in the millions not to mentionn millions more of broken and ruined lives. Third, Khruschev did not criticize ll oc Stalin's crime, he maintained that some of the killing was not only justified, but important. Despite these failures, the impact Within the Soviet empire was electrifying. It was the beginning of the end of Stalinism, but not the end of political repression. Despite his many negative actions and behavior as the Soviet leader, this was a courageous and critical action.

Policy Changes

Ending the Gulag

One of the greatest horrors of the Soviet Union was the infamous Gulag. Stalin did not begin the Giulag, but he massively expanded it. Under Stalin, the Gulag came to involve hundreds of camps run by the NKVD. . The camps generally held 2,000–10,000 inmates. Most were called 'corrective labor colonies'. The victims were employed in hard labor, often in the north where people did not want to live. They wirked as miners or loggers. They were involved in major construction projects, bulding canals and railroads. Most were involved in force lanor. Those who did not witk we starved, exposed to the elements, or shot. Mortalities were horific. As a result of extenbded working hours, harsh climatic and poor working conditions, inadequate food, aswell as outright executions, about 10 percent of the Gulag’s inmated perished annully. Some 15 to 30 million people are believed to have perished, most during the Stalinist era (1928-53). Soviet officials began to release prosoners sjhortly after Stalin;'s death. Hundreds of thousands of prisoners received amnesties (1953-57). Much of this was done before Khrushchev's Secret Sppeh at the 20th Party Congress. The Soviet labor camp system this fell to the dimensions of the early 1920s before Stalin's rize to power. Not all the camps were emptied. And in fact some were refilled with new transports of Hungarian patriots. The Gulag was officially disbanded. It's economic activities were tkjen over by by the various economic ministries. The remaining camps were grouped in 1955 under a new organization -- the Glavnoye Upravleniye Ispravitelno-Trudovykh Kolony (Chief Administration of Corrective Labour Colonies -- GUITK. Khrushchev played a major role in this process, but was not the only person involved. It should also be remembered that in his last years in power that the regime had begun clamping down more vigorously on disidents--a policy those leaders who followed Khrushchev would continue. But unlike the Stakinst era, people arrested were ctul dusidents. Brezhnev and those who followed him while attenpting to quell dissent, never retuned to pure terror.


Khrushchev, Nikita. Edward Crankshaw, intro, commentary, and notes. Strobe Talbott, trans. and ed. Khrushchev Remembers (Little Brown: Boston, 1970), 639p.

Taubman, William. Khrushchev: The Man and His Era (Norton), 876p.


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Created: 7:27 AM 8/31/2015
Last updated: 4:53 AM 10/26/2015