25 February 1956: Khrushchev denounces Stalin

The Soviet dictator’s reputation is dealt a sensational blow, three years after his death

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As the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union broke up on 24 February 1956, few delegates suspected anything unusual. It was only when they were told to return to the Great Hall of the Kremlin for a surprise ‘closed session’ that some of them wondered what was going on, not least because journalists and international guests were very obviously not invited.

By the time Nikita Khrushchev finally appeared on stage, it was past midnight. But few of the Soviet leader’s listeners had any trouble keeping awake as, for the next four hours, he talked about the recent past. Three years after Stalin’s death, he said, it was time to tell the truth about his legacy.

The dictator had been projected as “a superman possessing supernatural characteristics, akin to those of a god”. In fact, Khrushchev said, Stalin had been a man of “brutal violence… capricious and despotic”. He had practised “mass terror” against “the honest workers of the Party and of the Soviet state”. He had ignored warnings that the Nazis were going to invade in 1941. And he had taken credit for the heroism of the Soviet people, encouraging a cult of “loathsome adulation”. All of this, Nikita Khrushchev said, had been built on lies; all of it must gradually be exposed to the people.

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Since Khrushchev had worked quite happily under Stalin for years, much of the ‘secret speech’ was a bit disingenuous. Many historians now see it as a power play to sideline Khrushchev’s Kremlin rivals. At the time, some delegates laughed and cheered; others were reportedly so shocked that they collapsed. But as word leaked out, both at home and abroad, the secret speech dealt a huge blow to Stalin’s reputation. It was not until 1989, though, that it was officially published in Moscow.

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Authors

Dominic SandbrookHistorian and presenter

Dominic Sandbrook is historian and presenter, and a regular contributor to BBC History Magazine

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