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Khrushchev - De-Stalininization

Along with his failed policies, Khrushchev must also be remembered for his public disavowal of Stalinism and the cult of personality. Khrushchev was the first Communist Party chief to begin breaking down the stereotype of the glum, secretive Soviet leader. Taking advantage of the permissible dose of criticism of the Soviet past in his struggle for power, Khrushchev eventually understood that he would have to go further. The first wave of the 1953 amnesty affected mainly the criminal element. The brutally crushed camp uprisings of 1953-1954, involving political prisoners and former military men, showed that de-Stalinization could not be implemented by means of Stalinist methods.

From 1954 special commissions began visiting the camps. Comprised of jurists and party workers who examined the most odious, individual cases, these commissions had the right to recommend release or even make decisions on a prisoner's release. Yet they constantly upheld the principle of differentiating between a sentence reduction, amnesty, and rehabilitation (both legal and political). Only rehabilitation allowed former "zeks" [prisoners] to become full-fledged citizens, i.e., they could return home, lay claim to living quarters and their old jobs, and, as a rule, reinstatement in the party. Once people began returning from their places of imprisonment, more and more problems began to crop up, leading to the question "Who is to blame?"

As soon as Khrushchev came to power, he asked the secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, Comrade Pospelov, to prepare a report about Stalin's personality cult. The report, Khrushchev said, was supposed to paint Stalin black as much as possible, so that he would be portrayed as a tyrant and talentless politician and commander, who won the war against Hitler's Germany by miracle. Pospelov was trying to add something positive about Stalin in the report, but Khrushchev did not accept anything.

At the Twentieth Party Congress, held in February 1956, Khrushchev further advanced his position within the party by denouncing Stalin's crimes in a dramatic "secret speech." Khrushchev revealed that Stalin had arbitrarily liquidated thousands of party members and military leaders (thereby contributing to the initial Soviet defeats in World War II) and had established a pernicious cult of personality. With this speech Khrushchev not only distanced himself from Stalin and from Stalin's close associates, Molotov, Malenkov, and Lazar M. Kaganovich, but also abjured the dictator's policies of terror. As a direct result of the "de-Stalinization" campaign launched by the speech, the release of political prisoners, which had begun in 1953, was stepped up, and some of Stalin's victims were posthumously rehabilitated.

In 1954, over 468,000 people were staying in camps, colonies and jails, over 63,000 were serving their sentences in deportation. However, less than three percent of those people were rehabilitated under Khrushchev.

The so-called “Khrushchev’s Thaw” followed, meaning less political control and censorship, and more openness and a rise in living standards. The USSR also saw the release of millions of political prisoners. But Khrushchev’s “thaw” wasn’t without a dark side. He renewed a campaign of persecution against the Russian Orthodox Church, publicly promising to show the last remaining priest on Soviet television.

Khrushchev later intensified his campaign against Stalin at the Twenty-Second Party Congress in 1961, winning approval to remove Stalin's body from the Lenin Mausoleum, where it had originally been interred. De-Stalinization encouraged many in artistic and intellectual circles to speak out against the abuses of the former regime. Although Khrushchev's tolerance of critical creative works vacillated during his years of leadership, the new cultural period -- known as the "thaw" -- represented a clear break with the repression of the arts under Stalin.

A product of the Stalin era, he played the principal role in refashioning the Stalinist political heritage and disentangling its assets from its liabilities. He introduced a pragmatic, innovating spirit into Soviet society and gave new direction and impetus to Soviet policies at home and abroad. Since the defeat of the "anti-party" group in June 1957, Khrushchev occupied a position of supreme authority in the Soviet leadership. He was head of the party and government; he eliminated his main rivals from the seat of power; and he placed his proteges in command of the leading organs of authority.

Alone among the members of the hierarchy, Khrushchev received wide acclaim for a multitude of accomplishments and benefited from an apparently genuine popularity. He thus attained heights of power and prestige well beyond the reach of any political competitors. Khrushchev was not, however, a singular, isolated political phenomenon like Stalin. He was first and foremost the leader and spokesman of the interests and outlook of the party machine, the hard core of political careerists who sought to perpetuate their rule and their philosophy.

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Page last modified: 09-01-2016 20:03:45 ZULU