Khrushchev cited facts about Joseph Stalin's criminal deeds, of which the people knew little or nothing. For the first time, he spoke not only about the murder of Sergei Kirov and the execution of delegates to the 17th party congress, but also about the abuse of prisoners. Stalin, who had been venerated as next to God, was revealed as the instigator of mass repression. Despite the damning revelations, the speech's overall assessment of Stalin was relatively mild. In this, Khrushchev yielded to the pressure of conservatives like Molotov. He said, for example, that "in the past Stalin undoubtedly performed great services to the party, to the working class and to the international workers' movement".
By contrast, in preliminary discussion, Khrushchev had said: "Stalin destroyed the party. He was not a Marxist. He wiped out all that is sacred in a human being." Later, fearing that the truth about Stalin could lead to criticism of the political system, Khrushchev reverted to saying that Stalin had been a staunch revolutionary. Such contradictions are evidence of a hard-fought battle - a struggle that should not be seen as mere palace intrigue. It took resolve and courage, qualities that Khrushchev showed in presenting the report and then also in exonerating innocent prisoners and instituting controls over the security apparatus. Despite resistance, Khrushchev had Stalin's body removed from the mausoleum.
After the 20th congress, policies underwent considerable change. A new doctrine proclaimed the possibility of preventing a third world war, of ending the cold war and of peaceful revolution. Democratisation of society, known as the thaw, enabled Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to publish One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. I remember the appearance of truthful and moving films such as The Cranes Are Flying, and hundreds of grateful listeners flocking to the Polytechnic Museum to listen to readings of the young poets Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Andrey Voznesensky and Robert Rozhdestvensky.
Of course the old political system constrained what Khrushchev could do. Besides, he remained a man of his times - hence his conflict with the intelligentsia, and his aggressive speech at the United Nations. Yet, Khrushchev was a man of the people: his housing policies enabled millions who used to languish in communal flats, huts and basements to get free apartments; he put an end to Stalin's virtual "serfdom" in the countryside; and he tried to reform the economy and the party's vertical structure. He did not succeed in the latter - the party nomenklatura rejected his efforts. Later, the party's upper echelons did their best to remove him from power.
Nevertheless, Khrushchev's achievements were remarkable. His 20th congress speech and his reforms were the first blow struck at what had seemed an unshakable totalitarian system. Perestroika continued what the 20th congress had started, seeking to give back to socialism the "human face" destroyed by Stalin. By laying the foundations of a social market economy and by instituting free speech and elections, Perestroika implemented a new social-democratic project. Its completion was thwarted by the conservatives' putsch followed by the actions of right-wing radicals led by Boris Yeltsin, who dismantled the Soviet Union and subjected the people to a "shock experiment". The result was the emergence of a "wild capitalism" which brought with it impoverishment, crime and corrupt government.
Some became nostalgic for the past. There are frequent media calls for a return to a Stalinist "iron hand". Films and books have depicted Stalin not as a tyrant, but as a wise father of the people. Much has changed for the better under Vladimir Putin. Once again, people have hopes, and they support the president. Russia is looking for its own path to the future. I believe that the first steps on this path were taken at the 20th congress, when Nikita Khrushchev revealed the stunning truth about how Stalin and his blood-stained regime set back our country's development.
· Mikhail Gorbachev was the reforming leader of the USSR 1985-1991Topics
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