On February 25, 1956, Nikita Khrushchev, then Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, denounced Stalinism crimes – in his famous “secret speech” – to a close circle of officials reunited in the 20th Congress of the Party. Josif Stalin, who had ruled the Soviet Union from 1924 to 1953 – the year of his death – removing any internal opposition, was denounced for the terror, the excesses, the indiscriminate expulsions among parthy members, the arrest and the conviction of thousands of people to forced labor inside the gulags. The criticism went on: Khrushchev also condemned the cult of personality that is predecessor had fostered and his abuse of power, as well as the bad management of the German invasion during the Second World War and of the relationship with Tito’s Yugoslavia, that had pushed the latter to move away from Moscow. He also accused Stalin of having delusions of grandeur and he expressed the need to get back to a collective management of the government, through the Party leadership instead of a single person’s authority. However, Khrushchev also stated that this information was to remain a secret: it was not to be admitted publicly, delivered to enemies and the press.
The significance of this speech was huge: Stalin had ruled undisturbed for almost 30 years, building up that cult of personality that was now being denounced. Not only could not he be criticized, but the discourse he had committed himself to develop portrayed him as an infallible hero who had led the nation during the dark times of Nazis invasion. No one would have dared, before his death, express such remarks: until that moment, all of Stalinism’s excesses had never been questioned and they had been hidden. According to some witnesses, the accusations sparked a big shock, to the extent that some officials cried or had heart attacks. Beyond the reliability of such testimonies, the fact that they have been reported is proof of the strength of the devotion and the faith that had been granted to Stalin.
Khrushchev’s accusation did not remain a secret: it was soon spread outside the closed circle inside which it should have stayed according to his intentions and in was soon leaked to the West. In fact, its contend also circulated illegally inside the Soviet Union – even though it was only officially published in the late 80s.
Following Stalin’s death and Khrushchev’s speech, there was a relative liberalization of the Soviet society – the so-called De-Stalinization – with a moderate loosening of censorship and the liberation of thousands political prisoners.