Celebrating A Secret Anniversary
In today’s Washington Post, Anne Applebaum notes that today marks the 50th anniversary of an entirely secret, yet incredibly important, speech by former Soviet dictator Nikita Krushchev. As Applebaum explains, it was 50 years ago today, that Krushchev spoke to a closed door meeting of Communist leaders and denounced, albeit selectively, the actions of his predecessor Joseph Stalin.
In essence, Khrushchev’s speech (which didn’t remain secret very long; Polish communists leaked it to the Israelis, who leaked it to the West) was a piece of theater, a four-hour harangue during which the new Soviet leader denounced the “cult of personality” that had surrounded Stalin, condemned torture and acknowledged that “mass arrests and deportation of thousands and thousands of people” had “created insecurity, fear and even desperation” in his country
Of course, Soviet Communism being what it was in 1956, he wasn’t entirely honest:
Khrushchev accused Stalin of many crimes, but deftly left out the ones in which he himself had been implicated. As William Taubman, author of “Khrushchev: The Man and His Era,” has documented, the Soviet leader had in fact collaborated enthusiastically with Stalinist terror, participating in the very mass arrests he condemned. Khrushchev’s speech was intended as much to consolidate his own power and intimidate his party opponents — all of whom had also collaborated enthusiastically — as it was to liberate his countrymen.
It was understandable, then, that the speech didn’t lead to immediate repudiation of Stalinism and its crimes. The men that Krushchev was speaking to were complicit in what had happened over the previous 25 years, and Krushchev was as guilty as the others. Nonetheless, it was a chink in the armor:
Two more decades were to pass before Mikhail Gorbachev, one of the young communists who had been electrified by Khrushchev’s secret speech, restarted the discussion of Stalin’s crimes, and launched, finally, the reforms that brought the system down.
While I think Applebaum shares the tendancy of the Western media to turn Gorbachev into more of a hero than he deserves to be, its clear that the young generation that heard Krushchev’s speech were energized by it, at least in some way.
As with everything else, of course, there is a lesson for today in the events of history, and it has to do with just how long it takes to turn a country away from the decaying effects of dictatorship:
The death of a dictator or the toppling of his statues does not necessarily mean that a complete political transformation has occurred, or even that one will occur soon. On the contrary, it takes a very, very long time — more than a generation — for a political class to free itself of the authoritarian impulse. People do not easily give up the ideology that has brought them wealth and power. People do not quickly change the habits that they’ve incurred over a lifetime. Even people who want to reform their countries — and at some level Khrushchev did want to reform his country — can’t necessarily bring themselves to say or to do what is necessary. Certainly they find it difficult to carry out political reforms that might hasten their own retirement.
It took more than 30 years for the USSR to finally collapse, and, 15 years later, the remanants of dictatorship are still influencing politics in Russia and the other republics that made up the Soviet Union. Doesn’t that make those people who complain about the lack of progress in Iraq after 3 years sound just a little silly ?