More on Khrushchev

Articles and commentary commemorating Khrushchev’s speech to the 20th Party Congress in 1956 continue. Today Anne Applebaum, the author of Gulag: A History, weighs in on the pages of the Washington Post. Unfortunately, her commentary is more about us than about the historical significance of Khrushchev.

I’ll do my best to refrain from ranting on Applebaum’s statement that the American military is in Iraq “trying to pick up the pieces after the collapse of another totalitarian regime.” Excuse me, but last I checked Saddam Hussein’s Iraq didn’t collapse. That state was smashed by the very military that is now “trying to pick up the pieces.” So let us not equate Iraq with the Soviet Union and the US military as some sort of altruistic totalitarian mop up force.

But I digress. . . One thing that you can count on with the commemorations of Khrushchev’s speech is a lot of historical re-evaluation of it in terms of the present. Applebaum suggests that Khrushchev’s speech was “the first step in what turned out to be a very long struggle to end totalitarianism in the Soviet Union.” Forget the fact that I disagree that the Soviet Union was ever totalitarian. I think that to say so is to ascribe too much perfection to an incredibly inefficient system. Authoritarian? Absolutely. Granted, Khrushchev was trying to reform the Soviet system of some serious problems inflicted upon it by Stalinism. And I’m willing to accept that denouncing Stalin opened up the possibility for reform. However, I refuse to believe that the speech had anything to do with being part of a very long struggle to end “totalitarianism” in the Soviet Union. Khrushchev was hardly anti-authoritarian. Just ask the Hungarians.

Nevertheless, Applebaum does make some interesting points. She is right to state, as so many others have, that Khrushchev’s denunciation wasn’t completely out of distaste for Stalinism, as it was to consolidate his own power:

Although it was an international sensation — no Soviet leader had spoken so frankly before — the speech didn’t exactly tell the whole truth. 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.

Applebaum also presents a lesson to all those “impatient” Americans who think that the blossoms of democracy can quickly flourish from the soil of authoritarianism. The “authoritarian impulse,” as she calls it, sometimes takes generations to shed.

Clearly there is a lesson here for those who would bring down totalitarian regimes, and it concerns timing: 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.

This isn’t to say dictatorships must last forever: Despite some of its current leadership’s repressive instincts, Russia itself has changed in fifty years, beyond recognition. But the transformation was often incremental, always uneven, and difficult for impatient Americans to understand or support. But then, all such transformations are difficult for impatient Americans to understand or support, and probably always will be. If history is anything to go by, we’ll have no choice but to try and do so anyway.

The Moscow Times provides more memories of Khrushchev’s speech and how Soviet citizens came to know it. An article in today’s edition focuses on the recollections of Khrushchev’s daughter, Rada Adzhubei.

Adzhubei and her fellow students in Moscow State University’s biology department had the speech read to them, she said, speaking Monday in her apartment near City Hall on Tverskaya Ulitsa, which she shares with her son and his family. It took between 1 1/2 and two hours to read, she recalled.

Like the delegates at the Party Congress, the students were given no opportunity to ask questions afterward.

“The person from the Party’s neighborhood committee took the booklet away, and we were left with our thoughts and opinions,” said Adzhubei, who is reserved when talking about the now distant past.

“Stalin was our God, tsar, hero and everything else. It wasn’t easy to debunk him.”

Yury Levada, who was editor of the scientific journal Nauka i zhizn at the time of the speech, remembered similarly:

The journal’s office, like the entire country, was abuzz with rumors that Khrushchev had attacked Stalin. In early March, the staff realized the rumors were true when they were shown the booklet of 20-odd pages, Levada said in an interview last week.

Levada was picked by his colleagues to read out the speech, and after he had finished, it was given back to Party officials, as happened everywhere else across the Soviet Union, he said. The booklet had a warning stamped on its cover, “Not for publication,” Levada said.

“I thought I’d never see an official copy being handed out. It was a surprise,” he said.

Khrushchev did not explain what caused Stalinism, or invite any discussion of the subject, Levada said. “Khrushchev made a strong effort to make sure that people didn’t ask too many questions and that faith in the Party wasn’t undermined,” he said.

Although rumors had prepared the journal’s staff for what was in the speech, they felt “a certain shock,” Levada said. Afterward, they wondered in private conversations why the Party had allowed Stalin to do what he did, he said.

Why did the Party allow the speech to be read and not published? After all, reading it does make it public. But printing it makes it permanent. The Bolsheviks put a certain value in texts; there was something dangerous about the existence and presence of subversive texts. Nothing said this more than the obsession over the existence of the Riutin Platform (1932). Take for example, S. V. Kosior’s speech to the December 1936 Central Committee Plenum:

Kosior: Take for instance, the decree and the [Riutin] platform. You know, no matter how much you try to prove it by saying that you were shown the platform and that you didn’t read it, no one will believe you.

Bukharin: I didn’t read it.

Kosior: That’s just talk. At the time the matter [of the Riutin Platform] came up, it was clear to all of us what was going on.

Bukharin: Comrade Kosior, I was not in Moscow at the time.

Kosior: Nothing is proven by that. This doesn’t prove that he didn’t read the platform. That’s no argument, either. Do you want us to believe now, after all that’s happened, do you want us to believe that Bukharin is such an honest devoted party worker, that he knows nothing?

(J. Arch Getty, The Road to Terror, 317)

In my own research, I’ve found transcripts of Komsomol purge commissions questioning members about the presence of Trotsky’s New Course at “oppositionist” meetings. There were few questions about what members talked about. Questions focused only on whether the text was present, who was at the meeting, and if the defendant saw or read it.

Perhaps something was similar about Khrushchev’s speech. If there was no printed copy it was like it never existed. Khrushchev’s denunciation existed for as long as it took for it to be read aloud. After that it only existed in citizens’ memory and never in a form that could be read, reread, analyzed, discussed, or questioned.