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Confronting Stalin's Legacy

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Beria - "Enemy of the People". The cover of the Time magazine. 20 July 1953 

Khrushchev began his rise to the pinnacle of the party hierarchy as an enthusiastic young Communist in the 1920s, then as head of the Moscow party organization in the 1930s and leader of the Ukrainian party organization in the 1940s. For over two decades he had been one of Stalinís closest associates, and he had been in Stalinís inner circle from 1949. Placed at the head of the party after Stalinís death, Khrushchev immediately engaged in a fierce power struggle to defeat the conspiracy of Lavrenty Beria, who had been preparing to seize power in 1953.

After Stalin died, Beria held in his hands the whole centralized machinery of repressions, including the Ministry of State Security and the Ministry of the Interior. Khrushchev, however, moved first and arrested Beria by enlisting the support of the leadership of the army, including Marshal Zhukov. Following Beriaís imprisonment, all establishments of state security in the union republics and in the provinces were reorganized. Several months later, the Committee of State Security, better known by its Russian abbreviation of KGB, came into existence. The reorganization ensured that the secret police was now completely subordinate to the party leadership. As for Beria, he was tried and executed on standard Stalinist charges of espionage and state treason.

The fundamental problem, which confronted the Soviet leadership after Stalinís death, was what was to be done about the atrocities committed under his leadership. How much could be revealed without undermining the stability of the state and without running the risk of an outburst of mass anger against the system, which had permitted the crimes? The additional uncomfortable problem was that all the current leaders were deeply implicated in the repressive policies conducted under Stalin; therefore, any criticism of Stalinism would immediately subject them to considerable political risks.

All these worrying considerations made the Soviet leadership pause, until finally Khrushchev mustered the courage to address this problem at the Twentieth Party Congress held in February 1956. On the final day of its work Khrushchev unexpectedly announced a fresh closed session, at which he delivered a four-hour-long speech about Stalinís crimes toward the party and the whole nation. The speech about the iniquities committed during the period of the ďcult of personalityĒ shocked and startled the delegates. Thanks to this unannounced speech, the Twentieth Congress entered history as the congress that gave a start to the process of de-Stalinization.

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