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The reasons for Khrushchev’s decision to come forward with the posthumous denunciation of Stalin were complex and contradictory. On the one hand, this was a considered political move, allowing him to claim the mantle of a bold and determined reformer and to undermine the position of his potential rivals in the leadership, such as the Stalinist hard-liners Molotov and Malenkov. Moreover, it projected the image of Khrushchev as a daring and enthusiastic reformer to the Communist delegations from all over the world attending the congress, and thus helped assert the Soviet leadership’s supreme authority in the world Communist movement.  

Nikita Khrushchev addresses the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in Moscow, 1956

It is also possible that Khrushchev was responding to the attitudes from within the Communist Party, including the desire of its leaders to protect themselves from any repetitions of Stalin’s atrocities. There was also much in Khrushchev’s determined move that was emotional and impulsive. It had much to do with the personal qualities of Khrushchev: his humanity, honesty, and compassion, which had not been totally obliterated in his character by his earlier involvement in the atrocities of Stalin’s period.

Khrushchev conceived the speech as a broad attack on the personality and some of the policies of Stalin. Briefly, its main points were the following. He accused Stalin of having violated the Leninist principle of collective leadership. Moreover, Stalin had developed the cult of personality, accompanied by “loathsome adulation.” Stalin had falsified the party’s history by claiming that he had been Lenin’s main collaborator. Khrushchev’s chief indictment was that Stalin had “victimized” innocent people in his attack on the party that started in the mid-1930s.

Khrushchev devoted a large part of the speech to the rehabilitation of prominent party and military figures. He denounced the continuation of the purges after the war and the preparations for a new purge in 1953. More importantly, Khrushchev condemned the ideological justification of the purges: the Stalinist principle “that the closer we are to socialism, the more enemies we will have.” He argued that to apply this principle was absurd, especially after 1934, when “the exploiting classes were generally liquidated, when the Soviet social structure had radically changed. . . . when the ideological opponents of the party were long since defeated politically.”

To damage Stalin’s stature even more, Khrushchev attempted to tarnish his reputation as a war leader. He accused him of the misconduct of the war against Nazi Germany and, in particular, of the fatal misreading on the eve of the war of Hitler’s intentions to launch a surprise attack. Khrushchev also condemned the wholesale deportation toward the end of the war of peoples who had been under German occupation and who were accused of collaboration. According to Khrushchev: “The Ukrainians avoided meeting this fate only because there were too many of them and there was no place to which to deport them.”

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