Khrushchev’s criticism of Stalinism could not be consistent for many
reasons. First, he himself was a product of the Stalinist system and
had made his career in it. Second, he himself had been implicated in
Stalin’s crimes: as first secretary of the Moscow Party Committee
and then of the Central Committee of the Ukrainian Communist Party
he had been in charge of the purges in Moscow and the Ukraine.
However determined he might have been to cleanse the tarnished image
of socialism, he remained part of the system that he tried to reform
from within. Under the circumstances, Khrushchev’s partial denunciation
of Stalinism was an act of courage and a major personal victory. All
people, closely connected with the many acts of violence and repression
committed by Stalin, were still strongly entrenched in the supreme party
leadership, including Stalin’s henchmen such as Molotov and Kaganovich.
Although it was never actually published in the Soviet Union until
the advent of glasnost under Gorbachev, the speech could not, of
course, be kept secret. Moreover, following the Twentieth Congress,
local party committees were instructed to read it at the meetings of
Communists, and its content soon became known to the majority of the
adult population of the Soviet Union.
weightiest consequences of the Twentieth Congress for the country’s
internal life were the return of millions of ex-prisoners and the
posthumous rehabilitation of many millions more. By 1959 the number
of persons confined to camps, colonies, and special settlements fell
to just under one million from over 5.2 million just before Stalin’s
death in 1953.
Khrushchev’s revelations exposed him to great personal risks. The
hard-liners in the party leadership, such as Malenkov, Molotov,
Voroshilov, and Kaganovich, who were closely tied to the Stalinist
system, directed the efforts of party conservatives to overthrow
Khrushchev. In June 1957 they formed a majority in the Politburo
(called the Presidium during Khrushchev’s period in office) of the
party’s Central Committee and demanded his resignation. Khrushchev
fought back by demanding that the party’s Central Committee settle
the issue. His survival now depended on the regional party leaders
who were heavily represented in this larger body. With their support
he was able to defeat his opponents, condemn them as an “antiparty
group,” oust them from their positions in Moscow, and demote them to
minor managerial posts far away from the capital. The fact that they
were allowed to survive was highly significant in itself, indicating
that Khrushchev wished to avoid a return to Stalinist terror.