Nikita Khrushchev - History

Nikita Khrushchev

1894- 1971

Soviet Politician

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev joined the Communist Party in 1918. He fought in the Civil War and rose rapidly in the party hierarchy.

In 1939 Khrushchev was made a full member of the Politburo. During World War II he organized guerrilla opposition to the Germans in the Ukraine. Upon Stalin's death, Khrushchev became the First Secretary of the Party.

At the 20th Party Congress he delivered a secret speech denouncing Stalin. Khrushchev lost his gamble in the Cuban Missile Crisis and was removed from office in 1964.

On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences

"On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences" (Russian: «О культе личности и его последствиях» , «O kul'te lichnosti i yego posledstviyakh»), also popularly known as the "Secret Speech" (Russian: секретный доклад , sekretnïy doklad), was a report by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, made to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union on 25 February 1956. Khrushchev's speech was sharply critical of the rule of the deceased General Secretary and Premier Joseph Stalin, particularly with respect to the purges which had especially marked the last years of the 1930s. Khrushchev charged Stalin with having fostered a leadership cult of personality despite ostensibly maintaining support for the ideals of communism. The speech was leaked to the West by the Israeli intelligence agency Shin Bet, which received it from the Polish-Jewish journalist Wiktor Grajewski.

The speech was shocking in its day. There are reports that the audience reacted with applause and laughter at several points. [2] There are also reports that some of those present suffered heart attacks and others later committed suicide, due to shock at the revelations of Stalin's use of terror. [3] The ensuing confusion among many Soviet citizens, bred on the panegyrics and permanent praise of the "genius" of Stalin, was especially apparent in Georgia, Stalin's homeland, where the days of protests and rioting ended with the Soviet army crackdown on 9 March 1956. [4] In the West, the speech politically devastated the organised left the Communist Party USA alone lost more than 30,000 members within weeks of its publication. [5]

The speech was cited as a major cause of the Sino-Soviet split by China (under Chairman Mao Zedong) and Albania (under First Secretary Enver Hoxha) who condemned Khrushchev as a revisionist. In response, they formed the anti-revisionist movement, criticizing the post-Stalin leadership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union for allegedly deviating from the path of Lenin and Stalin. [6]

The speech was a milestone in the Khrushchev Thaw. It possibly served Khrushchev's ulterior motives to legitimize and consolidate his control of the Soviet Union's party and government after political struggles with Georgy Malenkov and firm Stalin loyalists such as Vyacheslav Molotov, who were involved to varying degrees in the purges. [ citation needed ] The Khrushchev report's "Secret Speech" name came because it was delivered at an unpublicized closed session of party delegates, with guests and members of the press excluded. The text of the Khrushchev report was widely discussed in party cells in early March, often with the participation of non-party members however, the official Russian text was openly published only in 1989 during the glasnost campaign of the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Stalin Denounced by Nikita Khrushchev

The Soviet leader gave his famous speech on 'The Personality Cult and its Consequences' in a closed session on February 25th, 1956.

The twentieth congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union assembled in Moscow in the Great Hall of the Kremlin on February 14th, 1956. It was the first since the death of Josef Stalin in 1953, but almost nothing was said about the dead leader until, in closed session on the 25th, 1,500 delegates and many invited visitors listened to an amazing speech by Nikita Khrushchev, First Secretary of the party, on ‘The Personality Cult and its Consequences’.

Khrushchev denounced Stalin, the cult of personality he had fostered and the crimes he had perpetrated, including the execution, torture and imprisonment of loyal party members on false charges. He blamed Stalin for foreign policy errors, for the failings of Soviet agriculture, for ordering mass terror and for mistakes that had led to appalling loss of life in the Second World War and the German occupation of huge areas of Soviet territory.

Khrushchev’s audience heard him in almost complete silence, broken only by astonished murmurs. The delegates did not dare even to look at each other as the party secretary piled one horrifying accusation on another for four solid hours. At the end there was no applause and the audience left in a state of shock.

One of those who heard the speech was the young Alexander Yakovlev, later a leading architect of perestroika, who recalled that it shook him to his roots. He sensed Khrushchev was telling the truth, but it was a truth that frightened him. Generations in the Soviet Union had revered Stalin and linked their lives and hopes with him. Now the past was being shattered and what they had all lived by was being destroyed. ‘Everything crumbled, never to be made whole again.’

It was an extraordinarily dangerous and daring thing for Khrushchev to do. Solzhenitsyn believed that he spoke out of ‘a movement of the heart’, a genuine impulse to do good. Others have pointed out, more cynically, that it tarred other party leaders with the Stalinist brush, to the ostentatiously repentant Khrushchev’s advantage. It deflected blame from the party and the system on to Stalin’s shoulders. A few months later it was announced that the congress had called for measures ‘for removing wholly and entirely the cult of the individual, foreign to Marxism-Leninism… in every aspect of party, governmental and ideological activity.’

The speech was reported in the foreign media the next day. In March the Central Committee had the text distributed to the party branches, where it was read out. Inside the Soviet Union it would help to create greater freedom, in time. Plenty of Stalinist henchmen and functionaries were still determined to resist de-Stalinization, but thousands of political prisoners were released and others posthumously rehabilitated. Abroad, Khrushchev’s words cut the ground from under the feet of Communist party members and leftwing intellectuals who had spent years denying reports of what was going on in the Soviet Union. Many party members left in disgust.

At the party congress in 1961 Khruschev repeated his attack on Stalin’s memory, this time in open session, and other speakers denounced Stalin’s crimes. The late leader’s body was removed from its place alongside Lenin in the mausoleum in Red Square, and the names of Stalingrad and other such places were changed. When Khrushchev fell from power in 1964, he became an un-person, but was not executed, imprisoned or even banished to Mongolia. The Soviet Union had changed.


While addressing the Western Bloc at the embassy on November 18, 1956, in the presence of communist Polish statesman Władysław Gomułka, First Secretary Khrushchev said: "About the capitalist states, it doesn't depend on you whether or not we exist. If you don't like us, don't accept our invitations, and don't invite us to come to see you. Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you!" [5] The speech prompted the envoys from twelve NATO nations and Israel to leave the room. [5]

During Khrushchev's visit to the United States in 1959, the Los Angeles mayor Norris Poulson in his address to Khrushchev stated: "We do not agree with your widely quoted phrase 'We shall bury you.' You shall not bury us and we shall not bury you. We are happy with our way of life. We recognize its shortcomings and are always trying to improve it. But if challenged, we shall fight to the death to preserve it". [6] Many Americans meanwhile interpreted Khrushchev's quote as a nuclear threat. [7]

In another public speech Khrushchev declared: "We must take a shovel and dig a deep grave, and bury colonialism as deep as we can". [8] In a 1961 speech at the Institute of Marxism–Leninism in Moscow, Khrushchev said that "peaceful coexistence" for the Soviet Union means "intense, economic, political and ideological struggle between the proletariat and the aggressive forces of imperialism in the world arena". [9] Later, on August 24, 1963, Khrushchev remarked in his speech in Yugoslavia, "I once said, 'We will bury you,' and I got into trouble with it. Of course we will not bury you with a shovel. Your own working class will bury you," [10] a reference to the Marxist saying, "The proletariat is the undertaker of capitalism" (in the Russian translation of Marx, the word "undertaker" is translated as a "grave digger," Russian: могильщик ,) based on the concluding statement in Chapter 1 of the Communist Manifesto: "What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable". In his memoirs, Khrushchev stated that "enemy propaganda picked up the slogan and blew it all out of proportion". [11]

Some authors suggest that an alternative translation is "We shall be present at your funeral" or "We shall outlive you". [12] [13] [14] Authors have suggested the phrase, in conjunction with Khrushchev's overhead hand clasp gesture meant that Russia would take care of the funeral arrangements for capitalism after its demise. [15] In an article in The New York Times in 2018, translator Mark Polizzotti suggested that the phrase was mistranslated at the time and should properly have been translated as "We will outlast you," which gives a different sense to Khrushchev's statement. [16]

First Secretary Khrushchev was known for his emotional public image. His daughter admitted that "he was known for strong language, interrupting speakers, banging his fists on the table in protest, pounding his feet, even whistling". [9] She called such behavior a "manner, which suited his goal. to be different from the hypocrites of the West, with their appropriate words but calculated deeds". [9] Mikhail Gorbachev suggested in his book Perestroika and New Thinking for our Country and the World that the image used by Khrushchev was inspired by the acute discussions among Soviet agrarian scientists in the 1930s, nicknamed "who will bury whom", the bitterness of which must be understood in the political context of the times. [ citation needed ]

Nikita Khrushchev

Nikita Khrushchev was the leader of the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1963. When Khrushchev backed down and removed Soviet nuclear missiles from Cuba, his credibility was in tatters within the Soviet Union’s political hierarchy and it was only a matter of time before he was edged out of office.

Nikita Khrushchev was born in 1894 at Kalinovka near to the Ukraine border. He was the son of a mineworker. Such a background politicised Khrushchev and he fought for the Red Army during the Russian Civil War. After the Bolshevik success in this and with the war ending, Khrushchev became a miner. While working as a miner, he continued his education by attending high school. Khrushchev worked for the Communist Party in Kiev and then in Moscow. While in the capital, he gained a reputation for efficiency and in 1935 Khrushchev was appointed Secretary of the Moscow Regional Committee. He would have needed the support of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to have held such a post. Khrushchev further enhanced his reputation by being very closely associated with the building of the Moscow Underground – the construction of which was deemed an engineering success and a sign to the world of Soviet skills that were more closely associated with the West. While it was the engineers who were rightly credited with the success of this project, the managerial skills of Khrushchev within such a prestigious project were also recognised.

Between 1938 and 1947, Khrushchev was mainly involved in affairs that affected the Ukraine. During World War Two, Khrushchev assisted military commanders fighting there, primarily in the Kursk Salient. Khrushchev was Prime Minister of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic from the time the Nazis were expelled to 1947.

In 1947, Stalin selected Khrushchev to reorganise the Soviet Union’s agricultural production. There can be little doubt that Stalin trusted his ability and by the time of Stalin’s death in 1953, Khrushchev was a member of the Communist Party’s Presidium. On September 12 th 1953, he was appointed First Secretary of the Party. Such a position allowed Khrushchev to build up supporters throughout the Party’s administrative machinery and to develop his power base. He used his influence to get Bulganin, his nominee, elected as Premier in February 1955. Few doubted that while Bulganin was the political figurehead of the USSR, the man with the real power was Khrushchev.

In January 1956, Khrushchev made his boldest move for power. At the 20 th Party Congress he attacked Stalin and the ‘cult of personality’ he had developed. The 1956 Suez Crisis diverted the West’s attention away from the USSR for a short time while the USSR’s grip on the Warsaw Pact was increased when Hungary was invaded and the short-lived uprising brutally suppressed.

On March 27 th 1958, Khrushchev became Premier of the USSR while he continued to hold the post of First Secretary after Bulganin was effectively pushed to one side. Khrushchev gave the appearance of wanting to introduce a thaw in the Cold War and his appointment was greeted with cautious optimism in the West, especially after the austere rule of Stalin. However, his seeming feelers for peace were mixed with more hostile statements and Khrushchev became a hard man to predict – whether it was taking off his shoe and banging it on a table as he did at the UN to emphasise a point he was making or storming out of an international meeting in Geneva leaving others sitting there without the leader of the world’s second most powerful nation. Yet this was also the man who within his own country went out to meet the people – something Stalin never did. Whether his posturing on the international stage was mere showmanship is difficult to tell – however, it was certainly unusual in an age when diplomatic work was carried out invariably in a genteel manner and ‘by the book’.

Whether Khrushchev was a ‘hawk’ or a ‘dove’ is also difficult to tell. After the Cuban Missile Crisis most, if not all, assumed he was a ‘hawk’. However, this may not have been an accurate assessment. Khrushchev, along with many other members of the Politburo, was angered that America had placed military equipment, including B52 bombers, in Turkey. However, as Turkey was a member of NATO, from the West’s point of view, this was entirely legal and acceptable. To the Soviet Union it was provocative behaviour as Turkey shared a border with the USSR. When Khrushchev had the opportunity to counter this by placing medium range nuclear missiles in Cuba, he took it. He argued that they gave the Communist Caribbean island greater protection against another Bay of Pigs incident.

During the crisis, Khrushchev gave no indication of climbing down against J F Kennedy. When he did, it greatly weakened his political position at home despite his arguments that he had got America to promise never to invade Cuba. His colleagues in Moscow were also very concerned that the traditional positive relationship between the USSR and Communist China was also deteriorating and that border issues might spark off a Sino-Soviet war. Khrushchev was levered out of office in October 1964 and succeeded by Alexei Kosygin, as Prime Minister, and Leonid Brezhnez as Party Leader. Khrushchev spent the rest of his years in retirement and died in 1971.

Attitudes Towards Communism Today

The Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation (VOC) today released its fifth Annual Report on U.S. Attitudes Toward Socialism, Communism, and Collectivism. The report, polled by internationally recognized research and data firm YouGov, synthesizes data from 2,100 representative U.S. respondents ages 16 and older, and the margin of error is plus or minus 2.32%.

Communism is a threat to liberty, especially religious liberty. Just ask Father Kolakovic who escaped Nazi Croatia only to then be oppressed under Soviet Czechoslovakia.

Only Father Kolakovic recognized the coming darkness and prepared his church through mock interrogations and surveillance tactics training. He was so prepared that by the time of the 1948 Czechoslovak coup d’état, his secret church was operating for 5 years.

Did Nikita Khrushchev Really Bang His Shoe in Defiance at the U.N.?

In October 1960, the former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, in a veritable paroxysm of uncontained rage, forcefully banged his shoe on a desk at the United Nations to object to a speech critical of his nation. Or so the story goes.

The image of the red-faced and blustery Khrushchev — well, to be strictly accurate, no image of the famed shoe-banging incident ever was recorded, so the whole red-faced and blustery part may not be entirely on the money — became, to many, the image of the Soviet Union at the time. Angry. Forceful. Maybe a tad dangerous. Maybe a little over the edge. The Cold War was at its full-blown standoffish, below-zero chilliest at the time. To paranoid Russia-phobic Americans, an angry Soviet — especially one so brazen to actually use his loafer as a veritable hammer — was downright scary.

Unfortunately, especially if you enjoy a good Cold War drama, the shoe-banging affair may well be more histrionics than history. More exaggeration than exactness. As verifiable facts go, the story of Khrushchev and his shoe at the U.N. is notable mainly for one reason: its lack of proof.

"My personal position is that it's too good to be true, and if it actually ever happened, we would have had more corroboration, more witnesses and probably pictures, because this is the kind of stuff that gets caught on cameras," says Anton Fedyashin, a history professor at American University in Washington D.C. and former director of the school's Carmel Institute for Russian Culture & History. "So as far as the shoe-banging episode, per se, is concerned, I don't think it ever actually happened."

But you know what? Even if it didn't happen, even if Soviet shoe leather never met podium (or desk or lectern or wherever), it could have.

That story, true or not, is soooo Khrushchev.

The Story Behind the (Fake?) Story

In October 1960, The New York Times ran an article about a U.N. session that was a certifiable, front-page worthy mess. The headline:

A subhed unambiguously declared:

The story, written by Benjamin Welles, spelled out the specifics in its very first paragraph:

According to the report, Lorenzo Sumulong, a member of the Philippines delegation, was accusing the Soviets of "swallowing up" parts of Eastern Europe when Khrushchev erupted. The report also included a photograph of Khrushchev, seated at his delegate's desk, with a shoe sitting clearly atop it (see image below).

Important to note: The Times did not have a picture of him holding the shoe. Or banging it.

Political scientist William Taubman, who has written or edited at least three books on Khrushchev, including a 2003 biography, "Khrushchev: The Man and His Era," wrote an article for The Times in 2003 that included several interviews of those around Khrushchev on that day and their recollections of the events (or non-events). Another Times reporter said it never happened. A KGB general said it did. A U.N. staffer said no. Khrushchev's interpreter said yes. Others said no.

The official U.N. record is inconclusive. Time magazine has run a photo of the incident, though it was doctored. The Poynter Institute's PolitiFact took on the subject and the later suggestion that a third shoe might have been involved, but found that the shoe-banging never took place. Other outlets have shot down the story, too.

Khrushchev was known to bang his fists on lecterns and desks on occasion. But a photographer present at the time of the alleged shoe-banging, interviewed by Taubman, was adamant in his belief that shoe-to-table never happened.

"Did he bang his fists at the U.N.? Yes he did, because that we actually have footage of," Fedyashin says. "I have a feeling that this whole shoe incident has been sort of rolled up, by imaginative minds and even more imaginative tongues, in with the fist-banging. So, yeah. [That] would have been perfectly in character."

The Character of Khrushchev

In 1953, Khrushchev assumed power in the Soviet Union after the bloody reign of Joseph Stalin, inheriting a country already at odds with its World War II ally, the United States. At stake was no less than the worldview of which country provided a better path for its people: the Soviet Union and socialism or the U.S. and its version of democracy.

To many emerging countries seeking a path to modernization — socialism or democracy — the answer wasn't as clear-cut as it might seem now in the West. Khrushchev was generally improving his country, pulling it through de-Stalinization, freeing prisoners and easing censorship. China was even then emerging as a potential powerhouse after going communist. The U.S. had fought communism to only a draw in the Korean War (which ended in 1953).

In 1957, the Soviets stunned the world by launching the first Earth satellite, Sputnik, and followed that in 1961 with the first manned spaceflight. Meanwhile, the world watched in 1957 as the American military was forced to help integrate a high school in Arkansas to satisfy a new Supreme Court ruling.

"Imagine if you're an African and you're looking at that," Fedyashin says. "Whose path to modernization are you more likely to follow?"

The stage was set for a brash man of the people like Khrushchev, a largely uneducated leader who was given to bouts of both anger and warmth. Khrushchev was a man whose often common speech endeared him to (at least some of) his people, someone whose belief in socialism was genuine, and someone who was eager to show his strength, and that of the Soviet Union, to the world.

Khrushchev's stage was the United Nations. "This, during the Cold War, was the great theater of competition," Fedyashin says.

"When it came to the superpower standoff, he really went out of his way to compensate for both his own and the Soviet Union's weaknesses by sort of projecting confidence, power, virility and a certainty in one's self," he adds. "And this led him occasionally to sort of switch from this sort of inclusive, peaceful, coexistence mode to these occasional threats against the West, and sort of these open challenges, these crazy gambles."

Like banging a shoe? Maybe?

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Khrushchev eventually was undone as leader of the Soviet Union by squabbling inside the Communist Party and his bungling of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. By 1964, he was ousted from his role in the government and party. Khrushchev died of a heart attack, at 77 years old, in 1971.

Complex Personality

During much of the Cold War, Khrushchev could be charming, playfully combative or belligerent, depending on his audience. Publicly, he called for a peaceful coexistence with the West and then warned “We will bury you!” And in what became known as the “kitchen debate,” in July 1959 Khrushchev verbally sparred with U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon over Soviet versus American innovation in home appliances, among other major disagreements.

Nikita Khrushchev

Khrushchev, Nikita (1894-1971) was the leader of the Soviet Union from the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 until Khrushchev’s removal from power in 1964.

Born into a humble peasant family, Khrushchev participated in the Russian Revolution (1917), the Russian Civil War (1918-21) and World War II (1939-45). He was a committed communist who rose through the ranks of the party. Khrushchev was loyal to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and was directly involved in Stalin’s purges of the Communist Party in the 1930s.

When Stalin died in 1953, Khrushchev became a contender for the Soviet leadership. It took another two years for him to stave off other contenders and consolidate his power.

Khrushchev’s relationship with Mao Zedong and communist China was troubled. In February 1956, Khrushchev delivered his famous ‘Secret Speech’, denouncing the tyranny, brutality and “abuses of power” under his former mentor Stalin. This placed Mao, who had always praised Stalin as a great communist leader, in an awkward position. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was forced to revise its position on Stalin, admitting his “shortcomings and mistakes” while hailing his “great achievements”.

Khrushchev made three state visits to China in the 1950s but none went well. Mao, who had been poorly treated by Stalin while visiting Moscow in 1949, returned the favour on the visiting Khrushchev. During a 1958 visit, Mao flatly rejected Khrushchev’s joint defence proposals. Another visit the following year went so badly that Khrushchev cut it short and returned home early. He later ordered the withdrawal of Soviet technical advisors from China.

The most significant point of difference between Khrushchev and Mao Zedong was their attitude to the West. Mao had based his entire foreign policy on anti-imperialist, anti-American paranoia and propaganda. Khrushchev, however, was prepared to open up friendlier negotiations with Washington and other Western countries. This outraged Mao, who viewed concessions to the West as a sign of weakness. When Khrushchev retreated during the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, Mao made public statements accusing him of cowardice.

The Sino-Soviet war of words continued through the 1960s. Khrushchev became a target of CCP propaganda, which painted him as a traitor to Marxist-Leninism. During the Cultural Revolution, the persecuted Liu Shaoqi was condemned as the ‘Chinese Khrushchev’. As for the real Khrushchev, hardliners forced him out of power in 1964 and he took no further part in Soviet politics. He penned his memoirs before dying in 1971.

The secret speech that changed world history

The sublime strains of Sibelius echoed off the walls of my Moscow flat as Kostya Orlov unfolded Nikita Khrushchev's grim tale of the obscene crimes committed by his predecessor, Josef Stalin. It was an evening half a century ago, a week or so after Khrushchev had denounced the horrors of Stalin's rule to a secret session of the Soviet Communist Party's 20th Congress.

That was only three years after the death of Stalin, mourned by the great majority of Soviet citizens, who saw him as a divine father. So soon afterwards, here was their new leader telling them they had made a cataclysmic error: far from divine, Stalin was satanic. The leaders who inherited the party from the old dictator agreed that Khrushchev should make the speech only after months of furious argument - and subject to the compromise that it should never be published.

Its consequences, by no means fully foreseen by Khrushchev, shook the Soviet Union to the core, but even more so its communist allies, notably in central Europe. Forces were unleashed that eventually changed the course of history. But at the time, the impact on the delegates was more immediate. Soviet sources now say some were so convulsed as they listened that they suffered heart attacks others committed suicide afterwards.

But when Kostya Orlov, a Russian contact I now suspect was working for the KGB, phoned me that evening in early March 1956, I knew little of all this. For the 10 days of the congress, the handful of Western correspondents in Moscow had read speeches that roundly condemned 'the cult of personality', a well-understood code meaning Stalin. The party's Central Committee building hummed with activity on the night of 24 February, its windows blazing with light well into the small hours. But why, we wondered, was this going on after the congress had formally closed? It was only years afterwards that it became clear that the party leadership was still arguing about the text of the speech to be made by Khrushchev the next morning to a secret session of party delegates.

In the next few days diplomats of central European communist states began to whisper that Khrushchev had denounced Stalin at a secret session. No details were forthcoming. I was working as the second Reuters correspondent in Moscow to Sidney Weiland, who - more for form's sake than anything - tried to cable a brief report of this bald fact to London. As expected, the censors suppressed it.

Then, the evening before I was due to go on holiday to Stockholm, Orlov telephoned to say: 'I've got to see you before you go.' Hearing the urgency in his voice, I told him to come round at once. As soon as he said why he had come, I deemed it wise to confuse the microphones we all thought we had in our walls by putting on the loudest record I had. So, through soaring trombones, Orlov gave me a detailed account of Khrushchev's indictment: that Stalin was a tyrant, a murderer and torturer of party members.

Orlov had no notes, far less a text of the speech. He told me that the party throughout the Soviet Union heard of it at special meetings of members in factories, farms, offices and universities, when it was read to them once, but only once. At such meetings in Georgia, where Stalin was born, members were outraged at the denigration by a Russian of their own national hero. Some people were killed in the ensuing riots and, according to Orlov, trains arrived in Moscow from Tbilisi with their windows smashed.

But could I believe him? His story fitted in with what little we knew, but the details he had given me were so breathtaking as to be scarcely credible. It is easy now to think that everyone knew Stalin was a tyrant, but at that time only an unlucky minority in the USSR believed it. And to accept that Khrushchev had spoken of this openly, if not exactly publicly, seemed to need some corroboration - and that was not available.

There was another problem, too. 'If you don't get this out, you're govno [shit],' he told me. That sounded like a clear challenge to break the censorship - something no journalist had done since the 1930s, when Western correspondents would often fly to Riga, capital of the still independent Latvia, to file their stories and return unscathed to Moscow. But Stalin had ruled with increasing severity for two more decades since then, and no one would have risked it in the 1950s.

Feeling unable to resolve this problem on my own, I called Weiland and arranged to meet him in the centre of town. It was intensely cold, but we stayed outside where there were no microphones. Thick snow lay on the ground but we tramped through it, pausing only now and then for me to consult my notes under the streetlamps. We noted that Orlov had often given me scraps of information that had always proved correct, though not of major importance. His story fitted with the limited reports circulating in the Western community. And we noted that a temporary New York Times correspondent was leaving the next day and would certainly write about these reports. So we could be beaten on our own, far better, story. We decided we had to believe Orlov.

Next morning, I flew to Stockholm from where I called Reuters' news editor in London. My name, I insisted, must not appear on either story, and they should both have datelines other than Moscow: I did not want to be accused of violating the censorship on my return to Moscow. Then, after several hours writing up my notes, I dictated the two stories over the telephone to the Reuters copytaker. Still nervously determined to conceal my identity, I assumed a ridiculous American accent. The ploy failed dismally. 'Thank you, John,' he signed off cheerfully.

Back in Moscow, everything continued as before. During that summer of 1956, Khrushchev's thaw blossomed and Muscovites relaxed a little more. But in central Europe the impact of the speech was growing. By autumn Poland was ready to explode and in Hungary an anti-communist revolution overthrew the Stalinist party and government, replacing them with the short-lived reformist Imre Nagy.

In Moscow, the Soviet leaders were thrown into turmoil. For six weeks not one appeared at any diplomatic function. When they reappeared they looked haggard and older. This was especially true of Anastas Mikoyan, Khrushchev's right-hand man, who had constantly urged him on to greater reforms. According to his son, Sergo, that was because Mikoyan had spent long days in Budapest desperately trying to save the Nagy regime, without success. In the end, the diehard conservatives won the argument, insisting that for security reasons the USSR could not let a neighbouring country leave the Warsaw Pact. Khrushchev and Mikoyan reluctantly agreed it should be crushed .

In the West, the impact of the speech received a colossal boost from the publication of the full, albeit sanitised, text in The Observer and the New York Times. This was the first time the full text had been available for public scrutiny anywhere in the world. Even local party secretaries who read it to members had to return their texts within 36 hours. (Those texts were also sanitised, omitting two incidents in the speech that Orlov related to me.)

According to William Taubman, in his masterly biography of Khrushchev, the full text leaked out through Poland where, like other central European communist allies, Moscow had sent an edited copy for distribution to the Polish party. In Warsaw, he said, printers took it upon themselves to print many thousand more copies than were authorised, and one fell into the hands of Israeli intelligence, who passed it to the CIA in April. Some weeks later the CIA gave it to the New York Times and, apparently, to The Observer's distinguished Kremlinologist, Edward Crankshaw.

Exactly how he obtained it is not recorded. But on Thursday, 7 June, at a small editorial lunch traditionally held every week in the Waldorf Hotel, Crankshaw 'modestly mentioned that he had obtained complete transcripts of Khrushchev's speech', according to Kenneth Obank, the managing editor. The meeting was galvanised. Such a scoop could not be passed over and, with strong support from David Astor, the editor, as well as Obank, it was agreed that the full 26,000 words must be published in the following Sunday's paper.

This was a heroic decision bordering, it seemed, on folly. In those days everything had to be set in hot metal to be made up into pages. By that Thursday, according to Obank, 'half the paper had been set, corrected and was being made up. Worse, we found that we would have to hold out almost all the regular features - book reviews, arts, fashion, bridge, chess, leader-page articles, the lot. The Khrushchev copy, page by page, began flowing. As we began making up pages, it became clear that still more space would be needed, so we gulped and turned to the sacred cows - the advertisements.' Seven precious columns of advertising had to be discarded. An endless number of headlines, sub-headings, cross-heads and captions had to be written as the copy wound its way through the paper.

But the gamble paid off. Reader response was enthusiastic. One said: 'Sir, I am just a chargehand in a factory, hardly a place where you might expect The Observer to have a large circulation. But my copy of the Khrushchev edition has been going from hand to hand and from shop to shop in the administration offices, transport etc. I was quite amazed at the serious interest shown as a result of the very minute examination of the speech.'

The paper sold out and had to be reprinted. That, surely, was justification for the extraordinary decision to print the full text at three days' notice. 'Minute examination' greatly contributed to the thinking that eventually gave birth to reformist 'Euro-communism'.

Khrushchev was clearly shaken by developments. His opponents gained strength, and in May 1957 came within an ace of ousting him. When a majority in the Presidium of the Central Committee (the Politburo) voted to depose him, only his swift action to convene a full Central Committee meeting gave him a majority. It was his opponents, notably the veteran Vyacheslav Molotov and Lazar Kaganovich, who were deposed.

But seven years later the conservatives did succeed in ousting him. Twenty years of Leonid Brezhnev followed, during which the clock was turned back, if not to full-scale Stalinism, at least part of the way. But there were Communists who never forgot Khrushchev, and in particular his 'secret speech'. One was Mikhail Gorbachev, who had been a student at Moscow University in 1956. When he came to power in 1985 he was determined to carry on Khrushchev's work in reforming the Soviet Union and opening it to the rest of the world. More than once he publicly praised his predecessor for his courage in making the speech and pursuing the process of de-Stalinisation.

Some may doubt that Stalin's Soviet Union could ever have been reformed, but Khrushchev was not among them - and neither, indeed, was Gorbachev. But after two decades of decay under Brezhnev, even he could not hold the country together. It can well be argued that the 'secret speech' was the century's most momentous, planting the seed that eventually caused the demise of the USSR.

What Muscovites think about Khrushchev now

Marina Okrugina, 95, former Gulag prisoner
'I was born in Siberia in 1910. My father had been exiled there in Tsarist times after killing a Cossack who attacked a workers' demonstration that he was taking part in. In 1941 I was working in Mongolia as a typist for a group of Soviet journalists. They were producing a newspaper to be distributed in Manchuria with the hope of making the Chinese sympathetic to us. But the censor decided it was a "provocation". We were all arrested and sent to the Gulag. When the war started the men were sent to the front and I was left behind. I spent eight years in the camps. In 1945 I got word that my two sons had died in the Leningrad blockade and my husband had perished fighting in Smolensk. I was released in 1949, but not allowed to live in the 39 biggest cities in the Soviet Union. I stayed in the Far East and had to report to the police every week. I had no life. My only friends were former inmates. When Stalin died in 1953 we closed the door tight and danced with joy. Finally, in 1956, a few months after Khrushchev's speech, I was fully rehabilitated. My life changed. I could travel. I got a decent job and pension. We former prisoners were very thankful for Khrushchev's bravery.'

Dima Bykov, young intellectual
'Stalin couldn't do anything without fear, a loathsome dictator. Khrushchev was more a dictator of stupidities. My attitude to him is rather sympathetic and warm. He returned life to millions of people. But in reality it was a very bad freedom under Khrushchev. Only people like the Soviets who had had the horrifying experience of dictatorship for 30 years could have been happy with the thaw. Khrushchev squandered his chance. No one knew where the country was going. There were placards everywhere with Lenin saying: "Take the right road, comrades!" But in which direction?'

Fyodor Velikanov, 21, student
'Stalin wasn't all bad. He possessed decisiveness. He was strict and efficient, and he could make quick decisions, even if they weren't always the right ones. It's very difficult for me to evaluate what life was like under Stalin. I only know it from books and what my relatives told me. What do I know about Khrushchev? Well, he was famous for doing impulsive things like wanting to plant maize everywhere. And the time he banged his shoe on the table [at the UN in 1960]. Some people say that President Vladimir Putin is a dictator, but I think it's incorrect. Although there were a few good characteristics which Stalin had that Putin also has.'

Nikita Khrushchev, 45, journalist, grandson of the Soviet leader
'Grandpa was a kind man, but very demanding. When he retired he asked me to help to repaint a greenhouse at his dacha in Petrovo Dalnee. Afterwards, he checked every detail to show me where I had painted badly. Of course, he participated in the repressions, but the fact that he dared expose Stalin was courageous. Half his speech was improvised - he was sharing his own recollections. He believed in the inevitable failure of capitalism. Someone described him as the "last romantic of communism" and I agree with that.'

Professor Oksana Gaman-Golutvina, expert on Russian elites
'By the time Khrushchev came to power, the country was tired of fear. He understood this. And he had a sincere aspiration to ease the pain of the people. Before his speech in 1956 there was already a consensus for change among the elite. The people themselves could not be the engine of change because they were struggling for survival. But despite his speech Khrushchev was a child of Stalin. He had a similar mindset: there are two opinions in the world, mine and the wrong one. His absurd agricultural projects and his foreign policy gaffes meant the country got no peace.'

Watch the video: Khrushchev Removed From Office - 1964. Today In History. 15 Oct 18 (January 2022).