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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Fear Backstage Before Khrushchev's Secret Speech

Nikita Khrushchev's famous speech on Stalin's personality cult, read 40 years ago this month before a closed session of the 20th Party Congress, is no secret. But why Khrushchev decided to give the speech at all, and why then, has always been classified information. Until now. Moskovskiye Novosti reports:

In the fall of 1955, the KGB began reviewing cases of party and Soviet workers convicted in 1937, '38 and '39. Anastas Mikoyan recalls: "After Stalin's death, I began receiving requests for case reviews from family members of people who had been repressed. I forwarded these requests to Rudenko [Soviet Procurator General]. After checking, these people were completely rehabilitated. I was struck by the fact that not one of the cases I forwarded was denied rehabilitation."

At this point, Nikita Khrushchev's position changed radically. Mikoyan: "I went to Nikita Sergeyevich and one on one began telling him ... We have to report what happened, if not to the entire party, then at least to the delegates of the first congress after Stalin's death. If we don't do this at this congress, and someone else does it later, without waiting for a congress, then everyone will have legitimate grounds for considering us entirely responsible for the crimes that occurred ... N.S. listened carefully ..." The prospect of such a confession scared the members of the Central Committee Presidium: They knew perfectly well the responsibility they bore together with Stalin for the crimes committed.

But why did Khrushchev show such resolve in the fall of 1955?

By this time Khrushchev was sure that not a word would be said about his personal involvement in the crimes. As historian Dmitry Volkogonov has shown, by this time many of Beria's papers as well as documents concerning Stalin and other party leaders had been destroyed at Khrushchev's behest.

Then KGB chief General Ivan Serov had purged the archives on Khrushchev's personal instructions. Khrushchev was convinced that he had secured himself against responsibility for the repressions.

In his memoirs, Khrushchev attempts to present himself as the only member of the presidium who was trying to get a speech written about the personality cult at the congress, the only one who was calling upon colleagues to repent in front of the congress. He divided the presidium into three groups according to the guilt of each member: Khrushchev, Bulganin, Pervukhin and Saburov did not know the facts of the terror in the late '30s, had nothing to do with it. Another group -- Molotov, Voroshilov -- knew everything. Mikoyan and Kaganovich knew the general picture, but not the details. Malenkov was not an initiator of mass repressions, but acted as an obedient executor.

This is a dubious classification. Documents show that it was far more complicated. In an effort to absolve himself of personal responsibility, Khrushchev lists himself among presidium members who joined the top leadership only after the war. In fact, Khrushchev joined the leadership in the late '30s. He was the one "making order" in those years in Moscow and in the Ukraine.

On Dec. 31, at a meeting of the presidium, there were heated discussions about the repressions in the '30s. The question was raised about the circumstances of Kirov's murder. It was suggested that chekisti had had a hand in it. The decision was made to review the investigations of former NKVD chiefs Yagoda, Yezhov and Medved (former boss of the Leningrad regional branch of the NKVD).

On Feb. 1, 1956, the presidium again discussed the question of repressions. It was decided to bring Boris Rodos, a former KGB investigator in especially important cases, before the Presidium. Rodos was then in prison for crimes he committed. His answers stunned the Presidium. "Stalin," Khrushchev concluded, "was loyal to the cause of communism, but he did everything by barbarous means. He destroyed the party. He was not a Marxist. He stamped out everything that is holy in man. He subjected everything to his whims."

By early February, the Pospelov commission had finished its work and produced a 70-page text. On Feb. 9, the presidium heard the commission's report. Mikoyan recounts: "Pospelov read the report [he was and remains pro-Stalin]. The facts were so horrifying that in places very large tears appeared in his eyes and a tremor in his voice. We were all shocked, though we knew a lot, but we of course did not know everything the commission reported. And now it has all been checked and confirmed with documents."

After the report, Khrushchev said: "We must show courage and tell the truth." Where would the truth be told? At a closed session of the congress.

Molotov argued that the speech should say that "Stalin was the continuer of Lenin's cause" since "the party had lived and worked for 30 years under Stalin, industrialized the country, carried the day in the war and emerged a great power." Kaganovich objected: "You cannot trick history. You cannot throw the facts away ... We bear responsibility, but the circumstances were such that we could not object." And Kaganovich went on tell the tragic story of his brother Mikhail. But he also sounded a cautious note: He suggested informing the delegates in such a way as "not to unleash any spontaneous outbursts."

Malenkov: "No fight against enemies can explain why party workers were slaughtered."

Averky Aristov: "To say that we did not know is not worthy of members of the Politburo."

Dmitry Shepilov: "We must tell the party, otherwise they will never forgive us ..."

In the end, Molotov, Voroshilov and Kaganovich came out against reading a separate speech on the personality cult at the congress. They were opposed by all the other presidium members and candidate members, who supported Khrushchev.

Khrushchev tried to smooth things over by saying that he "didn't see any differences," that everyone thinks "the congress should tell the truth ..." And he added: "But not overdo it."

Although Khrushchev writes in his memoirs that the decision to hear the speech on the personality cult was made during the last days of the congress, in fact this question was discussed before the congress. Presidium members were worried that the truth about the crimes of Stalin's regime would influence the delegates in their voting. Voroshilov was most adamant of all: After a speech like that, delegates would hardly elect presidium members to the top party organs. It was then they decided to put Khrushchev's speech off until Feb. 25, after the elections had been held, and not to open the speech to discussion.

Moskovskiye Novosti, Feb. 4-11.