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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The 'Secret Speech' That Shook a Nation

Nikita Khrushchev stood at the podium telling, for the first time, how Josef Stalin had ordered the KGB to beat confessions from the innocent. How he had launched the forced deportations of entire nations. How he had dreamed up conspiracies and had people shot for them.

"Why didn't you kill that bastard?" someone shouted from the hall.

"Who said that?" Khrushchev shouted back angrily. "Who?"

A long silence filled the hall. And then Khrushchev broke it: "That's why," he said.

Khrushchev's "Secret Speech" was read 40 years ago Sunday at a closed Communist Party meeting. Delegates interrupted with cries of shock and horror. Some fell ill, and were carried out by friends, or even on stretchers.

It was not a secret that kept well; the very next day, the speech's main points were being discussed in the West. U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower allocated $1 million for the CIA to obtain a copy. Within a few weeks, the U.S. State Department published it.

Copies moved throughout the Eastern bloc in samizdat for three decades, until Izvestia published it in 1989.

In the weeks that followed the speech, monuments to Stalin were torn down throughout the Soviet Union. Stalin's infamous "Short Course" on the history of the Communist Party was pulled from the schools, and a line about the Great Leader was deleted from the national anthem.

By the end of 1956, about 1 million people had been freed from the gulag, the Soviet Union's system of concentration camps for political prisoners.

"This massive return -- which simultaneously was a reminder of the millions more who would never be coming back -- could not help but be troubling for people, and was a deep moral and social trauma," wrote historian Yury Kozyurenko in Nezavisimaya Gazeta this week.

Or as the poet Anna Akhmatova wrote, "Now the arrested will return, and two Russias will look each other in the eyes: Russia the jailer, and Russia the jailed."

Many hailed Khrushchev for his bravery in taking on Stalin (even if Stalin was already dead). Alexander Solzhenitsyn praised the campaign to empty the gulag as Khrushchev's "spiritual movement," and a treated like other dissidents: They were allowed to travel abroad, to work, to publish. And then, under [Mikhail] Gorbachev, they were able to see their ideals put into effect by the government. They had wonderful lives."

Like the baby boomers of the United States, the shestidesyatniki have been showered with attention. Spoiled by VIP treatment from both the West and the Communist Party, their fortunes plummeted with Gorbachev's. But as survivors who got along by going along, many continue to do well for themselves.

Scholars still disagree whether the secret speech was a grand confession, or simply a tactic to keep the party in power. As a confession, it certainly fell short. There was no mention of collectivization, in which millions of people were killed. Historian Kozyurenko calls it "genocide against the peasantry."

Those million people freed from the gulag were also mostly party members or their families; and in general, the secret speech was an event scripted by and for members of the Communist Party. As Kozyurenko wrote, "The speech dodged the key question of the party's responsibility before all of society."

Nor did any of the changes last.

"A half year after the Congress the first new arrests began. There was the devastation of literature, [Boris] Pasternak was persecuted," said historian Nikolai Barsukov, who wrote and still keeps the transcripts for Khrushchev's dictated memoirs.

"In 1959, Khrushchev launched a new anti-religion campaign, and they again began to keep surveillance on believers, to kill priests and to destroy churches. I think that was Khrushchev's own initiative."

Dmitry Likhachev, Russia's leading literary historian and a former dissident, said in a telephone interview that he disagreed with efforts to put Khrushchev and the secret speech in a positive light.

"I have a poor opinion of Khrushchev," Likhachev said. "He persecuted religion even worse than Stalin, and he thought up the use of the psikhushka [psychiatric wards used to confine political dissidents]. The psikhushka is a horrible thing, and it did not exist under Stalin. Under Stalin, there were mass shootings, but Khrushchev developed worse and subtler things."

Khrushchev himself, according to Barsukov's transcripts, was troubled by Stalin's terror but was also pragmatic.

"If we don't tell the truth at the congress, then in time they will force us to tell the truth," Khrushchev explained. "We then will be accused of participating, of direct participation, as we will have covered up these abuses ... I don't want that, I don't want that responsibility," he said.

As a political maneuver, the speech was a success. The Communist Party remained in power another 35 years. Khrushchev went on to crush the 1956 Hungarian uprising (inspired in part by his revelations), build the Berlin Wall in 1961, send missiles to Cuba the following year and ban jazz.

In 1962, his security forces gunned down 7,000 people in the Russian city of Novocherkassk who were protesting a pay cut. Long before the shooting began, fire trucks and hoses were in place around the town square for use in washing away the blood.