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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

An Act of Repentance

Fifty years ago Saturday, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's secret speech at the 20th Communist Party Congress changed both his country and the world. By denouncing Stalin, whose god-like status had helped to legitimize communism in the Soviet bloc, Khrushchev began a process of unraveling it that culminated in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union. This great deed deserves to be celebrated on its anniversary.

But it is also a good time to ponder this question: What are we to think of a leader whose great deeds do not bring about the consequences intended? It is a question worth consideration by all leaders -- particularly Khrushchev's current heir, Vladimir Putin, who has tried to bring his nation into the 21st century by wielding the autocratic hand of a 19th-century tsar.

After all, Khrushchev sought to save communism, not to destroy it. By cleansing it of the Stalinist stain, he wanted to re-legitimize it in the eyes of people not just in the Soviet sphere but around the globe. Yet within weeks after the secret speech, at Communist Party meetings called to discuss it, criticism of Stalin rippled way beyond Khrushchev's, including indictments not just of Stalin himself but of the Soviet system that spawned him. Others sprang to Stalin's defense, especially in his native Georgia, where at least 20 pro-Stalin demonstrators were killed in clashes with the police.

In Eastern Europe, the unintended consequences of Khrushchev's speech were even more shattering. A huge strike in the Polish city of Poznan in June was put down at a cost of at least 53 dead and hundreds wounded. Then, of course, the revolution in Hungary in October was smashed by Soviet forces, leaving more than 20,000 Hungarians dead.

Khrushchev also used the speech to try to buttress his position in the Kremlin. By attacking Stalin he thought he would burnish his own reputation while blackening those of his rivals for power like Vyacheslav Molotov, Georgy Malenkov and Lazar Kaganovich, who had been closer to Stalin than he had. But instead, he provoked a coup attempt that very nearly ousted him in June 1957. His de-Stalinization campaign was also a prime grievance among those who formed the conspiracy that succeeded in pushing him from power in October 1964.

Of course, some unintended consequences are inevitable in politics as in sama zhizn, or life itself. Moreover, the secret speech was part of a reform program that included many worthy achievements that Khrushchev did indeed intend. He released and rehabilitated millions of Stalin's victims. He allowed what became known as the thaw, with its partial rebirth of Russian culture. He revivified Soviet agriculture, which Stalin had ruined, and started a boom in housing construction that permitted hundreds of thousands to move out of overcrowded communal apartments.

In the midst of his ouster in 1964, Khrushchev said to his only remaining ally, Anastas Mikoyan: "I've done the main thing. Could anyone have dreamed of telling Stalin that he didn't suit us anymore and suggesting he retire? Not even a wet spot would have remained where we had been standing. Now everything is different. The fear is gone and we can talk as equals. That's my contribution."

Khrushchev was whistling past his own political graveyard. He hadn't exactly embarked on reform to ease this way for his own exit. But he had meant to end the pattern of bloody purges as the only way to transfer political power.

One should also say that both his drive for reform and its unintended consequences cannot be understood without understanding the communist system that shaped him. Soviet communism had been built on a Stalinist foundation that cried out for drastic change, and Khrushchev learned (or thought he had) from the Bolsheviks' willingness to revolutionize Soviet society that such change was possible almost overnight.

Khrushchev's speech didn't change his country as intended. But it did register a remarkable change in himself. Unlike most of his comrades in Stalin's inner circle, Khrushchev somehow retained his humanity. He never forgave Stalin for making him an accomplice in terrible crimes. The secret speech was in part motivated by a sense of guilt at his own complicity. As early as 1940, when Khrushchev was Stalin's viceroy in Ukraine, he told a childhood friend who lamented Stalin's purges: "Don't blame me for that. I'm not involved in that." He went on, using a vulgar pun on Stalin's name, to say that he would someday "settle" with the dictator "in full."

Of course, Khrushchev was involved in "that." But that is the point. Apart from anything else, the secret speech was an act of repentance. When asked in retirement what he most regretted, he answered: "Most of all the blood. My arms are up to the elbows in blood. That is the most terrible thing that lies in my soul."

In his case, it wasn't the road to hell that was paved with good intentions, but the road from the Stalinist hell in which he had faithfully served, and which he had the courage to try to transcend.

William Taubman, professor of political science at Amherst College, is the author of "Khrushchev: The Man and His Era," which won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize in biography. He contributed this comment to The New York Times.