The Secret Speech
Khrushchev at the Twentieth Party Congress, February 1956
After Stalin's death prisoners began to be released from the Gulag. The first to leave were about a million prisoners, mainly criminals serving sentences of less than five years, who were released by an amnesty on 27 March.
Political prisoners were excluded from the amnesty. Their cases needed to be reviewed by the Soviet Procuracy, a long process obstructed by authorities reluctant to acknowledge their mistakes. By May 1955, the Soviet Procuracy had reviewed 237,412 appeals from political prisoners but only 4 per cent had resulted in release.
With prisoners returning from the camps, something needed to be said to explain what had gone on. But how much of the truth could be revealed? All the leaders were afraid of what might happen if the full extent of the terror was exposed. Would they be held accountable for Stalin's crimes?
The decision to expose and denounce Stalin's crimes was made by the collective leadership after it had heard the findings of a special commission (headed by the former Pravda editor Petr Pospelov) on the repression of Party members between 1935 and 1940. Shocked by the commission's findings, the leadership decided to report them to a closed and secret session of the Twentieth Party Congress, the first since Stalin's death, in February 1956.
The decision was a compromise. Khrushchev wanted full disclosure to restore the people's faith in the Party but Molotov and Kaganovich feared it would achieve the opposite, as questions would be asked about the Politburo's role in Stalin's crimes. So they agreed on a secret speech in which only half the truth would be revealed. The text was prepared collectively and Khrushchev gave the speech to 1,430 congress delegates on 25 February.
By emphasizing that the current leadership had discovered the truth about the terror only recently, from the Pospelov commission, Khrushchev tried to absolve it and shift the guilt onto Stalin. There was no question of blaming the Party, which he presented as the main victim of the Stalinist terror. The whole purpose of the speech was to restore Leninism to power.
Khrushchev's speech did not remain secret very long. A transcript was sent to Party organizations across the Soviet Union with instructions for it to be read to Communists in workplaces. It was also sent to the Communist governments of Eastern Europe. A copy reached The New York Times. From the West, the text of Khrushchev's speech filtered back to the GDR, Hungary and the Soviet Union.