The death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 proved to be a pivotal time for the Soviet Union. The loss of a leader who had wielded so much executive and coercive power over the previous three decades, and whose “cult of personality” had made him a hero and a legend in the eyes of the common man, sent shock waves throughout the Soviet state. The internal battle of succession that followed gave rise to a changing of the guard in Soviet politics. The Stalinist philosophy of government quickly fell out of favor, while new policies and reforms attempted to rectify the injustices and inefficiencies of the past. The starting point for these reforms is marked by the convening of the Twentieth Party Congress of 1956.
Even before Stalin’s death, the major power-brokers within the party began vying for the future control of the USSR. To the surprise of many, the few heirs apparent to the Soviet regime (such as Georgii Malenkov, Lavrentii Beria, and Viacheslav Molotov) were largely purged from the government. The eventual heir to Stalin’s throne proved to be Nikita Khrushchev, a politician with a history of guile and charisma and one who was truly concerned about the average Russian. Khrushchev intended to grow the Soviet economy and to streamline the bureaucracy. In order to do so however, he would have to do things that were contrary to Stalinism.
The Twentieth Party Congress was assembled in 1956. From the outset, Khrushchev intended for the congress to differ from those in the Stalin era. He also used the occasion to solidify his position of power. As Gregory Freeze states, “[i]t sought to revitalize the party by including many new faces, not only among the 1,349 voting delegates, but also in the leadership: roughly half of the oblast and regional secretaries, even the Central Committee were new… one-third of the members…came from Khrushchev’s Moscow and Ukrainian ‘tail’ or entourage” (Freeze 416). In a secret address to the congress, Khrushchev railed against the Stalin years. He pointed out the many shortcomings of Stalinism such as the growth of the bureaucracy. He also criticized the previous regime for the purges, executions, and the system of forced labor that had arisen under Stalin.
In his secret address to the congress, Khrushchev laid out his grievances against Stalin and in doing so also laid out his visions of reform. One of the first issues to be addressed was that of the penal system. In the years following the Second World War the number of POW’s, political prisoners, and other dissidents incarcerated in the Soviet Union swelled. By the time of Stalin’s death there were over 2.4 million individuals within the Russian system of jails and forced labor camps (Freeze 416). The new regime took measures reevaluate the punishments of many prisoners and by 1961 hundreds of thousands of prisoners had either been released or, in the case of execution, posthumously vindicated.
Stalin’s governance was also labelled as being ruled by a political elite and being out of touch with the majority of Soviet society. This excuse was used to rationalize past hardships such as recurrent famine and income inequality. Khrushchev’s remedy called for both the cultivation of new farmlands and the “democratization” of the industrial economy. It was hoped that creating arable land in places such as southern Siberia would give the USSR the ability to feed itself. Volunteers flocked to these new areas. As Khrushchev said in a 1956 speech,
“It is you, comrades, first of all, our motherland’s young generation, who need it. The Party and the government believe that the time has come to direct great efforts to the quickest possible assimilation of the inexhaustible riches of Siberia, the Far East, Kazakhstan and the regions of the North, and other regions that are far from Moscow but that are equally near to the heart of every Soviet man. (Stormy applause.) These lands are rich in literally everything! And their natural features are rich and interesting. I believe, comrades, that the time will soon come when people will say, “He who has not been in Siberia has not seen the world.”
Nikita Khrushchev’s secrect address to the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956 marked the formal beginning of de-Stalinization in the USSR. Though support for reform was far from unanimous within the party, many of the reforms were carried out and improved the USSR’s situation, at least in the short term. In the decade under Khrushchev the Soviet Union made great strides towards economic growth and cultural unity, none of which would be possible without the movement away from Stalinism that was enacted at the congress in 1956.
Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Khrushchev, Nikita. “BE PERSISTENT AND STEADFAST IN THE STRUGGLE TO DEVELOP THE RICHES OF OUR MOTHERLAND.” The Current Digest of the Russian Press, No. 23, Vol.8, July 18, 1956: 8-10.
Siegelbaum, Lewis. Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. n.d. http://soviethistory.macalester.edu/index.php (accessed October 25, 2014).