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30 March 2016

The Secret Speech

The meaning of the rehabilitation of Stalin in Russia

There are problems with selectively plucked “great moments” from history and attempting to use them in forging a national identity as currently occurs in Russia. 

The Kremlin has far too few “great moments” among what is otherwise a history that turned its people into nothing more than victims of whoever or whatever was in power for more than a century – either individually or collectively, the domestic governance of Russia by those sat in the Kremlin (and prior) has been consistently poor at best, criminal at worst.

It is not helped by the current president on the one hand calling the collapse of the USSR “the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century”, and then on the other hand, stating that is was doomed to failure because “Lenin put a time bomb under the State”. There is surely some inevitability that structures will collapse if built atop a time bomb.

The statement regarding Lenin perhaps pre-frames the 100th anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and a Kremlin clearly undecided as to how to mark this event. Celebration, acknowledgement, or ignore it? In today’s Russia, toppling dictators and authoritarian regimes is not en vogue. Indeed supporting them under the banners of “stability” and “legitimate authority” is definitely in, regardless of the human misery they cause within (and sometimes without) their national borders. The matter is further complicated when there is a fear (rational or otherwise) that celebrating historical revolutionary “success” in Russia may give the masses “ideas”.

There have been numerous historical parallels made regarding today’s Russia and that of Leonid Brezhnev’s. The stagnant economy, the excesses of the ruling elites and associated cronyism, and the diversionary military projectionism indeed are similar in a broad sense. Brezhnev’s rule however, had not systematically hollowed out the institutions of State and had a Polit Bureau with power and an ideology.

Being unable to rehabilitate Lenin and the associated revolutionary idealism due to the 100th anniversary looming, and clearly irked by comparisons to the Brezhnev era, it is perhaps no surprise that it is Joseph Stalin that has seen rehabilitation in the cause of “greatness” and thus part of a “unifying identity”. Was he not the leader that defeated the fascist hordes and cemented the USSR as a superpower in the 20th century after all? 

Stalin, like the current Kremlin incumbent, was the benefactor of a self-assembled cult of personality that effectively diminished any vertical or horizontal accountability. 

Few good governance decisions come from such domestic political organization, and indeed so hollowed out and incapable of autonomous decision making are current Russian institutions, decisions are getting progressively worse and policy implementation progressively less effective.

Although President Putin is certainly not the murderous and wantonly cruel Joseph Stalin, there are those that would note that whilst no paranoia driven “Great Purges” have occurred in today’s Russia, many of the most ardent and dangerous critics of President Putin are no longer with us – and continue to leave us.

Nevertheless, the rehabilitation of Stalin is clearly underway following decades of Stalin deconstruction during the late 20th century within the USSR.  That deconstruction brings about the recognition (or lack thereof) of the 60th anniversary of Nikita Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech”  given at a closed Party Conference on 25th February 1956. 

The “Secret Speech” was an important speech. It is a speech well worth reading in full. It verbally eviscerated Joseph Stalin before the Party Congress, including reference and quotes from the “Lenin Testament”, a document purported to be Lenin’s thoughts toward the suitability of Stalin to ever lead the Communist Party – or more precisely his lack of suitability – and is a catalogue of his criminal acts against individuals and ethnicities.

All the more monstrous are those acts whose initiator was Stalin and which were rude violations of the basic Leninist principles [behind our] Soviet state's nationalities policies. We refer to the mass deportations of entire nations from their places of origin, together with all Communists and Komsomols without any exception. This deportation was not dictated by any military considerations.  Thus, at the end of 1943, when there already had been a permanent change of fortune at the front in favor of the Soviet Union, a decision concerning the deportation of all the Karachai from the lands on which they lived was taken and executed.  In the same period, at the end of December, 1943, the same lot befell the [Kalmyks] of the Kalmyk Autonomous Republic. In March, 1944, all the Chechens and Ingushi were deported and the ChechenIngush Autonomous Republic was liquidated. In April, 1944, all Balkars were deported from the territory of the Kabardino-Balkar Autonomous Republic to faraway places and their Republic itself was renamed the Autonomous Kabardian Republic.  Ukrainians avoided meeting this fate only because there were too many of them and there was no place to which to deport them. Otherwise, [Stalin] would have deported them also.”

Stalin’s numerous “historical corrections” relating to WWII events and decision making instigated by Stalin are also stripped bare of his embellishments for societal consumption.

After the Party Congress we shall probably have to re-evaluate many [of our] wartime military operations and present them in their true light.”

Perhaps the most pertinent statements within the speech and which are easily transposed to today’s Russia, warned of the “cult of personality”:

“Comrades! The cult of the individual caused the employment of faulty principles in Party work and in economic activity. It brought about rude violation of internal Party and Soviet democracy, sterile administration, deviations of all sorts, cover-ups of shortcomings, and varnishings of reality.

Comrades! If we sharply criticize today the cult of the individual which was so widespread during Stalin's life, and if we speak about the many negative phenomena generated by this cult (which is so alien to the spirit of Marxism-Leninism), some may ask: How could it be? Stalin headed the Party and the country for 30 years and many victories were gained during his lifetime. Can we deny this? In my opinion, the question can be asked in this manner only by those who are blinded and hopelessly hypnotized by the cult of the individual, only by those who do not understand the essence of the revolution and of the Soviet state, only by those who do not understand, in a Leninist manner, the role of the Party and of the nation in the development of the Soviet society.”

Though it is arguable that Brezhnev also benefited from a certain personality cult, there has been no Kremlin occupant to actively create his own “cult of the individual” so comprehensively and robustly as the current Russian president.  It has resulted in the same arbitrary, poor quality decision and policy making (often of questionable legality) and with the same society retarding effects lambasted by Khrushchev in his “Secret Speech”.

Although Khrushchev concluded the speech with “We should, in all seriousness, consider the question of the cult of the individual. We cannot let this matter get out of the Party, especially not to the press. It is for this reason that we are considering it here at a closed Congress session. We should know the limits; we should not give ammunition to the enemy; we should not wash our dirty linen before their eyes. I think that the delegates to the Congress will understand and assess properly all these proposals.” it was subsequently dissenimated through the Communist Party aparatus and inevitably swiftly leaked to western intelligence.  The “Secret Speech” was not intended to be particularly “secret”.

The speech arguably had far greater repercussions than simply categorizing Stalin as a muderous criminal in order to usher in the “Khrushchev thaw”. That thaw not only saw thousands of convicted Soviet citizens rehabilitated (often posthumously) across the USSR, but perhaps played more than a footnote role in the lead up to the Hungarian Uprising later that same year – for that thaw aloud hope to flicker among the masses.  

The “Secret Speech” was eventually publicly published in full across the USSR in 1989 and perhaps should not have been as easily forgotten as it has been. Perhaps it should be resurrected.

In rehabilitating Stalin, does the current Kremlin beneficiary of the “cult of the individual” seek the few moments of ‘greatness” to unite the people around whilst simultaneously attempting to employ legislated nostalgia to create a pan-Russia identity, or with the 100th anniversary of a Russian Revolution upon the horizon, is the rehabilitation of Stalin equally about the extinguishing of hope?  Is it perhaps about both?

It is the human condition of ‘hope” that is the most problematic of afflictions for any authoritarian regime or dictator, for it requires a deft hand to manage it - or a fist to crush it – when a leader’s survival is paramount.  President Putin is no Joseph Stalin despite suffering from many of the same problems that come with the “cult of personality” having removed vertical and horizontal accountability.  This poses the unanswered question of whether he has the necessary deft managerial hand with regard to the hopes of the Russian constituency during ever-increasing self-inflicted policy debacles?

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