On this day in 1956, a speech entitled On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences – AKA the Secret Speech – was delivered to Soviet leadership by Secretary Nikita Khrushchev. The speech, which was not made available to the public for some time, was an explicit denunciation of the reign of Khrushchev’s predecessor, Joseph Stalin. During the latter’s tenure as leader of the USSR, many millions of Soviet citizens had been murdered for their (real or perceived) crimes, thrown in gulags (prison camps) or been denounced by state media sources. Stalin’s authoritarian tendencies were viewed as a necessary evil during the tenuous 1930s and the perils of WWII, but by the early 1950s, Soviet citizens were running out of patience.
The so-called Stalinist period – which lasted from the mid 1920s to 1953 – was a horrendously paranoid time in Eastern European history. Stalin, who was personally responsible for much of the aforementioned suffering, was able to retain power precisely because of the cult of personality he had developed to protect himself. Through aggressive propaganda campaigns, “Uncle Joe Stalin” managed to portray himself as an indispensable part of Soviet life. When things went wrong in the USSR, people didn’t blame Stalin; they blamed the state, and expressed sympathy for Stalin, who they assumed was doing his best to fix matters. (A broad generalization to be sure, but one that has held up historically and is a characteristic of other authoritarian regimes during the Cold War).
In the wake of Stalin’s death, Khrushchev and his allies sought to reverse many of Stalin’s policies. This period, known as the Khrushchev Thaw, was a time of relaxed censorship, fun cultural events, and mass releases of prisoners from the gulags. The Thaw, however, partially resulted in the Sino-Soviet split (worsened diplomatic relations with China); soon after, a popular uprising in Hungary was brutally suppressed by Soviet armoured units. The ensuing political fallout hurt Khrushchev’s image internationally and fuelled skepticism about his grasp on power. By 1964, the Thaw lost momentum and Khrushchev was fired. From that point on, the USSR – under the leadership of Leonid Brezhnev – began swinging back into authoritarianism and expansionism.