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Liudmila Alekseeva on the importance of the debunking of the Stalinist cult of personality: "After the 20th Party Congress people were no longer afraid to talk with one another." (Voice of America)

posted 5 Mar 2016, 09:46 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 9 Mar 2016, 02:41 ]
25 February 2016

Source of Russian-language original: Moscow Helsinki Group [original: Russian Service of Voice of America

On 25 February it will be 70 years to the day that Nikitia Khrushchev, First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in February 1956 made a speech on the ‘cult of personality and its consequences’ at a closed session of the CPSU's 20th Congress. This speech became a sensation as an exposure of the crimes of Joseph Stalin and his subordinates, and marked the beginning of a period of rehabilitation of tens of thousands of innocent people who killed and in other ways fell victim to the repressions. The complete text of the Khrushchev’s speech was published only 33 years later. 

Many Russian and foreign historians believe that Nikita Khrushchev, who himself had signed death sentences, decided to unmask Joseph Stalin in order to strengthen his own personal authority and to frighten his competitors within the leadership of the CPSU. Nonetheless, it was after his speech at the 20th Party Congress that a process of democratization in the USSR began, to the extent that this was possible in the conditions of the predominance of Communist ideology. Moreover, debunking myths about Stalin had no impact of the USSR’s foreign policy: it was in 1956 that Soviet troops mercilessly suppressed the anti-Communist uprising in Hungary.

In 1956 the well-known Russian human rights defender Liudmila Alekseeva, chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group, completed her post-graduate studies at the Moscow Institute for Economics and Statistics. In an interview with the Russian service of the Voice of America she recalls how Soviet people reacted to the speech by Nikita Khrushchev.

Danila Galperovich: What was the importance of the 20th Party Congress for you personally? How did it change the way you understood the country at that time?

Liudmila Alekseeva: For me what they said at the Congress about repressions was nothing new. But for me this Congress was very important, as for everyone, because afterwards people believed that there would be no return to state terror, and people were no longer afraid to talk with one another. They stopped being afraid to discuss things. Immediately after the Congress the situation in society changed a great deal, because people began talking with one another in a much more natural way, something they had feared doing until then, because any careless word could, if reported, cost them their lives, and not only the lives of those who had said something, but the lives those close to them as well. After the 20th Congress this fear was no longer there.

Danila Galperovich: Did you discuss what had happened at the 20th Congress with you friends, with family?

Liudmila Alekseeva: Everyone discussed it, people talked a lot about it. First of all, this speech by Khrushchev was read out at various meetings, and after that people discussed it. For some it was a discovery, for others not. But people began to talk. Those for whom there was nothing new in the speech had kept quiet before, but now they could discuss it.

Danila Galperovich: But surely the fact that Khrushchev made the speech at a 'closed' session of the Congress meant that the text was also ‘secret’? After all, only the decisions of the Congress (adopted on the basis of the speech) were officially published.

Liudmila Alekseeva: No this was not the case at all. To start with, the speech was read out at meetings of key party personnel, then it was read more widely – at ordinary party meetings, at meetings of the Komsomol, and it was read out to students in higher education institutions. And so what was discussed was not the decisions of the Congress, but the speech itself.

Danila Galperovich: Looking back, why do you think Khrushchev decided to expose Stalin’s crimes?

Liudmila Alekseeva: I can’t exactly answer that. I think that Khrushchev was a participant in the terror that Stalin set in train, but not a willing participant. And he wanted to change attitudes to Stalin. The lease he wanted to do was to explain to people what this person, who at that time was literally deified, was actually like. 

Danila Galperovich: If we go back three years earlier when Stalin died, what did his death mean for you at that time? Did you take a neutral position on this, were you bitter, or you had some other feelings? 

Liudmila Alekseeva: I even wept when I learned of Stalin's death because, you know, things were not like they are now. Now we know about other people around the leader, but then they we did not. We knew their names, but we had no idea who they were. Apart from Stalin, there was no one. And the question was: what will happen now? Who will rule such a huge and complex country in such difficult times? Because it seemed there simply were no people in the country capable of doing this. That is what frightened us, and not the news of Stalin’s death as such. I felt no grief. Not because I had some kind of special understanding, but because in order to love someone you need to be able to know what they are like. But he was presented in such an idealized manner that you couldn’t get any real idea of what he was like as a person. It was impossible to have any kind of normal, human feelings towards him.

Danila Galperovich: When was the first time you met and spoke with someone who had returned from the camps?

Liudmila Alekseeva: People began coming back from the camps even before the 20th Congress, and there were quite a lot of people like that in Moscow. To be honest, I can’t really remember when this happened for the first time. It was a very long time ago. But for us, of course, it was very important to hear what these people had to say. We talked with them, communicated a lot, and tried to find out how things had been in the camps.

Danila Galperovich: Do you think it can be said that at that time there was a mood in favour of moving away from the Stalinist terror and returning to ‘Leninist norms’? The idea that Stalin had corrupted socialism, but in fact it was quite possible to return socialism onto a renewed and progressive path?

Liudmila Alekseeva: That is how it was! That’s the idea people had. We were people who had no idea of any other kind of society, except the one we had that was called socialism. And the great majority of people at that time sincerely believed that the most just form of society is one where the means of production are not held as private property. Yes, that was the mood of those times, that now everything must change and socialism will be humanized, people believed that. But it has to be said that disillusion came quite quickly. There were the events in Budapest which also, of course, lowered the level enthusiasm that followed the 20th Party Congress. It was possible to condemn Stalin, but it was not allowed to criticize the party or party policy in any way. So it turned out that there were no steps actually being taken towards the democratization or humanization of society, except the fact that the senseless imprisonment of anyone for nothing more than a careless word came to an end.

Danila Galperovich: Do you think that after Putin we shall see something similar to the ‘20th Congress’? Or do you think that there will be completely different ways to renew our society after regimes of this kind?

Liudmila Alekseeva: No, I don't think there will be anything similar to the 20th Party Congress. Nothing in history happens twice. Everything happens differently. Although, of course, when this current regime changes, without doubt there is going to be some kind of criticism of what went before. And I hope that this will not just be a matter of words, but of deeds also.

Translated by Simon Cosgrove