Ray Suarez: This is Unmasking Stalin: A Speech That Changed the World, an American RadioWorks documentary from American Public Media. I'm Ray Suarez.
President Bush meeting here with Russian President Vladimir Putin last September.
Yet in Russia, more than 14 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is unclear whether the democratic promise of that country's post-Soviet revolution has fully grown. Putin's critics say he has accumulated too much power, that Russia's historical penchant for "rule by the iron fist" is creeping back into play.
Hovering over these concerns are still fresh memories of Russia's past, where repression defined the Soviet way of life. Fifty years ago, on February 25, 1956, Nikita Khrushchev, the former Kremlin leader, revealed and denounced, for the first time in the history of the Soviet Union, the crimes of his predecessor, Joseph Stalin. Khrushchev condemned Stalin in a secret speech at the 20th congress of the Soviet Communist Party.
William Taubman is a Khrushchev biographer.
Despite the legacy of Khrushchev's bold rhetorical act, there is, in Russia today, a gentle whisp of Stalin in the air. Producer Robert Rand tells the story of Khrushchev's secret speech.
Robert Rand: In the center of Moscow, there's a park where people gather. To sing songs, to relax, and mostly, to reflect. This perfomer is singing about a man who lacks the inner strength to stand up for his convictions. It's a bit of poetic irony, for this place is the graveyard of monuments, the final resting ground for all those statues of Lenin, Marx and other Soviet icons who squelched the convictions of independent thinkers. There's a statue of Joseph Stalin here.
"We're all for Stalin!" these old ladies say. "He was a good man, a man with a capital M. He did a lot of good for the people. Not like the Putin gang." A group of students sits at a nearby bench.
"Stalin was a tyrant," they say. "He destroyed his own people. He was a terrorist."
The old ladies eavesdrop and disagree. "These young people are idiots!" they say. "They watch too much TV. Our TV Is influenced by America, you know."
But the debate is not entirely along generational lines. One of the folk singer's friends, a young man in his mid-20s, offers his opinion.
"I relate positively to Stalin," he says. "He did much good. Of course many innocent people suffered. But as they say, you can't make an omelet without cracking eggs."
Joseph Stalin's statue may have been stripped from a once proud pedestal and mothballed in a Moscow park, but the man has managed, still, more than 50 years after his death, to tug at the soul of Russia.
Stalin died on March 5, 1953. A fierce contest for power ensued among top Kremlin leaders. It was like lions circling gladiators. Nikita Khrushchev emerged as first among equals, but he still needed to consolidate authority. The opportunity would come in February 1956.
A Soviet newsreel welcomed hundreds of comrades to a regularly scheduled political gathering, the first since Stalin's death. It was the 20th Communist Party Congress.
William Taubman is a Professor of Political Science at Amherst College and author of Khrushchev: The Man and His Era. He says party congresses had always glorified the Soviet Union.
At the 20th Party meeting, delegates listened as Khrushchev praised communism. He did so, as was the tradition, in an open session of the Congress. There were no surprises. Everything was in order. But within hours, the earth under the USSR would shake.
The Soviet Union was born with Vladimir Lenin's communist revolution in 1917. But it was built, with nuts, bolts, and rivers of blood, by Joseph Stalin. Stalin ruled the Soviet Union for more than two decades. Having consolidated power by the late 1920s, he horse whipped a weary, weather beaten old empire into an industrialized world power. He led his nation to victory over Nazi Germany. And he created a totalitarian form of governance based on brutality and fear.
Elena Bonner is the widow of Nobel laureate and human rights activist Andrei Sakharov. She grew up in Stalin's Russia.
It was a tsunami that killed some 20 million people. Yet when Joseph Stalin died, one of the most brutal leaders of the 20th century was entombed with his heroic reputation in tact. His people loved him to the end. Everyone knew about the terror. Everyone was afraid. Yet they didn't blame Stalin. They blamed the people around him, his nefarious underlings, the apparatus of government, the informants, the police thugs on the street.
Pavel Litvinov was the grandson of Stalin's foreign minister, and eventually became a Soviet human rights activist. He recalled what he was taught about Stalin.
As this song in praise of Joseph Stalin put it, "Stalin outshines the sun, he flies higher than all, he defeats all enemies, he is our very best friend." It is that love and awe of Joseph Stalin that provided the backdrop for the 20th Communist Party congress in February 1956. Nikita Khrushchev would burst the hero myth of Stalin to bolster his political fortunes in the succession drama that hovered over the party conference. Khrushchev received help from unexpected quarters: a friend and former superior from the early days of his career.
Again, Khrushchev scholar William Taubman.
Khrushchev summoned Snegov to the Kremlin.
Khrushchev was moved by the horrific tales his old comrade told him about life in the camps. Snegov urged Khrushchev to do something about Stalin at the 20th Party Congress.
This is the voice of Nikita Khrushchev from his secret audio diary. It was recorded after Khrushchev was ousted from power in 1964.
Here is an excerpt in which Khrushchev discusses why he decided to denounce Stalin.
There were other motivations behind Khrushchev's desire to denounce Stalin. William Taubman.
The final reason was far less altruistic.
In his bid for Soviet leadership, Khrushchev faced a handful of hardline Kremlin rivals who were Stalinist henchmen.
When Nikita Khrushchev entered the conference hall for his clandestine address 50 years ago, his communist party comrades were accustomed only to accolades for Joseph Stalin, and for the communist party he had led. Stalin had been their omniscient, kind hearted, all powerful great leader. In Russian, the word is vozhd. Khrushchev's denunciation took them completely by surprise. It was a political about-face of volcanic proportions.
[Radio Liberty reading of secret speech]
There is no known surviving recording of Khrushchev's secret speech. What you're listening to now is nonetheless something pretty rare: a broadcast to the Soviet Union on the U.S.-sponsored Radio Liberty. It aired in 1971, in the midst of the cold war. An announcer is reading the complete text of Khrushchev's remarks.
Years later, in his secret audio diary, Nikita Khrushchev described the scene inside the Kremlin when he delivered his secret speech.
Suarez: I'm Ray Suarez. You're listening to Unmasking Stalin: A Speech That Changed the World, from American Radioworks. Coming up, the message of the secret speech made public.
Suarez: Our program continues in just a moment, from American Public Media.
Saurez: This is Unmasking Stalin: A Speech That Changed the World, an American Radioworks documentary from American Public Media. I'm Ray Suarez.
Winston Churchill said that Russia is a riddle, wrapped inside a mystery, inside an enigma. All the more so in uncertain times, such as they were after Nikita Khrushchev denounced Joseph Stalin and his cult of personality. Khrushchev staked everything on that bold rhetorical act. And all Soviet Russia would feel the fallout.
Robert Rand continues our story on the outcome of that address, and how a small group of Russians, including one close to Khrushchev, was intimately affected by the consequences.
Rand: One of the secrets behind the secret speech is that Nikita Khrushchev never intended to keep it under wraps. He made it behind closed doors only to placate Kremlin hardliners, who feared a public address would ruin Stalin's reputation. But the secret speech, made to the communist elite at the 20th party congress, was a tactical move. Once the elite was informed, Khrushchev was free to act even more boldly.
Sergei Khrushchev is Nikita Khrushchev's son. He said his father wanted to publicize the speech to gather rank and file support for his fight against pro-Stalinists who opposed his change of course.
In the weeks following his secret speech, Nikita Khrushchev ordered tens of thousands of communists, young and old, to gather at meetings, where they were read the text of his remarks denouncing Stalin. The word was out. All Russia knew.
Sergei Khrushchev was born in 1935, reared during the second World War, and came of age during the post-war era, a proud time for the Soviet Union, which had become a world power. He was close to his father, and witnessed with him some of the most interesting moments of cold war history. The Berlin wall. Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space.
This scene at the United Nations in 1960, in which an animated Nikita Khrushchev brandished his shoe and gave the capitalist West a nasty case of verbal whiplash.
And there was the Cuban missile crisis.
That was October 1962. Nikita Khrushchev was ousted from power two years later by a clique of neo-Stalinists. They said Khrushchev had engaged in bragging, bluster, and hare-brained schemes.
A quarter century later, as the Soviet Union began to crumble, Sergei Khrushchev was invited to the United States to lecture about developments in Russia. And on July 12, 1999, the son of Nikita Khrushchev became a United States citizen.
Sergei Khrushchev now teaches at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.
Sergei Khrushchev is 70 years old and somewhat resembles his father. There's the same twinkle in the eye,the same balding pate. But Sergei Khrushchev lacks the portly face and the overall rotundity his father had, and appears to lack his dad's bragaddocio.
I first met Sergei Khrushchev by the water-fed pond in the backyard garden at his home in suburban Providence.
When Sergei Khrushchev is not in the classroom, or in his garden, he spends his time thinking and writing about his father. Nikita Khrushchev's secret speech is never very far from Sergei's mind. It was the defining event in Nikita Khrushchev's life.
Sergei readily acknowledges that his father was complicit in Stalin's crimes. Nikita Khrushchev signed off on the death of thousands. Sergei remembers what his father wrote in his memoirs.
Nikita Khrushchev's involvement in Stalin's terror weighed heavily on the former Soviet leader, and, according to Sergei Khrushchev, made the secret speech an intensely personal event for his dad.
After our interview, Sergei Khrushchev showed me around his house. The first stop was his butterfly collection. He told me that he used to collect butterflies in Russia, but he stopped doing so in the U.S. "I don't like to kill them anymore," he said. "Americans don't like to kill animals without any purpose. Even children," he said, "don't throw stones at rabbits." For Sergei Khrushchev, America is a much gentler country than Russia. At least a much gentler country than the Russia of Nikita Khrushchev and of Joseph Stalin.
If there was a cultural icon to emerge from the Khrushchev era and the fallout from his secret speech, it was Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak's Nobel-prize-winning tale of romance and the Russian revolution. The story behind the novel itself was dramatic. Nikita Khrushchev banned its publication in the USSR. Kremlin censors considered it to be anti-Soviet. So Pasternak had it published abroad, under his own name, an unprecedented, and under Soviet law, illegal move.
Peter Reddaway is professor emeritus of political science at the George Washington University.
This is the voice of Boris Pasternak, at a poetry reading in the 1950s. Pasternak was able to write his verse, despite the hounding, until his death in 1960. It was that death, and Pasternak's funeral, which marked something of a turning point in the development of human rights in the Soviet Union. Peter Reddaway.
Hundreds and hundreds of people showed up at Pasternak's funeral, against the authorities wishes, and despite the fact that the Kremlin had not officially publicized Pasternak's death. Viktoria Schweitzer was a young literary scholar in 1960. She attended Pasternak's funeral.
The Kremlin's persecution of Boris Pasternak regarding the publication of Doctor Zhivago did as much as anything to tarnish Nikita Khrushchev's reputation in the west, and among thoughtful Russians, who had hoped that the secret speech would broaden freedom of expression. Even Nikita Khrushchev came to realize that he had overplayed his hand. Prior to Pasternak's death, he ordered a halt to the harrassment against the writer. In retirement, Khrushchev secretly recorded his memoirs in an audio diary. In that diary, Khrushchev expressed remorse at the way he had treated the Nobel laureate:
One of Boris Pasternak's most heartfelt admirers in Moscow's community of intellectuals back in the 1950s was a woman defense lawyer named Dina Isaakovna Kaminskaya. Kaminskaya, like Pasternak, had lived through Stalin's terror and witnessed the stir caused by Khrushchev's secret speech. And Kaminskaya, like Pasternak, would eventually collide into the wall of Kremlin repression.
Kaminskaya was famous among Moscow's dissident circles. After Khrushchev lost power in 1964, his successor cracked down on all forms of dissent. Like Pasternak, writers and intellectuals were the first to suffer. There were political show trials, and Dina Kaminskaya represented the defendants in court when few others would. One underground singer named Yuli Kim even wrote this song about her.
[Yuli Kim song]
For Dina Kaminskaya, Khrushchev's treatment of Pasternak was a betrayal of the promise of the secret speech.
An excerpt from Kaminskaya's memoir.
Dina Kaminskaya was a battler for civil rights, a sort of Russian Thurgood Marshall. Her inspiration and vitality had been stoked in significant part by Khrushchev's secret speech, which had fueled what she described as the spiritual emancipation of her soul.
Dina Isaakovna Kaminskaya's courage and decency, her willingness to defend dissidents in court, eventually got her and her husband, also a lawyer, expelled from the Soviet Union. It was that or prison. The Kremlin silenced her voice.
This is what Dina Kaminskaya used to sound like 30 years ago, in her prime, before she had her stroke. She's talking about the Soviet legal system, about political trials, how arbitary they were. She's saying that all political trials were scripted and decided in advance.
Dina Kaminskaya and her husband, Konstantin Simis, live in a suburb outside of Washington, D.C. They are both in their late 80s, and both frail. After her stroke, Dina Isaakovna lost the ability to speak. She can make sounds, but she can't articulate sentences. As for Konstantin, he has Parkinson's disease but is able to whisper his way through a conversation.
Konstantin tells me that Khrushchev's secret speech marked the beginning of an understanding of human rights in Russia. He says the speech gave rise to the concept of dissent for the first time.
I asked him why his wife did what she did. "It was dangerous work," I said. "Did she consider herself to be courageous?" Konstantin replied that Dina Isaakovna's work gave her a certain moral and political satisfaction. "She didn't consider herself to be a brave person," he said. "She was an honest person who followed her beliefs."
The couple's nurse, a woman named Nana, allowed me to walk upstairs to Dina Isaakovna's second-floor study. She was seated behind a desk, dressed in a bathrobe, listening to music. I hadn't seen her in more than 15 years, when she helped me with a book I wrote about a murder trial in Moscow. I was struck by how good she looked, despite her stroke. I asked her if she remembered me, and she vigorously nodded her head yes. I passed on greetings from mutual friends and aquaintances and she laughed.
I told her it was great to see her, and Nana said Dina Isaakovna seemed frustrated that she couldn't speak with me. Suddenly, Dina Isaakovna looked down at her desk.
She reached inside her desk and pulled out a copy of a magazine called Rossiiskii Advokat, Russian lawyer, number 2, from the year 2000, and on the cover is a picture of Dina Isaakovna. It says, "Dina Kaminskaya, advokatura bylo moim mestom v zhizni, sposobom moego sushestvovanie v nei," which means "being a lawyer was my place in life. It enabled me to exist."
I realized that Dina Isaakovna was talking to me through that magazine cover. Despite her stroke, despite her inability to speak, she was communicating with me. I took her hand to say goodbye.
"It was really nice to see you," I said. "All the best." As I left the room, Dina Isaakovna Kaminskaya weakly raised her hand, a gesture in frustration at her inability to communicate more fully. But she was smiling, and seemed pleased by the visit.
Suarez: I'm Ray Suarez. You're listening to Unmasking Stalin: a Speech That Changed the World, from American RadioWorks. Dina Kaminskaya was one of dozens of human rights activists who, as she put it, experienced a spiritual emancipation after Khrushchev's secret speech. Coming up: three anti-Soviet dissidents empowered by the secret speech confront the Kremlin, each in his own way.
Suarez: Unmasking Stalin: A Speech That Changed the World, is a production of American RadioWorks. To find out more about this and other documentaries, go to our website, americanradioworks.org. There, you can download the program, sign up for our e-mail newsletter and find out how to order a CD of this program.
Major funding for American RadioWorks comes from the corporation for public broadcasting. Our program continues in just a moment, from American Public Media.
Suarez: This is Unmasking Stalin: A Speech That Changed the World, an American RadioWorks documentary from American Public Media. I'm Ray Suarez.
For millions of Russians who lived through Joseph Stalin's terror, Nikita Khrushchev's secret speech had palpable consequences. Loved ones, the lucky ones who survived, came home from the labor camps. One Russian poet wrote at the time, "Now people will come back from the prisons, and two Russias will look into each other's eyes, the one that imprisoned, and the one that was imprisoned. A new epoch starts." It was an epoch ultimately marked by repression, and an epoch that broke the hearts of Russians who had been lifted by the promise of the secret speech. Robert Rand concludes our story.
Rand: You've probably heard about the Gulag Archipelago. The vast, bleak, brutal, dehumanizing network of labor camps that spread across the width and length of the USSR like the spindly ribs and spine of some massive dinosaur skeleton. Lenin began the gulag. Stalin perfected it. By the time Stalin died, 18 million had visited the place. Nearly a quarter of them never came back. After the secret speech, Khrushchev released millions. He downsized the gulag. But he didn't shut its gates.
Yuri Fedorov lives in the silent tuck of a road in a ramshackle house in the Catskill mountains in new york state.
It was Nikita Khrushchev, at least his KGB, who first put Yuri Fedorov into the gulag. It was 1962. He was convicted of distributing anti-Soviet pamphlets. Fedorov says his activism started after Khrushchev's secret speech. The speech, he said, made people feel less afraid. When Khrushchev spoke out, Fedorov and others felt emboldened.
Yuri Fedorov is in his early 60s, a hearty looking man, considering what he has been through, considering after his last offense, that he spent more than a decade of his life in a strict regime labor camp. He's bald, with a long, scraggly white beard. He is a man of few words. I asked him to describe a typical day in the gulag. He really didn't want to.
Yuri Fedorov, when pressed, would say little more. But we know that for 18 years and five months, as he meticulously recalled, Yuri Fedorov lived in what has been described as a meat-grinder, a place where, even decades after Stalin's death, inmates were known to ingest nails, to swallow barbed wire, to cut off their fingers. Desperate acts, just to get into a hospital where the food was better, where they weren't forced to work.
In 1970, Yuri Fedorov was sentenced to 15 years in the gulag for attempting to hijack a Soviet airplane to Sweden. He was tried with a group of ten other would-be hijackers, all but two of them Soviet Jews. The group had tried unsuccessfully to emigrate from the Soviet Union by legal means. The KGB arrested them on the tarmac of a small Leningrad airport before they reached the target of their plot: a small commuter airplane. The trial and severe penalties (two of the defendants were sentenced to death) garnered concern in the west and squarely placed Soviet Jewish emigration on the agenda of U.S.-Soviet relations.
Fedorov said it was as if somebody would have hijacked a plane from Nazi Germany.
Yuri Fedorov's hijacking scheme was a desperate act, an aberration in the Soviet human rights movement. Russian dissidents overwhelmingly were a peaceful group. Their movement grew up in the relaxed years after Khrushchev's secret speech, a time known as the thaw. They talked and drank around kitchen tables. An alternative, typewritten press, called "samizdat", emerged from those gatherings. So did an underground music scene. Poets who played guitars penned satirical songs critical of the regime, and enterprising fans with tape recorders disseminated the music to millions. We met with one of the surviving guitar poets recently in Moscow. His name is Yuli Kim.
Kim wrote this song in 1966. It's called "The Social Studies Teacher". It tells the tongue-in-cheek story of a bunch of smart aleck Soviet students who know their teacher is feeding them party propaganda. The teacher, basically a good guy, knows he is being watched by the state, so he's constrained from telling the truth. He decides the only honorable way out is to commit suicide by lying underneath an overweighted bookshelf, which is sure to collapse and crush him to death. Why? Because he has stuffed the bookshelf with all four hefty volumes of Karl Marx's Das Kapital.
For Yuli Kim, it was Khrushchev's secret speech which made a song like that possible.
On August 21, 1968, totalitarianism seized the heart of Eastern Europe and compressed it with uncommon malevolence. President Lyndon Johnson.
The Soviet Union had invaded Czechoslovakia. The action had been prompted by a communist reform movement called the Prague Spring. A liberal politician named Alexander Dubcek led the Prague Spring, and he was an admirer of Nikita Khrushchev and of Khrushchev's secret speech. Dubcek wanted to build socialism with a human face.
Pavel Litvinov was leader of Moscow's human rights movement.
Four days after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, as the Kremlin's bells struck noon, Litvinov and seven of his friends went to Red Square, the historic plaza in the center of Moscow. They were there to protest. It was an unprecedented move. The first anti-government group demonstration of the post-Khrushchev era. They did so peacefully, silently. They brandished a Czechoslovak flag, and some banners. Litvinov's read: "For your freedom and ours."
Thirty-seven years and a lifetime later, Pavel Litvinov finds himself living in the U.S., teaching here at Hackley, a private school in Tarrytown, New York. Litvinov, an American citizen, teaches physics. I recently met with Litvinov and his students at his high school physics lab.they knew Litvinov had done something during Soviet times, but they didn't know the details. I told his students what had happened on Red Square.
Not long ago, on a trip to Moscow, where the traffic strikes a noisy contrast to the quiet campus of the Hackley school, Pavel Litvinov agreed to return to Red Square, to revisit and recall the scene of his 1968 protest. Litvinov is a tall, gentle, uncommonly strong-willed man. At Red Square, at noon on this day, Litvinov surveyed the scene and looked back in time.
After recounting the events of his 1968 protest, Litvinov began to walk away from Red Square. He and our Moscow producer were stopped by a plain clothes officer from the Russian secret police.
"Show me your documents," the officer said. "What are you doing here? Do you have permission to be here? You can't record here on Red Square. Go away."
Pavel Litvinov can brush off the encounter, but the Soviet police state is not entirely gone.
Back at the park near Red Square, the graveyard of communist monuments, people continue to argue. A middle-aged couple faces the Stalin monument and converses. They disagree.
"Stalin did more bad than good," the woman says.
"What do you mean?" The man replies. "He rebuilt the country after the war. We needed someone to lift us up."
"But he was so severe," she says. "Well, we needed someone like that back then, he answers."
In the monument park, near the statue of Joseph Stalin, a singer muses about the condition of Russia today. "Since Soviet times, we have lost something," he says. "Some people have prospered. Many have not. Hearts have been broken. We are tearing each other apart." The singer's lament reflects the fact that Russia has sorely been tested in its 14-plus years of post-Soviet independence. The test has been rigorous. Much as what Russia endured in the years after Stalin's death, and after Khrushchev's secret speech. Ironically, if it was Khrushchev who sought to bury Stalin, Stalin today is enjoying a surge of popularity. Public opinion polls show that at least 50 percent of Russians view him favorably. A salve for some who pine for an iron hand and a sense of order in a time of uncertainty and change. An uncertain and troubling trend for others who were inspired by Khrushchev's secret speech, who remember the past and who value human dignity and freedom above all else.
Suarez: Historians agree that Nikita Khrushchev's secret speech was the beginning of the end of Soviet communism. It was indeed, a speech that changed the world. But the demise of the USSR was long in coming, and Khrushchev's openness, his so-called "thaw," was shortlived. Russians would endure three more decades of repression before the Soviet Union collapsed. A post Soviet Russia would then embark on a democratic-style revolution, which is ongoing. Many people, inside Russia and in the West, wonder whether there's a fresh cycle of repression in Russia today. The answer may depend on how you look at Joseph Stalin. Cloak his evil, and Russia today may seem just about right. Fully unmask Stalin, and your assessment may well be quite different.
Unmasking Stalin: A Speech That Changed the World was written and produced by Robert Rand. It was edited by Mary Beth Kirchner. The senior producer of American RadioWorks is Sasha Aslanian, Associate Producer Ellen Guettler, Project Manager Misha Quill. Mixing by Craig Thorsen. Production assistance from Scott Silver and Inna Ponamarenko. Production assistance in Moscow from Charles Maynes. Archive assistance from the Brown University Library. Web production by Ochen Kaylen. The executive editor is Stephen Smith. The executive producer is Bill Buzenberg. I'm Ray Suarez.
To see photographs from Unmasking Stalin: A Speech That Changed the World, and to learn more about the human rights movement in the USSR, visit our Web site at americanradioworks.org.
There you can download the program, sign up for our email newsletter and find out how to order a cd of this program. Major funding for American RadioWorks comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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