50 years since Khrushchev's Secret Speech

Nikita Khrushchev

50 years ago on Saturday, the Communist Party in Moscow fell silent as Nikita Khrushchev took the podium at the 20th Party Conference to deliver his famous "Secret Speech". This monumental attack on Stalin's brutal rule had a great impact on many countries of the Soviet Bloc, and was the beginning of the end for hard-line Stalinism in many countries. Chris Jarrett takes a look at how Czechoslovak society reacted to this political shift.

Nikita Khrushchev
On February 25th 1956, Nikita Khrushchev addressed the 20th Communist Party Congress as First Secretary of its Central Committee. Not three years after Stalin's death, he denounced the brutality and paranoia of the former Party leader's rule at length, as well as the personality cult which had been created around him in his so-called "Secret Speech", beginning the lengthy process of de-Stalinisation. Its impact on Soviet politics was colossal; reducing the sway of Khrushchev's remaining Stalinist rivals in the Party, and paving the way for reforms throughout the Soviet Bloc. Yet how quickly did the shockwaves from this change in political tide come to affect Czechoslovakia? This is a question I put to Dr. Oldrich Tuma, Director of the Institute of Contemporary History in Prague:

"Khrushchev's Secret Speech and information about it really was a shock for the party leadership of the Communist party of Czechoslovakia but later also for the party members, because the speech was then discussed within the party, especially during the spring of 1956. In a certain way, de-Stalinisation started in Czechoslovakia, and also in the case of Czechoslovakia, 1956 brought a certain liberalisation, but a very restricted one."

Nikita Khrushchev
The initial reaction to the speech was indeed much less pronounced in Czechoslovakia than in neighbouring states. In Poland, the pro-Moscow leadership was overthrown later in the year and Hungary saw the collapse of Stalinist order, and then revolution, which resulted in bloody Soviet intervention in October 1956. Dr. Tuma explains why the Czechoslovak response was less manifest:

"I think that maybe it was because in Czechoslovakia the first real crisis was in 1953, the crisis after so-called monetary reform, which was caused by problems in the economy, but because they resolutely crushed any opposition and resistance in '53 and then adopted this monetary reform with open space for certain economic development later, more or less the economy worked and living standards were improving, not dramatically, but slowly. So this social component of the crisis, which was very important in Poland in '56 but also generally in Hungary, was not that imminent in Czechoslovakia."

Nina Khrushcheva, the great-granddaughter of the former Communist leader, is a professor of International Affairs at New School University in New York. She believes that despite this delayed initial reaction, change did come even to Czechoslovakia:

"Different countries develop differently and respond to these things differently, and while Poland was successful in somewhat transforming its communism, actually I wouldn't even say transforming, but at least it didn't end in a blood bath, Hungary did end in a blood bath and I think that was a really good indication for other places that they shouldn't venture ahead. But, of course, in 1968 Czechoslovakia did respond and in a sense they were faster in ending the Soviet regime formally than any other Soviet state, when the Velvet Revolution took place."

And so in Czechoslovakia, where the Communist party was just as involved in Stalinist crimes as in other countries of the Soviet Bloc, the Secret Speech provided a powerful catalyst for the process of de-Stalinisation, paving the way for the many social, political and economic reforms which were to follow.