Remembering Khrushchev’s Speech

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One of the great things about having a university affiliation is that I have online access to all sorts of newspapers, journals and magazines. One such magazine is Russian Life. I’m not a regular reader. In fact, I know little about it and only stumbled upon it because its Jan/Feb issue features an interview with Sergo Anastasovich Mikoyan, the son of Anastas Ivanovich Mikoyan (1895-1978) on his memories of Khrushchev’s speech.

Since the interview is only available to subscribers, here are some of Sergo Mikoyan’s more interesting comments:

Did you sense the coming changes before the 20th Congress?

I knew what was happening. I knew the two people who made a huge contribution to Khrushchev’s decision to prepare and read the report at the Congress. Unfortunately, historians know almost nothing about these two people: Alexei Vladimirovich Snegov and Olga Grigorevna Shatunovskaya.

Snegov had been a member of the party since 1917, and in his youth was an organizer alongside [Vyacheslav] Molotov’s wife and even knew her before Molotov did. Then he was in party work, but in 1937 was working in my father’s apparatus and ended up in prison. In 1938, after [Lavrenty] Bena took the post of Narkom at the NKVD, a small number of people were let out of prison, Snegov among them. He came to my father and explained everything that had happened. My father recommended that he go to Sochi and check into a sanatorium and not come back [to Moscow] for as long as possible. He promised to inform Snegov when it would be safe to return, since he understood that Snegov’s release might end up being temporary. But Snegov, a confirmed Bolshevik, did something rather stupid. He said that he would go away only after his Party Card was returned to him. He was so insistent, that my father called [Matvey Fyodorovich] Skiryatov in the Party Control Commission and requested the swift return of Snegov’s Party Card, as he had just been released from prison. As soon as Snegov showed up to pick up his Party Card, he was once again arrested, and he returned [to freedom] only 17 years later. During this time, he passed through all of the circles of hell. They even led him off to be shot, but then did not shoot him. He was in Butyrka and Sukhanovo prisons. His back was covered with marks from floggings; he was missing a finger on one hand.

Olga Shatunovskaya worked with [Stepan] Shaumyan in Baku in 1918, and therefore knew my father from an early age. Then she worked in Moscow and met Khrushchev, and worked with him from 1936-7 in the Moscow Party Committee. She was also arrested, and spent some 10 years in the camps, then was exiled.

In 1954, both of these people returned to Moscow, and, with the help of Lev Shaumyan I Stepan Shaumyan’s son] succeeded in meeting with my father, talked with him and related what went on in the prisons. As strange as it may sound, much of this was unknown to my father. He had not any conception of the massive scale of the repressions. Olga related an interesting story about how, in one of the camps where she had been, there were ten thousand women. A Japanese spy was brought to the prison and she spoke very directly: “I am an actual spy. I know why I am in prison. But you cursed Bolsheviks are m prison for no reason whatsoever…”

Their stories had a great deal of influence on my father, and he related them to Khrushchev. In fact, to Snegov belongs the phrase, which both Khrushchev and my father used in their memoirs: “If you do not dissociate yourself from Stalin at the first Congress after his death, and if you do not recount his crimes, then you will become willing accomplices in these crimes.”

I was present when they told their stories, and I saw how my father was surprised and taken aback. When Olga Shatunovskaya spoke of the spy in the camp, he even called in my mother and said, “Ashkhen, come here, listen to what she is saying,” and he asked her to repeat her story.

In particular, it was under the influence of these stories that we understood that practically no one who was arrested was guilty of any crime. After the 20th Congress, my father created 93 commissions which visited the camps in order to free people. They did not consider individual cases but simply looked at the article of law in question. If an individual had been convicted under Article 58 for sabotage, terror, anti-Soviet opinions or actions, then he or she was immediately set free, because it was clear that there were no guilty parties convicted under this article.

I question whether Anastas Mikoyan was really that na?ve and ignorant of what was going on. After all he became a member of the Central Committee in 1923, and a member of the Politburo in 1935. And it was Mikoyan who hurled the following at Nikolai Bukharin at the February-March Central Committee Plenum in 1937:

One thing nobody can argue with. To know of terror against the leadership of the Party, of wrecking in our factories, of espionage, of Gestapo agents, and to say nothing about it to the Party—what is this?! He is a member of the Central Committee and a member of the Party. This is proved incontrovertibly, it is proved by the confrontations [with those confessing]; the materials in the presence of Politburo members proved that the rightist terroristic activities were known to the pupils of Bukharin, the partisans of Bukharin. They were known to Bukharin, he knew that they were preparing terrorist acts against the leadership of the Party, he knew and he did not tell the Central Committee. Is this permissible for a member of the Central Committee and a member of the Party?! It is proved and clear even to a blind man. (cited in J. Arch Getty, The Road to Terror, 369. The text was originally published in Voprosy istorii, 4-5, 1992, 22.)

Nevertheless, Mikoyan the younger does give some interesting information of how Khrushchev’s speech was prepared.

Did your father discuss with you how Khrushchev’s report on the Cult of Personality was prepared?

Up until the last minute there was a battle over this report. In the Presidium of the Central Committee, Molotov, Kaganovich and Voroshilov all spoke categorically against it being given. They proposed tabling it until a later date. Then they came up with another course of action: to delegate the preparation of this report to the editor of Pravda at that time, [Pyotr] Pospelov, thereby hoping to decrease the report’s significance. Pospelov was a Stalinist; he had selected materials for Stalin’s Short Count [History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks): Short Course). But this Stalinist, working with the materials provided by the NKVD, could not hold back his tears. Khrushchev correctly understood the situation, however, that a report of such significance should be given by the top person in the Party, and he decided to deliver it himself.

What was the situation like in the Congress? Did people suspect the changes that were coming?

Prior to the report – some five or six days before – my father spoke at the Congress and sharply criticized Stalin. And there was quiet indignation in the hall. No one cried out, but my uncle, [the aircraft designer] Artyom Ivanovich, was a guest at the Congress. That evening, he came by the house and said: “Your father has made a huge mistake. He spoke critically of Stalin and the Party bosses sitting around me were quite upset. This could end badly for him.” He said the same thing to my father: “Anastas, you have made a huge mistake.” My father answered that such a reaction in the hall signifies that they even fear a dead man, but that soon they would hear much more. My father’s speech was a trial balloon. In truth, Molotov, Kaganovich and Voroshilov fought to the end. Their final condition was that the report be delivered only after the elections to the Central Committee and the Politburo. They feared that their role, as accomplices of Stalin, would have an effect on the outcome of the elections. Therefore, the final session of the Congress was held after elections to the leadership organs. The foreign delegations were not invited. It was a closed session. Representatives of socialist countries were later given a copy of the report in printed form.