Boris Kagarlitsky has weighed in on the significance of Khrushchev’s speech in a commentary in the Moscow Times. I think some of the passages are worth noting. Kagarlitsky has an interesting thesis: In order for not only Khrushchev, but the Communist Party to erase their complicity in Stalin’s crimes, a complicity which made the Terror possible, they had to essentially sacrifice Stalin.
Looking back on the congress, some accused Khrushchev of inconsistency and a lack of radicalism, while others objected to the fact that he made Stalin’s crimes public and turned political reform into a personal, posthumous reckoning with Stalin. The guilt or complicity of other Politburo members is not the issue, however. Khrushchev heaped all the blame on Stalin because he wanted to avoid a serious discussion of what had happened in the Soviet Union during the 1930s and 1940s.
Had Khrushchev’s view of the dead dictator been more balanced, questions might have been raised about the inherent contradictions of the Soviet state and about the extent to which the existing order reflected Marxist conceptions of socialism. These questions had been raised by Trotsky, who was anathema to the elite under Khrushchev just as he had been under Stalin. Had Khrushchev been a less virulent anti-Stalinist, he would almost certainly have been forced in the direction of Trotskyism.
The Party elite in the late-1950s opted to forgive no one and to comprehend nothing. Stalin had to be sacrificed in order to protect the system. The secret speech was not one man’s initiative; it reflected the general view of the Party machine after three years of infighting.
What is more interesting, and unfortunately it is a point he makes in passing, is how Kagarlitsky characterizes Stalinism. The standard view is to see Soviet society under Stalin as atomized society where the diversity of opinion was annihilated for fear of arrest and execution. Stalinism, however, was more complicated than that. And it was this complexity, an irreconcilable blend of democracy and authoritarianism, or how I like to characterize Stalinism—authoritarian populism—that made extreme violence acceptable and deplorable in the same breath, uttered within the same system.
Soviet society was never entirely monolithic. The proof of this can be found in the novels of Alexander Solzhenitsyn as well as in the Soviet archives. There was, however, a strong sense of a common fate and a common cause that united not just the working class and the bureaucratic elite, but even gulag inmates and their captors. The Stalinist regime was directly linked to the history of the Revolution. It was a sort of communist Bonapartism. It combined totalitarianism with democratic principles, fear and repression with enthusiasm and sincerity. This blend made the 20th Party Congress possible.