The Secret Speech and Putins Cult of Personality
Nikita Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” of 25 February 1956 marked the full commencement of “de-Stalinization” in which Josef Stalin’s “Cult of the Individual” would be denounced and dismantled. But it did more than that rule of law was reinstated; subjective history corrected; paranoia and purges condemned; gulags emptied, and innocent party members rehabilitated.
The Cold War ended 25 years ago with the fall of the Berlin Wall. But another cult of personality has been established in Moscow surrounding Vladimir Putin. Delivered to the 20th Party Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Khrushchevs speech warned of the dangers to the Soviet state of the cult of personality and laid out a program to eradicate it, which makes it all the more ironic how applicable his words are when one looks at the state Putin has built around himself in Russia today.
The Secret Speech
Khrushchev went on to describe in detail Stalin’s transgressions as a “grave abuse of power” and that “many prominent party leaders and rank-and-file party workers…fell victim to Stalins despotism” in a system that “rendered it unnecessary that the ideological errors of a man or men engaged in a controversy be proven” which “actually eliminated the possibility of any kind of ideological fight or the making of ones views known on this or that issue” and where “confessions were acquired through physical pressures against the accused.” He announced: “Comrades, we must abolish the cult of the individual decisively, once and for all.”Before a hall packed with party delegates from across the Soviet Union, Khrushchev made clear from the speechs outset that the “founders” – Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin were firmly against the cult of personality Stalin had developed; were believers in collective leadership of the party and state; discussed views rather than imposing them, and allowed the party apparatus to function as it was organised to. Stalin had not been for any of these things. His rivals on the Central Committee of Communist Party of the Soviet Union knew this better than anyone.
As Nikita Khrushchev warned in his secret speech: Beware of a cult of personality. Almost sixty years later, we should heed his words.
He then laid out what de-Stalinization would entail:
First…to condemn and to eradicate the cult of the individual as alien…and not consonant with the principles of party leadership and the norms of party life, and to fight inexorably all attempts at bringing back this practice in one form or another.
Secondly, to continue systematically and consistently…the main principle of collective leadership, characterized by the observation of the norms of party life described in the statutes of our party, and, finally, characterized by the wide practice of criticism and self-criticism.
Thirdly…to fight willfulness of individuals abusing their power. The evil caused by acts violating revolutionary Socialist legality which have accumulated during a long time as a result of the negative influence of the cult of the individual has to be completely corrected.
The Secret Speech made clear the Soviet leadership’s view that the Cult of Personality was inimical and was to be eradicated; that rule of law was to be restored; that collective leadership of the state by a functioning party apparatus was to be restored, and; that abuse of power was to end. Soviet communist leaders recognized then the dangers to the functioning of a state – even in a non-democratic, non-capitalist system – of the building of an ego maniacal dictatorship surrounding one man.
Khrushchev’s Warning for Russia
For many in Russia today, Vladimir Putin is Russia. He holds the reins of presidential power tightly, passing them off to his pliant former-deputy Dmitry Medvedev for a few years to become Prime Minister, only to receive them back a trick they can play for the rest of Putin’s natural life. He has systematically oppressed individual political opponents to his rule, such as Mikhail Khodorkovskyand Alexei Navalny, as well as parties attempting to compete with his own United Russia Party in a rigged game laughably dubbed “managed democracy.” He has brutally repressed criticism in the press, been accused of ordering the murder of muckraking journalist Anna Politikovskaya and the oppression of protest groups, such as the band Pussy Riot. Russian state-owned media, such as ITAR-TASS, and state-controlled media, such as Russia Today (RT) are solely propaganda tools for the Putin government. Putins level of control of the Russian state is comparable to that which Josef Stalin held until his death in 1953. It is no wonder Putin has made efforts to rehabilitate him to a respectable figure, not a murderous and paranoid dictator.
Putin’s popularity has soared since the annexation of Crimea during Russia’ continuing war in Ukraine. Despite the “reset” of relations America has desperately sought under President Obama, Vladimir Putin has continued to pursue a strategy that restores Russian pride while consolidating his support and grip on power. He has little interest in engaging with Western politics. The West has underestimated Putin, miscalculated his aims, and misunderstood his and Russia’s tolerance for the pain of criticisms and economic sanctions.
Russians are proud people and Putin has made them proud again. Russians are tough and do not lead what some would criticize as the “decadent Western consumerist lifestyle.” They are better able to cope with the pains a broken economy brings because so many already lived through it under communism and its aftermath. Research on economic sanctions by Daniel Drezner and Tara Maller, among others, shows, counter-intuitively, that they are ineffective, detrimental, and often have the effect of increasing nationalist feeling in the targeted state—the opposite of what they are designed to achieve. Sanctions may have a negative effect on Putins coffers, but they also serve to reinforce the image he cultivates as a strong leader standing up to the West.
Despite these feelings of pride and solidarity over finally dragging the Western tiger by the tail following Cold War humiliation and loss of identity, the Russian people should take heed of Nikita Khrushchev’s warning about the dangers of the dictatorial Cult of Personality Vladimir Putin has built. Democracy – particularly American democracy – came about as a response to the tyranny of dictatorial monarchy and its Constitution rejects it. Ironically, the polar opposite and once arch-enemy of American democracy – Soviet Communism – recognized the same dangers to the functioning of its state and the life and liberty of its citizens. It is a common threat to domestic and international peace regardless of the system.
Putin may easily continue to embarrass a West that is so fixated on reaping its “peace dividend” and believing in the “End of History” that it is willing to have the wool pulled over its eyes by the plausible deniability that “little green men”, “rebels”, military exercises, and bald-faced denials provide. However, if Putin makes a miscalculation and breaks the thin meniscus he purposefully continues to build at the rim of the Ukrainian glass, it will overflow.
Putin has thus far outmaneuvered and called the bluffs of American and European leaders — and they have made many weak excuses why letting him do so is for the greater good. Yet, if a more resolved West does finally decide that a military solution actually is on the table, it is clear that the consequences would be more painful for the Russian people than anyone else. Fortunately for Russia, following a second dodgy Minsk agreement, it seems the West is still willing to be fooled for a while longer.
The Russian people have long suffered for their rulers’ miscalculations. However, there is no need for them to do so again because of an imagined threat or infringement by the EU and NATO built by Putins propaganda machine. The thought of the West creeping closer to Russias borders may haunt Putin and threaten his power, but it should not worry the Russian people themselves. Despite his own feelings to the contrary, Putin is not Russia. The West, and America specifically, has extended its hand to the Kremlin, but only received rejection in return. Russians should heed Khrushchev’s warning from the Secret Speech of 60 years ago and think carefully about the consequences of worshiping as members of Vladimir Putin’s Cult of Personality.
[Top Photo: Flickr CC: Amy Allcock]
[Body Photo: Flickr CC: mannhai]
Chris Miller is a veteran of the U.S. Army and a Purple Heart recipient following two tours in Iraq. He has worked as a military contractor in the Middle East and holds an MA International Politics from Aberystwyth University, UK. His interests are CBRNe, military and veterans issues, the Cold War, and international security affairs.