By Mike Kubic
Mike Kubic is a former correspondent of Newsweek. In 1956, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev delivered a
speech that uncovered shocking revelations of the late General Secretary and Premier Joseph Stalin. The
following text discusses these atrocities and provides insight into how Stalin managed to create a larger-than-life
persona through ambition and fear. As you read, take notes on Khrushchev’s likely motivations for delivering the
“Secret Speech” and the impact of this speech.
The Rise of Stalin
Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin, one of history’s greatest
tyrants, died in March 1953. He had ruled over the
140 million people of the Union of the Soviet Socialist
Republics (USSR) for almost 30 years, and he passed
away at night, alone, in his dacha — country house —
without a last word to be recorded for posterity.
His obituary, delivered three years later by Nikita
one of Stalin’s closest collaborators and
most fervent lackeys, had the spellbound audience of
almost 2,000 delegates to the 20th Congress of the
Soviet Communist Party. The oration, officially titled
“On the Cult of Personality2
and Its Consequences,”
lasted from midnight to 4 a.m., and included 61
specific charges of Stalin’s atrocities and blunders.
As Khrushchev informed the closed session of the Party apparatchiks,
his report — which has entered history
as the “Secret Speech” — was based on research by a special commission of senior leaders of the Communist
Party. It covered primarily only one part of Stalin’s murderous record: the peak years of his savage “Great
Purge” in the mid- and late 1930s, a massacre that wiped out a whole generation of Bolsheviks, the Party’s
oldest and most faithful members.
Khrushchev, who went on to become the Soviet prime minister, said next to nothing about the rest of Stalin’s
- Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971) served as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union
from 1953 until 1964 and as Premier of the Soviet Union from 1958 to 1964. He was responsible for the deStalinization of the Soviet Union and a number of other reforms.
- A “cult of personality” refers to when a leader or group creates an idealized, semi-godlike image of
themselves in order to maintain power.
- a subordinate who is unquestioningly loyal to a powerful political leader or organization
victims, who have been estimated at more than 20 million.4
record was the product of a ruthless, steely personality hardened by searing hardships in his
youth: first, brutal beatings by his alcoholic, dirt-poor father; and later, several rounds of imprisonment and
exile — from which he often escaped — following his expulsion from a Russian Orthodox seminary for
a strike of railroad workers. For the 20-year-old Stalin, an outstanding student with top marks in
Bible and Church studies, the strike was the first step on a new road — a career of rebellion, crime, and radical
politics that eventually made him the unquestioned boss of the Communist Party and of 140 million people in
the Soviet Union.
Early Career in the Communist Party
At the start of the 20th century, during the dying years of the Russian monarchy, Stalin was an unlikely
candidate for reaching the top of the greasy pole of the underground Communist Party. He was a native of
one of the 15 republics that later made up the Soviet Union; he spoke Russian with a thick accent; he
was notorious for his vulgarity, crude anti-Semitism8
and rudeness; and his physique was marred by a short
build, a pockmarked face, and a crippled left arm.
But what he lacked in polish and good looks, Stalin more than made up for with his remorseless drive, brutality,
and ruthless disregard for anyone — including his closest and oldest collaborators — but himself.
Little is known for sure about how Stalin became a member of the Communist Party’s central organ, the
Politburo, during the years preceding the February 1917 overthrow of Czar Nicholas II.9
Historians believe that
the young Georgian was organizing bank robberies to finance the Party’s underground work, and his high rank
was an award for being jailed or exiled by Okhrana, the czarist security police.
But evidence of these activities is lost. In 1929, five years after Stalin succeeded the Russian leader Vladimir
Lenin,10 he ordered the destruction of all documents about his rise to power. What is better documented are
his nearly 30 years of blood-soaked reign as the head of the Communist Party and the Soviet government.
Below are his most egregious11 crimes.
- The majority of this count were victims of war, famine, or imprisonment in the Gulag (forced labor camps
used for political suppression).
- relating to or involving the deliberate killing of a large group of people of a particular nation or ethnic group
- to instigate or stir up (an undesirable or violent emotion or course of action)
- a country in the Caucasus region of Eurasia
- Anti-Semitism is a term referring to hostility or prejudice against Jewish people.
- Czar Nicholas II (1868-1918) was the last Emperor of Russia, ruling from 1894 until his abdication of the
throne in 1917.
- Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) served as head of the Communist Party following the abdication of Nicholas II
and led the Soviet Union from 1922 until 1924.
- Egregious (adjective) outstandingly bad; shocking or horrific
Collectivization and famines
In 1928, as part of his first five-year plan — an all-out effort that was supposed to dramatically increase Soviet
food and industrial production — Stalin ordered the seizure and collectivization12 of all agricultural land. The
huge farms, called kolchozes and sovchozes, were worked by the now-landless muzhiks,
13 and were made
responsible for ridiculously high deliveries of food to feed the workers in the rapidly built factories.
The program, which Edward Crankshaw, a British expert on the Soviet Union, called a “wholesale application of
terror to the countryside,” was a total failure. Instead of increasing the food supply, the collective farms
produced meager harvests and tried to meet their quotas by reducing the country’s livestock by a half. The
resulting famines and shortages lasted for years and starved to death an estimated 6 million to 11 million
In his memoir Khruschev Remembers, the former Soviet premier quoted drastic reports that he’d received as the
First Party Secretary in Ukraine about peasants who were driven to cannibalism. “The Stalin brand of
collectivization,” Khrushchev charged, was conducted “with… reckless, bestial fervor (and) brought us nothing
but misery and brutality.”
One of Stalin’s striking characteristics was his fear for his life. A forceful personality and a loud-mouthed bully,
he avoided any situation or activity that that was physically dangerous. For example, he never took part in the
early demonstrations against the monarchy or visited the front lines during World War II, even though he was
the top commander of the Soviet Red Army.14
As Khruschev reported in his Secret Speech, the dictator was “sickly suspicious, distrustful” and so scared of
being poisoned that he would not touch his food or drink until someone else had tasted it.
Stalin, Khrushchev said, saw “enemies,” “two-facers,” and “spies… everywhere and in everything” — an
obsession that eventually turned him “against eminent Party workers whom he knew for years.” The upshot
was an era of fraudulent trials whose victims were forced to confess to illusory crimes, knowing that they would
The devious process, which was best described in Arthur Koestler’s classic novel Darkness at Noon, was for the
first time officially admitted in the Secret Speech:
- In the Soviet Union, this policy was used to force peasants to give up their individual farms, to consolidate
their homes, and to work on collective farms.
- Muzhik is a term used to describe a Russian peasant, especially those who are serfs or former serfs.
- The Red Army was established after the 1917 October Revolution, when the Bolsheviks overthrew the
Russian monarchy. The Red Army made up a major component of the Soviet Armed Forces until its
dissolution in 1991.
“Soviet and economic activists who were branded in 1937-1938 as ‘enemies’ were actually never enemies, spies,
wreckers,” Khrushchev told the delegates. “They were always honest Communists; they were only so
stigmatized and often, no longer able to bear barbaric tortures, they charged themselves with all kinds of grave
and unlikely crimes.”
By focusing on the two years, Khrushchev told the shocked gathering, the investigating commission found
evidence that “over one-and-a-half million individuals were arrested for ‘anti-Soviet activities,’” and “over
680,500 (of them) were executed.”
For example, Khrushchev said, of the 139 veteran Bolsheviks who were promoted in 1937 to the Party’s Central
Committee, “98 — that is, 70 percent of them — were arrested and shot” by the end of 1938. Lower-ranking
apparatchiks, Khrushchev added, were no safer. Of the 1,966 ordinary delegates, he said, “many of (whom) had
suffered and fought for the Party’s interests, 1,108 were arrested on charges of anti-revolutionary crimes.”
World War II murders
Khrushchev was less explicit about Stalin’s murders just before and during World War II. The first mass
executions took place shortly after the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed a treaty of “Friendship and
Cooperation”15 in August 1939, and both countries invaded Poland (the Wehrmacht from the west and the Red
Army from the east).
Preparing to make “his” half of the occupied country part of the Soviet Union, in May 1940, Stalin ordered
NKVD, the Soviet secret police, to identify and “eliminate” Polish “intelligence agents, gendarmes,16 landowners,
saboteurs, factory owners, lawyers, officials, and priests” who might turn out to be difficult citizens.
NKVD checked more than 110,000 Poles and murdered 22,000 of them, including all captured officers of the
Polish army. Most of the victims were shot and dropped into a mass grave in Katyn Forest in Russia. Stalin never
admitted to or apologized for the amply documented crime.
The second wave of murders followed the staggeringly successful June 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union — in
brazen violation of the 1939 treaty — by the Wehrmacht. Stalin, who had ignored all warning of the impending
attack, was at a loss for how to explain series of defeats by the totally unprepared Red Army and Air Force.
His solution was to order a crackdown that started with the arrest of eight top Air Force generals, and
continued — during the desperate “Battle of Moscow”17 — with the execution of at least 300 Red Army highranking officers and generals.
The lack of experienced commanders was later blamed for the slaughter of many of the more than 11 million
- This is also known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a neutrality or non-aggression pact between the two
that would be broken within two years when Nazi Germany attacked Soviet forces.
- armed police officers
- The Battle of Moscow refers to two periods of significant fighting on the Eastern Front of World War II
between October 1941 and January 1942. The Soviet defenses frustrated Germany’s attack on Moscow, the
capital of the USSR.
brave Soviet soldiers who died in the war. They were poorly led, frequently untrained, and, as late as 1943, were
sent to the front unarmed with the instruction to use the weapons of their fallen comrades.
As the supreme commander, Stalin prohibited the Red Army to retreat and frequently ordered the troops to
fight hopeless battles against the superbly equipped Wehrmacht. He regarded Soviet POWs18 as “traitors,” and
when his own son, Yakov, was captured by the Germans, he refused to trade him for a German general.
Khrushchev, who served in the war as a political commissar,19 charged in his memoirs that Stalin’s conduct of
the war “cost us much blood.”
The Doctors’ Plot
Stalin’s remorseless pursuit of victory regardless of casualties eventually routed the invaders and made a major
contribution to the defeat of Nazi Germany in May 1945. But rather than resting on the hard-won laurels, the
dictator ended his rule with a scandal that nearly cost more lives.
In January 1953, the official Soviet daily Pravda (meaning “truth”) startled the world by announcing the arrest of
15 top medical doctors — almost all Jews — who were treating Stalin’s atherosclerosis20 and other ailments.
They were accused of trying to poison the ultra-suspicious and openly anti-Semitic Stalin, and he was expected
to deal with them in his customary way.
 There were several theories on what saved their lives. One of them, according to Russian historian Zhores
Medvedev, a co-author of The Unknown Stalin, was a concern that “the execution of prominent physicians
inevitably would lead to an unprecedented21 anti-Semitic campaign and an international outcry (over) the
possibility of mass deportation of Jews from Moscow to remote regions of the country.”
More important in all likelihood was that Stalin died two months later, and there was not enough time to
prepare the fraudulent trials. The doctors were all exonerated22 within days after his death.
In a rare surviving letter to her son, Stalin’s mother wished him “Victory!” and an “annihilation of all your
enemies.” But in the end, Stalin was a loser. At first, he was embalmed and placed “for eternity” in a mausoleum
alongside Vladimir Lenin, the idolized founder of the Russian Communist Party and the Soviet Union.
Six years later, following the revelation of his bloody deeds, Stalin’s body was quietly removed and buried in an
obscure place behind the Kremlin23 walls.
- prisoners of war
- A commissar is an official of the Communist Party responsible for political education and organization.
- Atherosclerosis is a disease of the arteries characterized by plaque of fatty material on their inner walls.
- never done before
- Exonerate (verb) to clear of blame
- The word “kremlin” itself refers to a citadel within a Russian town. The Kremlin itself is a reference to the
most famous kremlin in Moscow, the center of the Russian (and formerly Soviet) government—so much so
that the building and the government are interchangeable.
© 2016. Stalin: A Brutal Legacy Uncovered by CommonLit is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
Unless otherwise noted, this content is licensed under the CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license
Directions: Brainstorm your answers to the following questions in the space provided. Be prepared to share
your original ideas in a class discussion.
- In Khrushchev’s speech, he charged Stalin with creating a cult of personality for himself, rather than
focusing on the principles of communism. How do atrocities and cruelty, such as those committed
by Stalin, create said cult of personality? How can fear be used to manipulate? Cite evidence from
this text, your own experience, and other literature, art, or history in your answer.
- During Stalin’s reign, Adolf Hitler also killed millions of people. Why do you think that Hitler’s
atrocities are more widely discussed that Stalin’s in America today?
- In the context of this passage, how does power corrupt? Do you think Stalin was corrupted by
power or that he was naturally a corrupt man? Cite evidence from this text, your own experience,
and other literature, art, or history in your answer.