Stalin Nostalgia Growing in Russia
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Here's how much the world has changed. Fifty years ago tomorrow, Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, changed the world with what was known as his secret speech. It was the first official denunciation of Joseph Stalin, one of the worst dictators of modern times. Russians who remember those days say Krushchev's role has almost been forgotten in this time when Stalin is gaining popularity again in Russia. NPR's Gregory Feifer reports.
GREGORY FEIFER reporting:
Khrushchev may be best known in the west for his histrionics in the United Nations, including banging his shoe on the podium.
(Soundbite of Khrushchev yelling in anger)
FEIFER: But in Russia, Krushchev's remembered for helping end the choking grip of Stalinist terror, which killed at least 20 million people. He eased restrictions on expression and decentralized political power. Millions streamed home from Siberian concentration camps. The watershed came with Khrushchev's speech after the Communist party's 20th congress in February, 1956.
Three years after Stalin's death, he was still publicly revered as a demigod. But Khrushchev assailed his predecessor's cult of personality, denouncing Stalin for torture and murder. Although some reforms had already started, the closed audience listened to Khrushchev's denunciation in stunned silence.
Natalya Chevtaikina is curator of an exhibit about Khruschev at Moscow's history museum on Red Square.
Ms. NATALYA CHEVTAIKINA (Curator, State Historical Museum, Moscow): (Through translator) For the first time, the crimes of that period and Stalin's role in them were described on an official level from the country's main speaking platform.
FEIFER: Chevtaikina says Khrushchev's main considerations were pragmatic. She says he didn't want to be blamed for the large part he'd played in the repression under Stalin. No transcripts of the speech were made and the official recording remains secret. The only texts come from audience members' recollections. Historian Zoya Serebriakova was freed from the Gulag after Stalin's death. She says a university classmate who'd attended Khrushchev's speech described it to her one evening.
Ms. ZOYA SEREBRIAKOVA (Russian Historian): (Through translator) To this day, I can't forget the joyful shock I got from the news of Khrushchev's speech on February 25, 1956. We just couldn't sleep; neither he, under the impression of the speech he'd heard, nor I listening to his account.
FEIFER: Word soon leaked out. Edited versions were distributed to party leaders and published in the west and the news was announced in the Soviet press. Khrushchev's speech reverberated around the Soviet block and had unpredictable consequences. Nine months after the event, Khrushchev crushed a popular uprising in Hungary and his thaw was near an end. Khrushchev was eventually ousted in 1964 by Leonid Brezhnev who put an end to his anti-Stalinism and his boat-rocking reforms. Curator Chevtaikina says Khrushchev's role has been largely forgotten today.
Ms. CHEVTAIKINA: (Through translator) You know, we're now undergoing another difficult period in our country's history. A large mass of people dream of strong authority and for there to be order in the country.
FEIFER: Increasingly, Russians admire Stalin for leading their country to victory against the Nazis and forcing rapid industrialization. A survey last year said more than half of respondents believe Stalin had done more good than bad and last May, Stalin was pictured on Moscow billboards marking the end of World War II.
Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, whom many Russians blame for the collapse of communism, is seen as Khrushchev's ideological successor. He says today's nostalgia is fueled by the memory of falling prices and progress under Stalin's command economy.
Mr. MIKHAIL GORBACHEV (Former Soviet President): (Through translator) People have difficult lives now. At least half the population lives in poverty. Society is split and there is serious polarization.
FEIFER: President Vladimir Putin has made strengthening the state his main goal. He's replaced regional elections with Kremlin appointments, cracked down on free speech and re-nationalized major companies. But Gorbachev says a return to past dictatorship is impossible. Former dissidents point to one kind of indicator. Under Stalin, they say, telling a political joke could mean a trip to the Gulag or worse. Under Khrushchev, hundreds of jokes lampooned the Soviet leader.
(Soundbite of music)
FEIFER: Joking about Putin today, they say, is a growth industry. Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow.
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