Telling the Story of Krushchev's Anti-Stalin Tirade

Fifty years ago, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave a startling speech to Communist Party delegates, denouncing his predecessor Josef Stalin. Reuters correspondent John Rettie was the first foreign correspondent to learn of the secret speech. He reminisces with Scott Simon.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

A Reuters news dispatch from 50 years ago caused a political earthquake.

Unidentified Male Broadcaster: Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet Party Chief, accused Josef Stalin of massacre, torture of children, and a personal reign of terror, in a sensational speech behind closed doors at last month's party congress.

SIMON: John Rettie of Reuters wrote that story. He was the first reporter to learn of Nikita Khrushchev's secret speech in February 1956 to the Communist Party elite. Now Josef Stalin had been buried as the Soviet Union's most beloved leader. A man of steel, a staunch guardian, and the sage, the man who made the Communist Revolution permanent. Oh, he could be a little stern, of course, but there was that twinkle in his eye when he drew on his corn cob pipe.

John Rettie joins us now from North Yorkshire, England. Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. JOHN RETTIE (Former Reuters Reporter): It's a pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: And how did you get that? Must have been the scoop of certainly the year?

Mr. RETTIE: Certainly of my life. Yes. I knew a Soviet citizen, a Russian, who pretended to be just a friend helping me out with things. I'm quite sure that he was working for the secret police, the KGB. But he did tell me quite a few things that proved correct. And he knew that the next morning I was going on holiday to Stockholm after covering the 20th Party Congress. And he phoned me in the evening and said, Before you go I've got to see you.

And when he came he said, I have something to tell you that you must get out. And he began telling me a very full summary of the secret speech denouncing Stalin as a murderer and a torturer. And I thought about what he told me and I thought, Can I really believe him?

SIMON: Well, what made you decide to run with the story?

Mr. RETTIE: We knew there had been an speech. Rumors had started circulating in embassies and among Communist correspondents of the West and so on. So we tried to file it through the censorship but it didn't go. And we knew no details about what was in the speech, except that it had been a brutal denunciation of Stalin.

But this was so much in detail, and there was another incentive. There was a temporary correspondent in the New York Times in town, and he was leaving the next day as well. So we knew that he would file at least what little we knew, that there had been this sensational speech, even if he didn't know any detail, and we'd be beaten at our own story, which was so much more complete.

SIMON: John, 50 years after the fact, do you think that Nikita Khrushchev himself authorized the speech to be leaked in this manner through you?

Mr. RETTIE: He couldn't have done it in any formal way, but yes, I do believe that word came from him because nobody else could've done it. And of course you have to remember that he knew all the Western correspondents personally, because he and his colleagues started coming to diplomatic receptions two years earlier and chatting to us and drinking with us. I even drank out of Khrushchev's glass once with his permission.

SIMON: I was going to ask, yeah.

Mr. RETTIE: I didn't snatch it from him. No. It was quite a good story, even Khrushchev handing me his glass and saying, This is a lot better than that whiskey we had in your embassy last week. Here, try it.

So we were on sort of intimate drinking terms in a way. Which meant that he would know us enough to know that we were serious journalists. And it was obvious that I was going out to Stockholm 'cause you had to get exit visas from the Soviet Union in those days. So he would've thought, yes, this is the right fellow. And anyway, he's got the opportunity.

SIMON: John, help us understand half a century later the significance of this story, the impact that it had.

Mr. RETTIE: You must remember that Stalin was virtually a God to most citizens of the Soviet Union, and suddenly only three years after his death he was made the devil, and this was so shocking to so many people in the Soviet Union and to believing Communists elsewhere in the world. I noticed that what use to be known as the Soviet News Agency TASS, still functions, has been saying in an article, a 50th anniversary article, that during the speech some members of the audience, some party delegates, had heart attacks. And afterwards, some committed suicide.

And of course, as we know, the consequences in the Soviet Bloc were much worse than Khrushchev had expected, I think. For example, the trouble in Poland and even more the uprising in Hungary, the attempted anti-Communist Revolution.

And in the West, I think Khrushchev's aim at getting it out into the world was that he wanted people to understand that he really was breaking with Stalin.

SIMON: I've heard a story that somebody sitting in that chamber who heard Khrushchev's remarks that day had the effrontery, audacity, even courage to shout at Khrushchev, where were you?

Mr. RETTIE: I have heard that somebody had stood up while Khrushchev was listing the torture systems and the murderings that had gone on and shouted well if he was so bad, why didn't you get rid of him? And Khrushchev stopped and said, Who said that? And there was silence in the hall. So he repeated himself. Who said that? And there was still silence, and he said, Well, now you understand why we didn't do anything.

SIMON: John, what was your impression just as a human being of Nikita Khrushchev?

Mr. RETTIE: I had an enormously high regard for Khrushchev, I must say, even though I think he must have had blood on his hands. He had the bluest eyes of anybody I've ever met. He was really quite an ugly man, but his eyes were something special, and so was his smile. And I have to say that he learned faster than anybody I've known. And also he did two absolutely crucial things for which he must be given credit.

One was he closed the Gulags and brought the secret police under control. The other was that he understood that you couldn't win a nuclear war. Stalin had given signs of feeling that the Soviet Union would win if there was a nuclear war. Khrushchev understood that was absolute nonsense. And I think possibly there might have been in his early years a chance of, if not ending, at least mitigating the Cold War.

SIMON: John Rettie, correspondent for Reuters. It's been wonderful to talk to you.

Mr. RETTIE: Scott, it's been a pleasure to reminisce.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.