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De-Stalinization refers to the attempt to handle the Stalin legacy following Stalin's death. Its chronological boundaries are not clearly defined, but the process began soon after Stalin died in March 1953 and was generally halted in the early years of the Brezhnev period following Khrushchev's ouster in October 1964. There were four principal elements of de-Stalinization.

The first element is official pronouncements. The two most important were Khrushchev's speeches to the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in 1956 and the Twenty-Second Congress in 1961. The former speech was delivered in closed session to the congress and was not published in the USSR until 1990, although it was published in the West in 1956 and was read to closed party meetings across the country. The second speech was delivered in open session and published in the Soviet press at the time of its delivery. The first speech sought to deflate the exaggerated image of Stalin and to place the responsibility for the terror and repressions upon him alone. Khrushchev sought to argue that Stalin was responsible for the application of terror to the Party (no mention was made of the suffering of anyone outside the party) and that he steered Soviet development off of the healthy course upon which the Party had set it. In the second speech, Khrushchev further attacked the image of Stalin and sought to associate some of his own current political opponents with Stalin's crimes.

Second are his policies. The policies embarked on by the Khrushchev leadership in many respects reversed or modified those pursued by Stalin. Among the most important of these were the formal reaffirmation of the principle of collective leadership; restoration of the Communist Party to the central place in the political system; the elimination of terror as a central aspect of life, including the rehabilitation of some of those who suffered; the opening of some of the labor camps and the return of many of the prisoners and internees to Soviet society; the increased priority given to light industry, without displacing heavy industry as the main priority; and a more flexible foreign policy. Such changes were crucial because of the freeing up of general life that they signified. The removal of the overt threat of terror was particularly important here.

Third is the freeing up of intellectual life. While this was, strictly speaking, a change in policy, its nature and importance warrants separate mention. The tight restrictions upon discussion, literature, and all forms of cultural expression were relaxed. Although censorship, especially self-censorship, remained firmly in place, the boundaries of acceptable expression expanded significantly. Particularly important was the emergence of so-called camp literature, which discussed life in the labor camps and brought a new perspective on the Stalinist experience. The publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962) was particularly important in this regard. So was the rewriting of Soviet history to downplay, and at times almost eliminate, Stalin's role.

Fourth is symbolism: The manifestations of the Stalin cult disappeared as soon as Stalin died. His image and person ceased to dominate the Soviet media. And in a process that gathered speed following Khrushchev's 1956 speech, Stalin's name was removed from everything that had been named after him, all statues, busts, and portraits were removed from public display (except in his birthplace, Gori), and his writings were removed from public availability in the libraries. In 1962 his body was removed from the mausoleum on Red Square and buried in a simple plot beneath the Kremlin wall.

The impetus for de-Stalinization came from both above and below. It was widely recognized throughout society that some change would be necessary following Stalin's death, but there was widespread disagreement about how substantial such change should be. At the top of the political system, the issue of de-Stalinization became tangled up with factional conflict among the leaders. From 1956, Khrushchev became the major Soviet leader pressing the cause of de-Stalinization, while others like Kaganovich and Molotov, who had been closer to Stalin, sought to restrict the dimensions of this process. Similar disagreements about how far de-Stalinization should extend were evident within the community as a whole. Many intellectuals, responding to the greater scope for free expression, played an important part in fueling de-Stalinization. Many scholars, writers, artists, poets, and playwrights continually sought to push back the frontiers of what could and could not be said. This process was very uneven; many of the key positions in the artistic and creative worlds were held by conservatives who sought to hold the line against too much innovation and who were in a position to hinder publication and exhibition. In addition, the line coming from the top was not consistent; Khrushchev and his supporters were continually wavering about de-Stalinization, sometimes pushing it forward, at other times winding it back. Everyone was uncertain about how far and how fast the process could be undertaken, and the political elite in particular was concerned to ensure that de-Stalinization did not undermine the power and legitimacy of the system. In this sense even Khrushchev, while recognizing that changes had to be made, was uncertain about their speed and extent.

De-Stalinization constituted a classic case of liberalization. It was designed to bring about change without altering the basic Soviet power structure. In this sense de-Stalinization was limited in its effect and, when a more conservative leadership came to power under Brezhnev and Kosygin, many of these changes were wound back. This was especially clear in the cultural sphere, where the crackdown on free expression was important in generating the dissident movement. However, de-Stalinization left its mark nonetheless. In the short term it was important for the regime's ability to survive the crisis induced by Stalin's death, but in the longer term it was crucial in shaping many of those who were to come to the fore when Gorbachev sought to bring major change to the system in the 1980s. De-Stalinization was an important source of perestroika.

See also: khrushchev, nikita sergeyevich; stalin, josef vissarionovich


Breslauer, George W. (1982). Khrushchev and Brezhnev as Leaders: Building Authority in Soviet Politics. London: George Allen & Unwin.

Linden, Carl A. (1966). Khrushchev and the Soviet Leadership 19571964. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.

Tatu, Michel. (1968). Power in the Kremlin: From Khrushchev to Kosygin. New York: Viking Press.

Van Goudoever, A. P. (1986). The Limits of Destalinization in the Soviet Union: Political Rehabilitations in the Soviet Union since Stalin. New York: St Martin's Press.

Graeme Gill

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