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Destalinization, a term of Western origin, refers to the dismantling of various aspects of the politics, judicial system, economy, social values, and cultural life of the Soviet Union that were associated with the legacy of Joseph Stalin (1879–1953).


The chronology of destalinization is not settled, but it is most often presumed to have begun right after Stalin's death in March 1953. It is possible to distinguish two periods when Stalin's legacy was debated most intensely—one from 1953 through 1964, coinciding with Nikita Khrushchev's term as first secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and the other one from 1985 through 1991, when Mikhail Gorbachev headed the party on the eve of the USSR's collapse.

Destalinization was rooted in World War II. Victory in the war brought about a new sense of self-worth in people who had fought and seen that the country's fate depended on them. After 1945 many, especially the intelligentsia, hoped that the regime's repressive policies would be relaxed, burdens on the collectivized peasantry would be alleviated, the militarized economy would be modified toward the people's everyday needs, intellectual life would be liberalized, and in general the government would show some degree of appreciation for the citizens' contribution to victory. Frustrated in the late 1940s, these hopes and expectations nonetheless survived, and the pressing desire for change prepared ground for the actual changes of the 1950s.

Judging by how quickly reforms were implemented after March 1953, the need for them had become clear to many of the country's leaders while Stalin was still alive. Some scholars even propose an embryonic "destalinisation under Stalin" (Gorlizki, p. 2), discerning it in the changes within the party apparatus at the Nineteenth Party Congress (1952) and in the rhetoric of "collective leadership" and "inner-party democracy" that developed in the press on the eve of the congress. One of the first socially critical publications, Valentin Ovechkin's sketch Raionnye budni (District routine), which exposed the deplorable state of the agricultural sector, also came out in 1952.


Drastic changes, however, began only after Stalin's death. The first and most significant area of destalinization was the ending of mass reprisals and the release of prison camp inmates. In the spring of 1953 an amnesty for about 1.2 million criminal convicts was launched. The Kremlin-associated doctors who were earlier accused of conspiring against the country's top leadership (the so-called Doctors' Plot) were freed in April 1953. From 1954 to 1956 followed a wave of several hundred thousand releases of political prisoners from the camps. Parallel to that, the powers of the repressive organs were curtailed, and a (relatively small) number of special police officers were fired and/or sometimes prosecuted for having mistreated prisoners in the past. Prison camps, even though they persisted, were considerably reduced in size, and their regime temporarily became somewhat milder.

Release of prisoners accused of political crimes was in some cases accompanied by rehabilitation, which presumed restoring a person's juridical competence and reestablishing his or her reputation as a loyal member of Soviet society. In cases of former party members, the restoration of party membership was of key importance for rehabilitation. Occasionally, but by far not always, the rehabilitated ex-prisoner would receive material compensation, such as salary due for the years of unjust imprisonment, a room or an apartment, and/or reinstatement at a previous job. Those released but not rehabilitated faced much worse prospects for social reintegration, because they were often denied jobs and residence in their hometowns, especially those from Moscow and Leningrad.

According to research published in the 1990s and early 2000s, Soviet society showed mixed reactions to the release of prisoners. While many had always believed in their innocence, there were quite a few who continued to regard the former convicts as enemies or at least displayed a degree of suspicion toward them. Mistrust and rejection created additional obstacles for the former victims' return to normal life.

Just as mixed were people's reactions to another critical aspect of destalinization—the removal of Stalin's omnipresent images and praises for him from the press, art, and school textbooks. Conducted under the slogan of struggle against "the cult of personality," this iconoclastic campaign brought about not only relief and joy but also a good deal of confusion and disorientation among Soviet citizens, whose world of symbols was now falling apart.

The crucial moment in destalinization came in February 1956, when Khrushchev delivered his famous "secret speech" before the dead-silent delegates of the Twentieth Party Congress in Moscow. This revolutionary speech attacked Stalin for creating his own worship in the country, for unleashing mass terror against innocent people (mostly party members were mentioned as victims), and for committing serious blunders in state leadership. With his speech, Khrushchev put a decisive seal of approval on the release and rehabilitation of camp prisoners, as well as on the dismantling of the Stalin cult. One other important consequence of the Twentieth Congress was the return of several nationalities, deported during World War II as "unreliable," to their original areas of residence.

At that time, the secret speech was published in the West but not in the Soviet Union. Yet the text was read aloud at meetings of local and institutional party organizations all across the country, and although the meetings were supposed to be held behind closed doors, it was not impossible for someone interested to gain entry. The content of the speech thus became an open secret. Again, reactions in the audiences were mixed—joyful relief, guilt for compliance with the past terror, denial, desire for self-vindication, and widespread confusion as to what would happen to the country next. A violent outburst of protest against the public denigration of Stalin broke out in his home country, Georgia.

Perhaps the one most common reaction to the secret speech was shock, because the indictment of the recently deified Stalin now became official and was verbalized by the country's top leader. It was this shock that suggested the most serious limit for destalinization—the issue of legitimacy. It was under Stalin that the Soviet system had taken shape in its essential features, and most of the Soviet period to date had been spent under Stalin. Therefore, the open denunciation of Stalin could not but expose to doubt the legitimacy of the Soviet system itself. This logic was not lost on numerous officials who felt the need to proceed alertly, if at all, about admitting the blunders and crimes of the past. The urge to maintain the legitimacy of the Soviet order dictated caution in further attacks on Stalin. Between 1953 and 1961, the press, both political and literary, kept the theme of the terror heavily understated, either passing it over in silence or referring to it in very reticent, elusive language.

At the same time, other important aspects of the Stalinist order came under attack in these years. The party restated its commitment to collective leadership, opposing it to the much-criticized "cult of personality," which now became a politically acceptable euphemism for the Stalin years. In the countryside, taxes on agricultural produce were lowered, debts written off, and it became easier for peasants to travel or move to cities, an improvement that greatly softened the restrictions on peasant mobility imposed during collectivization in the early 1930s. A series of reforms in industrial management was launched, with many of the Stalin-era central branch ministries dismantled (1957) and their powers transferred to the local "councils of the economy" (sovnarkhozy). Correspondingly, the attack on the ministerial bureaucracy became a prominent theme in the newspapers and literature, culminating in the publication by the journal Novy mir of Vladimir Dudintsev's novel Not by Bread Alone (1956), which became a sensation thanks to its unprecedentedly bold and comprehensive criticism of Stalin-era industrial management. Yet another important area of liberalization was relations with the West, where in 1954 and 1955 the first cultural exchange programs were launched and travel abroad became somewhat easier for a (very limited) number of Soviet citizens. The mid-1950s were also the moment when, after a long gap, the Soviet audiences were for the first time exposed to abstract art, via Western art exhibits and the reopening of the turn-of-the-century art collections at home.

The 1956 uprisings against the Soviet regime in Poland and especially Hungary, provoked by revelations about the Stalin terror, urged the Khrushchev leadership to tighten up ideological control within the country, which, together with the Suez Crisis of 1956, slowed down the Soviet rapprochement with the West. Further alienation came with the 1958 press campaign against the poet Boris Pasternak (1890–1960), after he had been awarded the Nobel Prize—largely for his novel Doctor Zhivago, which fundamentally reinterpreted Russia's experience of the revolution and the civil war. Despite all these setbacks, the processes of parting with Stalin's legacy did not stop in the late 1950s: much of the intellectual fermentation in the country continued, and so did its exposure to Western influences.

Destalinization received a powerful boost in 1961 at the Twenty-Second Party Congress, when Khrushchev resumed his attack on Stalin and the past terror. The Twenty-Second Congress dealt a final blow to the public commemoration of Stalin's name and image: in 1961 places named after him were renamed, his monuments were destroyed (except in his birthplace of Gori), and his mummified body was taken out of the Lenin Mausoleum and reburied in a simpler grave by the Kremlin wall.

This time the attack on the terror was publicized more boldly, and quite a few rehabilitations made their way to the newspapers. In the period from 1961 to 1964, publications about the mass reprisals became much more numerous and out-spoken than ever before. Encouraged by this legitimization of remembrance, thousands of people began sending written memoirs about the Stalin terror to the Central Committee and to various periodicals. In particular, many manuscripts were sent to Novy mir, thanks to the high prestige and the semi-oppositional reputation of this journal, whose editor, Alexander Tvardovsky (1910–1971), paid great attention to the terror theme. Only a few were published, and yet these texts, especially Alexander Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), powerfully influenced the ways in which thousands of people thought about their country's past and present.


Khrushchev's removal from power in October 1964 put a gradual end to this brief outburst of fairly open and critical reassessment of the Stalin past. Publications mentioning the terror did not cease immediately; and yet from 1965 on their number went down and their language became ever more evasive. It was then that many people began fearing a "re-stalinization," the restitution of Stalin's name and a return to the repressive policies of his time. In 1966 concerns about the terror coming back manifested themselves in the intelligentsia's revulsion against the trial of the writers Andrei Sinyavsky (1925–1997) and Yuli Daniel (1925–1988), who were arrested and imprisoned for publishing their works in the West. Much of Sinyavsky's and Daniel's writing also dealt with the legacy of Stalin's terror and the possibilities of its return.

The terror never came back, nor did the formal rehabilitation of Stalin, but the new leaders of the country, above all Leonid Brezhnev (head of the party from 1964 to 1982), did put the debate about Stalin's legacy on hold, sensing its explosive nature. Nevertheless, the interpretation of the Stalin past, and hence, essentially, the entire Soviet experience, remained a major concern for many people who in the 1970s retreated into private family and friendly circles to discuss these issues.

The continuing importance of the Stalin theme became clear in the late 1980s, when Mikhail Gorbachev launched his reforms, greatly liberalizing the intellectual climate. The old discussions about Stalin and Stalinism revived with new force and vigor in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Many literary works of the 1960s that had never seen light before were now published, together with new books and films about the past, providing food for thought and innumerable discussions, open and private. It may be safely concluded that the debate about the Stalin past was one of the major factors that, through revelations about the scope of terror and the massive disenchantment with the Soviet order, brought the USSR to its collapse in 1991.

Born in the mid-1950s, the term destalinization has by now become somewhat narrow and obsolete. It prompts the reader to view the Soviet system as a single-handed creation and epitome of Stalin's will, thus following the "cult of personality" reasoning for the country's problems that the Khrushchev leadership advanced in the 1950s and early 1960s. While having some validity, this term tends to obscure the fact that the Soviet system, together with all attempts to reform it, had deep-seated historical and structural origins in society and culture, which extended far beyond Stalin's personality, and of which Stalin himself might be but a product. Future research may replace the term destalinization with one or several more adequate characteristics for the complex and important developments that Soviet society went through between 1953 and 1991.

See alsoDenazification; Gulag; Khrushchev, Nikita; Purges; Soviet Union; Stalin, Joseph; Terror.


Primary Sources

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Denis Kozlov