60 years since the Secret Speech : the February 2016 Slavonic item(s) of the month

In February 1956, delegates at a closed session of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union listened in shock as Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalinism.  The so-called Secret Speech changed what had been seen as an unalterable status quo in Soviet politics and historiography.  The speech continues to be a major dividing point in political, popular, and scholarly debates to this day.  In this post, we look at some material relating to the speech, its speaker and its subject.

201602_Speech title pages

The title pages of the French and Polish translations of the Secret Speech (both: Paris, 1956)

Entitled ‘On the cult of personality and its consequences’, the speech lasted for several hours.  It was made during a closed session, and although copies were later shared with senior party members, the text of the speech was made publicly available in the Soviet Union only some 40-plus years later.  By the end of 1956, however, the world outside the sphere of Soviet interest had seen the text – smuggled out – translated into several languages.  The University Library has, for example, 1956 copies in Polish (9230.c.521; published in Paris) and French (9586.d.735).  Frustratingly, our English translation from the same year, published by the Manchester Guardian, went missing some time ago.

Khrushchev was quietly replaced in 1964 and died in 1977, but the man and his legacy remain very live topics.  (It is worth noting that the last 24 months have seen in particular an unsurprising increase in focus on the transfer of Crimea to Ukraine that took place during his time in power.)  As Stalin undergoes highly charged re-evaluation in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, the extraordinary Secret Speech is inevitably also re-evaluated.  A recent acquisition in the English section of the Library, for example, is the 2013 book Khrushchev lied : the evidence that every “revelation” of Stalin’s (and Beria’s) “crimes” in Nikita Khrushchev’s infamous “secret speech” to the 20th Party Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union on February 25, 1956, is probably false by the U.S. historian Grover Furr (C210.c.7519).

Certain gaps in terms of Khrushchev publications speak loudly of the mixed evaluation of his time in power.  No set of official collected works was ever published, and even the major biographical series ‘Zhizn’ zamechatel’nykh liudei’ (The lives of extraordinary people) has seen only one title on him – and that a translation from an English original by William Taubman.  There are at the time of writing 117 titles in the catalogue about Khrushchev (see list here).  Stalin has a staggering 756 (list here), outstripped only (and only just) by Lenin with 803 (list here) – interestingly, only 52 Lenin titles date from the last decade, against 241 for Stalin.  It seems inevitable that Lenin will be overtaken in the next few years.

One of the latest Khrushchev purchases made by the Slavonic section is the catalogue of an exhibition dedicated to Khrushchev on the 120th anniversary of his birth (S950.b.201.2405).  The exhibition was part of a planned series called ‘Leaders of the Soviet Era’ organised by the Federal Archive Agency and others.  Its Russian-language site can be found here: http://liders.rusarchives.ru/  The site provides virtual access to the Khrushchev exhibition and the other held so far, which was dedicated to Andropov (of which the catalogue will be added to our collections soon).


The catalogue’s front cover and an internal page showing material relating to the Secret Speech.  The red item is the cover of the text of the speech itself, with “TOP SECRET” on the right towards the top altered by hand to read “NOT FOR PUBLICATION” (a less strict policy).

Mel Bach

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