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Twinkle Twinkle Joseph Starlin!

When the cat’s away, the mice will play. You could say that explains what happened after Josef Stalin, one of the world’s biggest tyrants, died in 1953. He had been responsible for enormous crimes and had made huge mistakes in governing the Soviet Union, but no-one had dared to criticize him while he was alive.

Or rather: anyone who criticized Stalin died either quickly, with a bullet in the back of the head, or slowly, working as slave labour in a detention camp. In fact, the mere suggestion of disloyalty was often enough to destroy someone’s life under Stalin’s rule. There were spies everywhere and many people settled personal scores or advanced their own careers by making false reports to the secret police. Stalin ruled by terror and what is more terrifying than the thought that complete innocence makes you no safer than committing a crime?

Even when Stalin died, the Soviet Union was still firmly in the grip of his supporters, like the cruel and murderous Lavrentiy Beria. At least, that’s what intelligence agencies in the West thought. But then, in 1955, some startling news emerged from the Soviet Union. It appeared that the new leader, Nikita Khrushchev, had made a secret speech on 25th February that year at the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party. He had condemned Stalin for creating what he called a “Cult of Personality” and for committing huge crimes against the Soviet people.

The speech was an earthquake in Soviet politics, overturning the apparently rock-solid edifice of Stalinism. Stalin had corrupted the values of communism, turning the party and the country into a giant cult centred on himself, not the advancement of the people. It’s said that some among the original audience had heart attacks as they listened or were so devastated by the criticism of their former idol that they would later commit suicide. Those stories are probably exaggerations, but there is no doubt that the speech was one of the most important ever delivered by the leader of a major power.

However, news of it was slow to reach the non-communist world. Khrushchev delivered it in a closed session to a carefully selected group of top communist officials. Journalists had been kept out and no report of the speech was made in the Soviet press. All the same, copies were circulated in the party and were also sent to the leaders of communist nations in Eastern Europe. The Israeli intelligence service Shin Bet, which had good contacts in Poland, managed to photograph the text. They sent the photographs to the CIA in America.

But had the speech actually happened? The CIA had to check carefully, worried that KGB had hatched some plot to mislead the West. None of the checks found anything suspicious and in June the CIA leaked translations of the speech to the press. The New York Times in America, Le Monde in France and the Observer in Britain startled their readers with the news that the Soviet Union had turned against its former leader and admitted that he had been not a hero but a criminal.

Unfortunately, Khrushchev’s speech did not mark the end of tyranny in the Soviet Union and its empire. The secret police continued to strike fear into millions of people and slave labour continued to toil and die in the searing summer heat and fearsome winter cold of Siberia. Countries like China, ruled by Mao Tse-Tung, and Albania, ruled by Enver Hoxha, actually broke their alliances with the Soviet Union, claiming that Stalin had been unfairly defamed and that his methods were still perfectly valid. Stalin had killed millions and Mao would go on to kill millions more. But if the speech was not the end of communism, it was perhaps the beginning of the end, because the homeland of the revolution had admitted that the infallible Leninst-Marxist system could go wrong.