ON THE CULT OF PERSONALITY AND ITS CONSEQUENCES”: Most speeches by politicians don’t say much, and what they do say often isn’t true. But on this day in 1956, First Secretary of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party Nikita Khrushchev shocked the members of the 20th Party Congress by doing something completely novel: He laid some truth on them about their late leader Joseph Stalin:

Stalin acted not through persuasion, explanation, and patient cooperation with people, but by … demanding absolute submission to his opinion. Whoever opposed this concept … was doomed to removal from the leading collective and to subsequent moral and physical annihilation. …

Lenin used severe methods only in the most necessary cases …

Stalin, on the other hand, used extreme methods and mass repressions at a time when the revolution was already victorious. … It is clear that here Stalin showed in a whole series of cases his intolerance, his brutality, and his abuse of power. …

Stalin’s willfulness vis-à-vis the party and its central committee became fully evident after the 17th party congress, which took place in 1934….

It was determined that of the 139 members and candidates of the party’s Central Committee who were elected at the 17th congress, 98 persons, that is, 70 percent, were arrested and shot ….

The same fate met not only the central committee members, but also the majority of the delegates to the 17th party congress. Of 1,966 delegates with either voting or advisory rights, 1,108 persons were arrested on charges of anti-revolutionary crimes, i.e. decidedly more than majority. This very fact shows how absurd, wild, and contrary to common sense were the charges ….

(Note that there are different versions/translations of what Khrushchev said. This is one of them.)

The speech was intended to be secret. But it was leaked. Its effects were shattering all over the Soviet Union. Riots in Stalin’s homeland of Georgia had to be suppressed.

Here in the United States, its effects among Communists were sweeping. In a 2017 New York Times article entitled “When Communism Inspired Americans,” Vivian Gornick (a red diaper baby herself) wrote of the devastating effect the speech had on American Communists: “Night after night the people at my father’s table raged or wept or sat staring into space.” Gornick reported that within weeks of the speech’s publication in the West, 30,000 members of the party in the United States had quit.

Note that Khrushchev’s speech has been criticized (and for good reason). What he said about Stalin was true, but he concentrated on the horrors of Stalin’s actions against party members. What about the millions of non-party members who died at the hands of the party? And he repeatedly contrasted Stalin with Lenin, whom he praised, when both deserved to be condemned in the strongest possible terms. Still, it was a step forward for a nation that had seen nothing but horror from its leaders for decades.