On February 25, 1956, a speech was given in Moscow which has been called the most important speech of the 20th century. Before a closed session of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Nikita Sergeevich Khrushchev, First Secretary of the Party and de-facto head of the Soviet state, denounced the “cult of personality,” oppression, and excesses that he attributed to Josef Stalin, who had died in March 1953. He discussed about sixty examples.
Khrushchev’s speech was a bombshell in both East and West. For the world communist movement its consequences were devastating. The riots in Poland and Hungary later in 1956 have been ascribed to this speech. By extension it also later played a role in precipitating the Sino-Soviet conflict, when Mao Zedong condemned Khrushchev as a “revisionist” and a “phony communist.” Leaders of the capitalist West were, of course, delighted. They thought that finally a Communist leader had arrived whom they could talk to.
The speech had consequences long after Khrushchev’s 1964 ouster from power. In 2007 Mikhail Gorbachev characterized his own so-called perestroika as a direct continuation of Khrushchev’s speech (Guardian, April 26, 2007).
There are two basic research paradigms, or “schools,” in the study of the Stalin era: the totalitarian and the revisionist. The first one attributes the era’s excesses (however defined) mainly to Stalin’s person; the other seeks alternative explanations. The totalitarian school has long been favored in the West, though it has been under strong challenge by scholars like Stephen Wheatcroft, Geoffrey Roberts, and other “revisionists.” UCLA historian J. Arch Getty’s book The Origins of the Great Purges (Cambridge U.P. 1985) may be regarded as the start of this school, though Getty’s work had its roots in that of Roberta Manning, Sheila Fitzpatrick, and Jerry Hough.
Since the partial opening of some Soviet archives in the early 1990s, a number of hitherto widely accepted “truths” have had to be re-evaluated. This includes the death toll due to repressions during the Stalin era. Formerly some scholars claimed that up to 50 million people perished. We now know from a December 1953 report to Khrushchev that the number of people sentenced to death, plus the number who perished in the GULAG labor camps, amounts to about 1,9 million.1 The story of the “holodomor,” or deliberate starvation of the Ukrainian peasants in 1932-33, has also been strongly challenged.
But until now no one had systematically studied the accusations that Khrushchev made in his speech against Stalin and the former NKVD head Lavrentii Beria (dismissed and executed in 1953). The present book2 changes all this. Furr identifies 61 allegations in Khrushchev’s speech. He concludes that, with only one minor exception, every one of them is demonstrably false. In essence Furr claims to have proven that this “speech of the century” is a fraud from beginning to end.
The book is divided into twelve chapters and one lengthy appendix. In the first nine chapters Furr goes carefully through all the 61 accusations made against Stalin (and Beria). Chapter 10 is a review of what Furr calls the “typology of prevarication” – the types of lies that characterize Khrushchev’s speech. Chapter 11 reviews the consequences of the speech, and the final chapter deals with its legacy. The very extensive appendix contains various quotations, mostly from primary sources.
Some of Khrushchev’s accusations had already been disproven. The story that Stalin ran and hid for ten days when the Germans invaded in 1941 was debunked by the publication in 1995-97 of the official record of visitors to Stalin’s office.3 But other revelations by Furr are new. For example, Furr cites evidence that Stalin’s “torture telegram” of January 10, 1939, was at the very least severely distorted by Khrushchev in that he omitted vital and crucial information in this claimed order, and the text we have may even be a fake. Again, Furr cites the evidence of a disinformation program ordered by German Field Marshal Keitel in February 1941 before “Operation Barbarossa” that might account for the suspicion that Stalin and the Soviet leadership felt towards all the warning signs that kept pouring in concerning an imminent German invasion. This suspicion appeared to justify Khrushchev’s accusation that Stalin neglected these warnings – an accusation that has been uncritically accepted by Soviet, Russian, and Western scholars.
Khrushchev’s main accusation against Stalin is that he promoted the cult of personality around himself. Other scholars, beginning with the fervent anti-Stalinist Roy Medvedev, have cited evidence that casts doubt on this claim, but Furr’s is the largest collection of such evidence to date. Combine this with the lack of any evidence to the contrary and it now seems clear that Stalin distrusted the cult. Ironically, when Khrushchev was ousted from power in 1964 he was accused of promoting his own “cult of personality.”
Few scholars today would cite Khrushchev’s speech as a reliable source – although this was regularly done for fifty years – in view of the flood of documents from former Soviet archives. Furr cites dozens of primary sources that directly expose statements by Khrushchev as lies. A few examples: the transcript of the February-March 1937 Central Committee Plenum proves that Pavel Postyshev did not question “mass repression” at this meeting (Furr, ch. 3, #15); the publication in 1992 of “Vorontsov’s Letter” proves that Stalin did not ignore a warning of an impending German attack (Furr, ch. 5, #31). Gone are the days when scholars had to depend entirely on speeches and newspaper articles for Soviet historical data.
Furr’s study of the “Secret Speech” is of most interest for what he calls the speech’s role as a foundation stone for the “anti-Stalin paradigm” of Soviet history. It is this paradigm or framework, not simply Khrushchev’s speech, that Furr contends we should call into question. In fact such questioning is already under way. Some examples:
* In the early 1980s Trotskyist scholar Pierre Broué and, later, Getty discovered evidence in the Harvard Trotsky Archives that proved a “Bloc of Rights and Trotskyites” did indeed exist, as charged in the Moscow Trials. (Several Gorbachev-era “rehabilitation” commissions had officially declared that no such “bloc” ever existed, even after Getty’s article was published in the USSR in 1991.)
* In 1993 the late John Costello and Oleg Tsarev discovered evidence that Trotsky had indeed advocated “terror” – the murder of Stalin – again as charged in the Moscow Trials.
* Historian Mark Tauger has published compelling evidence disproving the “Holodomor.”
* Russian historian Iurii N. Zhukov published evidence that Stalin fought hard to implement contested, democratic elections in the USSR – and was defeated in this attempt.
* New documentary evidence has cast serious doubt upon the “mainstream” view of the “Katyn massacre” – that the Soviets shot the Poles, POWs and others, who are buried at Katyn near Smolensk.
* Russian researcher Igor Pykhalov has written many books and articles that cast doubt upon our “knowledge” of World War II: that Soviet POWs were sent to the GULAG; that the Soviet victory at Stalingrad was due to the use of draconian “penal battalions”; that the ethnic groups deported late in the war had not massively collaborated with the Germans, etc.
In effect Furr is formally proclaiming a “paradigm shift” for which evidence has been accumulating over many years. Furr’s (and Bobrov’s) work may be seen as building on that of the “revisionists” (called “Young Turks” when they first appeared in the mid-80s). A milepost of their work appeared in 1996 with Robert W. Thurston’s Life and Terror in Stalin’s Russia, 1934-1941 (Yale U.P.), which attracted furious opposition from the “totalitarian” school. With more and more documentary evidence coming to light since, the “revisionist” paradigm has been pushed far beyond Thurston’s work. Furr’s book therefore represents yet another milepost along a trail that is, by now, rather well-traveled.
Since the Russian publication of this book in 2007, Furr and Bobrov have published a book of articles about the Third Moscow Trial of March 19385 – the “Bukharin” trial – wherein they state that overwhelming documentary evidence supports the conclusion that Bukharin was guilty of what he confessed to. What’s more, they conclude that Bukharin could have stopped the “Great Terror” in its tracks by revealing that Nikolai Yezhov, Commissar of the NKVD, was a clandestine conspirator. Instead, Bukharin explicitly approved of this repression – a fact first noted by Getty in 1998 – and permitted it to continue. Outside of Russia Furr’s (and Bobrov’s) work has been all but ignored by professional historians of the USSR. In Russia their articles have been published in reputable journals, and the Russian version of this book has been reviewed, is widely discussed, and has been digitized for download on the Internet.
The book has some formal weaknesses. The statement of sources is less than satisfactory. I believe it is not helpful to put the quotations in a single long appendix. I would have preferred that all the evidence be discussed in sequence. Reading becomes more difficult when one must browse the appendix to check out what the author is referring to. In some cases it would also have been better to state Western sources instead of Russian. That goes, for example, for the table on page 332 regarding the number of arrests and executions in the years 1935-40, for which Furr could have mentioned the above-cited 1993 article in the American Historical Review.
To sum up: Furr’s work adds on to the fundamental reconsideration of the Stalin period that has been in progress for some time and that will unquestionably continue. Although historians of the “totalitarian” school still try to marginalize if not completely ignore the new paradigm, it will soon become untenable to do so. A “new synthesis” may result – though it is too soon to say exactly what shape that synthesis might assume.
And in some circles the old paradigm will long remain, for passions continue to run high on the subject of the communist movement and its historiography. After all, there can hardly be any other historical field where for decades major historians ignored elementary source criticism and – as Getty noted over thirty years ago – treated rumor as “the best, though not infallible, source.” That fact alone could be a subject for a dissertation.
Grover Furr has made a worthy contribution to our understanding of post-Stalin politics and of Cold War historiography – though not of the Stalin years themselves, as he is quick to point out. That is to say: Furr demolishes Khrushchev’s false historical construct. But he makes it clear that much further research will be necessary to construct a new historical account – to discover what really did happen. I hope we may look forward to more work by Professor Furr, and to the appearance in English of what he has already done.
1. According to the Zemskov report of the early 1990s, there were 833,842 death sentences between 1921 and 1953 and 1,053,829 deaths in the GULAG between 1934 and 1953. J. Arch Getty et al., “Victims of the Soviet Penal System in the Pre-War Years: A First Approach on the Basis of Archival Evidence,” American Historical Review, vol. 98, no. 4, October 1993, p. 1024. It is worth noting that the vast majority of the death sentences occurred during the so-called “yezhovshina” in 1937-38, and there is now good evidence that NKVD head Nikolai Yezhov acted behind the back of the Soviet government in order to turn people against the regime. See Mark Jansen & Nikita Petrov, Stalinskii pitomets – Nikolai Yezhov, Moscow 2008, 367-79. When Yezhov himself was executed, Stalin claimed, in a private conversation with aircraft designer Aleksandr Yakovlev, that it was because he had killed a lot of innocent people (Aleksandr Yakovlev, Tsel’ Zhizni. Zapiski Aviakonstruktora, Moscow 1973, 267).
2. This is the English version of a book published in Russia as Antistalinskaia Podlost’ (Algoritm, 2007) and reprinted as Teni XX’go s”ezda, ili Antistalinskaia podlost’ (Eksmo, 2010). Furr has published other books in Russian in collaboration with his colleague Vladimir Bobrov, as well as a number of articles about the Stalin era in both English and Russian.
3. See for example Steven Main, “Stalin in June 1941: A Comment on Cynthia Roberts,” Europe-Asia Studies, vol. 48, no. 5, July 1996.
4. Stephen Wheatcroft, “From Team-Stalin to Degenerate Tyranny,” in E.A. Rees (ed.), The Nature of Stalin’s Dictatorship: The Politburo, 1924-1953, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004, 79-107. Wheatcroft calls the post-1945 years of Stalin’s rule a “degenerate tyranny” but gives no evidence for this claim. All his evidence is from the pre-war period, and shows that Stalin sought consensus and was no dictator during that time.
5. A few of these essays have appeared in English in the online journal Cultural Logic.