Friday, December 3, 2010

Gorbachev on Khrushchev

It is sometimes fascinating to read a famous person's biography of another person, because in some cases this teaches you a little bit about both people. For example, when Richard Nixon wrote about Winston Churchill, it was clear that Nixon identified with certain parts of Churchill's history. Just as Churchill had a period in the "wilderness" when he was out of power - a period which ended when World War II began - Nixon also characterized the eight years between 1961 and 1969 as his own wilderness years.

In 2007, the Guardian was printing a series of articles entitled "Great Speeches of the 20th Century." One of the speeches that was selected was Nikita Khrushchev's "Secret Speech" of 1956, the one in which Stalin was denounced. The article on this speech was written by another Soviet premier, Mikhail Gorbachev - a premier who effectively denounced Leonid Brezhnev, the person who ousted Khrushchev.

People such as me who are long-term anti-communists characterize the efforts of Khrushchev and Gorbachev as putting lipstick on a pig. What is the point of making minor changes to a system, we ask, when the entire system needs an overhaul. As Gorbachev writes about the balancing act that Khrushchev had to negotiate, we recall that Gorbachev had the same challenges.


Despite the damning revelations, the speech's overall assessment of Stalin was relatively mild. In this, Khrushchev yielded to the pressure of conservatives like Molotov. He said, for example, that "in the past Stalin undoubtedly performed great services to the party, to the working class and to the international workers' movement".

By contrast, in preliminary discussion, Khrushchev had said: "Stalin destroyed the party. He was not a Marxist. He wiped out all that is sacred in a human being." Later, fearing that the truth about Stalin could lead to criticism of the political system, Khrushchev reverted to saying that Stalin had been a staunch revolutionary. Such contradictions are evidence of a hard-fought battle - a struggle that should not be seen as mere palace intrigue. It took resolve and courage, qualities that Khrushchev showed in presenting the report and then also in exonerating innocent prisoners and instituting controls over the security apparatus.

It seems obvious that when Gorbachev praises Khrushchev as having resolve and courage, Gorbachev hopes that the same will be said about himself. Later in the article, the parallels are explicitly made:

Perestroika continued what the 20th congress had started, seeking to give back to socialism the "human face" destroyed by Stalin. By laying the foundations of a social market economy and by instituting free speech and elections, Perestroika implemented a new social-democratic project.

And just as Khrushchev was undone by Brezhnev, Gorbachev had his own enemy:

Its completion was thwarted by the conservatives' putsch followed by the actions of right-wing radicals led by Boris Yeltsin, who dismantled the Soviet Union and subjected the people to a "shock experiment". The result was the emergence of a "wild capitalism" which brought with it impoverishment, crime and corrupt government.

However, there is one other important parallel between Yeltsin and Brezhnev - both of them allowed their predecessors to live.
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