It was early on the morning of Saturday 25th February 1956 when Nikita Khrushchev emerged as the dominant leader of the USSR when he delivered what became known as the “Secret Speech” to a closed session of the Soviet Congress. The speech lasted some four hours as he demolished Joseph Stalin’s reputation while he told the delegates that Stalin had shown, in a whole series of cases, intolerance, brutality, and abuse of power – not only against actual enemies but also against individuals who had not committed any crimes against the party or the Soviet Government. Later, in his memoirs, he recalled that the congress “listened to me in silence”. While the speech did not change much in Soviet society, it had many wide-ranging effects across the world.
The term “Secret Speech” proved to be a complete misnomer because, while the attendees at the Speech were all Soviet, the Eastern European delegates were allowed to hear it the following night when it was read slowly to allow them to take notes.
By the following Monday, 5th March, copies were being mailed throughout the Soviet Union, marked “not for the press” rather than “top secret”. An official translation appeared within a month in Poland where 12,000 extra copies were printed. One of these soon reached the Western countries.
Khrushchev’s son, Sergei, later wrote that, “Clearly, Father tried to ensure it would reach as many ears as possible. It was soon read at Komsomol meetings; that meant another eighteen million listeners. If you include their relatives, friends, and acquaintances, you could say that the entire country became familiar with the speech … Spring had barely begun when the speech began circulating around the world.