Dilemmas of De-Stalinisation

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Why was De-Stalinisation difficult?

Sudden absence of Stalin -

  • Charismatic authority had substituted for real political legitimacy 
  • People did not know how much to keep of Stalinism and how much should be purged 


  • The passing of Stalin made it easier to justify and then implement reforms that were desperately needed at the time. but have largely held in check by the system of Stalinism. 
  • His death allowed for discussion of reasons and possible solutions for the bad state of affairs. 


  • Dangers of excessive reform, repeated swings in official policy, as the new leadership attempted to maintain a tense balance between enthusiasm for discarding the past and uncontrolled iconoclasm. 
  • Torn between mobilising the energy of new forces and giving into anarchy, between mainting the Soviet system and causing its implosion. 
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The "De-mythologisation of the leader cult"

Khrushchev wanted to revert back to power coming from the "below" and discarded all of Stalin's "personality of the cult" tendencies. This label was attched to Stalin during the 20th Party Congress and after the revelations about Stalin that appeared in the 1960's. 

The denouncing of Stalin's cult of personality was used to enforce the "rejuvenating" of the Soviet system. 

During the Secret Speech, de-stalinisation was used as a corrective to Soviet attempts to "objectify" what was in reality a highly subjective attack on the former leader. 

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The Thaw

"The important or imagined elements of de-stalinisation included liberalisation of the authoritarian political culture of Stalinism, a greater emphasis on the individual welfare and material well-being." 

The "Thaw" of the Stalinist freeze of freedom of expression and modifications to the autocratic chauvinsim which can be seen through Cold War Stalinism. 

  • Can we deem a process of de-stalinisation if the desire to break with Stalinism is not explicitly articulated? If a polcy claims to constitute de-stalinisation, do the outcomes matter? 
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Emphasis on resistance and repression

This masks the fact that the Soviet authorities' committment to opening up to the public sphere after Stalinism was genuine/radical. The quantity and quality of popular communication with the regime significantly increased, owing to the "freer atmosphere" often noted by foreign visitors. Also, people were more willing to call out criticism on local party authorities, childcare and housing. 

This served a variety of aims for the leadership:

  • It exposed the local defects of the economic and political system 
  • Quickened their solutions to re-engaging popular energies 
  • Underscored the new leadership's commitment t the people - central aim to legitimacy 

There was also populist appeal

  • Induced many more Soviet citizens to write to authorities than had dared during the Stalinist era. Criticism in the pages of the Soviet press, and even in the body of policy documents. 
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Secret Speech

Was the speech of the 20th Party Congress a "breakthrough" or crossed a rubicon? 

Adzhubei - quickly limited half-truth and the secret stap was placed on the whole range of poblems again by the mid 1960's. 

  • Public opinion - significant influence on the hard journey through destalinisation 
  • Secret Speech - blueprint for the management of public opinion which would be deployed in a more timely and effecient manner during subsequent episodes of de-stalinisation. 
  • It was meant to mobilise unanimous public opinion but it was unmitigated disaster. Too much outrage when people heard the details of the S.S - party encouraged a passionate response. 

"The speech therefore swung between mobilisation feelings of vengeance and disgust at Stalin's wrongdoing and encouraging optiminsm about the neo-Lenist future." 

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The blame was shifted on to the authors of the Speech or to the hapless bureaucrats disseminating - pointing out the real defect in the management of public opinion. 

  • Many of those wo ususally relied on to enforce the party line were themselves embroiled in criticism and self-criticism as they grappled with genuine feelings of shock & outrage
  • Local authorities were at a loss as to how to classify and then discipline the range of responses to de-stalinisation 
  • Criticism included "anti-socal moods", "anti-Soviet statements" to "slander and demegogic" "hostile" or "incorrect" statements - party reflected the habit of combining several terms of abuse to describe wrongdoers
  • It also demonstrated the local authorites predicament - "the boundaries of the permitted were blurred" when trying to find reasonable solutions. 
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