This story was originally published by Dawn, Pakistan
Mar 2 2016 (IPS) – In one of his books, Mohamed Heikal, the Egyptian journalist who died last month at the age of 92, records an extraordinary encounter in 1964 between Gamal Abdel Nasser and Nikita Khrushchev.
The Soviet leader was visiting Egypt to attend ceremonies marking the completion of the first phase of the Aswan High Dam project, which Moscow had helped to build after the Americans withdrew an offer to fund it. For years, a bone of contention in relations between the two leaders had been the tendency of Arab nationalist leaders to suppress local communists, notably in Egypt, Syria and Iraq.
When the subject came up yet again one morning, Nasser, evoking Khrushchev`s excoriating critique of Josef Stalin six years earlier, noted: `When you tell us that we cannot attack communists, how is it that you yourself attack Stalin? We attack bad communists and Stalin is a good example of a bad communist.
`I can attack Stalin,` retorted a livid Khrushchev, `but you cannot attack Stalin! You have no right to attack him! According to Heikal, the `heated row` went on for six hours, and the Soviet leader emerged from it with a better understanding of the forces driving Arab nationalism.
It was 60 years ago last week that Khrushchev delivered his `secret speech` at a special late-night closed session tagged on to the 20th congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). His acknowledgement of Stalin`s crimes and sharp critique of the Stalinist personality cult was a watershed in more than one respect.
He made it clear at the outset that, three years after the dictator`s demise, he had come to bury Stalin, not to praise him, because there had been no dearth of panegyrics in the preceding decades. He mockingly pointed out the absurd levels to which Stalin-worship had been taken and declared that the trend had been personally dictated by the deceased leader.
Khrushchev took no issue with the `political-ideological` struggle against `the Trotskyite-Zinovievite bloc` and the `Bukharinites` in the 1920s, but noted that the mass repressions of the early 1930s were inaugurated after that battle had decisively been won. He hinted strongly that the Kremlin had a hand in the 1934 murder of Leningrad party leader Sergei Kirov, which served as an excuse for the state terror that followed, claiming the lives of a substantial majority of those elected to the central committee at the 17th party congress earlier that year.
At least equally devastating was the line of attack whereby Khrushchev blamed Stalin for the disarray sparked off by the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.
Adolf Hitler`s hordes were able to advance to the gates of Moscow because, despite any number of unheeded warnings, the Soviets were caught unprepared, while all too many of the Red Army`s most competent officers had fallen victim to Stalin`s paranoia.
Furthermore, Stalin personally was petrified by the German violation of the NaziSoviet pact, and initially assumed it was all over for his nation. It was two years before the tide began to turn, largely despite Stalin`s leadership rather than because of it.
The demolition of Stalin`s record as a war leader may have come as the greatest shock to Khrushchev`s audience. The script of his speech, which wasn’t officially reproduced in its entirety until 1989, records moments of `animation` and indignation among the apparatchiks, but not the fact that several people had to be carried or assisted out of the auditorium. Heart attacks are believed to have accounted for some of the attrition.
Among the communist movement internationally, Khrushchev`s speech was well received in some spheres (Italy, for instance) and viewed with extreme consternation in others, notably in China and Albania.
Domestically, its contents were communicated to party members throughout the length and breadth of the USSR. Among those entrusted with its dissemination in the Stavropol region was a Komsomol activist, freshly graduated from Moscow University, by the name of Mikhail Gorbachev.
Khrushchev was ousted shortly after the aforementioned clash with Nasser and reassessments of Stalin stalled during the extended period of economic and ideological stagnation under Leonid Brezhnev and co., but there was no return to the level of repression witnessed in the 1934-53 period. Many of the architects of the Prague Spring in 1968 and, almost two decades later, Soviet perestroika and glasnost cited the wasted window of opportunity under Khrushchev as an inspiration.
For all their flaws, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to look upon Khrushchev (who died in obscurity in 1971) and Gorbachev (who turns 85 today) as noble failures. A reminder of grievous shortfalls in exorcising the spirit of Stalin came just last month when activists putting up plaques in Moscow to commemorate some of the tyrant`s innumerable victims encountered sporadic resistance from those who simply didn`t want to know in some cases no doubt because it clashes with their hopelessly inaccurate image of a Stalinist golden era.