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Abstract and Keywords

This article explores the impact of de-Stalinization on the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and China. Writers, artists, and intellectuals welcomed the curtailment of repression—the so- called ‘thaw’—but their calls for openness and tolerance unnerved the Soviet party authorities. In 1956 Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin but he did not question the fundamentals of socialism. Still, his criticism of Stalin led to turmoil in the socialist camp, most notably unrest in Poland and the anti-Soviet insurrection in Hungary. While Khrushchev agreed to a reduction of Soviet influence in Poland, he ordered military intervention in Hungary. This intervention undermined the legitimacy of communism, as it made clear that communism in Eastern Europe was a Soviet imposition. Meanwhile, de-Stalinization untied Mao Zedong’s hands. He felt free to pursue China’s socialist transformation the way he thought best. Mao took advantage of Khrushchev’s predicament to assert China’s claim to leadership in the communist world.

Keywords: de-Stalinization, thaw, Khrushchev, Mao Zedong, Poland, Hungary, China, 1956

At 4 a.m. on 6 March 1953, Radio Moscow went on air with the sombre announcement that Stalin was dead. Muscovites poured into the streets, in disbelief, in silence. There was a feeling, wrote Harrison Salisbury, a US journalist in Moscow, that the Russians were ‘suffering a deep sense of shock so profound as to paralyze any ordinary display of emotion’. In a country where Stalin had been worshipped like a demi-god, his passing was nothing short of a calamity. The mood was captured by the poet Sergei Mikhalkov: ‘If we could only give him/Our beating hearts and our very breath!…We say: the Great Stalin is with us! We say: the Great Stalin is alive!’1

But Stalin was dead. Residents of East Berlin marched through the Stalin Allee behind a black-bordered portrait of the deceased leader: ‘some looked as if they were marching only because they had to, while others walked with the demeanor of ardent Communists’. In Beijing, Mao Zedong proclaimed three days of mourning, lamenting the passing of ‘the dearest friend and the great teacher of the Chinese people’. From Pyongyang, the capital of war-torn North Korea, Kim Il Sung promised that his people would ‘sacredly guard and carry forward the great banner of Lenin-Stalin’. Five thousand Iranian leftists solemnly gathered at Fawzi Square in Teheran to pay their respects. And in Langley, British Columbia, three schoolboys lowered their school’s flag to half-mast to mark the occasion: they were immediately expelled.2

Not long after the last eulogies were uttered, the new Soviet leadership began to reorient the country’s domestic and foreign policies away from the Stalinist orthodoxy. Changes were perceptible in the economic realm. In August 1953 Prime Minister Georgii Malenkov announced plans to stimulate agricultural output and increase production of consumer goods, long neglected in favour of heavy industry. The Soviet people were promised better products, better services, and better housing. Although Malenkov soon fell from power, a victim of the post-Stalin succession struggle, the First Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, Nikita Khrushchev, embraced his ousted rival’s concerns for the welfare of the Soviet consumer, and none too soon. Unrest and rioting in East Germany in June 1953, a result of the Stalinist Walter Ulbricht’s unwillingness to ease (p. 141) production quotas, had taught Moscow that there was a limit to how far belts could be tightened.3

In an effort to remedy the most grotesque excesses of the Stalin era, the new Soviet leadership sought to reverse the tide of repression. Stalin’s henchman Lavrentii Beria, who had sent thousands to their deaths as the head of the secret police, now spearheaded efforts to ‘liquidate the system of forced labor’. Rehabilitations began in 1953, and by February 1956 at least seven thousand people had had their verdicts overturned. On 27 March 1953 the Supreme Soviet announced an amnesty for many categories of Gulag inmates. Beria did not see these reforms through to the end: another casualty in the relentless power struggle, he was arrested and, in December 1953, secretly executed. But his was one of the last deaths on the altar of Stalinism; henceforth, Soviet power struggles would not be so deadly. The new leadership moved to limit the powers of the secret police, placing them under party control. The authorities also untightened the grip—if only slightly—on the public expression of dissenting views among Soviet intellectuals, artists, and writers. This was a refreshing change. After the cold winds of repression, these were the years of the Thaw—so-called after a 1954 novel by Ilya Ehrenburg, which allegorically criticized the Stalin era.4

There was also a thaw in Soviet foreign policy. Malenkov, and later Khrushchev, embraced ideas of peaceful coexistence between the East and the West. This policy was born of a realization that a nuclear war would have no winners, and that the two blocs had no choice but to settle their differences at the negotiating table, and compete peacefully. The new Soviet priorities translated this into an effort to end the wars in Korea and Indochina in 1953–4. In 1955 the Soviet Union agreed to a neutrality treaty with Austria, withdrawing its occupation force. Moscow launched a wide appeal to win sympathy from the Third World, courting Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, India’s Jawaharlal Nehru, and Indonesia’s Sukarno—even though that often required a toning down of communist rhetoric. Within the socialist bloc, the Soviets emphasized greater equality at the expense of the strict hierarchy of the Stalin days. In 1954 Khrushchev, in a bid to win Chinese support, cancelled humiliating agreements that had given the Soviet Union special privileges in Manchuria and Xinjiang, and withdrew forces from Port Arthur, the Soviet naval base in China. He also mended fences with the Yugoslav leader Iosip Broz Tito, whom Stalin had excommunicated from the Communist Information Bureau (Cominform), Moscow’s framework for imposing uniformity on Eastern Europe. Cominform itself was abolished in 1956. The Soviets were still keen to remain in control in Eastern Europe but in less obvious and less brutal ways than in Stalin’s time.

The Secret Report

On 25 February 1956, the final day of the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, Congress delegates were called in for a closed session (foreign visitors were excluded). Khrushchev spoke for nearly four hours to the stunned assembly to the effect (p. 142) that Stalin had been personally responsible for the bloodbath of repressions; that he had failed to recognize the danger of the German invasion in 1941 and committed criminal blunders throughout the war; that he had sent entire nations into exile; that he had ruined Soviet agriculture; and that he had consciously built up his own personality cult. There was a ‘deathly silence’ in the hall. Many of the things Khrushchev had said were well known to those present, but the scale and the gravity of the condemnation were difficult to stomach. There was no transcript of the proceedings but in the following weeks an edited copy of Khrushchev’s speech was read out to party members and the non-party aktiv (activists) around the country. This meant, in practice, millions of people. Some of the more important foreign delegations also received a transcript of what would come to be called the ‘Secret Report’.5

Khrushchev’s denunciation of the country’s chief idol had a shell-shock effect on the population, opening the floodgates to expressions of anger, hatred, disappointment, and hope. Many people simply refused to believe Khrushchev. ‘Why was he [Khrushchev] silent then, and now, when Stalin is dead, has he begun to pour dirt all over him?’, wondered one retired colonel after reading Khrushchev’s report. ‘For some reason I don’t really believe in all the facts recounted in the secret letter. Stalin did a lot for the Soviet state, and his achievements cannot be understated.’6 Some people even took their frustrations and grievances overseas, like one secondary-school teacher, Anatolii Danilevskii, who wrote to Mao Zedong alleging unfair criticism of Stalin by ‘different upstarts and wheeler-dealers’ with their ‘ideology of timeserving and careerism, bias and false testimony, hypocrisy and betrayal’.7 But things got much worse than anonymous letters by disgruntled Stalinists. Shortly after the news of the ‘Secret Report’ leaked out to the public, the Soviet Republic of Georgia witnessed unrest and rioting on 4 March as the youths and students took to the streets of Tbilisi, the republican capital, to commemorate the third anniversary of Stalin’s death. Chanting ‘Dideba did Stalins!’, ‘Dideba belads Stalins!’ (‘Long Live Great Stalin!’ ‘Long Live Our Leader Stalin!’), the students converged on the central square. The party authorities cracked down on the demonstrators on 9 March, leaving scores dead. The square had to be cleared with tanks.8

But even if Stalin remained popular in many quarters, not least in the military and among the ranks of the party conservatives, he was also widely denounced. The fallen demi-god was vilified at party meetings and in the street, often by the same people who had earlier worshipped him. Not all went to the length of engineer L. A. Zolotov, who axed the head off a Stalin statue in the front yard of his factory in the city of Cheboksary, or the hammer-wielding hooligans in Brest who attacked a bust of Stalin installed in the city library. But portraits of Stalin were coming down in public places and in private apartments. Stalin’s works—only recently the must-haves of any library and bookstore—were disappearing from the shelves. And the Central Committee received repeated requests from a disenchanted public to take Stalin out of the Mausoleum where his mummified remains still lay next to Lenin’s. ‘He should be taken somewhere and dumped outside the Soviet borders’ was one imaginative proposal that was a bit too radical for Khrushchev—who in the end did authorize Stalin’s quiet removal, cremation, and reburial in the Kremlin wall.9

(p. 143) De-Stalinization was especially welcomed by artists and the writers, people for whom Stalin’s breathtaking fall heralded the liberation of creativity, a spiritual rebirth. Among those who rode the crest of rediscovered freedoms were poets and writers like Evgenii Evtushenko, Vasilii Fedorov, and Vladimir Dudintsev. Evtushenko wrote about the ‘untruth’ that had replaced the ‘big truth’ with ‘shameful imitation’, while Fedorov in one poem lamented the ‘slave inside me’. The party watchdogs read between the lines of these poems, seeing criticism of the regime. This was also what they read in Dudintsev’s Not by Bread Alone, a 1956 novel about the uphill battle of a talented inventor against stifling Soviet bureaucracy. And it was not just the party watchdogs who read between the lines. Discussing Dudintsev’s novel, the writer Konstantin Paustovskii spelled out the big implications: ‘In our country, there exists with impunity and even prospers a completely new class, a new caste of people. This is a new tribe of predators and owners, who have nothing in common with the revolution, with our regime, or with socialism. These are cynics and obscurantists….These are middlemen and stranglers of talent…’. Just a few years earlier comments like these would have led Paustovskii straight to the firing squad. But Khrushchev’s report pushed the boundaries of the permissible. For a few brief months it was not clear where those boundaries actually lay.10

It did not take long for Khrushchev to realize that de-Stalinization could go badly wrong. What he meant to do was to dethrone Stalin, not to question the fundamentals of socialism in the USSR. But as discussion of the ‘Secret Report’ unfolded across the country, many began asking uncomfortable, even dangerous questions about the very nature of the Soviet system. It was not uncommon to hear comments that projected Khrushchev’s criticism of Stalin onto the local party secretaries—‘little Stalins’—who were accused of living lives of privilege even as the common folk faced daily hardships. ‘The people live without tea, sugar and sometimes without bread,’ wrote one resident of the city of Sverdlovsk, a major Soviet industrial centre, ‘there is no meat, no fish, or other products….Everything is handed overseas for nothing, as they [the party leaders] hope to entice people to come to their side: allegedly, we have it good, the capitalists are worse off…’. The Sverdlovsk letter ended with a solemn verdict: ‘We have no freedom, and there is no prosperity for the people.’11 The case that attracted most attention from the party authorities was the heated political discussion at a meeting of the party cell of the Thermal Technical Laboratory of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, on 23 and 26 March 1956. The meeting took an unprecedented turn when several participants condemned the party leadership—in the words of one of the speakers, Iurii Orlov, ‘a heap of scoundrels’—and the party itself, with its ‘spirit of slavery’. Similar ideas could be heard far and wide, in meetings across the country. They were duly noted and reported to the Kremlin: calls for free elections and freedom of speech, for strengthening democratic institutions in the Soviet Union.12

Such challenges to the Soviet system could not go unanswered. Orlov, for instance, was stripped of his party membership, and fired from the Laboratory. He recalled a conversation with the Italian physicist Bruno Pontecorvo: ‘We demanded to join socialism with democracy,’ Orlov said. ‘But,’ protested Pontecorvo (who had defected to the USSR in 1950), ‘one cannot have bourgeois liberties under socialism’. At the time, (p. 144) Pontecorvo’s idea struck Orlov as ‘absurd’.13 But the physicist was right on target. Those who expected that the denunciation of Stalin would lead to democratic socialism misread Khrushchev’s intentions. By the summer of 1956 one could sense a roll-back of de-Stalinization, a tendency that became even more pronounced towards the end of the year, when continued unrest in the socialist camp threw Khrushchev on the defensive. ‘There is no longer a thaw,’ Khrushchev would say later, addressing himself to the ‘rotten liberals’ of the post-Stalin era, ‘not even a chill but a frost. There will be the fiercest frost for people like you…’.14

Poland and Hungary

Like residents of Sverdlovsk, workers in the Polish city of Poznań grew increasingly frustrated with their dismally low living standards. In the relatively more open atmosphere of the spring of 1956, when the people of Poland, much like their neighbours in the East, reflected on the disclosures of Khrushchev’s ‘Secret Report’, it became easier to speak up about the wrongdoings of the past and the miseries of the present. Poznań, like the rest of Poland, was restless with pent-up anger and anticipation of change. Tensions boiled over when on 28 June employees at the Stalin Metal Works and at enterprises across Poznań stopped work and marched through the streets, demanding better pay and lower production quotas. Political demands were also advanced alongside calls for better living conditions. It was not just ‘We want bread!’ but ‘We want freedom!’, not only a question of ‘Down with the exploitation of the workers!’ but also that of ‘Down with Bolshevism!’ What began like a peaceful demonstration soon became a full-fledged uprising. The local party and government authorities were briefly paralyzed. The protesters captured the headquarters of the Provincial Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party (PUWP, Poland’s ruling Communist Party), and besieged the Public Security Office. The uprising was violently put down with the help of the Armed Forces and the Internal Security Corps, commanded by Soviet generals. At least seventy-three people were killed, mainly the protesters.15

Poznań exposed the shallow roots of Poland’s communism. There was not much to show for more than ten years of progressive communization and sovietization, for all the repression of public enemies, for all the propaganda of friendship with the USSR and common interests of the socialist bloc. No sooner did the ruling regime relax controls than it found itself under siege by the people, many of whom may have not known what it was exactly that they wanted but did know what they did not want: the Soviet connection. Opposition to communism fed into the traditional anti-Russian sentiments of the Polish public. Poznań articulated this longing for independence from Moscow, highlighting at the same time the continued appeal of the West, as many Westerners (who were in town for the Poznań International Fair) found out first hand, when they were welcomed and cheered by the demonstrators. The Russians, by contrast, were accused of looting the Polish economy—taking all that was valuable (in particular, coal) and (p. 145) paying next to nothing for it. One could also hear calls to return the Polish lands that the Russians had taken in 1939 by a secret agreement with Germany and had kept after the war.

But if Poznań showed that the Poles had no great love for either the Reds or the Russians, subsequent developments made it clear that, given the choice between the two, the people preferred communism over dependence on the USSR. Indeed, communism was tolerable if it was rid of its ugliest Stalinist facets, and if it was sufficiently ‘national’ in orientation. The Polish case was unique in that at this crucial point in time the PUWP experienced a vacuum of leadership, occasioned by the death of Poland’s ‘little Stalin’, Bolesław Bierut, who had succumbed to a heart attack in Moscow shortly after the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU. Factional struggle inside the ruling elites allowed for the unexpected reemergence of Władisław Gomułka, a one-time leader of the Polish communists who fell out of Stalin’s favour in 1948 for advocating a Polish road to socialism at a time when such ideas were a dangerous heresy. Gomułka subsequently languished in gaol (a humane treatment by the standard of the day) until he was quietly let out in February 1955. Growing unrest then propelled Gomułka to the forefront of national politics. Although a communist, he had strong nationalist credentials, and for this reason he was genuinely popular among the Polish people as a leader who would resist Soviet encroachment on Poland’s sovereignty. Within the PUWP leadership, Gomułka’s conservative opponents were outnumbered by his supporters who saw his return as the one opportunity to reverse the party’s plummeting fortunes. On 21 October 1956 Gomułka was put back in charge as the party’s First Secretary.

Two days before that, on 19 October, a Soviet delegation led by Khrushchev himself turned up, uninvited, in the Polish capital of Warsaw. For some months now the Soviets had been receiving worrisome reports from their embassy in Poland, and from their allies in the ranks of the Polish leadership, about the deepening crisis of the ruling regime.16 Khrushchev had been angered by Gomułka’s unexpected rise in spite of Moscow’s disapproval of his politics, and also worried about the fate of staunch Soviet supporters within the ruling elite, especially of Konstantin Rokossowski, the Soviet-installed Minister of Defence and a Soviet national, who was about to lose his job. Khrushchev’s eleventh-hour appearance aimed to prevent a major political reshuffle, which would clearly have weakened the Soviet ability to exercise control over Poland and its overall position in Eastern Europe. Khrushchev got off the plane in Warsaw showing his fist, threatening Gomułka that ‘you will not pull this one off’.17

Even as Khrushchev opened the talks with the Poles, Soviet forces in northern and western Poland were being redeployed menacingly towards Warsaw in what the Soviets claimed was a routine exercise. It was not difficult for Gomułka to imagine the consequences of such an exercise. Yet he held his ground in the face of Khrushchev’s threats, reassuring him that Poland would remain steadfast on the road to socialism, and would not leave the Soviet bloc.18 Khrushchev was somewhat calmed by such promises. He recalled some years later: ‘I believed him, telling my comrades: “I think we have no reasons not to believe Gomułka.”’19 The movement of troops towards Warsaw was halted, but the situation hung in a precarious balance. On 20 October, at the first meeting of the (p. 146) Soviet Presidium following his return from Poland, Khrushchev appeared to be leaning towards military intervention.20 What really saved Gomułka was the anti-Soviet and anti-communist uprising in Hungary, which made the Poles look loyal by comparison.

In June 1953, just three months after Stalin’s death, Moscow appointed a new prime minister for Hungary, Imre Nagy. A one-time informer for the Soviet secret police, Nagy had spent many years in Moscow before coming back to Budapest after the war to take charge of agricultural questions in the new government. His agricultural expertise, as well as the Soviet connection, served him well in 1953 when the new Soviet leaders decided to curb the excessive powers of Hungary’s ‘little Stalin’, Mátyás Rákosi, who had presided over years of bloody repression and a brutal collectivization campaign. Nagy was charged with steering the ‘New Course’ for Hungary: a retrenchment of collectivization and encouragement of consumption in the economic sphere, and reduction of the repressive powers of the police state. Rákosi, who had stayed on as the Party Secretary of the Hungarian Workers’ Party (HWP)—a distinct sign of the Kremlin’s ambiguity about Nagy’s program—worked hard to undermine the New Course, and his rival too. The demise of Nagy’s key supporters in Moscow—Beria and Malenkov—made the task easier: by April 1955 the reformist prime minister was out, replaced by András Hegedüs who deferred to the unreformed Stalinist Rákosi.21

The end of Hungary’s New Course and Nagy’s downfall exacerbated popular dissatisfaction with the ruling regime. As in the USSR, discontent was especially widespread in intellectual circles and among the youth. Rákosi was at his wits’ end about the growing dissent, asking at one point in October 1955 that two prominent Soviet writers meet with their Hungarian colleagues in order to ‘influence’ them towards greater support of the regime, one of them being, ironically, Ilya Ehrenburg, the prophet of the Soviet thaw. These Soviet writers and Hungarian intellectuals, in fact, had a lot in common, for the ideas of the thaw had wide appeal across the socialist commonwealth, and unlike the Western broadcasts, could not be jammed or dismissed as enemy propaganda.22 As Rákosi, disoriented by the Secret Report, stalled and hesitated at the helm of a divided party, voices of dissent grew louder, amplified in the heated discussions of the Petöfi Circle, a discussion club for the intellectuals and youth sponsored in late 1955 by the regime itself, in an effort to channel growing dissent away from anti-communism. Unfortunately for Rákosi, discussions of the Petöfi Circle increasingly attracted people from all walks of life. Budapest’s factories sent workers’ delegations, so the ideas of dissent were propagated far and wide. Many participants of the Petöfi Circle put their faith in Imre Nagy who, though out of power, commanded considerable influence among burgeoning ranks of supporters. Many, like Nagy himself, remained committed to the idea of a socialist future in Hungary. But this commitment was tested and eroded by the open-ended calls for freedom. ‘Two half-truths do not make one full truth,’ thundered the writer Tibor Meray to the six thousand people who assembled for the Petöfi Circle discussion on 27 June 1956: ‘Only the full truth will satisfy us. But you can have truth only where there is freedom. And therefore, first and foremost, we demand freedom!’23

That tumultuous session of the Petöfi Circle—the most heated to date—ended at 4 a.m. on 28 June, just two hours before workers took to the streets in Poznań. Using (p. 147) the Polish events as his excuse, Rákosi shut down the Circle. But he was ruling on borrowed time. The Soviets blamed ‘that idiot’ Rákosi for the build-up of discontent in Hungary, forcing him to resign in July.24 Yet the appointment of Ernő Gerő, one of Rákosi’s associates, as the First Secretary was not enough to appease the opposition. Tensions continued to mount and on 23 October 1956 students and workers poured into the streets: Hungary was in a state of a revolution. The protesters called for sweeping reforms: introduction of elections, equality in the economic relationship with the USSR (the Hungarians wanted to sell their uranium at world market prices), the public trial of Rákosi and his henchmen, the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Hungary and, symbolically, the removal of the Stalin statue in central Budapest.25 That last demand proved the easiest to realize: that night a crowd toppled the statue in the City Park. It was dragged through the streets and smashed to pieces. Seeing control slipping from their hands, the HWP Political Committee called upon Nagy to rejoin the leadership as prime minister. Yet this belated gesture, which might have sufficed in July, fell far short of the demands now put forward by the radicalized protesters.

As events unfolded, the Soviet leadership discussed their options. Khrushchev’s first reaction was to order Soviet forces to Budapest to help disperse the protesters. By dawn on 24 October, Soviet tanks had occupied parts of the Hungarian capital, but they did not have sufficient force to establish effective control. An uneasy stalemate ensued while the Soviet envoys Anastas Mikoyan and Mikhail Suslov met with the Hungarian leaders in an effort to resolve the crisis. Lending support to Nagy’s government, they cautioned Moscow against military intervention. The matter was discussed at length at the Presidium and on 30 October Khrushchev actually decided to resolve the crisis peacefully. On the same day, prompted by the Chinese, he agreed to publish a declaration emphasizing the sovereign equality of all socialist states, and even promising to begin negotiations on withdrawing Soviet troops from Hungary.26 This was a huge, hitherto unthinkable Soviet concession, which showed how far Moscow had moved from Stalinist methods of running the Eastern bloc. Unfortunately for the Hungarians, Khrushchev changed his mind on 31 October. From the Soviet perspective, the situation in Budapest had gone from bad to worse, Nagy having announced the previous day that Hungary would see the restoration of a multi-party system. The very future of Hungary’s socialism seemed in question. Khrushchev was taken aback by reports of communists in Budapest (often members of the despised State Security, the ÁVH) being hanged on lamp posts. The Soviet leader knew he had China’s backing to intervene. Khrushchev was also aware that the British, French, and Israelis had commenced an attack on Egypt on 29 October, precipitating the Suez Crisis. The brief war, which was a response to Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal, split the West, with the US adamantly opposed to what President Dwight D. Eisenhower perceived as outright imperialism on the part of the British and the French that would likely send Nasser fleeing into the Soviet embrace. The war in the Middle East lowered the stakes of intervention in Hungary, by providing a suitable distraction. Khrushchev feared that unless the Soviet Union intervened, Hungary, like Egypt, could fall prey to the ‘offensive’ of the West. ‘Our party will not understand us,’ Khrushchev summed up—‘we have no other choice’.27

(p. 148) On 31 October the Soviet leader authorized a massive military intervention in Hungary. By 4 November, Soviet forces were in Budapest. A few days and several thousand deaths later, the Hungarian revolution was finally strangled. Nagy fled to the Yugoslav Embassy (he was ultimately handed over to the Hungarians, tried, and executed). János Kádár, a reformist communist and a member of Nagy’s government before he defected to the Soviets, was enthroned as the new ruler of Hungary. He promised the Hungarians a milder form of communism, and implemented gradual reforms, which helped to keep the regime afloat for more than thirty years. The Hungarian revolution of 1956 thus ended in failure. But in the longer term it exposed the moral bankruptcy of communism. For if the communist system could be sustained only with assistance of Soviet tanks, the system had no future.

Poland and Hungary turned out very differently in 1956, but there was considerable similarity in the internal dynamics of the two crises, especially in that both were animated as much by anti-Russian sentiment as by anti-communism. The two conveniently overlapped, so that being anti-communist often meant being anti-Russian as well, though Gomułka argued otherwise. In Poland and Hungary a key theme was the Soviet domination of the two satellites—in particular, Soviet economic exploitation. The Poles protested Moscow’s failure to pay adequately for coal purchases, and the Hungarians resented having to sell uranium on the cheap. Although neither Poland nor Hungary were in the same league as many Third World countries, in this respect their plight resonated with many an anti-colonial liberation movement.

The Rise of China

The year 1956 ushered in the beginning of ‘de-colonization’ of the Eastern bloc, although the patterns of struggle were different for the different ‘colonies’. The dictator of desperately poor Albania, Enver Hoxha, managed to check challenges by his domestic opponents who sought to use Khrushchev’s Secret Report to undermine him, and he subsequently broke free from Soviet control by turning to China. In North Korea developments were similar in that opponents of the tyrant Kim Il Sung tried to oust him in August 1956, only for the plot to backfire. Kim purged his opponents, even though Moscow and Beijing attempted to intervene on their behalf. After 1956, Kim distanced himself from both these allies and, under the ideological banner of Juche (self-reliance) steered a politically astute course, balancing China against the Soviet Union, while obtaining aid from both. This allowed him to establish a degree of political autonomy that, many years later, would make North Korea relatively immune from communist collapse.28

But it was China that was the greatest beneficiary of the ‘de-colonization’ of 1956, for it was Khrushchev’s criticism of Stalin that allowed Mao Zedong to set a course in domestic and foreign policy that would soon lead to the end of the Sino-Soviet alliance and prepare China for the era of reform and opening to the outside world. Mao spent the (p. 149) two months between mid-February and mid-April 1956 studying reports of various sectors of the Chinese economy. His main concern was how to hasten China’s development in order—as he put it—‘to change the country’s backward economic, scientific, and cultural status, and quickly reach the advanced level in the world’.29 Up to then China had relied on the Soviet Union for advice: thousands of Soviet experts were working in China, helping implement the country’s First Five-Year Plan, which relied on extensive investment in the heavy industry in accordance with the Stalinist model of industrialization. The Soviets were already dissatisfied with this model and were in the process of moving towards more consumer-friendly policies. Mao, too, was unhappy but this was because he thought the Soviet-advised development targets were too cautious. He wanted China to develop faster than the USSR, calling on his colleagues to abandon ‘superstitions’, whether these were Chinese or foreign. By the time Khrushchev exposed Stalin’s cult, Mao had already decided to defer less to the Soviets on economic questions, a decision that would lead China towards the economic radicalism of the utopian Great Leap Forward, a disaster that would cost millions of lives.

On the one hand, Khrushchev’s Secret Report made it easier for the Chinese to question Moscow’s authority; on the other hand, it created conditions for Mao to assert moral leadership in the socialist camp, as well as the international communist movement. After he had had a chance to read through the Secret Report, Mao announced that Khrushchev had done two things,: he had ‘removed the lid’ and also ‘made a mess’. By ‘removing the lid’, Mao meant that the Soviet leader, in showing that even Stalin had made mistakes, had opened the way to each party to act in accordance with its own circumstances. Khrushchev, Mao explained, had broken the ‘incantation of the golden hoop’, the hoop worn by the Monkey King of the Chinese literary classic Journey to the West. The monk Tang Sanzang had sought to control the Monkey King through a magic hoop around his head that caused him excruciating pain. Mao Zedong, who admired—and identified with—the Monkey King, was no doubt content to be freed from the Stalinist hoop.30 ‘Making a mess’ referred to Mao’s (justified) conclusion that Khrushchev’s ‘Secret Report’ confused and weakened the international communist movement. Events in Poland and Hungary would prove Mao’s foresight in this respect.

Yet there was also a good thing in Khrushchev’s ‘mess’, for it allowed Mao to claim the role of arbiter of the communist world, the wise man who could sort out the problems Khrushchev had caused. Mao’s position was articulated in an editorial published by the daily newspaper, Renmin Ribao, on 5 April 1956, ‘On the Historical Experiences of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat’. The main theme of the article was that mistakes were inevitable in the process of socialist construction, so it was natural that Stalin would have made mistakes. ‘We should view Stalin from an historical standpoint’ went the article (which was written with Mao’s extensive input)—‘make a proper and all-round analysis to see where he was right and where he was wrong, and draw useful lessons’.31 Mao had by then decided that the ratio of Stalin’s virtues to his mistakes was 70 to 30, or, as he liked to put it figuratively, of Stalin’s ten fingers only three were rotten.32 As for the lessons to be drawn, the theme of selective learning from Soviet mistakes was present throughout. Mao put the matter much more bluntly at the Chinese Communist Party (p. 150) (CCP) Secretariat meeting the day before, when he listed ‘independence’ as the first ‘lesson’ to be drawn from Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization.33

After the article was published, the Chinese Foreign Ministry instructed PRC embassies throughout the world to collect comments. The feedback was very flattering, with the Chinese Embassy in Moscow especially highlighting the ‘deep impression’ the article had in the USSR. A report sent, among others, to Mao, pointed out that ‘not a few Soviet comrades believe that this article’s significance goes beyond China’s sphere, and has great educational significance for Soviet party members and the Soviet people, and also for the fraternal parties and for the people of the world…’.34 Mao now towered above Khrushchev as the philosopher of the revolution, a true heir to the legacy of Marxism-Leninism. Only a few years earlier, he had gone out of his way to emphasize that he was Stalin’s loyal pupil, not like the Yugoslavs, who had broken free from Moscow’s control. Now in 1956 he told the Yugoslavs: ‘Liberty, equality and fraternity are slogans of the bourgeoisie, but now we have to fight for them….Now there is, in a sense, an atmosphere of anti-feudalism, in which a father-and-son relationship is giving way to a brotherly relationship, and a patriarchal system toppled.’35 But who was the elder and who was the younger brother in the communist family was not spelled out. And for Mao, there was no straightforward answer. He well realized that China was behind the USSR, yet he was intent on catching up and overtaking it in the shortest possible time.

In the meantime, Mao used the newly found equality of the Eastern bloc to build up China’s reputation in Eastern Europe, violating the division of responsibilities that he and Stalin had agreed in 1949–50, wherein Beijing had responsibility for East Asian not European matters. The Chinese were deeply involved in both the Polish and the Hungarian crises: Mao’s second-in-command, Liu Shaoqi, led a delegation to Moscow in October to advise Khrushchev on how to save the situation. At first, he advised the Soviets against intervention in either country, describing the Soviet tendency to ‘impose [their] will’ on other communist countries as a ‘big-power chauvinist tendency’. Later, though, the Chinese backed the Soviet invasion of Hungary, no doubt because Mao realized that the situation in Budapest was heading towards the collapse of socialism. The Chinese leadership later ascribed Soviet restraint in Poland and the intervention in Hungary to China’s well-timed advice, and whatever its real impact, it certainly boosted Mao’s self-confidence as the arbiter of relations in the socialist camp.36

One of the lessons Mao claimed to learn from Hungary was that when a ruling party becomes separated from the ‘masses’, when it succumbs to ‘subjectivism’, ‘factionalism’, and ‘bureaucratism’, it loses the ability to lead. Rákosi, Mao said, had done ‘ridiculous things’ in Hungary, and even Stalin in the USSR did not ‘listen carefully to the opinions of his comrades and the voice of the masses’.37 This was something the Chairman sought to avoid in China by allowing a measure of healthy debate. The new policy of letting ‘one hundred flowers bloom, one hundred schools of thought contend’ took shape gradually from late spring 1956, in the face of resistance by party cadres at every level, who did not like the idea of being criticized. Mao, however, was confident of his ability to withstand criticism—indeed, to strengthen his own authority by appealing to the masses, and the intellectuals, at the expense of his own party—and so avoid the Hungarian scenario. (p. 151) By May 1957 the ‘Hundred Flowers’ campaign was in full bloom, but Mao was unsettled by the criticism. He had never intended for anyone to question the fundamentals of the socialist system in China, or the right of the CCP to rule. Now labelling critical commentaries as ‘poisonous weeds’, he unleashed a campaign to suppress ‘rightist’ intellectuals and party officials (the label was applied broadly to about half a million people). The party’s critics were silenced, and many were purged or sent to the countryside for ‘re-education’. As Mao explained to Hungary’s János Kádár, ‘like the Hungarian events of October, [in China] almost every state institution, office, school, and so on, has produced its own “little” Imre Nagy. For a period of about two weeks, it was only the Rightists who spoke up, and during these two weeks, in many places, the antecedents to the Hungarian October were played out in miniature.’38 By the summer of 1957 the Maoist experiment in democracy was over. The one lesson that the CCP leadership had learned was to make sure that no such thing would ever happen again; henceforth, the authorities would meet any calls for political liberalization with decisive and sometimes bloody repression.


The year 1956 changed the course of world history, but its most profound consequences did not become manifest until many years later. At the time, de-Stalinization felt like a fresh breeze in Moscow’s sails: the Communist Party, rid of the worst excesses of Stalinism, was to press ahead with the socialist experiment with ever greater wisdom and justice, and with firmer support from the Soviet people. There was already a roll-back by mid-1956, as the Soviet leadership sought to cope with popular unrest and to stem anti-communism in Eastern Europe. But Khrushchev persevered into the late 1950s and early 1960s, not only because he was morally committed to de-Stalinization, as a sine qua non of building socialism in the USSR, but also because his political fortunes in part depended on his continued opposition to Stalin’s defenders in the Soviet leadership. These included the heavyweight Viacheslav Molotov, whom Khrushchev—just—managed to purge in 1957. De-Stalinization also became an important card for Khrushchev to play against his Chinese opponents in the early 1960s, when two opposing views on Stalin became part and parcel of the ideological struggle that characterized the Sino-Soviet split.

However, Khrushchev was never a consistent de-Stalinizer. He criticized Stalin but he defended the system that had brought Stalin to the helm. Yet the idea that Stalin was an aberration and that, but for Stalin, the Soviet system was superior to any other system, stretched credibility, as Khrushchev learned quickly enough. People such as Iurii Orlov and other dissidents-in-the-making wanted to proceed towards openness and greater democratization, but this the Soviet leader could not allow. In 1964, however, Khrushchev was ousted from power. His successors were even less committed to de-Stalinization than he had been. In the years that followed, Stalin was partially (p. 152) rehabilitated, and the voices of dissent were silenced. Those who publicly disagreed with the Soviet government soon found themselves in prison, in the insane asylum, or in exile in the West. Many others kept quiet. Some of these silenced intellectuals, the children of the thaw, moved up through the system and played an important role in encouraging openness and political pluralism in the USSR in the late 1980s when Mikhail Gorbachev, himself a child of the thaw, claimed the reins of power.

Gorbachev returned to Khrushchev’s abandoned project of de-Stalinization. He ordered the publication of the ‘Secret Report’ with its account of Stalin’s crimes. State censorship of the media was partially lifted and, by the late 1980s, there was a lively debate in Soviet society about the merits and demerits of communism. As in 1956, there was no unanimity, with liberals and conservatives fighting it out on the pages of newspapers and in the corridors of power, in the hope of gaining the support of the Soviet people and of Gorbachev himself. Gorbachev sided with the liberals and within a few years communism was no more. However, this did not close the fissures that had cut through Soviet society since 1956. Stalinism and anti-Stalinism still contend for the allegiance of the Russian public. In recent years Russia has seen a reversal of democracy and, unsurprisingly, a rise in Stalin’s reputation, attested by dozens of hagiographic histories of the Stalin era that now fill Russia’s bookstores. Thus, the de-Stalinization begun by Khrushchev in 1956 is still incomplete.

The year 1956 marked a turning point for Eastern Europe. On the one hand, bloody suppression of the Hungarian uprising confirmed the apparent inviolability of Moscow’s control. Washington pointedly abstained from helping out the anti-communist forces in Budapest, except by proclamations of moral solidarity, which probably did more harm than good by undermining the prospects for a compromise solution à la Gomułka and encouraging a degree of radicalism that the Soviets simply could not tolerate. But the Soviet crackdown only served to demonstrate that Hungarian communism was an imposition from the outside, that its very survival depended on Moscow’s willingness to use force. When in 1989 Gorbachev refused to do that, the communist regimes in Eastern Europe toppled one after another. But the legacies of 1956 remain, as Russia and Europe still eye each other suspiciously across the former Cold War battlefields strewn with unpleasant memories of brutal Stalinization and still more brutal de-Stalinization.

Another legacy of 1956 was China’s break with the USSR. De-Stalinization cleared the playing field for Mao, making it possible to ignore Soviet advice in a way that the hierarchical structure of Sino-Soviet relations would never have permitted under Stalin. Dispensing with ‘superstitions’, Mao plunged the country into the Great Leap Forward and, when that experiment in economic radicalism ended in tragedy, blamed the party cadres for their lack of faith. In 1966 Mao summoned the revolutionary enthusiasm of the masses in support of his utopian visions, and the whole country descended into chaos under the banner of the Cultural Revolution. There is a clear thread that connects 1956 with Maoist radicalism and ultimately with Deng Xiaoping’s policy of reform and opening, namely, China’s search for its own path towards modernity. But the continued unwillingness on the part of the Chinese leadership to ease censorship or to move (p. 153) towards political liberalization suggests that Beijing learned the hard lessons, first of 1956, and later of 1989. Whether and when these lessons are unlearned will determine the fate of China and, therefore, of the world.

Select Bibliography

Aimermakher, Karl et al. (eds.), Doklad N.S. Khrushcheva o Kul’te Lichnosti Stalina na XX s’ezde KPSS: Dokumenty (Moscow: Rosspen, 2002).Find this resource:

    Chen, Jian, Mao’s China and the Cold War (Chapel Hill, NC, and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2001).Find this resource:

      Dobson, Miriam, Khrushchev’s Cold Summer: Gulag Returnees, Crime, and the Fate of Reform of Stalin (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009).Find this resource:

        Gati, Charles, Failed Illusions: Moscow, Washington, Budapest, and the 1956 Hungarian Revolt (Washington, DC, and Stanford, CA: Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Stanford University Press, 2006).Find this resource:

          Lankov, Andrei, Crisis in North Korea: The Failure of De-Stalinization, 1956 (Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 2005).Find this resource:

            Machcewicz, Paweł and Latynski, Maya, Rebellious Satellite: Poland 1956 (Washington, DC, and Stanford, CA: Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Stanford University Press, 2009).Find this resource:

              Taubman, William, Khrushchev: The Man and his Era (New York: W. W. Norton, 2003).Find this resource:


                (1) . Harrison E. Salisbury, ‘Russia’s Mood is Grim as Her Dictator Dies’, The New York Times, 8 March 1953, E4.

                (2) . ‘East Berliners Stage Stalin Parade While West Balks Public Displays’, NYT, 10 March 1953, 10; Izvestiia, 8 March 1953; ‘Iranian Reds Honour Stalin’, NYT, 10 March 1953, 6; ‘Boys Honour Stalin, are Expelled’, NYT, 8 March 1953, 4.

                (3) . For an excellent discussion of the subject, see Susan E. Reid, ‘Cold War in the Kitchen: Gender and the De-Stalinization of Consumer Taste in the Soviet Union under Khrushchev’, Slavic Review, vol. 61, no. 2 (Summer 2002), 211–252.

                (4) . Miriam Dobson, Khrushchev’s Cold Summer: Gulag Returnees, Crime, and the Fate of Reform of Stalin (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009). See also Anne Applebaum, Gulag: A History (New York: Anchor Books, 2003), 476–83.

                (5) . William Taubman, Khrushchev: The Man and his Era (New York: W. W. Norton, 2003), 270–99.

                (6) . Karl Aimermakher et al. (eds.), Doklad N.S. Khrushcheva o Kul’te Lichnosti Stalina na XX s’’ezde KPSS: Dokumenty (Moscow: Rosspen, 2002), 542.

                (7) . Letter from Anatolii Danilevskii to Mao Zedong, 12 August 1957. Chinese Foreign Ministry Archive: 109–01098–03, 19.

                (10) . On Paustovskii’s comment, see Vitalii Iu. Afiani et al. (eds.), Apparat TsK KPSS i Kul’tura, 1953–1957: Dokumenty (Moscow: Rosspen, 2001), 572. On Evtushenko and Fedorov, see Vitalii Iu. Afiani et al. (eds.), Apparat TsK KPSS i Kul’tura, 1953–1957: Dokumenty (Moscow: Rosspen, 2001), 537–8.

                (13) . Iurii Orlov, Opasnye Mysli: Memuary iz Russkoi Zhizni (Moscow: Moskovskaia Khel’sinskaia Gruppa, 2006), 117.

                (14) . Ogonëk, no. 8 (February 2008).

                (15) . One of the best treatments is Paweł Machcewicz and Maya Latynski, Rebellious Satellite: Poland 1956 (Washington, DC, and Stanford, CA: Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Stanford University Press, 2009).

                (16) . Aleksandr Orekhov, Sovetskii Soiuz i Pol’sha v gody ‘ottepeli’: iz istorii sovetsko-pol’skikh otnoshenii (Moscow: Indrik, 2005), 170–1.

                (17) . Aleksandr Orekhov, Sovetskii Soiuz i Pol’sha v gody ‘ottepeli’: iz istorii sovetsko-pol’skikh otnoshenii (Moscow: Indrik, 2005), 184.

                (18) . L.W. Gluchowski, ‘Poland, 1956: Khrushchev, Gomulka, and the “Polish October”’, Cold War International History Project Bulletin, Issue 5 (Spring 1995), 1, 38–49. See also Mark Kramer, ‘The Soviet Union and the 1956 Crises in Hungary and Poland: Reassessment and New Findings’, Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 33 no. 2 (April 1998), 169–71.

                (19) . Nikita Khrushchev, Vremia, Liudi, Vlast’, vol. 2 (Moscow: Moskovskie Novosti, 1999), 196.

                (20) . Aleksandr Fursenko (ed.), Prezidium TsK KPSS, 1954–1964 (Moscow: Rosspen, 2003), 173.

                (21) . See Charles Gati, Failed Illusions: Moscow, Washington, Budapest, and the 1956 Hungarian Revolt (Washington, DC, and Stanford, CA: Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Stanford University Press, 2006).

                (23) . William E. Griffith, ‘The Petofi Circle: Forum for Ferment in the Hungarian Thaw’, Hungarian Quarterly, 25 January 1962. Offprint available at: <>.

                (24) . Mark Kramer, ‘New Evidence on Soviet Decision-Making and the 1956 Polish and Hungarian Crises’, Cold War International History Project Bulletin, Issue 8/9 (Winter 1996), 363.

                (25) . Csaba Bekes, Janos M. Rainer, and Malcolm Byrne (eds.), The 1956 Hungarian Revolution: A History in Documents (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2003), 188–9.

                (28) . Elidor Mëhilli, ‘Defying De-Stalinization: Albania’s 1956’, Journal of Cold War Studies, vol. 13, no. 4 (Fall 2011), 4–56; Andrei Lankov, Crisis in North Korea: The Failure of De-Stalinization, 1956 (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2005).

                (29) . Pang Xianzhi and Jin Chongji, Mao Zedong zhuan, vol. 1 (Beijing: Zhongyang wenxian chubanshe, 2003), 470.

                (30) . Wu Lengxi, Shinian lunzhan, 1956–1966: Zhong-Su guanxi huiyilu, vol. 1 (Beijing: Zhongyang wenxian chubanshe, 1999), 15.

                (31) . Mao Zedong, On the Historical Experience of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1959), 18.

                (32) . David Wolff, ‘One Finger’s Worth of Historical Events: New Russian and Chinese Evidence on the Sino-Soviet Alliance and Split, 1948–1959’, Cold War International History Project Working Paper No. 30 (August 2000), 11.

                (33) . Wu Lengxi, Shinian lunzhan, vol. 1, 23.

                (34) . Report from the Chinese Embassy in Moscow to Beijing, 11 April 1956. CFMA: 109–01615–03, 20.

                (35) . Mao Zedong’s conversation with a Yugoslav delegation, September 1956, in Cold War International History Project Bulletin, Issue 6/7 (Winter 1995/96), 151. On Mao’s earlier comments, see Sergey Radchenko and David Wolff, ‘New Evidence on the Mao-Stalin relationship in 1947–1949’, Cold War International History Project Bulletin, Issue 16 (Fall 2007/Winter 2008), 105–182.

                (36) . On the Chinese role, see Chen Jian, Mao’s China and the Cold War (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 145–162; Shen Zhihua, ‘Mao and the 1956 Soviet Military Intervention in Hungary’ in János M. Rainer and Katalin Somlai (eds.), The 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the Soviet Bloc Countries: Reactions and Repercussions (Budapest: The Institute for the History of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, 2007), 24–37.

                (37) . On Rákosi, see John K. Leung and Michael Y. M. Kau (eds.), The Writings of Mao Zedong, 1949–1976, vol. 2 (New York: M. E. Sharpe, 1992), 356. On Stalin, see On the Historical Experience of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, 37.

                (38) . Péter Vámos, ‘Evolution and Revolution: Sino-Hungarian Relations and the 1956 Revolution’, Cold War International History Project Working Paper No. 54 (November 2005), 29.