The speech that started the Soviet Union's decline

Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin's violent reign weakened the USSR.

It was 50 years ago, but I remember it like yesterday - the secret speech that marked the beginning of the end of the Soviet regime.

Delegates were assembled in Moscow from around the country and around the world for the 20th Congress of the Communist Party, the first since the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953. It was clear that Nikita Khrushchev, himself a protégé of Stalin, dominated the proceedings. At one point, he admonished the delegates, "Don't applaud every time I come in. Behave like communists."

We foreign correspondents were allowed to witness the proceedings, and official censorship of our reports was relaxed, until ... until the closing session; then all foreign delegates and observers were barred. The next morning we heard that the closing session had lasted all night and that Khrushchev had made a speech of several hours, denouncing Stalin as a monster who had created a cult of personality.

Khrushchev said that Stalin had murdered not only citizens, but even good communists. My radio script reporting this was killed by the censor, and the same happened to all my colleagues. Day after day, a few words from the secret speech would leak out, and day after day, our copy was killed. It was clear that Khrushchev was trying to paint the Stalin epoch as a massive aberration from a true Marxist-Leninist course.

For me, the unkindest censorial cut of all had to do with one episode. During the speech, a delegate yelled out, "Comrade Khrushchev, where were you when Stalin was doing all these terrible things?" Khrushchev shouted, "Who is that? Stand up!" No one rose. Khrushchev said, "That comrade is where I was."

A Reuters news agency correspondent flew to Stockholm to avoid censorship and filed a report from there. Then, several weeks later, my New York office advised that The New York Times had published a text of the speech. Later we learned it had been provided by the CIA. CIA director Allen Dulles had managed to procure a copy provided by Polish intelligence through Israeli intelligence.

Khrushchev told me at a later reception that he wasn't upset about the leak. He said he knew the speech would eventually come out. I was never able to report the speech from Moscow. But, before long, it became clear that the speech had inaugurated a peaceful revolution against the dead Stalin, whose cold hand had gripped the Soviet Union for so long.

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.

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