On February 26th, 1954, Nikita Khruschev denounced Stalin in his ‘Secret Speech’ at the 20th Party Congress. Stalin’s excesses, abuses of power and the ill-treatment of the Soviet people were criticised. The speech shocked many. It also led to changes. A policy of Destalinisation followed. Censorship was relaxed. Thousands of Political prisoners were released from Gulags. The Cult of Personality was reversed. Destalinisation promised a return to Leninism. The process of Destalinisation, increased openness and reform led to challenges to Soviet authority in some satellite states

Statues erected during the Cult of Personality were destroyed during the Destalinisation period
Stalin’s Cult of Personality

Stalin had created a Cult of Personality. This portrayed him as a living legend, the great leader, the natural leader and as a visionary in the mould of Marx and Lenin. Images, Statues, Posters, Films, Policy showed Stalin as being responsible for all that was good in the Soviet Union. This image was closely guarded. Challenging it was dangerous. The State Police arrested thousands. Purges of the party and the people eradicated any opponents of this image. The Cult of Personality drew people towards Stalin and bound them to all this his vision and policies.

Denouncing Stalin

When Stalin died his greatness as a leader was challenged. This was known as destalinisation (destalinization is the American spelling).

the master of science and learning the supreme military genius, and altogether the greatest genius in history was in reality a paranoiac torturer, a mass murderer and a military ignoramus who had brought the Soviet Union to the verge of disaster. Nikita Khruschev, 1953

Destalinisation stopped some of the excesses of the state. Stalin had an ideological outlook of revolution from above: ie from himself. This was replaced, initially, by Collective leadership. His ‘paranoiac torture’ was ended. The state would not persecute people in the way that Stalin had done. His interventions in military matters were denounced: the state would, from now, leave military issues to military personnel.

Stalin’s application of policy was questioned. Things such as the torture or execution of party members was raised. The method of introducing collectivisation questioned. The impact of his reforms were opened up for debate.

Destalinisation (Destalinization)

Destalinisation began before Khruschev made his ‘secret speech’ of 1956. Policies were adapted and signs were there that there was a relaxation of some policies. The 1956 secret speech highlighted many of the wrongs that Stalin was responsible for as leader. Following this speech the process of Destalinisation was more evident.

Khruschev’s speech destroyed the myth of the Cult of Personality. Following this statues of Stalin were removed from many locations. Lots were destroyed. The censorship of artists and writers was relaxed. A more liberal approach was taken to expression. This was quite at odds with the selectiveness of the Stalin regime.

The Secret Police had it’s powers reduced. The Death Penalty was abolished. Brutality within the party was limited. No longer would fear be the way in which the party ruled and hed it’s position of power. Following on from this, many political prisoners were released from the gulags.

The image of Stalin as a great leader was deliberately diminished. His body was removed from Red Square and buried outside the walls of the Kremin. Places were renamed to be disassociated with him: Stalingrad becoming Volgograd, for example.

Foreign Affairs and Destalinisation

Destalinisation also affected Soviet Satellite States. In the Secret Speech, Khrushchev had criticised Stalin over his handling of issues in Yugoslavia. Khrushchev had noted that there are several ways in which to develop socialism. Some Satellite States saw this as an opportunity to alter their brand of Socialism and/or their relationship with the USSR. This led to uprisings in Hungary and riots in Poland. Soviet dominance was reasserted in both places.


Russia and the Soviet UnionLife in the USSRStalinismKhrushchev’s ReformsDevelopment of Communist Rule – revision notes in the form of a handy mnemonic

BBC Higher Revision – Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, revision section includes Destalinisation

Russian and Soviet HistoryRussian History Homepage
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Life in the Soviet UnionFailure of Reform and Decline of the Communist StateStalinism
Collectivisation of Soviet AgricultureWomen in the USSRDe-Stalinisation
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