Khrushchev's speech in 1956 denouncing Stalin's crimes was a political act from which, as his biographer William Taubman put it, 'the Soviet regime never fully recovered, and neither did he.' Although it was plainly opportunistic, there was just as plainly more to it than that, a kind of reckless excess that cannot be accounted for in terms of political strategy. The speech so undermined the dogma of infallible leadership that the entire nomenklatura sank into temporary paralysis. A dozen or so delegates collapsed during the speech, and had to be carried out and given medical help; one of them, Boleslaw Bierut, the hardline general secretary of the Polish Communist Party, died of a heart attack. The model Stalinist writer Alexander Fadeyev actually shot himself a few days later. The point is not that they were 'honest Communists': most of them were brutal manipulators without any illusions about the Soviet regime. What broke down was their 'objective' illusion, the figure of the 'big Other' as a background against which they could exert their ruthlessness and drive for power. They had displaced their belief onto this Other, which, as it were, believed on their behalf. Now their proxy had disintegrated.
LRB 21 October 2010 | PDF Download