After Stalin, 1953-1956
Uncertainty in Succession
For many millions of Soviet citizens, the death of Stalin in March 1953 was a shattering event. For decades Stalin had been the "father" of the nation, and many grieved as if they had lost a family member. Tens of thousands of ordinary Russians wept openly in spontaneous and genuine displays of public grief when crowds gathered in Moscow to pay their last respects; several mourners were killed in the crush to file past the bier. In spite of his brutal repression and his rigorous control of the economy, Stalin was still hugely popular throughout the Soviet Union. His death marked the end of an era; for most Soviet citizens it had been an era of greatness for their country.
Among the Communist leaders in Moscow, Stalin's death provoked a mixture of grief, relief, and anxiety for the future. With no clear successor evident, the Council of Ministers and the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet publicly declared a form of collective leadership. But this merely masked the beginnings of a bitter power struggle. Georgi Malenkov was appointed chairman of the Council of Ministers, in effect premier, with Lavrenti Beria as his deputy and chief of state security. Molotov returned as foreign minister and Nikolai Bulganin as minister of the armed forces. Nikita Khrushchev's role was not entirely clear initially, but his name was listed first among the five secretaries of the party secretariat. Malenkov was also appointed first secretary of the Communist Party, Stalin's old position, but nine days later he was forced to surrender this post (which in six months would fall to Khrushchev) when the new leadership decided that all the top offices should never again be held by one person. Still, to the West, it seemed that the progressive Malenkov, then just fifty-one years old, was emerging as Stalin's heir.
Dignitaries from throughout the Communist world assembled in Moscow to pay final respects to the man who had been their unchallenged leader, the generalissimo who had defeated fascism. Zhou Enlai, China's premier and foreign minister, was one of the pall bearers; the others were leading members of the Politburo. While Zhou was in Moscow, Malenkov and Molotov met with him to discuss the war in Korea, which they all wanted to end. Mao Zedong had already decided separately on this, so within a fortnight of Stalin's death, Pyongyang was ordered to resume the armistice talks in earnest.
Then, in one of his first speeches, Malenkov hinted at a new mood of coexistence with the West. "There is no disputed or unsolved question," he stated, "which could not be settled by peaceful means with any foreign country, including the United States." Less than a month after Stalin's death, the Presidium approved a general amnesty for anyone who had been sentenced to a term of less than five years' imprisonment. All those who had been arrested in Stalin's final days were released, as were tens of thousands of other political prisoners. The so-called Doctors' Plot, which had punctuated Stalin's final months, was now described as a "provocation and fake."
Georgi Malenkov, Heir Apparent
Georgi Malenkov was the chubby figure often seen standing alongside Stalin in photographs. Born in Orenburg on the borders of Kazakhstan in 1902, he was the descendant of tsarist military officers. After the Russian Revolution, Malenkov became a political commissar on a Red Army propaganda train, and in the late 1920s he worked in the bureau of the party's central secretariat. By the late 1930s Malenkov had been promoted to the inner circle of administrators implementing the worst of Stalin's purges, the Great Terror, the elimination of dissenters or possible opponents of the regime. From 1939 to 1941 Malenkov, along with Beria, carried out the purging of newly conquered Baltic states and eastern Poland. During the war Malenkov became one of the most important administrators in the Soviet Union, and afterwards he joined the Council
Malenkov was seen in the West as one of Ministers, which determined all of the best hopes for a new, less aspects of state policy. No fiery revolu-tionary, he was a practical man, a manager, who presided over the core party administration at the heart of Stalin's empire. Along with Beria, Stalin assigned to Malenkov the task of building up the postwar military industrial complex. Malenkov liked to think of himself as a technocrat, as encouraging the new science that would develop the Soviet Union's postwar greatness.
After Stalin's death Malenkov showed no desire to maintain the culture of repression and fear that were characteristic of his master's rule. He was happy to move forward. In spite of his years of loyal service to Stalin,
In the United States, Eisenhower was only weeks into his presidency when Stalin died, and he was furious to discover that there were no contingency plans for dealing with the Soviet leader's death. The new secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, stressing a "new era of liberty, not enslavement," proclaimed that "the Eisenhower era begins as the Stalin era ends.... For ten years the world has been dominated by the malignant power of Stalin. Now Stalin is dead. He cannot bequeath to anyone his prestige." The British prime minister, Winston Churchill, wrote to Eisenhower suggesting a meeting with Malenkov in case "both of us together or separately be called to account if no attempt were made to turn over a new leaf." But for the moment Eisenhower ruled out any direct meeting with the new Soviet leadership.
In the meantime, Washington was sending out conflicting signals to Moscow. During the Truman administration, under the influence of George Kennan, the key word in US policy towards the Soviet Union had been "containment." Washington forged strategies to contain Soviet power - in the Middle East, in Berlin, in Europe, and in Korea. But Dulles had a new catchword: "rollback." The United States should take the initiative in rolling back communism wherever possible. But it was never clear how this could be done without direct confrontation. On 16 April 1953, in a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Eisenhower called on the Kremlin to demonstrate that it had broken with Stalin's legacy by offering "concrete evidence" of a concern for peace. He appeared to be holding out an olive branch, hoping the Kremlin would grab it. This became known as Eisenhower's Chance for Peace speech, and it was widely reported within the Soviet Union. Only two days later, before the same, group of editors, Dulles spoke in much harsher terms and declared, "We are not dancing to any Russian tune." The National Security Council backed Dulles. A secret report concluded that the Soviet interest in peace was illusory and that confrontation would be long drawn out.
In Eastern Europe the new spirit evident in the Kremlin caused concern among the various mini-Stalins who held power. In the Soviet zone of Germany, control was in the hands of Walter Ulbricht, a hard-line Stalinist of the old school who had spent most of the Nazi era in Moscow. One of Stalin's most loyal lieutenants, he had begun, in the summer of 1952, the "accelerated construction of socialism" in East Germany, aimed at building a strict command economy. A huge programme of farm collectivization was started, along with a rush towards Soviet-style industrialization, with great emphasis on heavy industry at the expense of consumer goods. Stalin intended to force the East German economy to complement that of the Soviet Union, to supply the USSR with iron and steel, of which it was in desperate need. Ulbricht allowed no opposition inside East Germany. His secret police, the Stasi, were everywhere, urging friend to inform on friend, worker on worker.
Ulbricht was uneasy with changes taking place in post-Stalin Moscow. In May the collective leadership in the Kremlin summoned him to Moscow. For some time, the Kremlin had been considering a review of its German policy, supporting the idea of a re-unified but neutral Germany. The Soviets had no hope of controlling all of Germany, but a neutral Germany would at least prevent the western half, with its vast industrial base, from becoming a permanent part of the Western bloc. The Kremlin encouraged Ulbricht to follow a new course of liberalization, and to ease the pace of enforced industrialization.
But Ulbricht ignored the advice, and in June imposed new work quotas on industrial workers, demanding higher productivity without any increase in pay. Anger and dashed expectation combined to cause East German workers to erupt in protest. On 16 June a huge demonstration of workers in East Berlin called for a lifting of the new quotas. Like the force unleashed by opening a dam, workers' demands gushed forth. As the employer was the state, industrial protest over work norms soon became a political demand for free elections, and a call for a general strike. The American radio station in West Berlin, RIAS, publicized the demands and reported there would be major demonstrations the following day. On 17 June protests took place in East Berlin, Leipzig, Dresden, Magdeburg, and all the major towns of East Germany.
Over the next four days more than 400,000 German workers took to the streets. Ulbricht and his unpopular government were terrified by this vast display of worker power. But the demonstrations were spontaneous; they lacked any central direction or coherent organization. Lavrenti Beria called on the Soviet tank units stationed all over East Germany to confront the strikers, to prevent the Ulbricht regime from collapsing. He told the Soviet high commissioner not to "spare bullets" in suppressing the rising, and forty workers were killed, more than four hundred wounded. When thousands of strike leaders were arrested, the demonstrations ended as suddenly as they had begun. Ulbricht had learned a lesson and in time acceded to many of the workers' economic demands.
There were anti-government riots in Czechoslovakia as well, and strikes in Hungary and Romania. There was even a prisoners' strike in Siberia. The Soviets saw behind these events a well-orchestrated campaign to undermine the Soviet Union and its allies, part of Dulles's "rollback" of communism in Eastern Europe. The power struggle in the Kremlin now reached new intensity. Molotov, the old revolutionary, continued to see the Cold War as a clash between two opposing systems. He believed wholeheartedly in the MarxistLeninist line that capitalism would ultimately destroy itself, and his diplomacy exploited what differences he could discern between the United States and its West European allies. However, for Malenkov and Beria, both of whom owed their power base entirely to Stalin, the Cold War was seen in strictly practical terms.
First of all, the Cold War was an arms race. Stalin had quickly realized how important it was to break the US atomic monopoly and in 1945 had put Beria in charge of the Soviet atom bomb project. In the summer of 1949, several years ahead of the West's predictions, the first Soviet bomb had been successfully tested. After Stalin's death Beria took more direct control of the Soviet nuclear project. Without consulting his colleagues, he ordered scientists in the closed city of Arzamas-16 to race ahead with developing a hydrogen bomb to rival America's thermonuclear weapons. If Soviet strength rested on ever more powerful nuclear weapons and he was in charge of developing them, Beria calculated, then he would control the mainsprings of Soviet power.
But this sort of arrogance was no longer acceptable inside the Kremlin. Within days of the quelling of the rising in East Germany, Khrushchev became convinced that Beria was preparing to make a grab for absolute power. Malenkov concurred, and he denounced Beria at a meeting of the Presidium. Forever tainted from heading Stalin's terror apparatus, Beria was arrested on trumped-up charges of being a Western agent. In what to many seemed a just reversal of fate, the man who had sent hundreds of thousands to their deaths was not even allowed to attend his own trial. He was found guilty and shot. Beria's removal marked a huge shift in the power balance within the Kremlin, but he was the only Soviet leader at this juncture whose fate was settled by a bullet. Times had changed.
Khrushchev Takes Charge
Beria was out of the way, but doubts about the firmness of Malenkov's leadership sent him into political decline. Khrushchev had already replaced him as first secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. During the next two years Khrushchev out-manoeuvred his remaining rivals to emerge as the Kremlin's leading light. One of his first priorities was to repair Sino-Soviet relations, which, sorely tried during the Korean War, had been aggravated by mutual suspicions between Mao and Stalin. In September 1954 he visited Beijing and agreed to new trade terms that were immensely favourable to the Chinese. His new trade treaty reinforced the alliance to build socialism in Asia. In Europe, Khrushchev negotiated a farsighted agreement with Austria. Soviet troops, occupying part of the country since the end of the war, were withdrawn in return for an Austrian commitment to neutrality. In May 1955 a state treaty was signed in Vienna by the four occupying powers, and Austria remained neutral throughout the Cold War. This was a breakthrough for Khrushchev, who later said he had grown up during these negotiations, trading his "boy's pants for adult trousers." In May, Khrushchev made a dramatic visit to Yugoslavia to try to "bury the hatchet" with Tito.
Khrushchev's growing international standing was matched by popularity at home; he encouraged the development of consumer industries and called for increases to pensions and other state disbursements. Thousands more prisoners were released from labour camps. New amnesties were issued. The rigid conformity demanded of the arts was relaxed. The Kremlin was even opened to visitors, and for children's parties. All this became known as "socialism with a human face."
Seismic change also took place in the West. West Germany's chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, sought to build up his country's relationship with the NATO countries. The United States, burdened with a major military commitment in Korea, came around to supporting the idea of German rearmament, partly to lighten its load in the defence of Europe. But in Europe the notion of German rearmament was still unpopular, especially with the French, who delayed acceptance of a new German army for several years. Eventually, Adenauer came up with guarantees that persuaded the French they could no longer block German rearmament; the manufacture of nuclear weapons would be banned in Germany. In May 1955 the Western Allies formally ended their occupation of West Germany, and the Federal Republic was admitted to NATO. The response in Moscow to this setback was to create the Warsaw Pact, a formal military alliance among the states of Eastern Europe, who agreed to come to each other's defence if any one of them was attacked. In effect the Warsaw Pact was little more than a codification of existing Soviet military control over its satellites, but now the division of Europe into two rival camps was complete.
In this climate the first postwar East-West summit was held in Geneva in July 1955 - ten years after the meeting in Potsdam that marked the end of the war in Europe. Britain and France attended, along with the Soviet Union and the United States. Before leaving for the summit, Khrushchev obtained a vote of support from the Party Plenum for his innovative foreign policy. At Geneva it was clear to the West that Khrushchev was now in charge of the Soviet delegation. At last London and Washington knew with whom they should deal in Moscow. But despite a friendly atmosphere, nothing of real substance came out of Geneva. Eisenhower proposed that both sides should be free to overfly each other's territory, the policy of Open Skies. Khrushchev rejected this as "a bold espionage plot." Other proposals also got nowhere. All the same, Pravda was able to write about "the spirit of Geneva," implying a new thaw in superpower relations and an endorsement of Khrushchev's foreign policy.
Khrushchev was also winning friends and building support for communism in the Third World, where, in the mid-1950s, much of Southeast Asia and Africa was still dominated by the old European imperial powers. By reaching out to the newly independent states, Khrushchev made communism a beacon to those looking to liberate themselves from colonial rule. In India, Khrushchev and his close supporter Nikolai Bulganin were given a rapturous welcome during their visit in 1955. At one point the two men had to be rescued from a crowd that had grown too enthusiastic. Other visits, to Burma and Indonesia, proved equally successful. Khrushchev realized then that there were huge parts of the world, outside the zones of US-Soviet confrontation, that were eager to hear the socialist message. And the charismatic Khrushchev presented a new image - of an open, friendly, young Soviet Union - quite different from that of Stalin's day. Khrushchev himself gained prestige and self-confidence from the success of his personal diplomacy.
Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev
Ernst Niezvestny, who created Khrushchev's memorial headstone, placed the portrait bust in a pedestal of interlocking black and white stone, symbolizing, among other things, the two sides of Khrushchev's character. At times, he was as brutal and as aggressive as Stalin, his mentor; at other times, he was a peacemaker, overawed by the destructive capacity he controlled.
Khrushchev was born in 1894, in Kalinovka, a village near the Ukrainian border, into a family of poor illiterates. The crude peasant bluntness from his hard childhood never left him. Opponents would often underestimate his cunning, seeing in him only a clowning, overweight rustic. Eccentric bluster in meetings would often obscure the shrewdness in his thought. After Stalin's death, Malenkov, Beria, and Molotov failed to perceive him as a serious rival.
Already excited by Marxism at the time of the revolution in 1917, Khrushchev served in the Red Army during the civil war as a political commissar. In 1929 he was sent by his local party to the Stalin Industrial Academy in Moscow. He studied there alongside Stalin's wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva, through whom he got to know Stalin. At this point his career took off. During the Great Terror of the 1930s, he rose to be second in command of the Moscow party organization, and he oversaw construction of much of Moscow's underground system. In 1939 he became a full member of the Politburo. During the war against Hitler, he was a political commissar and visited the front lines several times, seeing more of the devastation of the war than most, an experience that affected him profoundly.
Although Khrushchev later censured the evils of the Stalin era, his own hands were by no means free of blood. During the late 1930s he denounced several fellow students and workers as "enemies of the people," and he willingly took part in the extermination of the Ukrainian intelligentsia. For twenty years his political vision was dominated by that of Stalin. In old age he commented, "I was infected by Stalin, but liberated myself."
Khrushchev was an instinctive, spontaneous, and often unpredictable politician, a combination that, when the stakes were high; could be immensely dangerous. But often his instinct paid off. He had no education above the elementary level of Sunday School and workers' lectures, but he had a quick mind. He was always proud of his roots in the peasant society of Russia.
Khrushchev's leadership of the Soviet Union marked a crucial transition in communism. His own political roots went back to the radical bolshevism of the revolution, and most of his career was spent under the eyes of Stalin; but as a reformer and an advocate of the "human face of socialism," . he ushered in an era in which a generation would be free to reassess the entire Communist world.
The process of reform, and the rejection of Stalinism, culminated at the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in February 1956. Delegates from throughout the Communist world, and from nations locked in "liberation" struggles with their colonial masters, were invited to Moscow for the first major Communist gathering since Stalin's death. Party congresses were always formal affairs, a forum for leaders to make set-piece statements, but in a radical public speech Khrushchev abandoned the conventional Marxist-Leninist view that war between communism and capitalism was inevitable. He claimed that because the world camp of communism had grown to be so powerful, war was no longer likely or necessary. Socialism would still be victorious, but this could come through the ballot box and would happen due to the superiority of Communist means of production.
All this was extrkordinary enough. But at on the last day of the congress, Khrushchev called all the Soviet delegates together in closed session. No cameras or reporters were present. Then, for six hours, Khrushchev proceeded to denounce Stalin's reign of terror and its crimes. He revealed that the case against the so-called Trotskyite conspirators of the 1930s had been trumped up by the secret police under Stalin's orders, with the help of forced confessions made under torture. He announced that Stalin was "a flawed leader" who had acted like a pathological criminal. Such accusations, coming less than three years after Stalin's death, caused a sensation. Many old party members felt he had gone too far. Several cried, "Shame!" as he spoke. Some remembered Khrushchev's own role in the murderous repression in the Ukraine. Others heaved an immense sigh of relief that finally the clouds of fear and paranoia were to be lifted, that the truth of Stalin's horrors was coming out. Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin marked a turning point in Soviet history. Although delivered amidst late-night theatrics, the speech was never intended to remain secret; copies were immediately made available to party officials and to foreign Communist parties. News of the speech spread by word of mouth to millions of citizens within the Soviet bloc.
The shock waves of Khrushchev's speech rippled out across the entire Communist world. The Chinese Communists, who had built up their own rigidly authoritarian system under Mao Zedong, were deeply offended. Beijing began to reject Moscow's leadership of the Communist world and to develop its own, independent line. In Eastern Europe many Communist party leaders, gravely upset by the impact, were concerned for the continued stability of their authoritarian regimes. But for the people of Eastern Europe, the speech was an incitement to action; at last there seemed to be an opportunity for change.
Two months after the Party Congress, the Kremlin dissolved Cominform, which Stalin had created in 1947 to impose his orthodoxy over the satellites. The hard-line conservative Molotov was dismissed as foreign minister, and later banished to Mongolia as Soviet ambassador. A loyal supporter of Stalin throughout his career, Molotov had been firmly opposed to any reconciliation with Tito of Yugoslavia, but now the door was open again. Tito visited Moscow in June for a three-week state visit, amidst much pomp. Nothing could have been more symbolic of the new attitude towards Eastern Europe. But how far would the Soviet Union go in relaxing its influence there? In both Poland and Hungary, now released from the yoke of Stalinist rule, people wanted more control over their own destinies.
On 28 June 1956, in Poznan, one of Poland's main industrial cities, workers went on strike against government-imposed wage cuts and harsh working conditions. Just as in East Germany three years earlier, strikes over specific economic grievances soon snowballed into protests against the government. On what became known as Black Thursday, the Polish government sent two divisions and three hundred. tanks of the Polish army to put down the protests - bloodily. Seventy-four strikers were killed, and about three hundred wounded. For the present, order was restored.
In Moscow it was clear that the situation in Poland was unstable. Bulganin, premier since early 1955, and Marshal Zhukov, both strong Khrushchev supporters from the Central Committee, were sent to Warsaw to sort things out. There they proclaimed that the strikes had been provoked by "imperialist agitators" from the West. The Polish party reformers wanted to restore to office a popular Communist, Wladyslaw Gomulka, who had been general secretary of the party after the end of the war. At first the Soviets resisted, but slowly a compromise was reached by which Gomulka would be readmitted to power but orthodox hard-liners would be left in charge. The Soviets were torn between taking a hard line, as Stalin would have done, and allowing their satellites a degree of independence.
Gomulka, one of those East European Communists who sincerely believed in different national versions of socialism after 1945, had spoken up in favour of Tito's independent policies in 1948. When Stalin imposed his hard line on East Europe, Gomulka was expelled from the party, and in 1951, he was imprisoned. Released two months before the strikes erupted in Poznan, Gomulka was now something of a national hero. Predictably, the compromise arrangements for his return to power did not work, and discontent spread. Hopes for change had been raised, and now had to be met or directly confronted.
The Polish leaders were invited to Moscow but refused to go. Khrushchev now decided to intervene personally. Uninvited, he flew to Warsaw on 19 October. Because no warning had been given of his arrival, his aircraft was bounced by Polish fighters as it approached Warsaw. On landing, he descended from the plane, shook his fist at the hastily assembled welcome party, and spoke loudly of the "treacherous" activity of the Polish leaders. On that same day, Russian troops across Poland left their garrisons and moved in columns towards the country's main cities. In Warsaw, Soviet units took up secret positions across from the Belvedere Palace, where the Communist leaders were about to meet. These were clear threats that the Soviets were prepared for military intervention in Poland, and in the rest of Eastern Europe.
Khrushchev and the Soviet delegation met Gomulka and the other Polish leaders in a tense, tempestuous showdown. Khrushchev threatened to use force to maintain Soviet control, but Gomulka countered that the Polish army would resist and that the people would rise up against the Soviet Union.
Gomulka repeatedly stressed that Poland "will not permit its independence to be taken away." Furthermore, Gomulka made it absolutely clear that events in Poland were a direct consequence of Khrushchev's speech at the Twentieth Party Congress. During the heated exchanges, Gomulka was informed that Soviet tank and infantry units were advancing on Warsaw. He demanded that these forces be pulled back. After some hesitation, Khrushchev ordered that all troop movements be halted.
Khrushchev had miscalculated badly. Across Poland, people came out onto the streets to demonstrate against the Soviet presence. When he realized the strength of feeling in the Polish Communist Party and among the Polish people, Khrushchev, in a bad temper, conceded that Gomulka could be appointed first secretary of the party. Gomulka agreed to preserve the party organization, and promised that Poland would remain a loyal member of the Warsaw Pact. This was the main issue as far as the Soviets were concerned. Under Khrushchev the Kremlin would allow its satellites a degree of national independence, but only if the new regime was led by a trustworthy leader, loyal to Moscow. After the showdown in Warsaw, the situation calmed down. Out of the confrontation the Poles got a more popular leader who made some welcome economic concessions. And Gomulka, for fourteen years, fulfilled his promise to be a faithful ally of the Soviet Union.
Hungary Issues a Challenge
Events elsewhere, however, were moving fast. On 24 October, as Gomulka was telling a mass meeting in Warsaw that the Soviet troops were returning to barracks, students in Budapest had already begun the most serious challenge yet to Soviet rule in Eastern Europe by demonstrating in sympathy with the Poles. The Budapest students were met with bullets from the secret.police. At this point several workers groups joined the students, and the giant statue of Stalin in the centre of Budapest was pulled down.
The Hungarian prime minister, Erno Gero, called on Yuri Andropov, the Soviet ambassador in Budapest, to help restore order. Andropov passed the request on to Moscow, and Khrushchev spoke with Gero by telephone. The following day, at dawn, thirty thousand Soviet troops entered Budapest and sealed off Hungary's capital city. Fierce fighting erupted. Martial law was declared, but the situation remained unstable. What was especially disturbing for governments in both Budapest and Moscow was that some of the Soviet troops fraternized with the workers. And many Hungarian army units seemed shaky in their support for the regime. As in Poland, the search was now on in Hungary for a new leader of the Communist Party, to restore confidence in the nation's leadership. The man who looked most likely to play the part of a Hungarian Gomulka was Imre Nagy, who had been prime minister until purged in 1955. Nagy was hurriedly brought back into government on the day that Russian tanks rolled into Budapest. Nagy called for an immediate end to the fighting, offering an amnesty for all participants in the uprising, and political and economic reform. On the following day, Janos Kadar, who had been purged from Hungary's government in the early 1950s, was also brought back and was appointed party first secretary. Nagy assured Moscow of Hungary's loyalty. But the Kremlin was split between those who wanted to accommodate the new government and those advocating a further show of strength. Khrushchev finally ordered the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Budapest on 28 October; but at the same time he deployed more divisions along the border with Hungary.
Throughout Hungary there was a mood of anger and expecta
tion. Industrial workers seized public buildings and formed revolutionary
councils. Open elections were held in villages and towns. In several government
departments, new councils were formed to challenge the state. And several
thousand members of the Hungarian army defected to the workers' cause,
taking their weapons with them. Meanwhile Radio Free Europe, the
Carried along by the momentum of events he could barely control, Nagy announced on 30 October that he was abolishing the one-party system and would form a new coalition government. He agreed to recognize many of the revolutionary councils that had been created. Immediately, several suppressed Hungarian political parties began to reconstitute themselves, among them the Social Democrats and the National Peasant Party. On that same day the army established a revolutionary council, composed of representatives from the military and police. Its leader was also appointed to the new government.
For a while it looked as though the Soviets would give in to this massive display of people power opposing the apparatus of the state. A declaration was issued outlining the relationship between the Soviet Union and the socialist states. In it the Kremlin acknowledged that Hungarian workers were "justified" in raising issues and in pointing out the "serious mistakes" of the previous regime. The news agency TASS announced that the Soviet Union "deeply regrets" the bloodshed in Hungary, and agreed with the removal of Soviet soldiers from Hungarian soil.
At this moment, as the crisis in Hungary was still unfolding, the Israelis, in league with the British and French, launched an invasion of Egypt across the Sinai Desert. Within days British and French troops began their own wellprepared seizure of the Suez Canal, which had been nationalized by General Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian president, earlier in the year. The Suez crisis proved a disastrous venture for Britain and France, and for their prestige in the Middle East. The military intervention was universally denounced as the dying act of imperialist powers. The US government was furious; it had not been consulted on the military operation and was opposed to it. With the presidential elections only a week away, Washington was now presented with two international crises simultaneously.
The Suez affair distracted attention from events in Hungary as they entered their most critical phase. It split the Western camp and offered Moscow, with all eyes temporarily on Suez, a perfect cover for moving into Budapest. But at first it had the opposite effect, delaying Moscow's intervention in Hungary, for Khrushchev did not want to be compared to the "imperialist aggressors" in Egypt. After all, he had withdrawn Soviet troops in Poland when confronted by Gomulka; perhaps now he could rely on Prime Minister Nagy to bring Hungary into line.
Budapest Goes Too Far
But on 1 November, Nagy, still feeling that the initiative was with him, protested Soviet troop movements, declared Hungary's neutrality, repudiated the Warsaw Pact, and cabled Dag Hammarskjold, the secretary-general of the United Nations, to ask that the question of Hungarian neutrality be put on the agenda of the UN General Assembly. This went much further than the Poles had dared in their revolt; it effectively faced the Kremlin with an ultimatum to get out. Deng Xiaoping was visiting Moscow at the time as an official delegate of the Chinese Communist Party. He told Khrushchev that the Hungarian rebels were not only anti-Soviet but anti-Communist, and should not be tolerated. In the face of this open revolt, the Soviet leaders decided they had to act. On 3 November fifteen Soviet army divisions, along with more than four thousand tanks, deployed within Hungary and encircled the capital. At dawn the following morning, the Russian tanks entered Budapest. The shooting began immediately.
Nagy broadcast on Radio Budapest early that morning and told
the Hungarian people: "Today at daybreak, Soviet troops attacked our capital
with the obvious intent of overthrowing the lawful democratic Hungarian
government." He vowed not to surrender. Two hours later Radio Budapest
Despite Soviet claims that the West was behind the rising, events clearly had caught the Western powers by surprise. For them the stakes at risk in intervention were too high. The National Security Council concluded that there could be no American military or political intervention in the affairs of Soviet satellites, no ventures behind the Iron Curtain. As with Poland, Eisenhower and Dulles realized they could not chance a world war over the fate of an East European nation. The United States, in practice, could not embark on rollback. It would settle for containment. The Hungarian people were abandoned in their hour of need.
Determined this time to avoid any risk of fraternization with the rebels, the Soviets sent in tanks rather than infantry against the Hungarians. For two weeks bitter and intense street fighting scarred Budapest. The Molotov cocktail was the street fighters' only effective weapon against tanks. Nearly 700 Soviet soldiers and officers were killed and 1,500 wounded. Between 3,000 and 4,000 Hungarians were killed. The uprising was put down, and about 200,000 Hungarians fled across the borders, mostly into Austria.
The Kremlin had clearly picked the wrong man in Imre Nagy. Soviet ambassador Andropov switched his support to Janos Kadar as the leader who would restore authority and guarantee loyalty. On the day that Nagy went into hiding, Kadar reappeared inside Soviet-occupied territory and announced the formation of a new party, the Socialist Workers Party, and a new government. Kadar welcomed the Soviet troops; the new government could use their support in fighting the "counter-revolutionary threat." Kadar promised economic and social reforms, as well as new agreements with the other Eastern bloc nations.
The rising was crushed. But it took several months for Kadar to re-impose the hard-line centralized control the Soviets wanted. The first few arrests were made in late November. Nagy was lured out of his hiding place in the Yugoslav Embassy with a promise of safe passage. But he was betrayed, captured, and imprisoned, to be later executed. As Kadar won the upper hand, 35,000 activists were arrested, and three hundred leaders of the uprising were executed. Hungary was saved for one-party Communist rule, but the price was the spirit of the Hungarian people. For more than thirty years, Hungarians would live under a regime that had betrayed them, in a system they did not want.
From Moscow's perspective, the events of October and November 1956 had represented a major crisis; the Kremlin was seriously fearful that Poland and Hungary would both defect from the Soviet alliance. Although Khrushchev had denounced Stalin as an evil tyrant, when it came to it, he too had not hesitated to use force to ensure control of Russia's East European fiefdoms. The events of 1956 showed just how far Moscow would go in allowing liberalization. Stalin was dead, but the opportunity for national emancipation under Soviet rule was very limited. Eastern Europe was firmly back under Soviet control.
In 1957 Khrushchev consolidated his position as undisputed leader of the Soviet Union, but not before he had been nearly toppled by a palace coup in the Presidium while he was out of the country, visiting Finland. The old guard decided that the pace of reform had been too rapid, and moved to overthrow his rule. But when he returned, Khrushchev insisted that he could not be removed by the Presidium since he had been appointed by the larger Central Committee, which gave Khrushchev an overwhelming vote of support. Unlike in previous eras, those who had plotted against the leader were not rounded up and shot, nor were they sent to starve to death in a labour camp during a Siberian winter. Malenkov, who had led the revolt, was expelled from the party and appointed manager of an electric power plant in Kazakhstan. Lazar Kaganovich, who begged not to be dealt with as "they dealt with people under Stalin," was made director of a cement factory. There was now no opposition left to trouble Khrushchev.
There is a postscript to the process of dismantling Stalinism. At the Twenty-second Party Congress, held in Moscow in 1961, Khrushchev proposed that Stalin's body be removed from the mausoleum where it had been displayed alongside Lenin's. It was agreed that the corpse should be reinterred by the walls of the Kremlin, a far less illustrious resting place. In this final gesture, Khrushchev rid the nation of one more reminder of the tyrant who had dominated Soviet life for more than two decades.