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Khrushchev's 'Children' Come of Age : Look for His Influence in Gorbachev's First Party Congress

February 09, 1986|STEPHEN F. COHEN | Stephen F. Cohen is a professor of politics at Princeton University who writes a column on Soviet affairs for The Nation

Whether by design or chance, the 27th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party will open on Feb. 25--the 30th anniversary of Nikita S. Khrushchev's historic speech to the 20th Party Congress denouncing Josef Stalin.

Both events have special significance for the generation of officials headed by 54-year-old Mikhail S. Gorbachev. While this assembly will mark their rise to power in the Soviet system, the 1956 meeting was the formative event of their political youth. As a now-prominent journalist and party intellectual recently remarked, "We are the children of the 20th Congress."

Party congresses, like all Soviet political institutions, have changed greatly over the years. From 1917 to 1927, a national congress or conference met every year and was almost always the occasion of factional debates and divided voting on major issues. Under Stalin, however, the gatherings were transformed into unanimously docile celebrations of official policy. As his power grew more despotic, they became less frequent; only two were held between 1939 and his death in 1953.

Since 1956 congresses have been convened at least every five years. They still are largely orchestrated by the leadership. But Khrushchev's dramatic report made the 20th Congress truly momentous.

Speaking for four hours to a closed session of 1,500 stunned delegates, Khrushchev dealt a devastating blow to the Stalin cult. With graphic accounts of torture and execution, he charged Stalin with personal responsibility for decades of "mass terror" and other calamities, including military disasters in World War II.

The speech had far-reaching political consequences. As the manifesto of Khrushchev's de-Stalinization program, it legitimized the once-heretical idea of fundamental change in the Soviet system and in the communist systems of Eastern Europe. Inside the Soviet Union, as an unprecedented official admission of past crimes, it generated a torrent of critical thinking and protests, including the intellectual and cultural "thaw" of the 1950s and early '60s and the dissident movement that followed.

The impact of the 20th Congress on Soviet citizens was traumatic and divisive. Implicated in the terror or unshakable in their Stalinist faith, many older people could not forgive Khrushchev. Others welcomed his revelations as a necessary act of "purification."

The effect on Gorbachev's generation was especially profound. Told that the leader they had been taught to worship as the "Father of the Peoples" was a genocidal tyrant, they, too, reacted in various ways. The young poet Feliks Chuyev spoke for some in proclaiming, "I never grow tired/of the call: Put Stalin back/on the pedestal!"

But a great many young people experienced a "spiritual revolution." Throughout party and state Establishments, they began their careers as anti-Stalinist reformers, rallying to Khrushchev's call for change. Their generational representatives, such as Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Andrei Voznesensky, were among the most daring writers of the "thaw."

Now that generation of officials is taking charge of the Soviet system. Unlike congresses in the conservative Leonid I. Brezhnev era, when almost 90% of the Central Committee was reappointed, as many as half of the seats may change this time. Most will go to those who came of political age in the '50s. Of course, much has changed. During Brezhnev's reign, anti-Stalinism and reform were repudiated. And it is clear that many members of this generation have been corrupted by career success or hopelessly dissolutioned.

But it also seems clear that many "children of the 20th Congress" are still on the scene and that Gorbachev's rise has rekindled the ideas and hopes of their youth. More than any other group, they are behind the bold reformist proposals and flurry of anti-Stalinist themes in the mass media. Indeed, recent publications by Yevtushenko resound with powerful overtones of the thaw, like a bugle summoning his cohorts back into battle.

Can Gorbachev, who began his own career as a Young Communist official in 1956, be entirely unaffected by what neo-Stalinists label the "poison" of the 20th Congress? As a Soviet leader he is unique in several respects, but there are striking echos of Khrushchev in his call for economic decentralization, his attacks on the state bureaucracies, his populist appeals to larger constituencies, his emphasis on the new and the young and his effort to revive the nation's idealism.

No one in Moscow expects anything so dramatic at the 27th Party Congress as happened 30 years ago. Even bold advocates of change stress the lesson of Khrushchev's overthrow: A reform leader must proceed cautiously. But they hope that Gorbachev will accelerate the momentum for change by using his first congress to expand his criticism of the Brezhnev era. If so, middle-aged adults may recapture something from their youth, or, as Yevtushenko put it in a stirring poem in Pravda, "the years that have been sucked dry / By the just-so-nothing-happens-ists."

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