Saturday, February 25, 2006

Soviet speaches

FIFTY years ago today, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave a "secret speech" at the 20th Communist Party Congress that changed both his country and the world. By denouncing Stalin, whose God-like status had helped to legitimize Communism in the Soviet Bloc, Khrushchev began a process of unraveling it that culminated in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union. This great deed deserves to be celebrated on its anniversary.

But it is also a good time to ponder this question: What are we to think of a leader whose great deeds do not bring about the consequences intended? It is a question worth consideration by all leaders — particularly Khrushchev's current heir, Vladimir Putin, who has tried to bring his nation into the 21st century by wielding the autocratic hand of a 19th-century czar.

After all, Khrushchev sought to save Communism, not to destroy it. By cleansing it of the Stalinist stain, he wanted to re-legitimize it in the eyes of people not just in the Soviet sphere but around the globe. Yet within weeks after the secret speech, at Communist Party meetings called to discuss it, criticism of Stalin rippled way beyond Khrushchev's, including indictments not just of Stalin himself but of the Soviet system that spawned him. Others sprang to Stalin's defense, especially in his native Georgia, where at least 20 pro-Stalin demonstrators were killed in clashes with the police.

In Eastern Europe, the unintended consequences of Khrushchev's speech were even more shattering. A huge strike in the Polish city of Poznan in June was put down at a cost of at least 53 dead and hundreds wounded. Then, of course, the revolution in Hungary in October was smashed by Soviet forces, leaving more than 20,000 Hungarians dead.

It's always impressive what a few misplaced words can do, or a few misplaced people for that matter. Though in a certain sense none of us can really "fix" anything, or do anything, in another very real sense all of our actions are of tremendous importance, because of the effect they have on those around us, and I think that that's the more Christian perspective.

Wow. I just tied an article on Khrushchev to Christian piety. Clearly I need more sleep. But the point remains, I think.

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