“What comes after Stalin?” says an inmate as he tidies up his bunk, not like it would make it look any cleaner. Closer inspection reveals a crust of black bread tucked into the mattress covered in hay; still edible, but barely so.
“I’m not a politician, how would I know,” you respond, leaning against a rickety chair. “Anyone keep track of what year it is?”
“Uh…arrived in ‘37, feels like I’ve been here for five years…I would guess somewhere in between 1941-1942.”
“Well, we are at war with the Germans for I guess a year now.” you respond as you lie back down, since it is an hour past curfew. Many people are already sleeping, and it is hard to keep your heavy eyes open in the warm atmosphere.
“Doesn’t really matter, we’ll probably be stuck in here until some idiot flies to the moon…:”
When Stalin died in 1953, his successor Nikita Khrushchev started the process of “De-Stalinization”, in which many people were released from the gulag and many of Stalin’s policies revoked. He ordered the execution of Latvia Beria, the (previously mentioned) head of the NKVD and released prisoners who were pregnant, under the age of 18, and women with children. Ironically, even Beria believed that most of the gulag inmates hadn’t committed any real crime (although he was perfectly fine to send thousands of them to the gulags). To show the scale of how many unjust prison sentences were issued, this act alone released one million people. Khrushchev then decided to try and save his own skin from pro-Stalin members in the Party by making a “middle ground”, in where he acknowledged the atrocities made under Stalin while also pinning the blame partly on the Soviet leaders.
In February 1956, Khrushchev gave a speech discussing Stalin’s cult of personality and why the whole “cult of personality” ideal is flawed. Originally not meant to be publicly aired, the entire speech was leaked and therefore became known as the “Secret Speech”. People that had access to a radio were able to hear Khrushchev’s voice as he criticized Stalin’s excessiveness and other Party officials, including himself, for “not doing anything sooner”. Five years later, the Communist Party finally agreed to denounce Stalin’s purges and move his dead body out of Lenin’s Mausoleum. This speech also triggered uprisings in captured Soviet lands as rebels clamored for a change in government policy and independence.
A final “nail in the coffin” was put into place when Khrushchev allowed gulag survivors to write stories and share their experiences from the gulag. Between the years of 1960-63, the dam of oppression burst and hundreds of memoirs and accounts came forth about the gulag, most popular of which was One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a fictional account based on the author’s real experiences. Right after it was published, Khrushchev decided to “lay off” the subject of criticising the gulag system entirely, believing that it would evoke the people to revolt against the Communist Party.
Do Svidaniya, Comrades