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When Stalin died in March 1953, the USSR was militarily strong, but economically fragile. Beria, Molotov, Malenkov and Khrushchev assumed the collective leadership of the Soviet Union but the struggle for supremacy had begun.
Khrushchev and Malenkov accused Beria of being a British spy. His execution sparked unrest in labour camps across the county - at Kengir in Kazakhstan, 13,000 political prisoners and former Red Army men seized power and demanded justice. The new men in the Kremlin set up an inquiry to expose the abuses that had sent innocent millions to the Gulag. The report found all four had acquiesced in the abuses, but Nikita Khrushchev decided the facts could not be kept secret. "If we don't tell the truth," he told the politburo, "We'll be forced to do so in the future. And then we won't be the people making the speeches - we'll be the people under investigation." His report to a session of senior party officials, now referred to as Khrushchev's secret speech, portrayed Stalin as a murderer, a coward and a bungler.
The myth of the mighty infallible ruler was debunked; Communist orthodoxy was shaken, and with it the ethical basis of the whole Soviet system. Khrushchev's speech fanned the flames of the independence movements - Polish workers went on strike; in Hungary the crisis was deeper and limited concessions encouraged demands for much more.
But powerful colleagues opposed Khrushchev's de-Stalinisation programme. Martin Sixsmith visits Asbest in Western Siberia to which Lazar Kaganovich was humiliatingly sent after his failed bid to overthrow Khrushchev. The plotters all escaped with their lives, signalling the end of Stalinist terror, but Khrushchev's unpredictable nature left its mark on the erratic course of the country in the years ahead.
Producers: Adam Fowler & Anna Scott-Brown
A Ladbroke Production for BBC Radio 4.