The speech was shocking in its day. There are reports that the audience reacted with applause and laughter at several points. There are also reports that some of those present suffered heart attacks, and others later committed suicide. The ensuing confusion among many Soviet citizens, bred on the panegyrics and permanent praise of the "genius" of Stalin, was especially apparent in Georgia, Stalin's homeland, where the days of protests and rioting ended with the Soviet army crackdown on 9 March 1956. In the West, the speech politically devastated the organised left; the Communist Party USA alone lost more than 30,000 members within weeks of its publication.
The speech was a major cause of the Sino-Soviet split, in which the People's Republic of China (under Mao Zedong) and Albania (under Enver Hoxha) condemned Khrushchev as a revisionist. In response, they formed the anti-revisionist movement, criticizing the post-Stalin leadership of the Soviet Communist Party for allegedly deviating from the path of Lenin and Stalin.
The speech was a milestone in the "Khrushchev Thaw". As a whole, the speech was an attempt to draw the Soviet Communist Party closer to Leninism. However, it possibly served Khrushchev's ulterior motives to legitimize and consolidate his control of the Communist party and government, after political struggles with Georgy Malenkov and firm Stalin loyalists such as Vyacheslav Molotov, who were involved to varying degrees in the purges. The Khrushchev report was known as the "Secret Speech" because it was delivered at an unpublicized closed session of Communist Party delegates, with guests and members of the press excluded. The text of the Khrushchev report was widely discussed in party cells already in early March, often with participation of non-party members; however, the official Russian text was openly published only in 1989 during the glasnost campaign of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
The issue of mass repressions was recognized before the speech. The speech itself was prepared based on the results of a special party commission (chairman Pyotr Pospelov, P. T. Komarov, Averky Aristov, and Nikolay Shvernik), known as the Pospelov Commission, arranged at the session of the Presidium of the Party Central Committee on 31 January 1955. The direct goal of the commission was to investigate the repressions of the delegates of the 17th Congress, in 1934, of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
The 17th Congress was selected for investigations because it was known as "the Congress of Victors" in the country of "victorious socialism", and therefore the enormous number of "enemies" among the participants demanded explanation.