Balancing blood and bluff

December 5, 2003

Members of the Russian intelligentsia associate Khrushchev with the excitement of de-Stalinisation and his secret speech at the 20th Party Congress in 1956, as well as the opportunities provided by the thaw. This was followed by growing disillusionment when the limits to reform of the Soviet system were discernible.

William Taubman first intended to write a study of Khrushchev's US policy but found his personality engrossing and decided to produce a biography instead. In the late 1980s, while working in archives in Moscow, Taubman was still cautious about the subject of his research but, after 1991, the fall of the USSR changed the situation dramatically. Fifteen years of research using newly available archive material, as well as interviews with members of Khrushchev's family, friends, colleagues and those who encountered him during his career, has produced an absorbing account of the Soviet Union during Khrushchev's life and a compelling discussion of his character and role. Taubman also illuminates other individuals within the Soviet leadership and shows how many critical decisions were reached in internal and foreign policy.

Khrushchev was a complex character. He took part in the early period of revolution and civil war, he supported Stalinism in its heyday and was also instrumental in the policy of de-Stalinisation. In his final years, he seems to have been critical of beliefs that he earlier espoused. In a conversation with playwright Mikhail Shatrov, Khrushchev regretted "most of the blood. My arms are up to the elbows in blood. That is the most terrible thing that lies in my soul". Apparently, at the end of his life Khrushchev also said: "After I die, they will place my actions on a scale - on one side evil, on the other side good. I hope that the good will outweigh the bad." These self-assessments are not something one would imagine Stalin saying.

Khrushchev was born into a peasant family in 1894, and moved to the mining town of Yuzovka in 1908. He described his father and himself as miners. Had the Russian revolution not intervened, Taubman considers that Khrushchev would have had a career as an industrial manager or engineer and that that, in certain respects, remained his dream. As it was, he was drawn to political activity and was never able to devote himself to his studies, so lack of education and culture was another major regret of his life.

Khrushchev was a mass of contradictions. Energetic and quick, he used his popular appeal and sympathy for the ordinary citizen of the USSR to obtain political support. At the same time, his adherence to ideology and later to power meant that he ignored the real needs of his countrymen and was prepared to have his old friends arrested. Taubman discusses how Khrushchev had doubts over aspects of the Terror in the Ukraine and yet his interest in power, as well as his realisation that his own position was precarious, led him to support Stalin and to betray friends such as Iona Yakir, who commanded the Ukrainian military district, with whom he played chess and who was executed as an enemy of the people.

Khrushchev was boisterous, vulgar and described by the sculptor Ernst Neizvestny as "the most uncultured man I've ever met" - and by an irony of fate it is Neizvestny who designed the headstone on his grave. But these qualities aided Khrushchev's rise to power. Stalin supported him because he posed no threat. After Stalin's death, Khrushchev was again underestimated.

Once he obtained supreme power, his policies were a mixture of realism and wishful thinking. He knew Soviet citizens needed better housing and a higher standard of living, but his policies involved so much bravado that few of his aims were achieved. At the same time, the USSR witnessed achievements such as putting the first man into space.

In foreign policy the picture of Khrushchev is vivid. His policy was bold and signalled a definite break with the past. Stalin had not travelled, but Khrushchev was fascinated by what he saw. Foreign diplomats were amazed and appalled by his style, but Khrushchev also alarmed his own entourage. He alienated his allies and, in his haste to promote the idea of peaceful co-existence, he nearly provoked nuclear war. Mao did his best to humiliate him and Castro too was infuriated. As he became more powerful, he was increasingly isolated and less willing to take advice. In a revealing remark to his aide, Oleg Troyanovsky, Khrushchev's wife said: "Why don't you correct him? If you don't point out his blunders, who in the world will?"

The USSR was far less powerful than many in the West supposed and Khrushchev was ignorant of many things. When Eisenhower invited him to Camp David it had to be explained both to him and to Gromyko that this was the president's dacha. More important, Khrushchev was particularly upset by US overflying of the USSR because they had no means of shooting down the planes. When the U-2 incident occurred in May 1960, the plane was shot down, but the fact that Eisenhower had authorised the flight was taken by Khrushchev as a personal affront. He had thought that the president was his friend. The Cuban missile crisis showed all too clearly the limits of Soviet power. Khrushchev's bluff was called and he never recovered.

Khrushchev fell from power as he had offended too many powerful interests.

It left him depressed and isolated, and the picture of Khrushchev tending his garden and writing his memoirs in his last years is very revealing of the nature of politics in the USSR. This book is likely to be the standard account of Khrushchev for many years. It will be of interest to specialists and non-specialists for its insights into the history of the USSR. It also provokes profound thought on the nature of power and its interaction with ideology.

Catherine Andreyev is lecturer in modern European history, University of Oxford.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments