Burying Nikita

Burying Nikita

Mini Teaser: William Taubman's biography of Chairman Khrushchev combines original research and good sense to produce the best last word so far on the late Soviet leader.

by Author(s): Susan Eisenhower

For the baby boomers among us, Nikita Khrushchev was the personification of the "Soviet bogeyman", the nuke--wielding, shoe--banging premier who warned that he would bury us-we the grandchildren. I met him on my grandparents' Gettysburg sun porch in 1959, one afternoon in the midst of the Camp David summit. Khrushchev was affable, attentive and full of plans for the President's forthcoming trip to Moscow. I remember well his Santa Claus shape and his deep belly laugh; but I also remember being both intrigued and terrified by the things associated with him, from the screaming newspaper headlines to the duck--and--cover drills I endured at school.

Despite the menace Khrushchev seemingly posed to us in our youth, he has since that time been painted in more benign terms. In some circles he is seen as someone who tried to bring reform and enlightenment to the USSR before his time; a well--meaning man who just could not bring his hardliners along, in part-some have argued-because the United States would never slide him a break.

Those who have gone wobbly on the image of Nikita Khrushchev will find new stability in William Taubman's biography, Khrushchev: The Man and His Era. Taubman has done a masterful job of reminding us not only how complex a man Khrushchev was, but also how much blood he had on his hands, and what a wild ride it was in international relations while he was in power. Taubman takes us from Khrushchev's humble beginnings as the son of an illiterate peasant family through the end of his political career-covering both domestic politics and international relations. There is much fertile ground to cover, and no shortage of crises to dissect.

In extraordinary detail, Taubman describes Khrushchev as cunning, conniving and freewheeling; a man of stubborn nature and primitive instincts. He is also well described as a self--made careerist with overwhelming ambition: at one moment, emotional and sentimental, the next, prideful, boorish and unyielding. One comes to see why Khrushchev was eventually ousted from the Kremlin. It was not just because his reformist bent failed to produce real reform, or that his secret speech to the 20th Party Congress was out of step with the hardliners in post--Stalinist Russia. Rather, he was deposed at the height of his power because even his most faithful subordinates regarded him as a loose cannon. It is hard to imagine that any government, no matter how despotic, could withstand any more irresponsible political adventures like the legendary ones over which Khrushchev presided: from his campaign in agriculture-which included his disastrous courtship and patronage of Trofym Lysenko (who ultimately destroyed biology in the USSR)-to provocative but wrongheaded approaches on how the USSR could achieve strategic advantage, which contributed significantly to the U-2 debacle and the Cuban Missile crisis.

Throughout, Taubman makes a great deal of Khrushchev's contradictory instincts and his duality-giving us psychological insights to interpret Khrushchev's most outlandish and barbaric acts, and emphasizing the guilt he carried with him in consequence. He suggests that Khrushchev was both a man bent on personal survival and one possessed by self--deception. After several hundred pages, however, Nikita Khrushchev does not seem as complicated as Taubman suggests. He comes across not only as a master politician during his meteoric rise, but as a master manipulator as well, knowing perfectly well what he was doing while he was doing it. The problem was that Khrushchev could not anticipate the repercussions of his actions over time, and no one had the courage to warn him. And as he gained ever more power-eventually absolute power-he spun out of control and became unstoppable, uncheckable and, of course, unpredictable.

Khrushchev's rise to the top was not inevitable. Taubman shows us that as the USSR moved from the post--revolutionary period to the early Stalin years, there seemed to be no rhyme or reason for who survived and who did not. Much speculation has therefore been advanced about Khrushchev's role in the purges and his subsequent acquisition of power. In 1992, General Dimitri Volkogonov, Yeltsin's man in charge of the Russian archives, told me that I would not find anything much on Khrushchev's crimes in the archives. "Of all the Soviet leaders", Volkogonov told me, "he was the only one to destroy documents incriminating himself in the mass killings."

Despite the paucity of records on this score, Taubman manages a fairly damning indictment of Khrushchev's role in the Stalinist purges, as First Secretary of the Moscow Communist Party and then as First Party Secretary in Ukraine. For example: "On June 27, 1937, the Politburo set a quota of 35,000 'enemies' to be seized in Moscow and Moscow province, of whom 5,000 were to be shot. Khrushchev himself asked that 2,000 former kulaks who were now living in Moscow be liquidated in partial fulfillment of this total."

After returning to his native Ukraine as party boss in 1938, Khrushchev served on troikas-the infamous three--man committees-that had the ability to impose the death penalty without appeal. When asked if Khrushchev signed death warrants, Politburo member V.M. Molotov replied: "Of course he did. . . . Otherwise he wouldn't have been moved up. Any intelligent man could see that." According to Molotov, Khrushchev sent "54,000 people to the next world as a member of the [Ukrainian] troika."

Taubman writes that the way Khrushchev survived being purged himself was "to outdo [everyone else] in carrying out Stalin's order[s]." In June 1938, for instance, at the 14th Ukrainian Party Congress, Khrushchev declared: "The struggle is still being carried out too weakly. . . . We must . . . mercilessly smash spies and traitors. And we shall smash them and finish them off." The next March in Moscow, Taubman adds, "[Khrushchev] boasted about having extirpated 'vermin' during his first year in Ukraine."

Khrushchev himself surmised that he might have survived the bloodiest years of Soviet history because Stalin liked him and relied on him for other reasons. He believed that he had pulled a "lucky lottery ticket" while at the Industrial Academy in the early 1920s. There he had come to the attention of Nadezhda Alliluyeva, Stalin's beautiful but modest wife, and "it was because of her that Stalin trusted me", he recalled in his memoirs.

Despite Stalin's goodwill, Khrushchev never intervened to save a friend or a trusted comrade from execution. Nor did he seek to avert the unjustified sentence that sent his daughter--in--law to the gulag. After serving prison time, she was relegated to a penniless life of shame and deprivation. Even as his authority grew, Khrushchev did nothing much to help her, even though he was convinced of her innocence. Taubman is probably on target, too, when he writes about Khrushchev's love of power and attention: "While the thirties were the worst of times for many of his compatriots, they were the best of times for him."

What, then, is one to make of Khrushchev's famous secret speech at the 20th Party Congress in 1956 in which he denounced Stalin's crimes? According to Taubman, Khrushchev "insisted he believed in Stalin and in the guilt of Stalin's imagined enemies. He denied he understood what was going on until after Stalin's death." At the same time, Taubman reasons that

"Khrushchev had powerful political reasons not to come clean. To go beyond his famous attack on Stalin in 1956 and admit his own guilt would have undermined the whole Soviet regime, let alone his own position. In addition, he felt a personal guilt so profound that he couldn't bear to admit it, even to himself."

While such psychological assessments are hard to resist, one could also make a powerful case that whoever came to power after Stalin's death would have had to denounce Stalinism within the decade, if only because of the sheer numbers of victims and victims' families, and evidence of his criminal behavior everywhere. Unless the killings were to continue on the same scale, sooner or later some acknowledgement of Stalin's crimes would have been required for the continued sustainability of the system. As Taubman observes:

"Even Khrushchev's most Stalinist colleagues favored at least some de--Stalinization, if only to prevent their own power struggles from being resolved by violent means. Still, all feared their complicity could be used against them."

Less than ten months after his attempt to de--Stalinize, however, Khrushchev surprised Western and domestic audiences with pro--Stalinist sentiments. Taubman suggests that this was not just a tactical retreat but that it also "reflected Khrushchev's inner doubts." Maybe so; but it may also have been Khrushchev's brand of pragmatism, the sort of political calculation that inspired the secret speech in the first place.

Whatever the case, Khrushchev's revelations at the 20th Party Congress had a seismic effect in the USSR and clearly played a role in destabilizing Eastern Europe, contributing significantly to the Hungarian uprising. Other roller coaster rides were still to come....

Khrushchev's capacity to set tops spinning in Soviet domestic affairs was matched in foreign policy, the U--2 incident of 1960 being a classic example. No sooner had the American spy plane been shot down than the Soviet premier worked himself up into a frenzy, turning the planned Paris summit into a bust. It is noteworthy that among the most clear--eyed about Khrushchev's motives for this have been the Russians, including some members of the Khrushchev family.

Essay Types: Book Review