Insights from the Khrushchev Era (Part I)

William Taubman’s awarding-winning biography of Khrushchev (Khrushchev: The Man and His Era, W. W. Norton & Co., New York, NY, 2003) is fascinating reading; his crisp writing style and creative organization make the 650 pages of text go by quickly. I was especially interested in the chapters dealing with the disastrous U2 flight of Gary Powers, the presidential summit meetings with Eisenhower and Kennedy, and the Cuban missile crisis, which brought the USSR and the United States to the brink of nuclear war.

Khrushchev’s Rise to Power

Born to peasant parents in 1894, Nikita was christened by his deeply religious mother as a small child. He spent his youth in Kalinovka, a village of less than 1,200 people in southern Russia. When he was fourteen, he moved with his family to the mining fields of Donbas, 550 miles southeast of Kiev. His environment changed from that of a backward village to the chaotic new world of the Industrial Revolution. At fifteen years of age, Khrushchev began working as a metal-fitter and quickly advanced through the ranks of the workers to a leadership role.

Nikita married in 1914 and had two children during the first two years of his marriage. Because he was a skilled metalworker, Khrushchev was exempted from military service. When the Bolshevik Revolution broke out in 1917, he volunteered to join the Red Army, leaving his wife, Yefrosinia, and two children behind. Yefrosinia died of typhus while Nikita was engaged in combat. When her funeral service was being conducted, Khrushchev arranged for Yefrosinia’s coffin to be passed over the fence, rather than carried through the church, in order to remain faithful to his atheistic Communist beliefs. The villagers never forgave him for this unexpected, shocking behavior – behavior that characterized him to the end of his life.

Stalin’s “Pet”

Khrushchev’s outgoing personality, hard-working drive, and commitment to Communist ideology – he was a “true believer” – set him apart from his colleagues. Because he was uneducated and crude, many of his co-workers misjudged his motives and did not recognize his aggressive drive for more power. When Stalin’s career skyrocketed as he consolidated his control of the country, Khrushchev became known as Stalin’s “pet.” He knew how to cultivate Stalin’s favor and was willing to do whatever was asked of him, including assisting Stalin in the mass murders conducted during the Great Terror. He never admitted his own complicity in these crimes, but later had other Communist Party leaders removed for the roles they played in these murders during the 1930s.

Stalin appointed Khrushchev to oversee the construction of the subway system in Moscow, to which he devoted 80% of his time. The Metro system opened its first station on May 1, 1935, and Khrushchev shared some of the glory for this achievement. When he was subsequently elevated to a leadership role in Moscow at the height of the Stalinist purges, he aggressively participated in the attacks on other Party leaders. Of the 38 top officials of Moscow’s city and provincial party organizations, only 3 survived. Khrushchev also authorized the arrest of his own two personal assistants, men who had worked with him for years. His hands were bloody, like that of Stalin’s other closest advisors, and he personally fulfilled the quota of 35,000 arrests of “enemies” in Moscow, of whom 5,000 were to be shot.

When Stalin sent Khrushchev to the Ukraine in 1938, Khrushchev purged many leaders there as well and launched an aggressive “Russification” process, brutalizing anyone who demonstrated a loyalty to local Ukrainian culture and traditions. During the war, he played an equally vicious role as a political officer, confronting Soviet generals who Stalin did not trust. He returned to the Ukraine after the war, where he once again attacked Ukrainian nationalists in the western part of the country.

Taubman’s biography gives us insights into life within Stalin’s leadership circle, including accounts of how Stalin terrorized his colleagues, often inviting them to dinner before they were taken off by the KGB to be murdered that same night. Stalin even ordered the arrest of the wives of some of his top leaders, who were too frightened to resist. At several points during these years, Khrushchev was ordered back to Moscow by an angry Stalin and, on these occasions, he thought his life was over. Yet despite all the trauma of working with this brutal, paranoid leader, Khrushchev cried at Stalin’s funeral!

Khrushchev Emerges as Stalin’s Successor

No one would have guessed, when Stalin died in March of 1953, that Khrushchev would emerge as his successor. When Lavrenty Beria, the vicious head of the KGB, was quickly eliminated by the Politburo following Stalin’s death, the other contenders viewed Khrushchev as too crude and too uneducated for the role of Party leader. Taubman’s biography explains how Khrushchev survived the intrigues and proved masterful in conspiring against the other potential candidates.

Taubman’s description of Khrushchev’s early years leaves the reader with a sense of the pain and suffering that average Russians experienced during these tumultuous decades of Soviet rule. Radical social experimentation, which took the lives of millions of people, was often implemented without substantive consultation and certainly without any concern for those affected by these decisions. Fear, terror, starvation, deportations – all of these characterized life under Communist Party rule. Although Khrushchev launched a de-Stalinization campaign in 1956, his leadership style often copied that of his mentor. We will explore this further in the next issue of my “Reflections on Russia.”