Insights from the Khrushchev Era (Part II)

William Taubman’s award-winning biography of Khrushchev (Khrushchev: The Man and His Era, W. W. Norton & Co., New York, NY, 2003) offers insights into life under Communist Party rule. Although the focus of the book is primarily on political leadership struggles with Party circles, one can easily read “between the lines” (as Russians learned to do) and gain an understanding of the difficulties that faced the average Russian who had to struggle to survive. During the post-World War Two period, Soviet elites increasingly adopted more lavish lifestyles and enjoyed lives of relative ease, while the vast majority of the population suffered from food shortages and cramped living conditions. Unlike Vladimir Lenin’s Spartan accommodations, Khrushchev’s were plush, especially when serving as a “viceroy” of Stalin in the Ukraine or Moscow, or later when he became the General Secretary of the Communist Party. Few Soviets had residences like Khrushchev’s summer complex on the Black Sea.

Khrushchev as the USSR’s Leader

Shortly after Khrushchev emerged from the fierce battles with other contenders for Stalin’s leadership mantle, he shocked Communist Party leaders and the world with his devastating attacks on Stalin at the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in February 1956. The more than 1,400 delegates who were gathered in the Great Kremlin Palace for the first Party congress since Stalin’s death were stunned by what they heard. For four hours, Khrushchev catalogued the sins of Stalin and the “cult of the individual” that Stalin had created. He gave the delegates details about the “grave abuse of power” under Stalin and how Stalin ordered mass arrests, deportations, and executions, which created a climate of fear, insecurity, and “even desperation.”

This “secret speech” soon became public, and a new era seemed to be emerging in the Soviet Union. Censorship was lessened at Khrushchev’s direction and the intelligentsia rejoiced at what appeared to be a “thaw.” In the judgment of some outside observers, Khrushchev was depicted as a “liberal reformer.” Taubman’s biography makes it clear, however, that Khrushchev was quick to backtrack on these charges against Stalin whenever he felt threatened by conservative forces, and his response to the Hungarian Revolution later that year was vicious and Stalinesque. After some hesitation, Khrushchev decided that brute force was needed to prevent the revolt of the Hungarians from spreading to the rest of Eastern Europe, and he ordered a use of force that resulted in the loss of 20,000 Hungarian lives, along with that of 1,500 Soviet soldiers.

As he solidified his power, Khrushchev became more and more like his mentor Stalin. He would not tolerate dissent from his colleagues, mocking them the same way Stalin had ridiculed his subordinates. He became more arrogant, more crude, and more inflexible when dealing with foreign leaders — even Communist Party leaders from friendly nations in Asia or Eastern Europe. His treatment of Mao Zedong and his Chinese advisors, supposed allies in the Cold War against the West, is hard to believe. There was little cooperation among Communist Party allies, despite all the external pretenses. Khrushchev gradually became as arrogant and paranoid as Stalin and copied many of Stalin’s worst habits, despite having “exposed” the despot earlier in his career.

Khrushchev Attacks the Churches

While Taubman carefully chronicles Khrushchev’s hot-and-cold relations with Soviet writers and artists — recounting how Khrushchev would sometimes seem to free the artists from censorship while other times threatening them and mocking their work — he largely ignores Khrushchev’s vicious campaign against churches in Russia. In 650 pages of text, this topic gets less than one page, once again demonstrating how secular scholars fail to see the whole picture when they ignore the religious life of a country. Taubman does acknowledge that Khrushchev was a “fiercer scourge of religion than Stalin,” but he contributes little in the book to help the reader understand this assertion. While Taubman often depicts Khrushchev as a liberal reformer, one who initiated a “thaw” in the USSR, this portrayal simply does not match reality.

It is not clear what motivated Khrushchev to launch such vicious attacks on the churches of Russia, although it appears to be related to his campaign to fully establish a true Communist society in the USSR by 1980, a society in which all religion would be entirely superfluous. Khrushchev boasted that he would “show the last Christian on TV” to demonstrate how he was building the true Marxist state. This brash assertion may also have been an effort on his part to demonstrate to conservative Party elites that despite his criticism of Stalin he was still a committed Communist. In the five years from 1959 to 1964, almost half of the registered churches in Russia were closed and most of the male monasteries and women’s convents of the Orthodox Church were shut down, including five of eight Orthodox seminaries. Pilgrims traveling to religious sites were beaten by police, and priests and pastors were imprisoned for their faith.

Within a year of Khrushchev’s ouster, an official government source reported the following:

The grossest and most widespread administrative measures that have been taken against believers are the closure of prayer houses, refusal to register religious communities, . . . breaking up prayer meetings of believers forcibly with police and auxiliary police, arbitrary searches of believers’ homes and prayer houses, confiscating of religious literature, illegal arrest of believers . . .

While these abuses were reported in 1965, little was done to stop them until Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985. For people of faith, the Khrushchev era was a time of pain and suffering, in ways never experienced in the West. Some scholars claim that Gorbachev was building on a foundation laid by Khrushchev’s attacks on Stalin thirty years earlier, a thesis that I will address in the next issue of “Reflections on Russia.”