Insights from the Khrushchev Era (Part III)

For me, the most interesting parts of William Taubman’s biography of Khrushchev (Khrushchev: The Man and His Era, W. W. Norton & Co., New York, NY, 2003) are the chapters describing Khrushchev’s struggle to become the sole leader of the Communist Party and head of the international Communist movement, with allies in Eastern Europe, Asia, and then in Cuba with Castro’s toppling of the Batista regime. Underestimated by his rivals because of his crudeness, his lack of education, and his radical mood shifts, Khrushchev masterfully eliminated his competitors one at a time, until he clearly was “alone at the top” – the title of Chapter 14.

Khrushchev’s Leadership

In Taubman’s judgment, the years 1957 through 1960 were Khrushchev’s “best years.” Although his handling of the Hungarian uprising in 1956 almost cost him his job, Khrushchev recovered from this crisis and subsequently purged the Party of his critics, charging them as “Stalin’s cronies.” The launching of Sputnik on October 4, 1957, provided an opportunity for Khrushchev to brag of the USSR’s accomplishments. He not only boasted that the USSR would exceed the United States in per capita output of meat, butter, and milk in “a few short years,” he also claimed that his first trip to America – the first by any Soviet leader – was proof that the USSR was an equal to the United States as a world power and could no longer be ignored.

The conflict with President Eisenhower following the crash of Gary Power’s U-2 spy plane in Russia, together with growing tensions over Berlin and the erection of the BerlinWall, predisposed Khrushchev to favor the young John F. Kennedy over his rival, Richard Nixon, in the 1960 elections. Khrushchev tried to bully JFK at the summit meeting in Vienna in June of 1960 and was confident that he could easily manipulate this experienced American leader, who was “young enough to be my son.” The threats to the West became more brash as Khrushchev began to increasingly isolate himself from his advisors and take on the characteristics of his mentor, Stalin.

President Kennedy reported on his discussions with Khrushchev in Vienna, during which Kennedy talked about how a nuclear exchange between their two countries could result in seventy million deaths in ten minutes. Kennedy reported that Khrushchev’s attitude toward this possibility was “So what?” Kennedy admitted that he had “never [before] met a man like this.” When arguing with Western leaders about an agreement concerning the fate of Berlin, Khrushchev threatened that they would “share the fate of Hitler” if they refused the proposal offered by the USSR.

The Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 brought the world to the edge of nuclear war. It is Taubman’s judgment that Khrushchev tried to place Soviet missiles in Cuba as a “cure-all” for the mounting problems he faced, hopeful that he could use this tactic to regain the initiative in diplomacy and exploit the perceived weakness of President Kennedy. The historical record indicates that Khrushchev blundered into this crisis without a clear set of goals, improvising as he went and alienating himself from the top Soviet leadership in the process. His handling of this crisis, together with his growing isolation and his embarrassing behavior in international forums (like the shoe-banging incident at the United Nations), led to his downfall.

Unlike other changes in leadership in the Soviet regime, Khrushchev was not “liquidated,” but forcibly retired. His actions and contacts were strictly controlled, but he was allowed to live through the deep depression that followed his forced departure from power in April 1964. When he died in 1971, his funeral was not publicized and police were used to prevent sympathizers from attending the burial service. It was a long fall from power.

Khrushchev’s Legacy

In the decades that followed, especially the “years of stagnation” under Leonid Brezhnev, some younger leaders looked back fondly on the Khrushchev era as a time when the seeds of reform were planted. Mikhail Gorbachev later claimed that he was guided by Khrushchev’s experience when he initiated his reforms in the late 1980s. From Taubman’s point-of-view, “Khrushchev’s efforts at de-Stalinization, awkward and erratic though they had been, had allowed a nascent civil society to take shape where Stalinism had once created a desert (p. 649).”

I do not find this conclusion very convincing, especially in light of the fact that Khrushchev’s reforms lacked clear direction and he had no strategy for systemic change. He instituted reforms, but then backtracked. He lessened the power of censors, but then changed positions and became an abusive critic of writers and artists. His hands were bloody, not only from his years as Stalin’s “pet,” but also from decisions he made to use force against dissidents and people of faith. Like the son of an alcoholic father, Khrushchev increasingly took on the behavior of the one man who had the biggest impact on his life.

While Russian and American leaders are still struggling to build a positive relationship in the post-Communist period, and while political winds blow hot and cold from year to year, reading Khrushchev’s biography certainly made me grateful that the Cold War is over. Nuclear threats are no longer being hurled between Moscow and Washington, there are now opportunities for people-to-people exchanges and private initiatives, like the building of the Russian-American Christian University in Moscow, and people of faith now have the freedom to worship as their conscience leads. Indeed, this is a new day, but I doubt that Russians and Americans owe much gratitude for these changes to Nikita Khrushchev.