At least a dozen biographies of Nikita S. Khrushchev have been published in Russia and elsewhere along with his memoirs, secretly recorded and smuggled to the West, and the recently published recollections by his son, Sergei. But the biography by William Taubman, a Russian specialist at Amherst College, is the first scholarly study of this Soviet leader based on a thorough examination of all the existing literature as well as the available archival sources and interviews with those who knew him.
More than 10 years in the making, this lively narrative is likely to remain for a considerable time the standard study of the man who in 1956 started the de-Stalinization that 35 years later ended in the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of its empire.
The critical questions concerning this man who succeeded Stalin are how he came to reach the pinnacle of the Soviet hierarchy and why he, a product of the Stalinist system and an accomplice in Stalin’s terror, turned against his mentor. He was not only barely educated – “he had problems with spelling” – but also, in the words of the Russian sculptor Ernst Neizvestny, with whom he engaged in a public debate on aesthetics, “the most uncultured man” he had ever met.
Unstable, alternating between euphoria and depression, incorrigibly vulgar, impulsive in his personal conduct as well as politics, he was the very antithesis of the proper Communist leader. How did he reach the pinnacle of power? And why did he decide to expose its most abhorrent sides?
Khrushchev joined the Bolshevik party in late 1918 and made a rapid career with hard work, an ebullient personality and total loyalty to the party line. He attracted Stalin’s attention with these qualities, the more so because he posed no threat to the paranoid leader: he not only had even less education but was five inches shorter. While most of his minions feared and detested Stalin, Khrushchev actually came to admire him. Having become in the 1930’s Stalin’s pet, he enthusiastically participated in his slaughters. Mr. Taubman details Khrushchev’s despicable behavior during these years, behavior that he later tried to conceal and his son ignored in his biography. While Stalin was alive, no one exceeded him in loyalty to the tyrant.
The Communist government established by Lenin made no provision for succession: one reached the top by conspiracies and by concealing one’s aspirations to power. That is how Stalin did it, and Khrushchev followed suit. Bolder by temperament than his intimidated Politburo comrades, he acted more assertively than they after the “Greatest Genius of All Times and Nations” died in 1953.
In Mr. Taubman’s account, on the eve of Stalin’s death Khrushchev appears to have been in a stronger insider position than hitherto suspected, having attained the second or third place in the Kremlin hierarchy. He outmaneuvered his rivals in that “like Stalin in the 20’s, he identified his cause with that of the Communist apparatus . . . and made and betrayed allies.”
The tortuous intrigues that enabled Khrushchev, in the best Stalinist fashion, to eliminate his rivals one by one are described in fascinating detail and demonstrate how futile it is to study Soviet history “from below,” as the “revisionist” school of historians would have it. In the Soviet regime the population at large had as much influence on events as the chorus in a Greek drama.
On the matter of the anti-Stalin campaign, Mr. Taubman is less clear-cut. One possible explanation of this gamble may have been the fear of the new leadership – which sanctioned the undertaking – that unless it purged itself of the taint of Stalinism, and especially Stalin’s persecution of Communists, it could be charged with complicity. Later Khrushchev accused his rivals of collusion with Stalin while ignoring his own role.
The Yugoslav ambassador cited Khrushchev to the effect that, feeling old and near death, he felt it necessary “to give an account of what he had done and how he did it.” Yet another explanation may be that Khrushchev and his associates, having chafed for so long under Stalin’s bullying, now took revenge on their deceased tormentor.
The greatest achievement of Khrushchev’s 10-year rule was to dispel the paralyzing fear that had gripped the country under Stalin. As I can testify from personal experience, by the early 1960’s a certain degree of normalcy had returned to the Soviet Union, although those who had lived through the Great Terror of 1937-38 never quite rid themselves of fright. Khrushchev also closed most of the concentration camps and posthumously rehabilitated some 20 million of the terror’s victims, which, even if it came too late to benefit them, helped their families. He relaxed censorship and reopened Russia’s contacts with the non-Communist world. All this was to the good.
His foreign policy proved less successful. While proclaiming the doctrine of peaceful coexistence, he started a strategy of encircling the West through the third world. In the case of Cuba, that almost led to a nuclear war. Relations with China, the Soviet Union’s most important ally, came close to the breaking point. Nor were his economic policies more effective.
Khrushchev’s fall from power was inevitable, for his increasingly erratic and authoritarian behavior maddened his associates and disorganized the Communist apparatus. His ouster was swift and met with no resistance. He spent his last years in retirement under conditions of house arrest. He felt deep guilt over the wrongs he had committed and looked forward to his death. There is something very Russian about this story of crime and self-inflicted punishment.
Khrushchev was worried about his place in history, hoping that in the eyes of posterity his good deeds would outweigh the wrongs. Mr. Taubman refrains from passing judgment but summarizes his impressions of this contradictory personality like this: “Both true believer and cold-eyed realist, opportunistic yet principled in his own way, fearful of war while all too prone to risk it, the most unpretentious of men even as he pretended to power and glory exceeding his grasp, complicit in great evil yet also the author of much good.”