Book review of Khrushchev: The Man and His Era, by William Taubman
An event in 1962 was probably the most important in world history but it is rarely discussed today. Perhaps this is because the occurrence concluded without nuclear war – had it turned out differently, any surviving children in any remaining schools would most certainly be studying it with rigour.
The strengths and foibles of the American protagonist, John F. Kennedy, are well known, but what of his Soviet counterpart? Most Westerners who have any image of Nikita Khrushchev remember the fat little man who banged his shoe on the table at the UN. In his definitive biography, Taubman guides the reader through the career of this complex individual in such thorough detail that one feels one has vicariously lived the man’s life and, unlike Khrushchev himself, deeply learned from the experience.
It is frightening to think that a man of Khrushchev’s boorishness and impetuousness controlled nuclear weapons. His reaction to a modern art exhibition is illustrative:
As Khrushchev entered the hall and glanced at the paintings on the wall, his facial expression . . . transmogrified from tired and tentative and unsure of himself to ill at ease to annoyed to enraged. The artists applauded Khrushchev, but among the first words he uttered were, “It’s dog shit! . . . A donkey could smear better than this with his tail.” He shouted at a young [realist] artist . . . “Are you a faggot or a normal man? Do you want to go abroad? Go then; we’ll take you as far as the border . . . We have a right to send you out to cut trees until you’ve paid back the money the state has spent on you.”
His treatment of his own colleagues is little better – calling his own, highly loyal foreign minister a “piece of shit” to his face is hardly the worst of it. His diplomatic efforts follow the same pattern. This is how he deals with Averell Harriman, an American diplomat:
As usual, Khrushchev’s defensiveness took the form of an offensive. One bomb would be “sufficient” for Bonn; three to five would do for France, Britain, Spain, and Italy. [. . .] After that came another round of threats: West Germany could be destroyed in “ten minutes”. [. . .] “If Adenauer [the West German leader] pulls down his pants and you look at him from behind you can see Germany is divided. If you look at him from the front, you can see Germany will not stand.”
Crude; but showing a shrewdness and delightful turn of the phrase that mark him out, as do many other episodes, as a man of cunning and brilliance; talents so spoiled by his ill-educated, bombastic and reckless arrogance that he is unable to achieve positive outcomes for his country.
Khrushchev’s pedigree is archetypically Soviet: a poor peasant boy from a small village who later moves to Donesk (beginning a lifelong connection to the Ukraine) as a miner and then a metalworker. Skillful with his hands and very clever with anything practical, he builds a motorbike from a bicycle and often roars over to his sweetheart’s house. Though poor, she and her father are impressed with his confidence and drive; marriage soon follows. Khrushchev is moving up in the world but is nevertheless drawn towards the revolutionary zeal of the day’s radical politics. Following the revolution he takes on a political role in the Civil War.
Khrushchev is promoted through the ranks of the Communist Party; from Kiev at the tail end of the Holodomor to increasingly influential roles in Moscow. Clearing his career path is Stalin’s paranoid habit of putting to death anyone he suspects might oppose him and sending their entire family to the gulags. In such a terrifying time, where there are quotas of murders to fulfill and where an enormous proportion of officials and military personnel are purged, there are only two options: resist and die, or cooperate and stand a chance of survival. Many of those who choose the second course perish anyway but Khrushchev escapes unscathed, perhaps because of his ideological enthusiasm or perhaps because Stalin sees him as a stupid, harmless rustic too dull-witted to plot against him. How much guilt does Khrushchev share in Stalin’s crimes? Here is his behaviour during one show trial:
Before, during and after the trial, Khrushchev served as one of the most voluble cheerleaders for the Stalinist line. He exhorted Moscow party workers to “educate the masses in hatred for the enemy, hatred for the counterrevolutionary Trotskyite-Zinovievites, hatred for the rightist deviationist heretics, and love for the party of Bolsheviks, love for our boss and teacher Comrade Stalin.”
There is no indication that Khrushchev is sadistic; rather, it seems he acts as the situation requires. He later claims that he genuinely believed the condemned to be ‘enemies of the people’ and that he only found out about the true extent of the bloodshed afterwards. There are several indications that this is not the case.
Collaboration certainly brings benefits to Khrushchev and his family. Each residence they inhabit is more grandiose than the last. The have access to secret cash payments and to imported goods unavailable to less equal workers.
For the USSR, the Second World War begins with the collapse of the Nazi-Soviet pact and the German invasion of the Fatherland. As in the Civil War, Khrushchev serves in a political role on the front line, including time in Stalingrad:
Khrushchev was almost killed when German planes bombed his command post. [. . .] Thousands of German corpses were dug out of the frozen ground, stacked in layers alternating with railway ties, and set afire. “I didn’t go back again a second time,” Khrushchev recalled. “Napoleon or someone once said that burning enemy corpses smell good. Well, speaking for myself, I don’t agree.”
Following the war Khrushchev serves again in the Ukraine, where he is tasked with putting down the nationalist resistance in the west. Both sides commit unspeakable atrocities. Here are Khrushchev’s comments from the time:
“Find the family members of those who are helping (the resistance) and arrest them,” he exhorted his men in 1945. “We won’t be respected if we don’t take harsh measures. We must arrest even the most unimportant ones. Some must be tried, other simply hanged. [. . .] (You) haven’t used enough violence! When you seize a village where (they) killed two women, you must destroy the entire village.”
Despite the vehemence of his words Khrushchev seems very fond of the Ukraine. He spends many years there and his wife is ethnic Ukrainian. He is keen to expand its territory. He eventually hands it the Crimea.
Khruschev’s one moment of true greatness comes shortly after the death of Stalin. The reptilian Lavrentiy Beria, head of the NKVD, eager enforcer of Stalin’s madness and an habitual rapist, quickly seizes power. It seems that the Soviet Union will continue upon a vicious, Stalinist path, or perhaps worse. But Khrushchev, acting the ignorant, foolish country bumpkin many take him for, runs rings around all his colleagues. He soon has Beria shot (to everyone’s relief) and shoves aside his rivals to claim the top spot. Once sure of his position, or perhaps to consolidate it, he delivers his secret speech condemning Stalin’s excesses to large group of Communist Party officials. This begins a limited process of rehabilitation and reform.
Khruschev is not a Stalinist but is certainly a communist. He cannot for the life of him figure out why Soviet agriculture remains so stubbornly inefficient despite all his frequent, ill-considered initiatives. When convinced at last that forcing peasants to sell their produce to the state for less than the cost of production might have something to do with it, prices are eventually raised and industrial workers suffer pay cuts. Resulting rebellions are brutally crushed. What is most astonishing, for a reader who was a boy when the Berlin Wall came down, is just how long communism survived, and how successful it was. Despite the hindrance of absurd state control, the Soviets managed to initially lead the space race and to achieve rapid development. After the collapse, instead of booming like post-reform China, the economy initially shrank by about half – although a similar thing had happened after the fall of the Czar. How on earth did they manage to stick with such a cruel and inefficient system for seventy-odd years?
The Cuban Missile Crisis is the beginning of the end for Khruschev, coming at a time when he no longer listens to anyone and acts freely on his whims. What is the intended end-game of this provocation? Of course, there is none. When the island is blockaded Khruschev finds himself entirely naked of plans and devices. Thankfully, Khruschev is not quite impulsive enough to start a nuclear war and a good swag of luck helps to prevent one from occurring accidentally. Reading this chapter of history is to read the most compelling, terrifying thriller ever written; each twist bringing the world slightly closer to disaster. Nuclear submarines are deployed. A US spy plane is shot down. Upon finishing the chapter, one feels in need of a cup of tea and a glance out the window at one’s reassuringly non-apocalyptic surroundings. The USSR’s back down, when it comes, whittles away Khrushchev’s authority. Coming together with many other ill-conceived policies, his position weakens until he is ousted. He spends the rest of his life under unofficial house arrest.
Khrushchev’s tale is a Western archetype: the flawed hero. He is a brave and talented man, but not brave or talented enough for the demands that he undertakes. One can imagine him in another time or place as a successful, eccentric mayor of a large city, one daring enough to champion bold developments. Or perhaps as the inspirational CEO of a medium-sized company, supported by a board and accounting staff that protect him from his own excesses. Instead, he is the leader of a nuclear-armed superpower.
It is difficult to dislike the man. In retirement, upon finding out the KGB has bugged his house, he demands to know why they want to “eavesdrop on his farts”. His earthy humour and warm manner make him seem like the sort of fellow with whom you wouldn’t mind being stuck in an elevator for a couple of hours. As a man with his finger on the doomsday button? Thank God we’re still here.