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Dead Souls

Khrushchev Remembers

translated and edited by Strobe Talbott, with an Introduction, Commentary, and Notes by Edward Crankshaw
Little, Brown, 618 pp., $10.00

The temptation to resort to deliberate obfuscation as a means of promoting one’s political fortunes has been present everywhere and in all times, but nowhere has its appeal been greater than in the murky and dangerous mists of Russian internal political intrigue. The annals of Russian political life are replete with forgeries, falsifications, and mystifications of every variety. The Soviet period is far from being an exception in this respect. If it differs from earlier periods, it does so only in this sense: that in addition to a respectable number of pure forgeries (the “Litvinov Diaries,” the various Bessedowski products, etc.) it supports a very considerable number of productions that are mixtures of truth and fiction. The “Sisson Documents,” published (and vouched for as authentic) by the United States government in 1918 to prove that the Bolsheviki were German agents, had their origins mostly in the fertile imaginations of Ferdinand Ossendowsky and one journalistic associate; but they did incorporate some genuine material lifted from the files, or tapped from the telegraphic wires, of the Provisional Government.

The “Zinoviev Letter,” which caused the fall of Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour government in 1924, appears to have been concocted by a Russian forgery center in Berlin; but it made use of certain genuine Comintern documents and in some respects followed them quite closely. And as for the so-called “Eremin Document” on which is based a portion (by no means all) of the suspicion of Stalin’s services to the Tsarist police in the period from 1900 to 1912, this writer was recently obliged to observe, in a lecture on this subject, that the marks of genuineness in the document were too strong to permit us to view it as entirely fraudulent, and the marks of fraudulence too strong to permit us to view it as wholly genuine. These circumstances are not cited to suggest that one should reason here by analogy; it is simply that this background might usefully be held in mind as one proceeds to the examination of what is surely one of the oddest and most interesting documents-with-a-pretension-to-authenticity to come out of Russia for many a day.

The volume entitled Khrushchev Remembers consists of some fifty fragments of reminiscent and sometimes reflective prose purporting to have emanated in some way from the lips or pen of Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev. Some of these embrace the recollections of early youth. The main body of them treats of the internal events of the Stalin and immediate post-Stalin periods. The last of them, eleven all told, have to do primarily with problems of Soviet foreign relations and are drawn mostly from the period of Khrushchev’s pre-eminence in the Soviet regime. We have no means of knowing how complete this body of material is: whether what is published here is all or only a portion of what is available, or to what sorts of editing the material has been subjected.

Were one to be asked to name the outstanding characteristics of these ostensible reminiscences, one would have to mention, in addition to a certain anecdotal luridness, such things as factual inaccuracy (including occasional internal inconsistencies), a marked vagueness of detail, and an extraordinary degree of political oversimplification and even banality; to which one would have to add that the material does nevertheless contain a number of assertions and suggestions (though far fewer than one might have expected in a document of some 500 pages) which fall into the category of “historically interesting if true.”

The inaccuracies occur with monotonous regularity. They need not be extensively recounted. Stalin’s banishment to the Vologda province was not, for example, his “first exile”—at least not according to the official biography (which his successors have not seen fit to revise). Lenin did not say that Trotsky had never been a Marxist. Khrushchev was not made a candidate member of the Politburo “at the very next plenum” of the Central Committee after his appointment as First Secretary of the Moscow party organization in 1935. FDR did not refuse, either at Teheran or anywhere else, to drink a toast to the King of England. Svetlana attended no such New Year’s party as the one here described; nor did she appear at her father’s deathbed only after his death.

The list could go on for pages. The tricks of an old man’s memory? Perhaps—though in some instances implausibly so. One is inclined rather to the conclusion that whoever wrote these passages had no access to historical documents or was not interested in using it.

The vagueness of chronology is so pervasive as to appear almost studied. Anecdotes are regularly introduced with such phrases as “one day,” “one time,” “in the winter,” “in 1938,” etc. Sometimes there is no indication at all of the time when they took place.

Even more striking, and surely not accidental, is the vagueness on significant points of fact. Poskrebyshev, it may be recalled, was for many years Stalin’s éminence grise: head of his personal secretariat and presumably at the center of the whole vast network of purges and intrigues. According to this present account, he fell out of favor with his master in the late summer of 1952. Stalin, the author says, then “appointed someone else” to his position.

Are we really to believe that Khrushchev, himself a member of the Secretariat of the Central Committee and deeply involved in the weird Kremlin politics of those final months of Stalin’s life, did not know who this “someone” was, or had no theories about it sixteen years later? Not only his life but his political career might well have depended, perhaps did depend, on the identity of this person. And why do we have to be told that the Presidium of the Central Committee, as constituted in the immediate aftermath of Stalin’s death, numbered “about eleven people”? The author knew very well, as other pages make clear, how many people it contained.

Equally striking, and even more curious, is the political primitiveness of the anecdotes recounted. One has to pinch oneself, as one moves through these pages, to remember that the person talking is supposed to be a man of great political experience, once the leader of the Soviet Communist Party and the architect of Soviet foreign policy, and not an illiterate political child, wandering helplessly through the forests of Kremlin intrigue and high international politics. Problems of decision which we know to have been ones of great complexity make their appearance here with the greatest casualness and are disposed of in a phrase. There is no examination of issues, no mention of ideological implications, no hint of the actual complexity.

Khrushchev, for example, learns from a casual remark of Stalin that Warsaw has been liberated; and Stalin goes on to enlighten him further by telling him that “the Poles say” that the city has been quite destroyed. Interesting news, was it not?—just as though the Soviet forces had never sat on the opposite side of the river and watched the destruction of the city, just as though Khrushchev was not at that time dictator of the Ukraine and involved in the most intimate way with the process of the “liberation” of Poland. Or was it intended that we should conclude—or, more importantly, that the Poles should conclude—that Khrushchev was wholly uninvolved with the decisions of Soviet policy relating to the Warsaw Uprising?

To see how these various characteristics affect the plausibility and historical validity of the material let us just glance, by way of illustration, at the treatment of a single episode: the conclusion of the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of August 23, 1939. In doing so, let us bear in mind that Khrushchev was at that time not only a member of the Politburo but a man who, by virtue of his official responsibilities on the Ukraine, had an intimate interest in the territorial changes effected by the secret Protocol to the Pact (a protocol which, incidentally, is never mentioned in this book). Here is the tale.

Khrushchev (presumably happening to be in Moscow at the time—his normal seat of activity was of course in the Ukraine) was at Stalin’s dacha “on a Saturday.” Stalin “dumfounded” him by informing him that Ribbentrop was flying in the next day; Hitler, it seemed, had asked Stalin to receive him; Stalin had agreed to do so. Khrushchev observed that he and Malenkov had planned to go hunting the next day. Stalin said that was all right: he and Molotov would hear what Ribbentrop had to say; he would tell them of the outcome when they came back. Khrushchev and Malenkov then proceeded to Voroshilov’s dacha. They found Voroshilov already there; and this showed, observes the author, apropos of nothing at all, that Voroshilov “couldn’t have been with Stalin and Molotov for the meeting with Ribbentrop.”

The two men stayed at the Voroshilov dacha, one gathers, until the next evening; they returned to the Kremlin, in any event, on a Sunday (“that Sunday in August, 1939”), and they could hardly have been gone a full week. They brought their slaughtered ducks with them; and while the ducks were being prepared for dinner, Stalin told them that Ribbentrop had brought with him the draft of a non-aggression treaty “which we had signed.” It was, you see, as simple as that.

What is one to make of this nonsense? Almost nothing in it checks with any known fact. Ribbentrop did not bring the draft of a non-aggression treaty. The suggestion for such a treaty had come from the Soviet side in the course of the complex preliminary negotiations, which are here nowhere mentioned, and it was the Russians who produced the draft. Ribbentrop arrived on a Wednesday, not a Sunday, and if Stalin told Khrushchev about it on the day before, this was then a Tuesday, not a Saturday. But then Stalin had no need to tell Khrushchev about it; for the fact of Ribbentrop’s impending arrival had all been in the papers that morning. Nor would Khrushchev have likely learned from Stalin’s lips of the fact that the pact had been signed. The news was released to the world almost immediately after the signing, in the early hours of the 24th, before the signers and their aides had fairly finished their champagne and gone to bed; and the Pravda, with the front-page story of it, was already available at the newsstands when the Ribbentrop party went off to the airport in the morning.

Is there no clue at all as to how and why such a story should have been concocted? Only a very small one. Voroshilov, although the book makes no mention of it, was head of the Soviet delegation which had been, and was at that time, negotiating with the unfortunate French and British delegations sent to Moscow to discuss the possibility of joint military resistance to any further aggressive moves by Hitler. He had seen his French and British opposite numbers on the 22nd. Thereafter, they had been unable to get into touch with him until the evening of the 24th—after Ribbentrop’s departure.

His personal good faith was plainly involved in the question as to whether he had, behind their backs, taken part in the negotiations with the Germans. According to the British official documents, he was at pains to explain to them, when he saw them for the last time, on the 25th, that he had been unavailable the previous day because he had been “duck-shooting.” This, in the circumstances (World War II was now only one week off, and the Soviet government was well aware of the fact), was a flimsy and almost insulting diplomatic evasion. But the author of Khrushchev Remembers seems concerned to support it.

Would one be reaching too far if one were to see in these passages a very clumsy and ill-informed attempt to persuade others (again, the Poles, perhaps?) that Khrushchev had nothing to do with the negotiation of the Non-Aggression Pact, but to do so in such a way as not to offend against the official Soviet line on the episode in question?

So much for the historical value of these “memoirs.” Now a word about their provenance.

The publisher informs us that the materials came into his hands “from various sources at various times and in various circumstances.” Since it is unlikely that it was Nikita Khrushchev in person who brought them out, this suggests the intervention of at least one, and possibly several, intermediaries, on whose word the attribution to Khrushchev must be presumed to rest. The publisher, evidently prepared to credit these assurances, professes himself satisfied that the material represents “an authentic record of Khrushchev’s words.” Since we, however, are not reliably informed as to the identity of the intermediary or intermediaries, and since the history of previous undertakings of this nature does not suggest that such people are invariably to be trusted, we may perhaps be excused if we take an independent look at the available evidence. It could be summarized roughly as follows:

1) Although much of this account could conceivably have been constructed by a third party from material already published (the “Secret Speech,” Djilas’s writings, Svetlana’s Twenty Letters, etc.), most of it bears a clear relation to things Khrushchev is known or reputed to have said; some of it has the ring of his own language; and there are repeated references to things which, if true, only someone in the inner circles would have been likely to know. In this sense much of the account may be said to have in some way originated with Khrushchev.

2) It is, however, most unlikely that the material was edited or prepared for publication by Khrushchev himself. It is entirely possible, even probable, that he never saw it at all in the form in which we see it here, and would not have wished it to appear in this form and in this manner had he seen it. The publisher, in what is surely a rather odd confession for one in his trade to make, admits that it is a matter of speculation whether Khrushchev “intended or expected his words ever to find their way into print, whether in his own country or in the West.” The conspicuous gaps in subject matter (there is almost nothing, for example, about internal Soviet political events from the period of Khrushchev’s ascendancy, and nothing about the visit to the United States, of which he was once so proud) are not ones likely to have reflected his own wishes.

But beyond this, the very appearance in the bourgeois press of the West of this sort of material—sensational, unideological, highly personal, not even politically serious—could not possibly have been creditable in Soviet eyes to the reputation of a Soviet elder statesman, and particularly one who had once stood at the very summit of Soviet political life. It is clear that this book, rooted as it may be in many of Khrushchev’s own utterances and in some instances defending or rationalizing his record as a political leader, was not designed primarily to reflect favorably on him as an individual or to enhance materially his historical image or whatever political fortunes might still conceivably remain open to him.

3) The book does seem designed, on the other hand, to reassert, and to bespeak the favor of the reader for, certain political ideas and concepts with which Khrushchev’s name has been prominently connected, and particularly ones in conflict with observable policies and tendencies of the Brezhnev regime, as these appeared at the time when the book was being prepared (primarily late 1967 and early 1968, with one or two items of much later origin—down to the winter of 1970).

The renewed emphasis on anti-Stalinism could be related to the fears of that time (they are still active today) that Brezhnev was developing his own “cult of personality.” The arguments in favor of greater freedom of travel, of a more conciliatory line on the cultivation of nuclear armaments, of a more respectful study of Yugoslav models: all these clearly reflect opposition views current in important echelons of influential Soviet opinion over recent years. The posies thrown to certain satellite leaders (especially Gomulka and Svoboda) and to Tito, while cast in terms of the political views and actions of Khrushchev, are clearly designed to enlist the support of Eastern European leaders for those ideas and tendencies of Russian political life which the book reflects.

It is true, of course, that no direct result could be expected, so far as Soviet politics are concerned, from peddling this material to the readers of Life magazine. But the material stood no chance at all of publication in Russia; and the experience of what occurred with Svetlana’s books may well have suggested that anything published in this manner would not fail to find its way back to at least certain portions of the Soviet public. On the other hand, it is also not impossible that the appearance of the book in the West will lend itself to exploitation in Russia precisely for the purpose of discrediting, along with the person of Khrushchev, the concepts with which his name has been associated; one cannot even exclude the possibility that the operation was encouraged in certain quarters with just this in mind. The fact that these two hypotheses are in contradiction does not imply, on Russian standards, that both might not have some elements of validity.

One is left, then, only with the strong impression that certain persons interested in ideas often attributed to Khrushchev have taken advantage of his age and infirmity and helpless situation to prepare for publication in the form we know, and to smuggle out to the West in the manner we know, this body of material based on things he is known to have said, or has been heard to say, or (it is not at all impossible) has been taped—with or without his knowledge—as saying. These could have included members of his family, or members of the police detachment charged with guarding and observing him, or superiors of the latter, or all of these together.

It is most unlikely that the operation could have been successfully conducted without some measure of assistance and protection in higher quarters. Since what was done here was not only formally illegal but also politically offensive and wholly unacceptable on traditional standards of the Soviet Communist Party, a heavy degree of personal responsibility has surely been incurred somewhere along the line. And while little of this may become apparent to the Western public, it is unlikely—particularly at just this time, with another party congress in the immediate offing—that the last has been heard of this matter in the inner councils of the regime.

However that may be, the Western reader would be ill-advised to accept this book as the authentic political autobiography of Nikita Khrushchev as he would have wished it to appear. He is a man who has, indeed, a momentous career behind him which he would normally be concerned, at this stage of his life, to explain and to justify. But the constituency before which he would wish to appear with these explanations and justifications would assuredly not be the despised readers of a bourgeois “boulevard” magazine 5,000 miles away; it would be the membership of the world Communist movement, and particularly the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, in the bosom of which the entirety of his personal and political life has proceeded; and the tone of the book would then reflect the character and expectations of that audience. The work may include a great many things that Khrushchev does indeed remember. It is a far cry from that unsurprising fact to the authentic memoirs on which he would himself wish his record as a statesman to rest and which, we must hope, he will yet find the energies, and the possibility, to compose.

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