The Counterrevolutionary

Sto Sorok Besed s Molotovym (One Hundred Forty Talks with Molotov)

by Feliks Chuyev
Terra Publishers, 604 pp., 100 rubles

In the years after his overthrow, Nikita Khrushchev sat with a boxy reel-to-reel tape recorder and dictated his memoirs for hours at a time. To avoid the listening devices he knew had been planted in his house, he worked at first outside his dacha in Petrovo-Dalneye. One can hear on the tapes the buzz of planes flying overhead. But soon the old man grew disgusted with the discomfort and inconvenience of working in the cold. “To hell with the bugs!” he said and moved the project into the house.

It was not long before the KGB and the Communist Party, under Khrushchev’s successor, Leonid Brezhnev, tried to quash the memoirs. Brezhnev’s deputy in the Central Committee, Andrei Kirilenko, summoned Khrushchev to the Kremlin for a dressing down.

The Central Committee has received information that you have been writing your memoirs for quite some time, and that they include many events of Party and state history,” Kirilenko said. “Actually, you are rewriting Party history. But interpreting the history of our Party and state is the business of the Central Committee, and not of private individuals, let alone pensioners. The Politburo demands that you stop work on these memoirs and immediately turn over what you’ve already dictated to the Central Committee.”

In a scene shot through with black comedy, the former general secretary and arbiter of ideology insisted on his rights “as an individual” to write his book, and, like so many dissident authors before him, he had his manuscript smuggled abroad to ensure its survival. Little, Brown published the first of three volumes in 1970. Once the issue of authenticity was settled, historians mined the Khrushchev memoirs for their descriptions of Stalin and Stalinism, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the invasion of Hungary, and the author’s overthrow in 1964. Brezhnev and his liegemen could only look on with frustration and disgust. They had run out of punishments. Khrushchev died in 1971 an unlikely, but highly valuable, Kremlinologist.

Soon after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in March 1985, Khrushchev’s loyal son, Sergei, wrote the new leader and asked that the memoirs be published officially, at long last, in the Soviet Union. Gorbachev did not need much convincing. He was obsessed with the example of Nikita Sergeyevich. Gorbachev envisioned perestroika as a resumption of the anti-Stalinist campaign first waged by Khrushchev at the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956. He needed to legitimize Khrushchev, to rehabilitate both him and what he represented. Gorbachev was well aware that Khrushchev’s failure of intellect, courage, and political skill in the early 1960’s had led to the collapse of reform and the neo-Stalinist regime of Brezhnev. Gorbachev hoped that by gradually purging the Communist Party leadership of reactionaries and by nominating more reform-minded figures he could avoid that fate and survive in power. The publication of Khrushchev’s memoirs, therefore, was also a cautionary tale, a message to himself of what to resume, what to avoid.

By 1991, the last year …

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