William Taubman’s monumental, long-awaited biography of Nikita Khru-shchev is the most important book on Khrushchev to appear in English since the deposed Soviet leader’s own memoirs in 1970. It is rich in analysis and factual detail, shedding new light both on Khrushchev’s life and on the Soviet state.
Taubman says he feels “both a special affection and special disdain” for Khrushchev. The affection is more evident in his early pages where he shows the young Khrushchev, born in 1894, as a boy toughened by a hardscrabble peasant childhood in the Russian village of Kalinovka, near the eastern Ukraine border. He leaves school young, works in dirty and dangerous jobs in the plants and mines of Ukraine, struggles to raise a family, joins the Bolshevik Party in pursuit of social justice, and becomes an intense admirer of Stalin. If it wanted to choose a representative figure of his generation, the Party itself could hardly find a better man.
Taubman’s disdain becomes more apparent as he shows Khrushchev rising through the Party ranks, drawing closer to Stalin, and surviving the events of three turbulent decades: Stalin’s great terror in the late 1930s, the war against Hitler, the post-Stalin power struggle which Khrushchev wins, the cold war, and, finally, his own ousting from power in 1964. The portrait Taubman gives of Khrushchev and his Kremlin colleagues at the height of their power is dismaying but persuasive. Even for politicians, they spend a disproportionate amount of their time drinking, plotting, lying, swearing, and insulting one another, caught between anger and despair. (Taubman describes Khrushchev as drunk on public occasions, or seeming to be drunk, at least ten times in three successive chapters.)
But for learning about the qualities needed for leadership of a large country, we had better look elsewhere. The more that is revealed about the inner workings of the Soviet Union—and Taubman’s book is a strong contribution to that process of discovery—the more the Soviet system proves to have involved a squandering of people and resources on a scale that is almost impossible to imagine. The aspects of Soviet life that seemed absurd or perverse or cruel at the time—the Marxist-Leninist slogans, the purges, the obsessive secrecy, the central planning—look even worse with hindsight. They were indeed just as perverse and cruel as they had seemed, if not more so. What Lenin left his heirs was not so much a system of government as an excuse for bad behavior that lasted seventy-five years, sustained by a combination of wars and oil revenues.
Taubman tells us that he intended to deliver the manuscript of his book in 1989. Instead, he kept working on it for another decade, profiting from the access to sources that came with the collapse of Communist rule. It is a remarkable achievement on his part that his book sounds so fresh after a decade of rewriting. Had he kept to his first deadline, Taubman says, “the result would probably …