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L’Homme Nikita

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 have been very different.” For one thing it would have been a book more favor-able to Khrushchev. There would have been less scope for cross-checking and challenging the account in Khrushchev’s own memoirs. There would have been more occasions on which he would have given Khrushchev and the system around him the benefit of the doubt.

Instead, Taubman’s exhaustive exploration of a life already well known in its main elements will reinforce the widely held view of Khrushchev as a political failure. Khrushchev’s shortcomings as a politician are chronicled here with a candor that is all the more disarming in view of the author’s sympathy for Khrushchev as a man. The Khrushchev shown in Taubman’s finished portrait is driven and tormented at the height of his career by the contradiction that must have afflicted many other Communists of the day: the contradiction between his naive but authentic desire that the Communist system should yield its promised utopia and his shame at what that same system had already produced under Stalin, with his own participation. In Khrushchev’s case, the assistance to Stalin had been immense. Stalin had made him a Cen-tral Committee member in 1934 and a candidate member of the ruling Politburo three years later. He ran the Moscow Party organization, and later the Ukrainian Central Committee, during Stalin’s great terror of 1937–1938. Of the thirty-eight top officials working under him in Moscow, only three survived. From this alone he must have guessed the scale of the repression. He “assisted,” Taubman writes, in the “arrest and liquidation of his own colleagues and friends.”

So, as Taubman makes clear, the defining moment of Khrushchev’s early leadership, the secret speech he made in 1956 attacking Stalin for his personality cult and the use of terror, was not simply a bold gesture. It was a finely balanced piece of opportunism, an act of concealment as well as revelation. It acknowledged what had been done, but ducked the question of who, save for Stalin alone, had done it. Khrushchev was leading the attack on Stalin in large part to ensure that the attack stayed well away from himself. Khrushchev depicted Stalin as having acted alone in directing the terror. He “ignored the norms of Party life and trampled on the Leninist principle of collective Party leadership,” Khrushchev said.

Anticipating the obvious next question, Khrushchev posed it himself: “Why did we not do something earlier, during Stalin’s life, in order to prevent the loss of innocent lives?” The answer, he said, was that “the majority of the Politburo members did not, at that time, know all of the circumstances in these matters and could not therefore intervene.” This was nonsense, of course, not least in its suggestion that mass murder could somehow be justified if one knew “all of the circumstances.” But the only people who could confidently have challenged Khrushchev were other Politburo members who would thereby have incriminated themselves.

The effects of Khrushchev’s speech, given at the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in February 1956, were far-reaching. The speech was a signal of the Party’s retreat from mass murder and assassination as ordinary means to intimidate the public and sort out leadership squabbles. It marked the beginning of the end of the gulag prison camps, and the moment at which entire ethnic groups exiled by Stalin from one part of the Soviet Union to another could begin their trek home. It inspired a new generation of liberals, including Alexander Yakovlev, who would later find their champion in Mikhail Gorbachev. It also brought about a cultural thaw that made possible the publication in 1962 of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

Even so, as a sign of de-Stalinization rather than of general liberalization, Khrushchev’s speech went only so far. He made it behind closed doors, to a Party elite. He limited its circulation, fearing to provoke popular unrest—which did follow in Eastern Europe. As far as the general public was concerned, Stalin retained a leading position in the history of the Party and could still be admired. Within months of the speech he was being praised publicly again, even by Khrushchev himself.

More fundamentally, Khrushchev insisted on Stalin’s terror as a betrayal or perversion of the Soviet Communist project. He refused to see it as a logical, even an inevitable extension of Communist methods, the interpretation favored later by harsher critics of Bolshevism such as Yakovlev. Khru-shchev talked as though the main thing was to recover and restore Leninist truths from beneath the debris of Stalinism. In that quixotic hope he anticipated Gorbachev, who also thought Soviet communism could be reformed into something worth having, and who went even further in proving himself wrong.

We can further diminish the nobility of Khrushchev’s great speech, if we want to, by arguing that some measure of de-Stalinization was an economic and political necessity. Khrushchev dwelled mainly on the Party officials who had been killed by Stalin in the mid-1930s (it was, after all, a speech made to other Party officials), but Stalin’s policies over the decades of his rule had caused millions of more ordinary people to be executed or starved or imprisoned. Geoffrey Hosking, a British historian, argues that totalitarianism was reaching its limits during Stalin’s last years. A tenth or even a fifth of the entire adult male Soviet population was being incarcerated and worked to death. The labor camps were cheap to run in the short term, while the inmates were docile, but Khrushchev realized that disorder there would be expensive and even impossible to contain. Alternatively, the camps could be shut and the millions released. That is what Khrushchev began doing. But a way still had to be found of confronting what had happened. Blaming it all on Stalin personally was the least bad option.

The denunciation of Stalin may have been a prudent political act. But it was also an extraordinary personal act by Khrushchev. We can hardly imagine any other Soviet leader of the period daring to do it. Taubman sees the speech as “an act of repentance, a way of [Khrushchev’s] reclaiming his identity as a decent man by telling his truth.” But the forceful language of the speech suggests to me something closer to a venting of anger. Imagine the bitterness and betrayal Khrushchev must have felt in 1956, as he looked back on his relations with Stalin. He had thought Stalin a genius, albeit a murderous one. Now he saw that Stalin had been half insane—and that he, Khrushchev, had been a useful idiot.1 The Russian psychiatrist Aron Belkin has characterized Khrushchev as an “Oedipus who had lived in the shadow of his father, Stalin, and passionately loved ‘mother’ Russia. Later, with sadistic satisfaction, he had committed parricide at the Twentieth Party Congress.”

The “secret speech” and the thaw that followed it remain the events most readily associated by Russians with Khrushchev’s name—though his cavalier handing-over of Crimea to Ukraine in 1954 has been much criticized in recent years, and his persecution of the Church may be recalled more bitterly as Orthodox Christianity regains a prominent part in Russian life.2

The West, on the other hand, remembers Khrushchev best for the vigor with which he prosecuted the cold war—invading Hungary, dividing Berlin, banging his shoe on a table at the United Nations, and shipping missiles to Cuba. On the shoe-banging incident, which appalled other delegates, Khrushchev was “delighted with his own performance,” Taubman reports. It was “necessary to inject a little life into the stuffy atmosphere of the UN,” the Russian leader said. The outburst ensured him a reputation in the West as an aggressive man, though he was in fact more of an impulsive one. As with his schemes to give Berlin to East Germany, and keep missiles in Cuba (though not, sadly, with his invasion of Hungary, an easier target), Khrushchev often threatened things that, in the event, he would not or could not do.

  1. 1

    Khrushchev said almost this on March 7, 1963, at a meeting for artists and intellectuals at the Kremlin, though he was probably drunk at the time. “You think it was easy for us?” he said, speaking of his time with Stalin. “Well, just between us, just between us, the man was insane in his last years, IN-SANE, I tell you. A madman on the throne. Can you imagine that?… And you think it was easy? Our nerves were strained to the limit, and we had to drink vodka all the time. And we always had to be on the alert.”

  2. 2

    The Crimean transaction is one of the few points at which Taubman’s book sins by omission: the affair merits more than a single glancing reference. I wish, too, that Taubman had found more time to dwell on Russia’s relations with Japan. Under Khrushchev, arguments over the disputed Kurile Islands and over the terms of a peace treaty took crucial turns which color relations to this day. But on relations with China, and the schism between Soviet and Chinese Communists that occurred under Khrushchev, Taubman is particularly insightful. His book is worth reading for its portrait of Mao Zedong alone. Mao and Khrushchev came to hate each other because each considered himself the world’s preeminent Communist after Stalin. This lent a devastating candor even to their public exchanges. By 1960 Khrushchev was publicly calling Mao a “scumbag” and “a Buddha who gets his theory out of his nose.”

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