Nikita Khrushchev
Nikita Khrushchev; drawing by David Levine

In October, 1964, Nikita Sergeevich Khrushchev was removed from office by a palace revolution in which his protégé Brezhnev emerged as his successor to head the Communist party of the Soviet Union. However, in contrast with what had hitherto been Soviet practice, he was neither murdered nor transformed into an “unperson.” Until his death in September, 1971, he lived in relative comfort on an official pension in a compound of state-owned villas in a village some twenty miles outside Moscow. Although he was officially guarded, he was able to meet people in the neighborhood, to receive visitors, and he was provided with a car for an occasional visit to see friends and relations in Moscow.

The greatest hardship from which this energetic and ebullient man suffered was boredom, relieved mainly by interminable, rambling reminiscing about the past to all who were ready to listen to him. In 1967 he was persuaded, by his family we are told, to use a tape recorder, and during the years that remained to him, one hundred and eighty hours of Khrushchev’s memoirs and comments on events were recorded. In 1970, by means and in circumstances which still remain secret, a few tapes and a typed transcript of some of the recorded memoirs, running to 820 pages, together with many photographs and some homemade films of Khrushchev’s daily life, reached Little, Brown and Life magazine. The publishers were satisfied that the material was genuine, and brought out, at the end of 1970, a book under the title Khrushchev Remembers.

It was only natural that the book should have been treated with skepticism by some students of the Soviet scene. The sole authentication of it was the assurance by the publishers, who were of course financially much interested, that they were “convinced beyond doubt” that the material was what it purported to be. Mr. Edward Crankshaw regarded the work as authentic, basing his view on internal evidence alone. But it was precisely the internal evidence that seemed so unconvincing to me. The text bore the marks of Khrushchev’s style, and was riddled with errors, as one would have expected from any product coming from the eccentric First Secretary, and as one would also have expected any competent faker to imitate. But it contained very little indeed that was new and a great deal that closely followed accounts of events which had appeared in the West in recent years, such as Svetlana Allilueva’s book, or interviews given by Khrushchev to visiting socialists.

There were very circumstantial stories at the time of the involvement of the KGB in some way in the genesis of the book. Even though the book contained nothing that could be pointed to as disinformation of the kind that the Soviet authorities might wish to put about, the manufacture of seemingly harmless forgeries by KGB agents is a major Soviet industry, or was in the decades after the war—whether simply to earn foreign currency, or in order to cast doubt by a kind of Gresham’s Law on genuine memoirs which were damaging to the Soviet image abroad we do not know. I was one of those who took the view that the earlier book was in part forged. Although it is now plain that it |was in fact genuine in its entirety, I am completely unrepentant. I still believe that on the evidence available in 1970 it was difficult to take any other view.

The present volume appears with authentication of quite a different nature. The entire collection of tapes has been made available by the publishers, who have deposited them with the Oral History Collection of Columbia University, together with a report by a reputable firm of voice-print experts. With the exception of a very small number of tapes which are technically of very poor quality, there is no doubt whatever that the tapes are a genuine record of Khrushchev’s voice, made either in his garden or in his house. The full transcript is available, and the present volume, unlike the first, could be prepared by the editor from both the full transcribed text and the full taped record. A great deal of selection, excision, and reordering has, to be sure, been necessary in order to reduce the primeval Khrushchevian chaos to some semblance of order. But there is no doubt now that we have here the genuine voice of Khrushchev, commenting on home and foreign events in which he played the leading part for eleven years. How much do we learn from this account?

Very little. At least, very little so far as the historical record goes that we did not know before. There are no revelations, for example; which every historian of Soviet politics is desperately anxious for, about the crucial days and hours which preceded Khrushchev’s deposition on the fifteenth of October, 1964. (There are only eleven words about this event: “since I retired—that is, since I was forced to retire.”) Indeed, Khrushchev is such a model of party loyalty and orthodoxy that it is at first sight difficult to see why he should have got into some trouble with the Soviet authorities (over the publication of the earlier volume) or indeed why these memoirs should not have been published in the Soviet Union.


I think the main reason is most probably Khrushchev’s native peasant vulgarity which keeps breaking out, and which offends against the canon of humorless pomposity which every good Communist is expected to obey. It is “nekulturno“—to use that glorious, illiterate Soviet term—for the First Secretary of the CPSU to notice, let alone to comment on, the behinds of cancan girls in the famous film which Khrushchev saw in the making on his visit to California. Actually, although his sense of duty both at the time and in his memoirs impelled Khrushchev to criticize this product of capitalist decadence, I well remember the newsreels at the time which showed him applauding the cancan wildly until restrained by a withering glance from his wife, Nina Petrovna. It is regrettable, too, that Communist convention precluded Khrushchev from telling us more about Nina Petrovna, a woman by all accounts of great charm and character, whom I suspect—though without a shred of evidence to support it—of having influenced Khrushchev for the good in the revolution which he effected in the Soviet Union.

For let there be no mistake: however much his successors may like to pretend it never happened, it was Khrushchev who released winds of change in the Soviet Union which will trouble the waters for a long time to come—if they are ever stilled. I will return to the question of his significance in Soviet history. The mystery of this book is the fact that a man who was such an innovator, who was prepared to break so dramatically with the past in several respects, should have been such a dinosaur of Communist orthodoxy in nearly all of his judgments of events.

There are, it is true, occasional lapses—for example, a hint that the invasion of Czechoslovakia was wrong, though of course that happened nearly four years after Khrushchev’s fall and, of course, what happened in Hungary in 1956 (dealt with in the earlier volume) was quite different! Or a virtual admission that the postwar elections in Poland were rigged—but then this happened long before Khrushchev came to power. He describes, accurately enough it seems, Academician Sakharov’s attempt to dissuade him from manufacturing and testing nuclear weapons; but says not a word of Sakharov the world-renowned campaigner for civil freedom. He describes, in terms which give a good sense of the prevailing atmosphere, his conflicts with the military leaders on questions of arms policy—it would perhaps be too much to expect him to admit that he was in every instance wrong. But there is nothing about Zhukov’s political service to him in June, 1957, nor yet about the treacherous way in which the great commander’s political downfall was engineered five months later.

In short, if one knew no more of Khrushchev than these memoirs one would get the picture of a Communist Bourbon who had learned nothing and forgotten nothing since 1917. His Manichaean world is divided into the light socialist half and the dark and evil capitalist half. All criticism of Soviet policy stems from the capitalist class fear of the advance of socialism—there is nowhere a hint of recognition that Khrushchev’s own revelations (in 1956) about the realities of Soviet life might conceivably impel the denizens of the Western countries to fear the advent of Soviet-style “socialism” for motives unconnected with their money. Soviet policy is always altruistic, idealistic, and impelled solely by the desire to defend itself or a socialist friend (such as Cuba in 1962) from the constant, unremitting aggressive designs of the United States.

Did he ever ask himself, I wonder, why the United States was so restrained as not to annihilate the Soviet Union during the years when American military superiority over the USSR included the monopoly of nuclear weapons? Almost certainly not—there is a ring of sincerity about the pages of this book which confirms me in my belief that a good Communist never allows himself to question the fundamental dogma even in the solitude of his bath—or his retirement dacha.

And so it is quite all right to rant against the Chinese for criticizing the Soviet Union for annexing the Baltic states and Moldavia when these territories belonged to Russia, before 1914; and then, eleven lines lower down the page (page 286), refer to Chinese arguments based on historical borders as “nonsense.” (I must admit that I know Englishmen who will uphold India’s right to Goa, for example, but are quite incapable of discerning a similar Spanish right to Gibraltar. So perhaps such double vision is not peculiar to Communists.)


Above all, the hypocrisy which blazes out from this book would do credit to any member of the Politburo, past or present: Khrushchev’s “great respect,” for example, for the then French Ambassador in Moscow, Monsieur Dejean, and his wife, though at that very time the KGB was engaged in an elaborate operation against both of them, which could only have been undertaken with Khrushchev’s approval, and in the course of which the attempt to arrange sexual entanglements for blackmailing purposes played the leading part. Or the white heat of indignation about US intelligence operations against the Soviet Union, or his wish to go into the garden in Washington for a private talk because of fears that the house was bugged (I suppose the implication is that only capitalists would think of anything so mean as to bug the house of a foreign visitor). There are many more such comic examples.

Yet actually Khrushchev, with all his faults, was worth rather more than these memoirs would suggest. Communist Bourbon as he was, he nevertheless showed some ability to think along lines which were much more than a rehash of Lenin and Stalin in different words. It is, of course, easy to see that once the Soviet leaders were determined, after Stalin’s death, that the rise of a second Stalin was to be avoided at all costs as too dangerous to their own necks, continuation of mass terror on Stalinist lines became impossible. Real terror and “collective leadership” are scarcely compatible. Nevertheless Khrushchev’s denunciation of the past had a note of genuine fervor about it and his reforms of Soviet life seemed to come from the heart. He had a genuine love of his country—the pride in Soviet achievement is evident on every other page of his rambling memoirs. Khrushchev is reported to be despised in the Soviet Union today for his vulgarity, his lack of dignity, and his unbecoming eccentricity. Since priggish hypocrisy is so dominant a characteristic of the Soviet citizen today, the report is probably true in many cases. Yet, in all but one respect perhaps, he deserved well of his country and served it to the best of his ability.

The one exception was his policy toward China. He was justified in building China up industrially as he did—China’s vehement complaints about the inadequacy of Soviet aid notwithstanding. But if reports are correct that he supplied China with the means of producing nuclear energy (though not with nuclear weapons) then it may be the case that he helped to accelerate the emergence of China as a nuclear power by a number of years. No doubt his aim was to prevent China from developing into a rival Communist power. If so this was his major failure.

He showed more realism and originality in developing Soviet policy toward the US and the West generally. “Peaceful coexistence” is merely Sovietese for “political warfare” and was nothing new—Lenin knew all about it even if he did not use the term. But Khrushchev’s real contribution to peace was the recognition that nuclear conflict between the Soviet Union and the US had to be avoided at all costs, since no one could “win” a nuclear confrontation. Before Khrushchev orthodox Communist theory held fast to the view that a nuclear conflict would only destroy imperialism, but leave socialism triumphant. (This is indeed still the Chinese view.) As some wag put it at the time, Khrushchev made the remarkable discovery that atom bombs can kill Russians; a cynic could have added that Khrushchev’s real discovery was that atom bombs could even kill Russian political leaders.

Be that as it may, there is no doubt that the determination to avoid nuclear conflict by previous consultation or by the use of the “hot line” or simply by stepping out of a situation of potential nuclear conflict (as in Cuba in 1962 or in the Middle East in 1973) stems from Khrushchev. It certainly did not originate with the new policy called “détente” as Messrs. Nixon, Kissinger, and Brezhnev never tire of assuring us for their own demagogic reasons.

At home Khrushchev introduced a new element in Soviet life of which there had been no sign for many years—truth. Not the whole truth certainly; but some elements of truthfulness, not only in facing the past—or some of it—but in facing such realities as the failure of Soviet agriculture, the stagnation in Soviet cultural life, the maze of arbitrary illegality, the corruption, the petty tyranny of officialdom, and the endless conflicts between the center and the provinces, between party officials and industry, and many other problems.

He did not solve all these problems or indeed any of the problems completely, and in any case these problems are quite incapable of solution under an arbitrary one-party system of rule, hidebound by outmoded dogma, and always nervous of allowing any real power to be exercised by independent courts and genuine laws. But it should be remembered to Khrushchev’s credit that he tried in his rough eccentric way to make his country a better place to live in, and I believe that he tried because he felt in his heart that it was right to do so. After all, who but a crazy idealist would have embarked on reforms which by October, 1964, had antagonized the security service, the army leaders, the party apparatus, the managers, and the planners? It was surely on his failure that Khrushchev must have reflected again and again in his garden during those years of retirement, even if no hint of this was, apparently, allowed any place in his taped reminiscences.

This Issue

August 8, 1974