The Case for Khrushchev


by Roy Medvedev, translated by Brian Pearce
Anchor Press/Doubleday,, 292 pp., $17.95

Nikita Khrushchev
Nikita Khrushchev; drawing by David Levine

Let History Judge was the title that Roy Medvedev gave to an admirable book on Stalin. He has now published a biography of Khrushchev, written, as was the previous book, in the Soviet Union. Medvedev seems to have considerable freedom to write in the USSR (though he has been warned by the KGB). But he cannot publish in the USSR such works as this one, which is based partly on talks with Khrushchev’s family and other people who were close to him.

It will be easy enough for “history” (whatever that may mean) to assess Stalin, provided there are still some moral principles left in the future. Assuming that historical criteria are still based on reality and not on Marxist predilections like “social forces,” posterity will presumably record something like this: Stalin was the most tyrannous ruler of his age, who killed many more people than did his near rival, Hitler, and inflicted untold suffering on his people. He also did enormous and lasting damage to the economy and social fabric of the USSR. On the other hand, he played a big part in organizing the defeat of the Nazi invasion, even if by his own folly he had made that invasion possible; and he laid the foundations of the aggressive Soviet military machine of the future.

On Brezhnev there will probably be general agreement that he was a man of mediocre ability who was anxious to prevent any kind of disturbance by attempts at reform, eager to please everyone, so long as there was no danger to the stability of the regime, and above all keen to keep things going smoothly. Andropov it is too early to judge, except to say that it is already obvious that he, like Stalin and Brezhnev, is a dyed-in-the-wool apparatchik, steeped in doubletalk, hypocrisy, and propaganda.

Khrushchev, however, presents much more of a problem. The trouble is that he was something almost unknown among leading Soviet politicians—a human being. As his son Sergei said at his funeral (as reported by Robert Kaiser): “A man has gone from us who had the right to be called a man. Unfortunately there are very few such real people.” He was “real” not only because of his peasant earthiness, his proverbs, and his vulgarity; he was “real” because he behaved as if he knew what reality was, and was not just mouthing ideological claptrap. In spite of the fact that he left his country so much better off than he had found it when Stalin died, he was not widely respected there—though, as Sergei said, you either hated him or loved him. But the Soviet public mostly likes its leaders to conform to patterns. Let outward, ideological life follow its dreary course, let leaders be dull, prim, and hypocritical in the way that has become established: at the lower levels life goes along its normal way of endless fiddling…

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