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 and grousing.

If we put aside his crazy schemes of reform, which are all too easy to ridicule, and forget that he was often crude, foul-mouthed, bad-tempered, and primitive, we can credit Khrushchev, when he was ousted from office, with three major achievements. He improved Soviet agriculture from the abject level to which it had been reduced by Stalin’s policies, raising it to a state which, if it could not be described as prosperity, was at all events more tolerable for the farmers. He was also the first Soviet leader to face the reality of nuclear weapons, and to admit freely that the effects of an atomic war would be devastating for both sides in the conflict. Before then, the doctrine had been (as it is again now) that a war fought with atomic weapons can be won like any other, and that imperialist casualties in such a conflict would be much tougher than those on the socialist side. Although Medvedev does not give Khrushchev credit for this, it was his sober realization of the risk of mutual devastation, as well as the similar realism of President Kennedy, that in 1962 prevented the outbreak of war over the Cuban missile crisis. This was, in fact, a true instance of the nuclear forces on both sides acting as a deterrent.

Nor does Medvedev deal with the folly of Khrushchev’s policy in installing weapons in distant Cuba, with no means of defending them, which probably contributed to his downfall two years later. But he quotes a story relating to 1957, published by the Israeli communist Mikunis (and broadly confirmed from other sources), that goes a long way toward explaining the subsequent evolution of the Italian Communist Party. At a conference of communist leaders, Mao Zedong disclosed that he had been having an argument with Nehru about the casualties that an atomic war would cause—would it be a billion and a half, or only a billion and a quarter? “But what would become of Italy as a result of such a war?” asked the Italian leader Togliatti. “But who told you that Italy must survive?” said Mao. “Three hundred million Chinese will be left, and that will be enough for the human race to continue.” One can also see why Khrushchev quarreled with the Chinese communists—and, no doubt, why he presumably lived to regret that he had supplied the Chinese with the first stages of the science of splitting the atom (they stole the rest).


But Khrushchev’s major and outstanding achievement was, of course, the unmasking of Stalin’s reign of terror, and the dismantling of the Gulag empire of the MVD and MGB. The secret police apparatus was brought under the control of the administrative organs department of the Central Committee and of the procurators. However unsavory the behavior of the KGB (as it became in 1954) may be nowadays with Party authority, it is a good deal less so than that of the MVD and MGB under Stalin’s personal control. The inmates of the camps were rehabilitated in large numbers, many of them posthumously. (I knew an Israeli communist who was rehabilitated just in time for the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956, and with his restored Party card attended the session of the famous “secret speech.” He found the corridors of the congress buzzing with protests that the elections to the Central Committee had preceded the exposure of Stalin.)

It is easy enough to point to the omissions of Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin—as Medvedev very fairly does—with an assessment of Khrushchev’s own involvement in Stalin’s mass murders and persecutions. But the opposition he faced from his colleagues, who were terrified for their own skins if denunciation of past misdeeds went too far, made compromise inevitable. It says much for Khrushchev’s courage and determination that he overcame his opponents to the extent that he did. But he had to yield to the objections to the rehabilitation of Bukharin advanced by Thorez—that it would damage the image of communism too much. (The PCF has remained true to form!)

There has been so much emphasis, especially in Soviet sources, on Khrushchev’s “hare-brained schemes” and the like that it is often forgotten what a skillful political manipulator he was. In June 1957, for example, getting, the Central Committee together in order to save himself from an overwhelming vote against him in the Party Presidium (which Bulganin later described as “a so-called arithmetical majority”) showed real genius and presence of mind. The vote in the Central Committee in Khrushchev’s favor was a foregone conclusion. It consisted overwhelmingly of his nominees, who were bound to support him once they saw that he was alive and free.

Of course, a first-year politics student at any Western university could have advised the members of the Presidium that unless they put Khrushchev out of action before they voted to oust him, he would turn the tables on them. Medvedev does not really deal with this point. He seems to suggest that Khrushchev was too popular for a movement against him to succeed. This seems rather naive to me. It is really difficult to imagine, in Soviet conditions, officials disobeying an order from the Party Presidium (as the Politburo was then called) if they had been told to arrest Khrushchev.

The removal of Marshal Zhukov at the end of the year was another astute political move—as Khrushchev told the Yugoslav ambassador, Zhukov had helped him in June, but next time he might support someone else. Surprisingly enough, Medvedev seems to accept the cock-and-bull charges against Zhukov relating to his opposition to political education in the army and the like. Zhukov certainly thought little of time in the armed forces being spent on Party education, but he was fully within his right to do so. The Main Political Directorate was at that date subordinated to the Ministry of Defense, and not to the Central Committee. After Zhukov’s dismissal, it was placed firmly under Party control, and it seems likely that Zhukov’s dismissal was primarily motivated by the desire to effect this change.

Medvedev is least convincing on the subject of Khrushchev’s downfall in 1964. We are invited to believe two very improbable assertions. First, that during the meeting of the Central Committee, Khrushchev remained wholly silent, though not in any way physically restrained, while fifteen charges of mistakes and incompetence were leveled against him. Secondly, that at the end of it all, in a free vote, his dismissal was unanimously approved. Nor does Medvedev explain why the chief of the KGB and the secretary mainly responsible for it were promoted immediately after Khrushchev was ousted. It would have been much more consistent with communist practice to have arrested or over powered him before the vote to dismiss him—indeed, true Leninism demands that a decision should always precede the vote, so that the leaders know what the result is going to be and are not taken by surprise. Of course, many of the accusations against Khrushchev were true enough. But again, in communist practice, accusations against a leader are only brought when the decision to dismiss him has already been taken: the truth or otherwise of the accusation is irrelevant.


It was, however, an advance on the Stalin era that Khrushchev was not killed but only driven into obscure retirement and refused the right to answer the accusations that were subsequently made against him in public. It is comforting to read the account from sources who were close to Khrushchev that there were many people, some in relatively high positions, who unobtrusively continued to show regard for the old man. There is one good story, recounted from such sources. At one stage, Khrushchev had to report to Kirilenko—now in semi-disgrace. When Kirilenko snapped at him, “You are still living too well,” Khrushchev replied, “All right, you can take away my dacha and my pension. I shall be able to wander through this country with my hand outstretched, and people will give me whatever I need. If you were destitute, no one would give you anything.”

Excessive zeal was Khrushchev’s undoing. He had succeeded by 1964 in antagonizing every vested interest in the country. The military were outraged by his attempt in 1962 to put a virtual end to the navy (“floating coffins”) and to reduce army manpower. The KGB never forgave the demotion it suffered in 1954. The Party was antagonized by his numerous reforms which were not only unworkable, but threatened the well-entrenched privileges of the members of the apparatus. The managers disliked his innovations that cut across established procedures. Above all, the Party Presidium was outraged by his personal style of rule, his disregard of the principle adopted after the fall of Stalin—“collective responsibility”—by attempting to put policies into effect without consulting anyone else.

Medvedev’s book is sober and sensible, if a bit dull. He has been well served by his translator. But it is disappointing that with all the personal resources of family and friends at his apparent command, he has not provided a more vivid picture of this intriguing personality. It is particularly sad that we should be told virtually nothing about Mrs. Nina Petrovna Khrushcheva. On her rare public appearances, she gave to those who met her the impression of a warm, sincere, and most attractive personality. She must surely have exerted some influence on her husband. When “history” returns to the subject of this most eccentric and exceptional communist leader, this is the kind of information that will be keenly sought after. It is much to be hoped that those who have authentic reminiscences will commit them to the ample repository of samizdat before it is too late.

This Issue

April 28, 1983