Nikita Khrushchev
Nikita Khrushchev; drawing by David Levine

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.

Taubman thinks Khrushchev hurled threats of nuclear war around so liberally because this was his idea of deterrence.3 He saw the threatening of war as the best way of avoiding it, on the grounds that his opponents (especially in the United States) would be even more afraid of it than he was. But Khrushchev blustered more from instinct than from calculation, and besides, he had very few long-range rockets. His lack of them was what caused him to start shipping medium-range missiles into Cuba, the better to threaten American cities, and there his bluff was finally called.

Taubman traces the Cuban adventure back to a walk Khrushchev took by the Black Sea with his defense minister, Rodion Malinovsky, in April 1962. Khrushchev reflected on the nearness of US missiles in Turkey, and on how clever he would be to match them with some Soviet missiles in Cuba. “What if we throw a hedgehog down Uncle Sam’s pants?” he said to Malinovsky.

Once those missiles were in place, Khrushchev thought, they would threaten the United States, and the two countries would be even. What happened instead was that the US detected and photographed the Russian missiles in transit. It seems astonishing now that Khrushchev had neither anticipated this contingency nor prepared for it, but, as Taubman shows, he had not. Instead he launched into panicky negotiations with Washington aimed at securing a face-saving formula for taking the missiles away again; after flirting with nuclear war, he got a deal involving secret removal of US missiles from Turkey.

Khrushchev was hampered at such times by the dictatorial nature of his regime. The arrival of nuclear weapons changed the rules of warfare and of international relations in ways too big for any politician to understand unaided. But since the “science” of Marxism-Leninism was supposed to transcend all other knowledge, a Communist Party boss was expected to formulate policy for nuclear warfare as well as for everything else of public interest, from the fine arts to economic planning. The nuclear strategy of the Soviet Union did not evolve from a broadly based consensus of informed opinion about what was desirable and possible: it followed from Khrushchev’s intuitions, discounted by the uneven capacities of his economy and army to deliver.

The mixture of provocation and experimentation in Khrushchev’s foreign policy helped to stir opposition to him within the Soviet Politburo. His colleagues thought Khrushchev might tip Russia into an unnecessary war. They also thought he lacked the necessary dignity for representing the USSR. He was too prone to long rambling speeches, loud vulgar jokes, and strong drink, the sort of behavior that was common in politics at home but not meant for export.

But it was domestic failures that sealed Khrushchev’s fate. The harvests were smaller. His obsession with growing corn became a national joke. He rashly proclaimed targets for industry and farming that were specific but impossible, such as his call in 1957 for a tripling of meat production within three years. He seemed scarcely to consider either the political consequences of being seen to miss such targets or the practical implications for the rest of the economy if an industry seriously tried to meet them. Taubman recounts the sad story of Aleksei Larionov, a Party boss in Ryazan, to the south of Moscow, who tried to triple meat production as Khrushchev required. Ryazan slaughtered dairy herds, bought or rustled cattle from neighboring regions, and tried to raise taxes from peasants in the form of more meat. In the end the province produced a sixth of what it had promised, and Larionov committed suicide.

Khrushchev did the greatest damage to his support within the bureaucracy by trying to shake up government and industry with ill-considered reorganization plans that achieved nothing save confusion and anger. In 1957 he abolished government ministries in charge of specific industries, and redistributed their power to regional committees. The change was stealthily reversed over the next five years. In 1962 he ordered the Communist Party itself to be split into separate industrial and agricultural branches, but he was deposed before the split was completed. This was just as well for Party theorists, who would have been hard pressed to explain how a party that famously claimed to unite workers and peasants had instead become one party for each.


Mikhail Gorbachev identifies some of Khrushchev’s errors in a series of conversations with the veteran Czech dissident Zdenek Mlynár, now available in English as Conversations with Gorbachev: On Perestroika, the Prague Spring, and the Crossroads of Socialism.4 Gorbachev’s expert aim is hardly surprising, since he reenacted some of Khrushchev’s frustrations when in power himself—though you sense he would prefer not to have the parallels drawn. He recalls:

At first Khrushchev enjoyed tremendous authority. But the system resisted change. And when the reforms got into tight straits and began to be accompanied by instability in society and increased discontent, Khrushchev began to rush back and forth in different directions in search of measures to save the day and in the proc-ess committed errors and made miscalculations.

Mlynár politely refrains from observing that this comment could also sum up Gorbachev’s record in power. In Gorbachev’s view, Khrushchev made a fundamental mistake in setting some of his growth targets with reference to the United States. Khrushchev promised to “catch up with and surpass” the US, first in food production and later in general prosperity. Stalin, says Gorbachev, would never have done such a thing:

Stalin never permitted comparisons of socialism or communism with capitalist reality because he argued that an entirely new world was being built here that could not be compared with any pre-ceding system…. Our successes could be measured only by our own standards of measurement…. Khrushchev, with his slogan “Catch up with and surpass America,” changed the situation fundamentally for the ordinary Soviet citizen. It’s as though he were saying that now the aim was to live the way they do over there.

But Khrushchev may have had little choice. Nuclear weapons had brought Russia and the US into a direct and seemingly permanent confrontation. People on both sides had to believe they were defending the only model of society worth living for. Living standards, inevitably, were part of the propaganda battle. By claiming that the Soviet model would make people richer in the future, Khrushchev could at least distract attention from the fact that they were poorer at present.

Khrushchev’s use of economic propaganda also had the effect of making the Soviet Union seem more comprehensible to the West, even an example to it. Partly because the Soviets inflated their claimed achievements, and Westerners could not easily check the figures, the idea began taking hold in the West that the Soviet model of growth was worth studying for its accomplishments. By 1960, analyses of Russia’s economic growth rate, and its appeal to underdeveloped countries, received, according to the historian Martin Malia, “considerably more attention in Western scholarship and journals than did her system of political controls or the techniques of purge and brainwashing.” The West was “de-Stalinizing” its view of Russia too.

And there, roughly speaking, things rested for twenty-five years, until the combination of a falling oil price and a disastrous Afghan war forced Russia to admit near bankruptcy in both economic and foreign policy. Mikhail Gorbachev struggled to change his country, only to see it collapse with a suddenness and totality that amazed most specialists of the day and most Russians too, Gorbachev among them. A line from his Conversations with Zdenek Mlynár should be preserved as a masterpiece of understatement. “Naturally,” says Gorbachev, “I feel troubled by the fact that I did not succeed in keeping the entire process of perestroika within the framework of my intentions.”

The conversations make up a slight book, and it comes a little late, but in Gorbachev’s talk with Mlynár you can sense the strengths that once made him the most admired politician in the world, and you can sense also the limitations that left him so confounded by his own failure. He still talks as though the collapse of communism was a greater tragedy than communism itself. Even in 1993, Gorbachev could speak of “the essence of Leninism as an attempt to develop in practice the ‘living creative activity of the masses.'” He could call Stalinism “a system for mobilizing society under extreme conditions.” He means this as a criticism, but even so misses the point that Stalinism was a system for creating catastrophes, not responding to them.

Mlynár, a friend of Gorbachev’s since their student days together in Moscow, is a tactful interviewer. A mutual affection and respect is evident throughout the discussion, but the two men have deep differences over the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, when Mlynár was a leading figure in the Czech dissident movement. Gorbachev recalls the invasion as a “dramatic and painful event, but one I thought necessary for the defense of socialism against subversive activities on the part of the Western powers.” Mlynár remembers standing alongside Alexander Dubcek in Prague when the Red Army burst into the city: “One’s concept of socialism at such a moment moves to last place,” Mlynár says, “but unconsciously at the same time you know that it has a direct connection of some sort with the automatic weapon pointing at your back.”


If one’s concept of Soviet socialism needs further clarification, Alexander Yakovlev’s volume of essays, A Century of Violence in Soviet Russia, helps supply it. Published in Russian two years ago, it appears now in a fine translation preserving the author’s angry, sad, often despairing voice.

Yakovlev, a veteran diplomat and Gorbachev adviser, has since 1989 run a commission formed with government backing to review the repression of the Soviet era. These essays are a distillation of his findings. He makes no pretense of academic detachment. He wants, as publicly as he can, to vent the rage that he calls “the only response to those who march up and down our land braying that ‘Stalin didn’t go far enough.'”

After years working at the top of the Soviet bureaucracy, and years more on the records of its victims, Yakovlev has no residual uncertainties, no moments of hesitation or indulgence. He has pronounced innocent more than four million peo-ple who were executed, jailed, or deported. He calculates that some 35 million people were killed by political terror, or deliberate starvation, throughout the Soviet era, a conclusion that takes on special authority in view of the documents that have been available to him. His judgments have a devastating finality. Here is his short summary of the career of Lenin, the man whose eye for creativity Gorbachev so admired:

Exponent of mass terror, violence, the dictatorship of the proletariat, class struggle, and other inhuman concepts. Organizer of the fratricidal Russian civil war and concentration camps, including camps for children. Incessant in his demands for arrests and capital punishment by bullet or rope. Personally responsible for the deaths of millions of Russian citizens. By every norm of international law, posthumously indictable for crimes against humanity.

Those who feel these words may be a little hard on the Bolsheviks should consider Yakovlev’s summary of the way they treated the clergy:

Metropolitan Vladimir of Kiev was mutilated, castrated, and shot, and his corpse was left naked for the public to desecrate. Metropolitan Veniamin of St. Petersburg, in line to succeed the patriarch, was turned into a pillar of ice: he was doused with cold water in the freezing cold. Bishop Germogen of Tobolsk, who had voluntarily accompanied the Czar into exile, was strapped alive to the paddlewheel of a steamboat and mangled by the rotating blades. Archbishop Andronnik of Perm, who had been renowned earlier as a missionary and had worked as such in Japan, was buried alive. Archbishop Vasily was crucified and burned…. Priests, monks and nuns…were crucified on the central doors of iconostases, thrown into cauldrons of boiling tar, scalped, strangled with priestly stoles, given Communion with melted lead, drowned in holes in the ice.


Yakovlev has a keen ear for voices—a gift that must haunt him as he plows through yet another terrible account of death or suffering. Here he quotes from a child explaining what it meant to be persecuted in the 1930s as a well-off peasant: “Our huge family…had nowhere to live, nothing to eat, no place to work…. We scraped along until spring; with the thaw we dug a pit in the courtyard, and the whole family lived in this pit.”

Yakovlev cites an eyewitness’s account of Koreans deported from the far-eastern provinces of Russia to Kazakhstan in 1937:

Losing all self-control and dignity, people in white dresses and gray padded jackets clasped their drivers and guards by the knees, begging to be taken to some inhabited place, because in the freezing cold and wind, without shelter or a roof over their heads, the little children and the old would die, and even the young would hardly make it till morning.

Once I asked Yakovlev how he found the strength to plow through the records of so much torment. He replied:

It is really very difficult. Sometimes I do want to give this thing up. I think, why does it have to be me who does this? Very often when I read these documents I become scared. But I become even more scared when I think there are millions of people who are absolutely indifferent to this information.

But as Yakovlev points out in his book:

To this day the country proliferates with monuments to Lenin and streets named after him; many a local government leader has Lenin’s portrait hanging in his office; hundreds of Bolshevik and frankly Fascist newspapers are being published; monstrous speeches defending Stalin and attacking the victims of the evil regime are delivered in the Duma.

The fiftieth anniversary of Stalin’s death, on March 5 this year, was an occasion for many public figures to insist that the late dictator should be remembered with at least some measure of respect. An opinion poll by the Public Opinion Foundation found that 36 percent of Russians thought Stalin “did more good than bad for the country,” while only 29 percent thought the reverse. From which it can only be inferred that many Russians have strange ideas about what is good, and bad, for their country.

This Issue

May 1, 2003