Oo, Oo!

Neal Ascherson

  • Khrushchev: The Man and His Era by William Taubman
    Free Press, 876 pp, £25.00, April 2003, ISBN 0 7432 3165 1

I saw Nikita Sergeevich Khrushchev only once, but at the top of his form. A hundred thousand people had been assembled in East Berlin to hear him, on a rubbly wasteland off the Friedrichstrasse. Far off on a red-draped podium, a marionette in a baggy white suit whirled its fists and shrieked.

Khrushchev was too angry to pause for his interpreter, and the loudspeaker towers around us plaited his Russian yells into overlapping echoes. Nobody could understand a word. Then, as if God himself had lost patience, the summer day turned suddenly black. Thunder roared, forked lightning crackled and a wall of rain fell from the sky. I watched the red banners darken with water and collapse as the crowd fled in all directions, heads shielded with soggy proclamations of German-Soviet friendship or copies of Neues Deutschland. The trees growing through the dome of a bombed church doubled up and writhed in the gale. But in this rout, Nikita Sergeevich stood firm. Looking over my shoulder as I ran, I saw the white suit still gleaming against the storm-cloud, the fat little fists still punching the air. He might be only a peasant boy who had gone barefoot and wiped his nose on his sleeve, but he was not going to be treated like this by God or man.

Reading William Taubman’s tremendous biography, I see that this sort of thing kept happening to Khrushchev. Take the grand picnic for the Writers’ Union in May 1957, one of his many catastrophic meetings with the Moscow intellectuals, at which, after a weird, vodka-fuelled tirade, he rushed at the poet Margarita Aliger and bellowed that she was an ‘ideological saboteur’. She reeled outside and fainted, just as a thunderstorm exploded and a deluge toppled the marquee. Khrushchev found scenes like this exhilarating rather than discouraging. He was not paranoid, as Stalin was, but somehow drew energy from the idea that everything and everyone in the cosmos treated him as an upstart, a stubby-fingered boor who must not be allowed to succeed. He would show them. He did show them. The chip on his shoulder was the biggest carried by any leader in history, Napoleon and Hitler not excepted. It was heavy enough to crush the world, and in the Cuba crisis of 1962, it very nearly did so.

There have been many good biographies of Khrushchev, the best of them Mark Frankland’s 1967 study and Edward Crankshaw’s Khrushchev: A Career (1966). Taubman refers to Crankshaw’s opinions rather seldom and then warily, as if uneasy about possible comparisons. But there is no fair comparison to be made. Crankshaw wrote while the Cold War still endured, whereas Taubman, who has studied Khrushchev for most of his working life, was able to read the secret files and Party minutes, and to travel about post-Soviet Russia and Ukraine in search of surviving witnesses and family members. The range of his research, his mastery of sources and his ability to win the confidence of most – not quite all – of the people he tracked down are astounding. As a result, Taubman will make many readers – especially those who have not kept up with the torrent of revelations from the opened Soviet archives in the last ten years – change their understanding of history.

The first mystery about Khrushchev is how a man apparently so erratic and impulsive worked his way to the top of the Soviet pyramid. The answer, as Taubman shows, is that he learned to use his own deficiencies as a screen. Born in the peasant village of Kalinovka, lacking almost all formal education, he began his career after the Revolution as a Party organiser in the Donbas mining region and by 1928 had become head of a department in the Ukrainian Central Committee. He seemed to those around him to be a coarse, energetic little apparatchik who could be relied on to carry out brutal orders, too limited to pose any threat to his ambitious colleagues. Many years later, when he had risen to be one of the leading group in Moscow, Stalin treated him with a sort of condescending affection and let him get away with blunders which might have destroyed a more impressive figure. ‘My little Lenin!’ Stalin once mocked him, tapping his skull, ‘his head is hollow!’ But this reputation was the best possible protection for Khrushchev. Behind it, he was cunning and hugely ambitious. Those who assumed that somebody so ‘uncultured’ and naive was incapable of scheming found out their mistake too late. This was a clown with very slitty eyes indeed.

He was summoned to Moscow in 1929, and within a couple of years was Party leader of both the capital and its surrounding region. Here he spent most of the 1930s, driving ahead the construction of the Moscow Metro, until in 1938 he was sent back to be Party chief in Kiev as Stalin’s ‘viceroy’ in Ukraine. Put in other words, Khrushchev was at Stalin’s side throughout the worst period of the Great Terror. He was co-responsible, and sometimes directly responsible on his own initiative, for the arrest and death of millions. From his time in charge of Moscow, only three out of the 38 top officials in city and region, ten out of 146 Party secretaries and eight out of 63 elected members of the Moscow Party Committee survived. When in 1937 the Politburo assigned him a quota of 35,000 ‘enemies of the people’ to be arrested, with five thousand of them in the category for execution, Khrushchev duly reported 41,000 arrests with 8500 in the ‘liquidation’ category, and asked that two thousand ex-kulaks who had fled into the Moscow region should be added to the lists. ‘We must march across the corpses of the enemy towards the good of the people,’ he proclaimed and, spouting horrible abuse, cheered on the show trials of the old Bolsheviks (‘Trotskyist degenerates’).

There is nothing morally intriguing here. The truth is perfectly clear and almost perfectly indigestible. The same man who was to denounce Stalin’s crimes against the Communist Party, open the gulag gates and punish at least some of those who were guilty was himself equally guilty. Any international criminal tribunal today would without hesitation sentence him for complicity in mass murder and crimes against humanity. After Stalin’s death in 1953, most people in the Soviet Union, and especially his own colleagues and rivals in the Party leadership, were well aware of the part he had played in the 1930s (and he had signed plenty of death sentences before that, during Ukraine’s collectivisation drive). Yet even his enemies, in all their plots against him when he became Stalin’s successor, did not denounce this tyrant’s henchman for appointing himself the tyrant’s judge. How did he get away with this? And what did he himself think about his own past?

The first question is easy to answer. All the men in the post-Stalin leadership had survived because they had agreed to send innocent people to their deaths. Some had even denounced their own wives or children. So responsibility was not an issue; they all had blood on their hands, even if some, like Beria, had killed more than others. This was simply a matter of power. Once Stalin’s crimes had been proclaimed to the Party, anyone who could summon enough supporters and gunmen to the Kremlin could arrest or crush his rivals as accessories to murder and false imprisonment. This is what Khrushchev did: first with Beria and then, in 1957, with the ‘anti-Party group’ of Malenkov, Molotov and Kaganovich.

The second question, of Khrushchev’s own excuses, is more tangled. Taubman refers to his ‘stunning blend of deception and self-deception’. He never admitted that he had obeyed Stalin out of fear, though fear must have played a part. (Back in 1923 he had briefly joined a Trotskyist opposition group in the Donbas, the sort of mistake which cost thousands of people their lives. He eventually confided this episode to Stalin, who quietly arranged for his ‘confession’ to be accepted during a Party congress.) Khrushchev himself simply said that, like millions of others, he had ‘believed at the time’. ‘Until 1935 or perhaps 1936, it was possible for someone like Khrushchev to believe in Stalin,’ Taubman remarks. ‘After that, it was too late not to.’ What this book suggests is that Khrushchev’s faith in Stalin’s infallibility began to wane during the Second World War. He was aware that Stalin’s strategic decisions had often been irrational, that the lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers had been thrown away. And when he began to prepare for Ukraine’s postwar reconstruction, he was genuinely appalled to discover that the younger generation of Party officials – those on whom the rebuilding would depend – had been almost completely annihilated during the Purges. He should have known this. After all, he had been in political command of Ukraine in the late 1930s. But he had apparently closed his eyes to the sheer scale of what the NKVD was doing in the Party’s name.

In Stalin’s last years, he came to dread the grisly invitations to the Leader’s dacha, at which the rulers of the Soviet Union were forced to watch boring movies, dance with one another to gramophone music and drink themselves senseless (Khrushchev had been a teetotaller before he was called to Moscow, and it was Stalin who insisted that he join the inner circle in their addiction to vodka and cognac). And yet his growing doubts about the Leader’s policies never undermined his reverence for Stalin’s ‘greatness’. This awe persisted even after he had overthrown Stalin’s cult in his great speech to the 20th Party Congress in 1956. In a superb account of what was really said during the Central Committee Plenum in June 1957 – a meeting called to defeat Khrushchev’s rivals which heard in much more detail about the crimes of the Terror than the 20th Congress itself, and which was kept secret for 40 years – Taubman quotes Khrushchev’s outburst: ‘All of us taken together aren’t worth Stalin’s shit!’

Taubman calls Khrushchev’s 1956 speech ‘the bravest and most reckless thing he ever did’, and adds, justifiably, that ‘the Soviet regime never fully recovered, and neither did he.’ Addressed to a secret Congress session from which foreign delegates were excluded, it lasted four hours and shattered its totally unprepared audience. As the text spread across the world in the following months, Communist regimes split and tottered while the world Communist movement – facing an appalling choice between faith in the infallibility of Stalin and faith in the infallible leadership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union – sank into temporary paralysis. Why Khrushchev turned on Stalin in this way will never be entirely clear. The opportunist motive is plain enough. In the succession struggle after Stalin’s death, denouncing the dictator and his henchmen as criminals was the obvious winning card, and Khrushchev was not the first to play it. Few people now remember that, in a short-lived reform programme launched within weeks of Stalin’s funeral, the monstrous Beria, as head of the NKVD, amnestied over a million prisoners, ended forced labour, transferred the gulag camps to the Ministry of Justice and banned the extraction of confessions by torture. And yet there was more than calculation to Khrushchev’s act. There was real hatred and outrage in that speech, anger at the fate of old Party comrades and, as Taubman suggests, a personal need to ‘reclaim his identity as a decent man’.

Nikita Khrushchev ruled the Soviet Union for ten years. He put an end to universal state terror and left his country with a hope that freedom would continue to increase. He insisted that living standards must rise at once and scrapped the Stalinist mantra of endless sacrifices of the present for a remote future. But he solved none of the Communist system’s basic economic and social problems, and made some of them worse. He had always been an enthusiast for technological wheezes, from a doomed scheme for the underground gasification of coal to a death-ray which killed rats. Once in power, he tormented the whole Soviet Union with erratic, quick-fix recipes.

Agriculture was the great failure. Khrushchev knew that collective farming was a disaster in terms of food production, but could never face the obvious remedy: returning the land to the peasants and giving them proper cash incentives for crops and livestock. Instead, gigantic tinkerings wasted time and resources: the Virgin Lands programme for ploughing up the steppe grasslands, the Khrushchevian mania for planting maize in unsuitable regions (to this day, the matryoshka dolls sold to tourists show Nikita Sergeevich clutching a maize cob), the ‘fertiliser drive’ of 1963. Khrushchev found peasant backwardness loathsome and yet fascinating. All his life, he fiddled with dreams of agro-cities, a new type of settlement which would abolish the difference between city and village and dissolve the old peasant culture for ever. Constantly he went back to his native village of Kalinovka, lavishing new concrete buildings on it and rushing about the streets to distribute unsuitable German cart-horses, appoint a new kolkhoz chairman or shout abuse at private pigs. But nothing much ever changed there. Disgusted, Nikita Sergeevich would get back into his limousine and return to plans for a pipeline to supply Kiev with the milk of 500,000 cows.

The same wild amateurism characterised everything he did. In 1957, he barnstormed across the USSR to proclaim his new decentralisation plan for ‘regional economic councils’. In 1961, he proposed to split the Party itself into two, an industrial wing and an agricultural wing. Just before he was overthrown in 1964, he horrified the Party by suggesting that the Academy of Sciences should be abolished. The main effect of these schemes, not always wrong in themselves, was to demoralise the Party leadership and bring recruits to the plot – headed by Brezhnev – that eventually brought him down.

Yet there were times when all seemed to be going triumphantly well. Sputnik went squeaking round an astonished world; Yuri Gagarin returned smiling from space; the Virgin Lands for a while gave impressive harvests. In 1957, Khrushchev proclaimed his most enduring vision: ‘overtaking’ the United States, at first in agricultural production and then in absolutely everything. From then on, America and his personal relationship with Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy obsessed him. Genuine delight in American technical prowess and modernity alternated with frightful eruptions of bullying rage (‘we will bury you,’ ‘we can shatter the world’). Some of these eruptions were calculated; others burst from the depths of his personality when he felt that the uneducated peasant boy was being slighted by a stuck up Westerner. ‘I fucked him with a telegraph pole!’ he boasted, after giving Harold Macmillan a piece of his mind.

The saga of Nikita Khrushchev in the Cold War is so incredible that its telling never stales. Taubman’s narrative is richly detailed, but always fresh and lively. His account of the 1959 visit to the United States – Khrushchev’s ecstasy over his full-dress welcome, his violent public rows, his bizarre encounter with Hollywood – is a treasure. And his chapter on the disastrous 1960 Paris Summit, from the downing of the U-2 spy plane to Khrushchev’s gleeful wrecking of the Summit, ending with the epilogue of his yelling, shoe-banging appearance at the United Nations, is the supreme set-piece of this book. But Taubman’s treatment of the 1962 Cuba crisis, when Khrushchev’s taste for ‘playing chess in the dark’ brought us all to the brink of nuclear incineration, is less satisfying.

The story is elegantly told, and the latest revelations about the crisis – continually replayed by its surviving participants – are all there. Taubman is right that Khrushchev almost fatally misjudged the likely American response to the appearance of Soviet missiles in Cuba; the Vienna meeting with President Kennedy in 1961 had left him confident that Kennedy would recoil under the threat of war. And he is also right to see that the missiles were not installed in order to force concessions over Berlin, an easy assumption at the time. But he underplays some of the most dramatic elements in the October confrontation and avoids some big questions. He asks what the Soviets thought they were doing in Cuba, but never asks what the Americans thought they were doing in trying to overthrow Castro by invasion. And he gives only a few lines in an end-note to the argument that Khrushchev (undeservedly) won solid gains from the deal that closed the crisis, getting American missiles out of Turkey and extracting an assurance that the United States would not attack Cuba in the future.

The British Ambassador in Moscow, William Hayter, noted that Khrushchev was ‘rumbustious, loquacious, impetuous, free-wheeling, alarmingly ignorant of foreign affairs, and constantly interrupts’. In private, he and his wife Nina – a rigidly loyal Party intellectual, not at all the cosy, dumpy figure she seemed to foreigners – made grim parents. Taubman has unearthed the story of Lyuba, the pretty widow of Khrushchev’s son Leonid, who was arrested and sent to the camps for talking to foreign diplomats; her father-in-law pretended she had never existed, and her son Tolya became a homeless street child. But Khrushchev’s admirable son Sergei, an aerospace engineer, stayed loyal to him after his fall and helped him to compose and smuggle abroad his vivid, unreliable memoirs. Sergei is now an American citizen. Does his father roll in his tomb? Maybe not, for there was a side of Nikita Sergeevich which yearned to be part of a fast-moving, acquisitive, can-do world. He would have made a great Texan oil tycoon. Perhaps he could have produced great movies.

For decades, the Russian people remembered Khrushchev with contempt. He had been a dangerous clown, disgracing the image of Russia in the world. Now, if Taubman is right, there is a change, and if he is remembered at all, it is with respect for his unmasking of Stalin and for his vision of better lives for the people. A similar change happened to his reputation in the West. At first, he was loathed as the ‘butcher of Budapest’, the man who sent tanks against the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. Then, and even after the Cuba affair, he became the target of half-affectionate jokes: the fat little jester with bad teeth who was never pompous or predictable. (Taubman omits my favourite Nikitism: haggling over the fine print of documents was ‘pouring hot water into bedbugs’ ears’.)

His personality was horribly deformed; his crimes were unforgivable. And yet his lust for the new was disarming. I will never forget a story Taubman tells about his London visit in 1956. What, he asked his Foreign Office escort, was that odd ‘oo, oo!’ noise coming from the back of the crowd? The diplomat explained that people were booing, an expression of disapproval. Khrushchev grew thoughtful. In the back of the car, he said experimentally to himself: ‘Boo!’ And then again: ‘Boo!’ He liked it. For the rest of the day, he went around exclaiming ‘Boo!’ to all kinds of puzzled people. He had learned something.