Andropov’s Turn

Philip Short

  • Khrushchev by Roy Medvedev, translated by Brian Pearce
    Blackwell, 292 pp, £9.50, November 1982, ISBN 0 631 12993 6
  • Soviet Policy for the 1980s edited by Archie Brown and Michael Kaser
    Macmillan/St Antony’s College, Oxford, 282 pp, £20.00, December 1982, ISBN 0 333 33139 7

Revolutions and their aftermath are a commoner feature of historical development than we often realise. What is happening today in Iran was happening fifteen years ago in China, sixty years ago in Russia and nearly two hundred years ago in France. It is a point made forcefully by Andrzej Wajda’s latest film, which depicts the struggle between Danton and Robespierre – between humanist and puritan, pragmatist and idealist. Wajda intended it as an allegory on the present-day state of Poland. But his message is painted on a broader canvas. The terror that stalked France in the dreadful summer of 1794 is the same that Stalin unleashed in 1934. It is in the nature of revolutions to destroy their own children and to raise up, in Danton’s words, ‘tyrants worse than those they overthrew’.

Roy Medvedev’s first book to be published in the West, Let history judge, was a brilliant and minutely-researched account of one such tyrant: Stalin. His latest, Khrushchev, is very different in both scope and subject. Yet it is a logical continuation of the earlier work in the sense that, far more than a simple biography, it is a political assessment of the attempts of Stalin’s immediate successors to come to terms with his legacy. That task is not yet over. The problems Khrushchev faced in the 1950s are in many cases mirrored in the problems Yuri Andropov faces today. Brezhnev’s last years, like Stalin’s, were deadened by an all-embracing conservatism. And though Khrushchev and Andropov are patently very different characters, the experiences of the one tell us a good deal about the choices before the other.

Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev was born into a peasant family in the village of Kalinovka, near Russia’s border with the Ukraine, on 17 April 1894. There is a revealing passage in his memoirs in which he describes the world in which he grew up:

In my childhood in the Donbass, I once witnessed a pogrom with my own eyes. I went to school four versts [nearly three miles] from the mine where my father worked. One day I was coming home from school. It was a lovely, sunny autumn day, with spiderwebs flying about in the air like snow. We were barefoot that day, like every day from spring to late autumn. Every villager dreamed of owning a pair of boots. We children were lucky if we had a decent pair of shoes. We wiped our noses on our sleeves and kept our trousers up with a piece of string. It was a beautiful day, and we were in a carefree mood. My schoolmates and I met a man driving a wagon. When he saw us, he stopped and started to weep. ‘Children,’ he said, ‘if you only knew what they’re doing in Yuzovka [now Donetsk].’ We started to walk faster. As soon as I arrived home, I threw down my book bag and ran all the way to Yuzovka ...

  There had been a decree that for three days you could do whatever you wanted to the Jews. For three days there was no check on the looting ... and all the pillage and murder went unpunished ... In the factory infirmary we found a horrible scene. The corpses of Jews who had been beaten to death were lying in rows on the floor ...

  Before taking a job in the mines, my father had been a farmhand. We had been poor then, and we were poor now. My mother earned extra money by taking in washing. I used to make a few kopeks by cleaning boilers after school and on Saturdays. Both my father and mother, but particularly my mother, dreamed of the day when they could return to the village, to a little house, a horse, and a piece of land of their own.

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