#17 - JRL 7129
April 7, 2003
Stalin's Sancho Panza
Uncouth and brutal, Nikita Khrushchev nevertheless rinsed the terror out of the Stalinist Soviet regime
By Lance Morrow
When the Soviet ship Baltika throbbed into New York harbor one morning in September 1960, demonstrators on a chartered sightseeing boat waved placards: ROSES ARE RED, VIOLETS ARE BLUE; STALIN DROPPED DEAD. HOW ABOUT YOU? Nikita Khrushchev laughed and pointed. A few weeks later at the United Nations, a Philippine delegate gave a speech complaining about the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe. Khrushchev astonished the General Assembly by taking off his brown loafer and banging it on the table as if it were a spoon on an infant's high chair, except that in this case the banging had an apocalyptic implication.
That is the iconic memory of Khrushchev--squat, pinkish, piggy, with glittering eyes, a survivor's cunning and an impishly brutal sense of theater. At the Vienna summit, he gave John Kennedy a famous mugging. J.F.K. came away muttering, "I never met a man like this. [I] talked about how a nuclear exchange would kill 70 million people in 10 minutes, and he just looked at me as if to say 'So what?'"
What did Kennedy expect? Khrushchev understood that style of statecraft. He had learned from the monster himself, sitting at Joseph Stalin's right hand--or in his savage vicinity--for decades as cheerleader, yes-man and ideological dogsbody: a "nice guy," as his Kremlin cronies called him, who cheerfully survived Stalin's almost recreational paranoia even when so many of the evil crew (including Yezhov and Beria) were led offstage and shot.
Yet Khrushchev, unlike his mentor, ultimately lined up more on the side of life than on the side of death. The fascination of William Taubman's splendid new biography, Khrushchev, the Man and His Era (Norton; 876 pages), lies in tracking the abundantly human struggle in the man between his native humanity and the temptations of power and glamour. Early on, Stalin took a shine to young Khrushchev (some thought because Khrushchev was even shorter than Stalin). Between 1929 and 1938--the most lethal years of Stalinism, starting with the enforced collectivization that left some 10 million kulaks dead, and running through the Great Terror and the show trials of the late '30s--Khrushchev's career skyrocketed. The darkest period of Russian history was his golden age.
"At the height of the terror," writes Taubman, a professor of political science at Amherst College, "Khrushchev gave violent, bloodcurdling speeches rousing 'the masses' to join in the witch-hunt. As Moscow party boss he personally approved the arrests of many of his own colleagues and their dispatch into what he later called the meat grinder." He had other sins on his head, many from a later time; he brutally crushed the 1956 Hungarian uprising, for example.
After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Taubman's exploration of Khrushchev's complicity in Stalinist horror is probing, subtle. "Like many others," Taubman writes, "Khrushchev thought he was building a new socialist society, a glorious end that justified even the harshest means." So he "practiced deception and self-deception. He never fully owned up to his complicity." Touching a chillingly familiar chord, Taubman explains, "His complicity in great crimes ... was tied to nothing less than his own sense of self-worth, to his growing feeling of dignity, to the invigorating, intoxicating conviction that Stalin, a man he came almost to worship, admired him in return."
Khrushchev came of peasant stock; he possessed a peasant's shrewdness and wit--a garrulous, storytelling gift the newspapers called earthy; what they meant was that he referred to excrement a lot. With only two years of schooling, he had a fierce, uncouth animation that was shadowed by feelings of intellectual inferiority.
Yet Stalin's pudgy Sancho Panza was the man who, in February 1956, delivered the famous four-hour "secret speech" to the party congress in which he set forth Stalin's crimes and began the complex, much delayed process of de-Stalinization. Out of guilt or common decency, he began to rinse the terror out of Soviet life. Writes Taubman: "His daring but bumbling attempt to reform communism began the long, erratic process of putting a human face (initially his own) on an inhumane system."
When Khrushchev was at last deposed in 1964, in part because his shoe-banging performance at the U.N. had embarrassed the Soviet Union, he profited from his own reforms. Instead of shooting him, the party heavies sent him off to a retirement dacha at Petrovo-Dalneye, where he tended his garden like Don Corleone.
"His complicity in great crimes was tied to his own sense of self-worth."