The Economist (UK)
May 11-17, 2003
The outsized shoes that America alone now fills may lead some people to look back nostalgically at the cold war. For nearly half a century, the balance of power that existed between the United States and the Soviet Union created a modicum of stability in international relations and, some historians claim, acted as a brake on the interventionist impulses that occasionally afflicted each of the superpowers. The cold war may not have been a good thing in itself, but it was a period that came to be aptly named--in the title of a 1987 book by John Lewis Gaddis, an American historian--as "The Long Peace" within a violent century.
William Taubman's masterful new biography of the former Soviet Communist Party chief, Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, is a useful antidote against such cold-war sentimentalism. A close look at the career and policies of Stalin's successor in the Kremlin documents not only the disasters that the party inflicted on the Soviet people, but also how its perception of the world could easily have led to further disasters on the international field. Khrushchev--the most impulsive and mercurial of Soviet leaders--was ultimately unable to break free of the oppressive, inflexible and fearful state that Stalin created, even after publicly condemning its creator.
Mr Taubman, who teaches political science at Amherst College, Massachusetts, and who had unprecedented access to Russian archives and oral sources for this biography, views Khrushchev's life as a tragedy, determined largely by the young Nikita Sergeyevich's lack of education, his participation in many of Stalin's crimes and by Stalin's hold on the minds of the young Khrushchev and his associates.
A capable and energetic administrator, Khrushchev enjoyed an accelerated career within the party apparatus during the 1930s, much helped by the extermination during the purges of an older generation of Bolsheviks. During the second world war he was Stalin's chief henchman in Ukraine, overseeing the expansion of the Soviet Union into Polish territory and the war against the Ukrainian and Polish partisans. Until Stalin's death in 1953 there was little that marked Khrushchev out as different from others among the boss's minions; he displayed the same fawning servility as everyone else at the top of the Soviet state, including all of the leaders he would later push aside to become Stalin's successor.
But still, Khrushchev was different from most of those he purged when he made his grasp for complete power between 1953 and 1957. Having been an accomplice to some of the worst crimes of a blood-stained century, Khrushchev felt the need to rid himself of some of the blame by attacking his former master. Whether this was as a result of some sort of conscience--as Mr Taubman contends--or out of political expediency is hard to determine. Under any circumstances, Khrushchev's condemnation of Stalin at the 20th Congress of Soviet Communists in 1956 was certainly a brave act, and it proved to be the highlight of his career.
From then on, it was mostly downhill. Having gained power within the party, Khrushchev found that his background left him completely unprepared for the business of governing the Soviet state, not to mention its foreign policy. After trumpeting the need for detente with the West, he stumbled into the most dangerous confrontation of the cold war--the Cuban missile crisis of 1962--and nearly unleashed a third world war. His alliance with China broke down in acrimony. Domestically, he called for reform, but repeatedly returned to oppression when events turned out differently from what he had predicted. Although there is no doubt that Khrushchev wanted to change the Soviet Union for the better, by the time he was overthrown in a palace coup in 1964 he had more or less run out of choices.
Khrushchev's tragedy was his inability to break out from the system Stalin had created. Most of this failure can be attributed to the psychological hold that his former master retained over him, even after 1956. As Khrushchev told his colleagues a year after the 20th congress: "All of us taken together aren't worth Stalin's shit." The uneducated Khrushchev, Mr Taubman concludes, "prided himself on his ability to read faces and minds, but he was lecturing, not listening, not gleaning what he needed to know to hold the empiretogether, but sharpening the strainstearing it apart."