Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971)

Nikita Khrushchev in 1943First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union 1953-1964. Certainly the most colorful Soviet leader, Khrushchev is best remembered for his dramatic, oftentimes boorish gestures and "harebrained schemes" designed to attain maximum propaganda effect, his enthusiastic belief that Communism would triumph over capitalism, and the fact that he was the only Soviet leader ever to be removed peacefully from office--a direct result of the post-Stalin thaw he had instigated in 1956.

A miner who had joined the Bolsheviks in 1918, Khrushchev was able to receive a technical education thanks to the October Revolution and became a true believer in the benefits of the workers' state. Rising through the Party's ranks, he became a member of the Central Committee in 1934 and of the Politburo in 1939. After Stalin's death in 1953, Khrushchev became the Party's First Secretary in the collective leadership that emerged after it had eliminated Lavrenti Beria and his faction. Subsequently, he used Stalin's established technique to divide and conquer his rivals, replace them with his own people, and emerge as the undisputed leader of the Soviet Union, with the difference that he did not kill these people, but had them assigned to such faraway and harmless posts as Ambassador to Mongolia.

In 1956, at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party, Khrushchev stunned the delegates with his so-called "secret speech", during which he denounced the excesses of the Stalin era and Stalin's personality cult for six hours. Until the speech, it was still considered taboo to say anything negative about Stalin. Khrushchev's speech seems somewhat mild in hindsight, now that the scale of the horrors of the Great Purges and the Gulag are well known. At the time, however, his revelations (limited only to Stalin's crimes against the Party, not the country at large) were earth shattering.

Khrushchev honestly believed in the superiority of Communism, and felt that it was only a matter of time before it would destroy the Capitalist system once and for all. He set bold (and ultimately unattainable) goals of "overtaking the West" in food production, initiating massive programs to put vast tracts of virgin lands in Kazakhstan and Siberia under the plow with the help of thousands of urban Komsomol volunteers who brought little but their enthusiasm with them to the open steppes. Despite being hailed as an expert on agriculture, Khrushchev miscalculated when, after a trip to Iowa in 1959, he became a huge enthusiast of corn and decided to introduce it to his country, most of which has an unsuitable climate. On the industrial front, Khrushchev relaxed Stalin's emphasis on military production somewhat, resulting in a wider array of consumer goods and an improved standard of living for ordinary Soviet citizens.

Another one of the achievements of Khrushchev's post-Stalin "thaw" was a relaxation of the political climate, in particular censorship. "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich", Solzhenitsyn's tale of life in the Gulag camps, was published in 1961 at Khrushchev's personal behest, and an entire dissident movement of writers and intellectuals appeared. While they were persecuted and had to function underground, this was still a major change, since any dissidents whatsoever simply would not have remained alive under Stalin.

Nikita Khrushchev (right) gives Eisenhower a replica of the Soviet lunar probe.In foreign affairs, Khrushchev also enthusiastically set lofty but often-unattainable goals, and enjoyed dramatically snubbing the West. He flew to a summit in London in a half-completed prototype of a passenger jet to demonstrate the advanced state of Soviet aviation (duly impressing his hosts, who did not have a comparable plane yet at the time). Communism's appeal spread rapidly throughout the decolonizing countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America as the Soviet Union lavished aid for splashy projects such as dams and stadiums. The stunning propaganda coup scored by the Soviet Union in launching the first satellite, Sputnik, was followed by greater and greater achievements, such as the first dog, the first man, and the first woman in space. Many in the West began to fear that the Soviets really were catching up and soon would overtake them.

Khrushchev's enthusiasm for flashy gestures had not been liked by more conservative elements from the very start; many Soviets were greatly embarrassed by his antics, such as banging a shoe on the podium during a speech to the UN General Assembly. There were elements in the Party who were actively looking for an opportunity to oust him. Their opportunity came with the Cuban Missile Crisis. In yet another case of showmanship that he was unable to back up with deeds, in 1962 Khrushchev deployed nuclear missiles in newly Communist Cuba, within easy striking distance of most major American population centers. Thanks to intelligence received from Oleg Penkovsky, a Soviet double agent, the United States was aware that the missiles were still only partially developed and did not pose an immediate threat. President John Kennedy called Khrushchev's bluff, and the latter was forced to remove the missiles from Cuba, with great loss of face both at home and abroad. Khrushchev never regained his prestige after the incident, and was quietly ousted two years later by opponents in the Politburo--significantly, with no bloodshed. He spent the rest of his life in peaceful retirement, and was the only Soviet leader not to be buried in the Kremlin wall after his death.



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