Khrushchev's Human Dimensions Brought Him to Power and to His Downfall
A Kitchen Debate With a Future President, Coexistence and a Visit to America
By ALDEN WHITMAN
Late in the afternoon of Friday, Feb. 24, 1956, a short, rotund, round-headed,
bald, baggy-suited man stepped to the microphone at the concluding session of the 20th
Congress of the Communist party of the Soviet Union, from which all foreign delegates
and reporters had been excluded. "Comrades," he began in his somewhat harsh-hoarse
deliberate voice, "in the report of the Central Committee of the party. . . in a number of
speeches by delegates to [this] congress . . .quite a lot has been said about the cult of the
individual and about its harmful consequences."
It was well after midnight when the session adjourned, and what the delegates
had heard in
Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev's 20,000-word speech was nothing less than
a documented, count-by-count indictment of Josef Stalin, then dead about
three years and who for a quarter-century had been held up to the Soviet
people, Communist and non- Communist, and to Communists throughout the
world as the infallible genius-leader of his country who had advanced it
unerringly toward Socialism.
What some delegates may have suspected but refused to credence, Mr.
Khrushchev, the First Secretary (chief) of the Soviet party, laid bare with
whiplash candor--that Stalin, starting with the terrible purge years of the
thirties, had brought about the deaths of thousands of innocent persons; that
he had ruled the party and the country by terror and torture; that he had been
pusillanimous in World War II; that he had become increasingly vainglorious
to the point even of writing his own encomiums, and that he had set up
"serious obstacle[s] in the path of Soviet social development." Some of the
details were overdrawn, but the portrait was unmistakably horrifying.
Thus, the burden of the speech was to put the blame for the evils of Stalinism
on Stalin's personal shortcomings, while seeking to make clear that the
dictator's associates, including many of those on the congress podium--and
the speaker himself--had been powerless to alter those terrible events.
Speech Widely Circulated
Although this extraordinary speech was never printed in the Soviet press,
was circulated to an astonished public through the Communist party apparatus
and marked the start of a 10-year de-Stalinization of Soviet life. The speech
was widely published in the West (the United States State Department
obtained a copy from Yugoslav sources and made it available to newspapers)
and it started a chain reaction in the reassessment of Soviet Communism.
In speaking out with such uncompromising bluntness, Mr. Khrushchev
exhibited some of the brash daring that characterized his 10 years (from 1954
to 1964) as one of the world's most powerful men. The risk was obvious.
Could Stalin's reputation be denigrated without destroying the structure of the
system that had made him possible? Mr. Khrushchev gambled that it
could--and he won, although many observers doubted that he had calculated
all the implications of his bravura speech.
Apart from presiding over the vast changes in Soviet and Communist policy
that flowed from de-Stalinization (no less profound for the comparatively quiet
manner in which they were carried out), Mr. Khrushchev put new emphasis
on the bread-and-butter goals of Communism. ("And what sort of Communist
society is it that has no sausage?" he often asked.)
Moreover, under the compulsion of the hydrogen bomb, he championed a
policy of peaceful coexistence (symbolized in the 1963 nuclear test ban
treaty) between Socialist and capitalist states, questioning the popular dictum
that war between them was probably inevitable. (He was certain that
Communism could provide more abundance than capitalism and would
triumph in a peaceful world on account of its material attractions.)
Mr. Khrushchev also accepted some national differences among Socialist
countries, as in the mixed economies of Poland and Yugoslavia; but not in
Hungary, where he dealt with attempted revolt in 1956 as counterrevolution.
Outside the Soviet sphere in Eastern Europe, he was less flexible. He
tolerated Castroism for Cuba, but not as a model for South American
revolutions. He had much less use for the Chinese way to Socialism and
exacerbated the split in the Communist world in an acidulous quarrel with
Peking over economic aid, the proper strategy against American "imperialism"
and the Sino-Soviet borders.
Mr. Khrushchev introduced a new style into Soviet politics. Whereas Stalin
was reclusive, his successor was a tireless traveler and speaker who became
intimately acquainted with the cities, towns and villages of his country.
Moreover, he obliged his deskbound associates to get out of their offices,
admonishing them not to be afraid "to get mud on your boots." In creating a
personal sense of hustle and sweat, he was practicing what he preached when
he told a Communist leader that the way to success was "Be popular."
Just as he journeyed about his own country and Eastern Europe, so he
traveled extensively in the world outside. As a traveling salesman for Soviet
policy (and by implication for Communism) he initiated a personal diplomacy
that took him to China, India, Britain, France, Switzerland, Austria and the
United States. In two visits to this country, he conferred with President
Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1959, trekked to California, shucked corn in Iowa,
appeared on television; and in the fall of 1960 he was here for a meeting of
the United Nations Assembly, at which, in a fit of pique, he took off his right
shoe and banged it vigorously on his desk.
Behind these travels was not only his voracity for firsthand knowledge
people and events but also a belief that statesmen could and should deal with
one another face to face. It was in that vein that he cooperated in the
establishing of a "hot line" between the White House and the Kremlin in
President John F. Kennedy's Administration.
Some of the very extrovert traits that gave Mr. Khrushchev his human
dimensions accounted for his downfall. By nature an impatient and impulsive
man, he promised his people more than he could deliver. With two excellent
harvests in 1956 and 1958, he pledged in 1959 that in seven years the per
capita real income of Soviet citizens would rise by 40 per cent and that the
minimum wage would be doubled. There would also be a 40-hour week. And
by 1970, agriculture and industry would be producing more than their
American counterparts. The Soviet Union was embarking on a new stage of
its history--the "full-scale construction of Communist society."
One of the keys to the new era of plenty was a gigantic stride in meat
grain production. But try and improvise as he might, he could not achieve an
output to match his grandiose expectations. He flew in the face of experts by
trying to grow corn in unsuitable areas. in opening up so-called virgin lands in
Siberia and in too-hasty reorganization of the cumbersome farm and industrial
bureaucracy. The result was that economic and bureaucratic dislocation
contributed heavily to his ouster. And not the least of those who turned
against him were the bureaucrats whose traditional ways and power
relationships he threatened.
Another ingredient in Mr. Khrushchev's ouster was the failure of his gamble
the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 to pay off. Although he claimed at the time to
have obtained what he wanted--an American pledge not to attack
Cuba--many in the Kremlin believed that the affair was a first-class
He was damaged also by the American U-2 spy plane incident in 1960 and
the subsequent breakup of a Paris summit meeting with President Eisenhower.
After Mr. Khrushchev's first visit to the United States, he insisted to his
colleagues that President Eisenhower was a reasonable man and that
statesmen could promote international amity through personal understandings.
This homespun theory, part of his impatience to mute the cold war, was
severely strained when the U-2 was shot down over the Soviet Union and
President Eisenhower took the responsibility.
For a fourth thing, his bumptious conduct then and on other occasions,
as the shoe- banging at the United Nations, embarrassed some of his
associates who felt that more dignity befitted the leader of a great
superpower. Some of them, too, had been bullied by their leader in
explosions of temper and were delighted to vote his ouster.
Ranged against him, too, were powerful voices in the army. To allocate
capital for agricultural supplies and machinery, he was obliged to cut down on
spending for heavy industry and defense. The army, which had earlier
supported him, was dismayed by his schemes to achieve defense at the lowest
possible cost and elements of the officer corps, whose jobs were threatened,
joined in the pressure against him.
Mr. Khrushchev also caused alarm by the escalation of his quarrel with
Tse-tung, the Chinese leader. It had long been a shibboleth of Marxist
thinking that the Communist world was necessarily a single entity since it
derived from a single doctrine, and the Soviet leader's China policy seemed to
many Soviet and other Communists to threaten the fraternal spirit of world
Communism. His handling of the Mao situation was cited specifically in his
An additional count against him was his action in splitting the Communist
into industrial and agricultural sections, to enhance party control of all aspects
of the economy. The party, in effect, was to concentrate on economic, not
political, tasks. The step was taken precipitately in 1962. According to Mark
Frankland, a British expert on Mr. Khrushchev's fall, "the plan was bound to
upset just those party officials on whom Khrushchev had to a large extent built
his own power."
"In particular," Mr. Frankland noted, "it threatened the interests of the
party bosses by splitting their domains in two and so reducing their status and
Finally, there was Mr. Khrushchev's willfulness as well as what seemed
increasing tendency to take the spotlight. His enemies accused him of both
lack of foresight and building a cult of personality. He did indeed push his
plans through the Politburo and was unwilling to accept frustration of his
ideas. And he did seem to insist on adulation.
The combination of all his shortcomings came to more than outweigh his
virtues in the eyes of his colleagues, and he was pensioned off in October,
1964. But it was a measure of the changes he had wrought that he was voted
out of office, not shot, and that some of his key policies, such as peaceful
coexistence and arms limitation and emphasis on Soviet consumer needs,
were taken up by his successors, albeit in a less flamboyant fashion.
Part of Mr. Khrushchev's success as a Soviet leader was his idiosyncratic
style--his easy and infectious smile that showed the marked gap between two
front teeth, his thundering anger, his earthy wit, his use of old Russian
proverbs, his capacity for strong drink, his rapport with workers and farmers.
When he talked he jabbed his chubby fingers at the chest of the person
listening to him, and he could say some impolitic things such as telling Western
diplomats at the Kremlin, "History is on our side--we will bury you." Or telling
an envoy from a Mediterranean country, "Get out of NATO or we will drop a
nuclear bomb on you." When the ambassador protested that "you are such a
big country and we are such a small country." Mr. Khrushchev replied,
"That's all right. For you we will use only a teeny tiny nuclear bomb."
Impatient With Theory
He was uncomfortable with intellectuals and impatient with abstract
theory--both attitudes that reflected his own life--and his Marxism was one
described as a set of rather simple maims in which he believed deeply.
This uneasiness with speculation for its own sake enabled him to concentrate
on practicality, but it also led into situations in which he relied overmuch on
theoreticians. For example, he gave his blessing to publication of Aleksandr
Solzhenitsyn's "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," a book that let some
air into Soviet writing about life under Stalin. But he also went along with the
1958 conservative ideological attach on Boris Pasternak for his novel "Doctor
Zhivago," which portrayed scenes of the Bolshevik Revolution.
Later, however, in retirement, Mr. Khrushchev found time to read the book
and told a Soviet friend that he did not understand what the fuss had been all
about. "We could have published that book," he said. "Maybe 200 words
were questionable--that's all."
It was as a practical man that Mr. Khrushchev rose from lowly beginnings
the top in the Communist hierarchy. He was born April 17, 1894, in the mud
hut of his grandfather in Kalinovka, a poor village in Kursk Province, where
Great Russia borders on the Ukraine.
"My grandfather was a serf, the property of a landlord who could sell him
he wished, or trade him for a hunting dog," Mr. Khrushchev once recalled.
"My father was a farmer who worked in the [coal] mines in the winter in
hope that he would some day earn enough money to buy a horse, so that he
could raise enough cabbage and potatoes to feed his family.
"As for myself, I began working as soon as I could walk. I herded calves,
then sheep, and finally the landlord's cows, until I was 15. Then I went with
my father to the coalfields of the Donbas to work in the shops and mines. I
worked at a factory owned by the Germans, at coal pits owned by
Frenchmen and at a chemical plant owned by Belgians. There I discovered
something about capitalists. They are all alike, whatever their nationality. All
they wanted from me was the most work for the least money that would keep
"So I became a Communist . . . I was not born a Communist . . . . But life
great school. It thrashes and bangs and teaches you."
In his brief account of his early years, Mr. Khrushchev omitted to mention
he had not joined the Bolshevik party until 1918, about a year after the
outbreak of the Russian Revolution. He had escaped conscription during
World War I because he was a skilled worker and he had helped to organize
strikes among the Donbas miners. Once the Revolution began in the late
winter of 1917, Mr. Khrushchev was active in practical measures in its
defense and was a member of the Rutchenkovo Soviet.
In the civil war Mr. Khrushchev fought as a member of the Red Guards,
working in the political department of the Ninth Army in the Ukraine. His job
was to form Communist units among the troops. Having joined the party from
practical rather than theoretical considerations, he was well suited to recruit
others who saw the party chiefly as the defender of "their" revolution.
On his 1959 visit to the United States Mr. Khrushchev illuminated his feelings
in those early years by recalling one of his first meetings with intellectuals
"when I still had coal on my hands." One of them, a woman, twitted him about
the ballet. "And I must admit that at that time," he reminisced, "I not only had
never seen a ballet, I had never seen a ballerina. So I did not know what
it--what sort of a dish it was and what you ate it with.
"And I said, 'Wait, it will all come." If she were to have asked me then
was that would come, I could not have given her any reply--I did not know
what would come. But I did know that the new and the good happy life
When the civil war ended, Mr. Khrushchev returned to Rutchenkovo as a
party organizer. His first wife, whom he married in 1916, died, it is said, in the
famine of 1921, but this aspect of his life was obscure. His climb up the party
ladder began in earnest in 1922, when he was sent to the Don Technical
College at Yuzovka to remedy his lack of formal education and to become
acquainted with Marxism.
At the college he was named party secretary, a post of considerable
importance that he held for three years. He also remarried. His wife, Nina,
who accompanied him to the United States, was a schoolteacher and is
believed to have smoothed some of his rough edges.
On graduation, Mr. Khrushchev was appointed party secretary at
Petrovo-Marinsky, a mining district in the Ukraine, where he distinguished
himself for his bustling, first-hand knowledge of the mines. He was then under
the patronage of Lazar M. Kaganovich, Stalin's man in the Ukraine, and as
such attended his first party congress--the 14th--in Moscow in 1925.
Staling was then consolidating his hold on the party--Lenin had died in
1924--and was moving against his political enemies. Mr. Khrushchev, the
records show, supported Stalin without apparent reservations, and in a
speech at the Ukrainian party congress in 1926 endorsed the notion of
"repressive measures" against Leon Trotsky, Grigory Zinovyev and Lev
Meantime, he moved up in the party apparatus, first to Kharkov and then
Kiev. Finally, in 1929 he was called to Moscow as a student at the Academy
of Heavy Industry.
Still backed by Mr. Kaganovich, he was named party secretary at the
academy and then, after a year, secretary of the district in which the academy
was located. His rise was meteoric: second in command of the Moscow city
party in 1933; its chief in 1934; membership in the party's Central Committee
the same year, making him one of a hundred or so most powerful men in the
Soviet Union, and in 1935 party leader for the entire Moscow region.
Mr. Khrushchev's principal job was in the modernization of Moscow and
especially in the construction of its subway, for which he received his first
Order of Lenin. No detail seemed too small for him--seeing to the cement
supply, advising on the proper height for laying bricks, suggesting changes in
subway-car design. His definition then of a "real Communist" was one "whose
work is organized, whose machinery works and doesn't lie abandoned under
all kinds of rubbish" and who "each day, each hour controls matters
Mr. Khrushchev's exertions in Moscow coincided with what has been called
the Soviet Union's "Iron Age"--a period when heavy industry and industrial
construction were stressed as part of Stalin's goal to build Socialism in one
country, which meant making the Soviet Union as strong as possible in as
brief a time as possible. It was also a period of forced collectivization of
agriculture, in which hundreds of thousands of peasants died, and of the
"show trials" in which Stalin's opponents were obliged to confess to
horrendous crimes before they were executed. Of the 139 members of the
Central Committee elected with Mr. Khrushchev in 1934, about 100 were
arrested and shot by 1938.
Not a Stalin Intimate
Mr. Khrushchev appears to have been as extravagant in his praise for Stalin
during the purges as any party leader, but he was not then a Stalin intimate. Of
his activities and thoughts during the purges, he was extremely guarded.
Indeed, he was later to suggest that he was ignorant of Stalin's murder of
innocent Communists. Speaking in 1963, he said:
"It is asked, did the leading cadres of the party know of, let us say,
of people at the time? Yes, they knew. But did they know that people who
were innocent of any wrongdoing were arrested? No This they did not know.
They believed Stalin and did not admit the thought that repression could be
applied to honest people devoted to our cause."
Having survived the worst of the purges, Mr. Khrushchev was elected to
Politburo in 1938 and dispatched to the Ukraine as first secretary of the party
there. The party leadership in the Ukraine was replaced and a membership
purge undertaken. Mr. Khrushchev was both Stalin's scourge and the one
who helped rebuild a shattered party. His toughness is said to have been
unrelenting also in managing the Ukrainian economy.
The Ukraine gave Mr. Khrushchev his first concentrated experience with
agriculture, for that country was (and is) one of the Soviet Union's chief grain
areas. Improving the harvests provided scope for his initiative and
administrative talents. He got out among the farmers and in his unsubtle but
effective fashion stirred the party to such activity that the grain yield rose. And
although he was away from Moscow, he came to be regarded as a farm
expert and his speeches were reprinted in Pravda, the party newspaper.
The Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June, 1941, hit hard at the
Ukraine--and at Mr. Khrushchev. According to Mr. Frankland's biography,
"The shock of the first disastrous months of the war had its impact, too, on
Khrushchev's relations with Stalin."
"Up to the war," Mr. Frankland wrote, "there is no evidence that Khrushchev
ever questioned his leader, but this simple relationship was destroyed by the
war, and was never re-established. It is possible that Khrushchev's belief in
Stalin's infallibility was first shaken at the very start of the war."
During the war, Mr. Khrushchev not only represented the party at the front
but also directed partisan warfare behind the German lines. He took part in
the initial severe setbacks of the Soviet Army in the Ukraine and in the
triumphant stand at Stalingrad in 1942. For his efforts at Stalingrad, one of the
principal hinges of the war in the Soviet Union, he was made a lieutenant
general, and he marched with the Red army as it retook the Ukraine in 1943.
After the war Mr. Khrushchev was in charge of rebuilding the Ukraine, the
most damaged of any area in Europe. Americans with the United Nations
Relief and Rehabilitation Agency who saw him there remarked about his
concern for the tiniest detail of his jobs--he was Premier as well as party
leader--and his bounciness, Milovan Djilas, the Yugoslav Communist, found
him using folk proverbs and sayings to rally his associates and reported that
Mr. Khrushchev "delved into details, into the daily life of the Communist rank
and file and the ordinary people."
Improvement, Not Change
"He did not do this with the aim of changing the system," Mr. Djilas continued,
"but of strengthening and improving things under the existing system." Rivalries
at the top of the Soviet Communist party in 1946 almost did Mr. Khrushchev
in. He came into conflict with Georgi M. Malenkov over the asserted low
level of "ideological work" in the Ukraine and with Stalin over spring wheat,
which the dictator favored.
Mr. Kaganovich was sent into the Ukraine to run the party, while Mr.
Khrushchev was left as Premier. This episode is unclear in detail, but
apparently Mr. Khrushchev worked his way out of disgrace, although there
were reports later that he had almost been purged by Stalin. In any event,
after a year, Mr. Khrushchev improved his situation (his differences with Mr.
Malenkov continued, however) and at the end of 1949 he was brought to
Moscow as head of the party organization and as one of the Central
Committee secretariat, which ran the party day by day.
Until Stalin's death in 1953, Mr. Khrushchev lived a somewhat precarious
existence, he indicated in his secret speech of 1956. On other occasions he
related that Stalin had forced him to dance a peasant dance and to sit in a
puddle of beer. More seriously, the two differed about agriculture. Whereas
Stalin was content to sweat the peasants, Mr. Khrushchev seemed genuinely
concerned to increase party control over the farms, to create more efficient
production units and to raise the standards of living.
One instance of this was his proposal in 1950 and 1951 to create
"agrotowns"--grand villages that would be centers of farm life. Under criticism
he called them "collective farm settlements," but this failed to save him from
Mr. Malenkov and others who chided him in public in 1952. More to the
point, he was relieved of supervision over farming.
At this time Stalin's paranoia was growing--a plot of distinguished Jewish
doctors to kill Soviet leaders was concocted in his brain--and Mr.
Khrushchev suggested in his 1956 speech, even those closest to the dictator
felt apprehensive for their safety. In these circumstances Stalin's death as the
result of a stroke was timely, "I wept," Mr. Khrushchev later told W. Averell
Harriman, the American diplomat. "After all, we were his pupils and owed
him everything. Like Peter the Great, Stalin fought barbarism with barbarism
but he was a great man."
The chubby Mr. Malenkov was Stalin's immediate successor, but in the
wheeling and dealing he was either forced or persuaded to drop his job as
principal party secretary while retaining the Soviet Premiership. This step gave
Mr. Khrushchev his opening, for he took over virtual control of the party
organization--machinery that he knew best of all. Moreover, shortly after
Stalin's death, he came to the fore in a critique of agriculture, with an implied
promise of a better life for all.
With the elimination by shooting of Lavrenti P. Beria, the state security
Mr. Khrushchev and Mr. Malenkov engaged in a duel for power with
agriculture one of the main points of difference. Mr. Khrushchev's theme was
the low state of farm production and the cry that "Communist society cannot
be built without an abundance of bread, meat, milk, butter, vegetables and
other agricultural products." And to encourage farmers, he was willing to
increase money incentives and to chastise Moscow bureaucrats. When the
1953 harvest fell short of predictions, he had increased leverage against Mr.
At his urging, an area equal to the entire cropland of Canada--some 75
acres--of virgin and fallow land in Siberia and the Urals was plowed and
sown to grain by an army of young people sent out from the cities of
European Russia. Also he called for widespread corn-planting, gaining the
nickname of Nikita Kukuruznik (Nikita the Corn Man). Although these
measures were denounced by some of his colleagues as gambles, they paid
off heavily in 1956 and 1958, when abundant rainfall permitted the virgin
lands to contribute a record grain crop. His corn proposal was less
successful, chiefly because large areas of the Soviet Union were climatically
unsuited for it.
By early 1955, Mr. Khrushchev had strengthened his position sufficiently
strike down Mr. Malenkov. He accomplished this in part by getting army
support (he pleaded that the Soviet hydrogen bomb detonated in 1953
required stronger defenses), and in the new alignment Marshal Nikolai A.
Bulganin was Premier and Mr. Khrushchev was the party leader. Together
they were known as "B & K."
The maneuver that disposed of Mr. Malenkov (whose policies Mr.
Khrushchev was to adopt) was one step in the development of a post-Stalin
consensus. Another was dismissal of Vyacheslav M. Molotov, Stalin's
longtime Foreign Minister, which culminated in his removal from power in
1957 in the so-called "antiparty" affair.
Meantime, in 1955 "B & K" made three journeys abroad, in which Mr.
Khrushchev displayed his energies and his extroversions to an astonished
world. One of the most important of these trips was to Belgrade, where he
apologized to Marshal Tito, the Yugoslav Communist leader, for Stalin's
expulsion of him from the Communist world in 1948. The reconciliation was
never complete, but there was a general accommodation.
Later, "B & K" went to Geneva, where they met President Eisenhower
the leaders of France and Britain and reiterated Soviet commitment to a
policy of peaceful coexistence. "Vigorous, downright and stubborn but
prepared to laugh" was British Prime Minister Anthony Eden's comment on
Mr. Khrushchev at Geneva.
Foothold in Mideast
One of the greatest foreign policy victories was in the Mideast. In the
of 1955 he arranged an arms deal with Egypt that opened the way for
large-scale expansion of Soviet influence among the Arab peoples. He was
also successful in wooing such countries as India, which he visited, and
Indonesia, praising their third-world policy of neutralism and their struggles to
rise from colonial status. As a salesman for Communism, he made three
points: Peaceful coexistence and economic competition; war between East
and West could be avoided, and there could be different paths to Socialism,
including a parliamentary one.
Although Mr. Khrushchev was clearly the chief Soviet leader from 1954,
when Mr. Malenkov went into effective eclipse, his position was vastly
enhanced by his "secret speech" at the party congress in 1956. Its theme--that
Stalin had abused his power-- skipped lightly over Mr. Khrushchev's own
role and that of his principal associates. However, by emphasizing the
corrective steps the party had taken since 1953 and was prepared to take,
the speech cast Mr. Khrushchev in a favorable light: He was now to pursue a
policy of fairness and strict legality.
And there was in fact a thaw. Thousands of Stalin's victims were
posthumously rehabilitated. Criticism of Stalin appeared in print. Some of the
fears in Soviet life were muted. The authority of the party, as a collective
group, was strengthened, and with it the principle of collegiality. And
eventually, the speech contributed to the routing of Mr. Molotov and other
hard-liners inside and outside the Soviet Union.
Restiveness first showed itself in Poland in October, 1956, when the Poles
proposed to install as party leader Wladislaw Gomulka, a "nationalist"
Communist whom Stalin had jailed. Mr. Khrushchev flew to Warsaw and
confronted Mr. Gomulka and his associates in a considerable rage,
threatening the use of force to prevent a Polish defection. Mr. Gomulka,
however, stood his ground and won out after pledging to keep Poland within
the Moscow bloc.
Immediately thereafter trouble broke out in Hungary. A de-Stalinized
government under Imre Nagy announced that Hungary would leave the
Warsaw Pact, the Eastern counterpart of the North Atlantic Treaty
This, to Mr. Khrushchev's mind, amounted to counterrevolution, and the
Nagy regime was crushed with Soviet tanks and replaced with a more
amenable government. The difference between Poland and Hungary appeared
to be that the Poles were willing to remain within the Soviet orbit, whereas the
Hungarians were not.
Mr. Khrushchev's triumph over his foes was complete in 1957, when Mr.
Malenkov, Mr. Kaganovich and Mr. Molotov were outvoted in the Central
Committee after winning an apparent victory in the Politburo. The three men
were removed from their posts and expelled from the Central Committee,
along with Dmitri Shepilov. Mr. Khrushchev had the help of Marshal Georgi
K. Zhukov, who, however, was shortly ditched as was Marshal Bulganin,
leaving Mr. Khrushchev as both Premier and party leader--the same dual role
occupied by Stalin.
For more than six years he would rule without serious challenge. He grew
cocky and domineering with his colleagues, unable to believe, until it was too
late, that he could be deposed.
In these six years, the jaunty and irrepressible Mr. Khrushchev had his
diplomatic ups and downs with the United States. One of the ups was his visit
to the United States in September, 1959, which followed a "debate" with
Vice President Richard M. Nixon in Moscow over the relative merits of
capitalism and Communism. The impromptu exchange took place in a model
kitchen at the American Exhibition there.
Arriving in the United States in a giant Tu-114 airliner, the Soviet leader
decidedly mixed reception. He was thought of as "the butcher of Hungary,"
and there was hostility on the part of the press as well as from Roman
Catholic prelates. He was, moreover, a Soviet Communist, a man many
Americans had been conditioned to believe was a mortal enemy to the
Republic. Mr. Khrushchev, however, came bearing olive branches, saying if
"the two biggest countries in the world" could develop amicable relations
"peace on earth will be more stable and durable."
He barnstormed the country from coast to coast, appeared on television,
engaged in off- the-cuff colloquies, visited Roswell Garst's cornfield in Iowa,
everywhere promoting the idea of a Soviet-American detente. The most
important result of the tour was an easing of world tensions--over Berlin,
which had erupted in 1958, and over nuclear testing--that was symbolized in
an Eisenhower-Khrushchev conference at Camp David, Md.
Cordial relations gave way to harshness in May, 1960, when the Soviet Union
shot down an American U-2 reconnaissance plane and could display the
wreckage of the craft as well as its pilot. The wrangle over the episode
caused the collapse of a projected Eisenhower-Khrushchev summit meeting in
Paris, but it did not seriously deflect Mr. Khrushchev's policy of peaceful
coexistence, although it did weaken the confidence of some Soviet leaders in
the virtues of personal diplomacy.
Mr. Khrushchev returned to the United States in September, 1960, as chief
of the Soviet delegation to the United Nations General Assembly. There was
no official welcome and he was restricted to Manhattan and to weekend visits
to Long Island. His presence provoked demonstrations--and incredulity, too.
While Harold Macmillan, the British Prime Minister, was addressing the
Assembly, Mr. Khrushchev interrupted him with heckling shouts and
Oblivious to decorum, he took off his right shoe, brandished it at one
and then pounded it on his desk. And he referred to a Philippine delegate as a
stooge and a jerk. After 25 days, he returned home. His performance failed
to please either the American pubic or his Soviet colleagues.
When John F. Kennedy became President in 1961, Mr. Khrushchev went to
confer with him in Vienna. The purpose was to test each other's intentions,
and Mr. Khrushchev is said to have come away with the belief that Mr.
Kennedy lacked a certain nerve.
That impression may have contributed to Mr. Khrushchev's willingness to
place missiles in Cuba in 1962, following the American Bay of Pigs invasion
debacle in 1961. There appear to have been several motivations--to
strengthen Fidel Castro's Socialism, to achieve an easy missile parity with the
United States and, perhaps, to precipitate a situation that would lead to a
Soviet-American summit session.
"If he could place Soviet medium-range missiles in Cuba," according to
Frankland's book, "the main Soviet deficiency--in long-range ICBM's--would
to a considerable extent be overcome. The heavy pressure on him to
concentrate all available resources on the defense industries would be largely
Other commentators, however, insist that the missiles were intended to
provoke a crisis that would inevitably lead to a climactic summit.
But Mr. Khrushchev reckoned without Mr. Kennedy and the threat the
President discerned to the United States. A crisis was on, which was resolved
late in October when the Soviet Union agreed to withdraw its missiles in
return for a Kennedy pledge not to attack Cuba. In retrospect, there appears
to have been a greater sense of crisis in the United States than in the Soviet
Union, where Mr. Khrushchev made pointed public appearances, including a
chat with an American singer. There is little evidence that he was preparing for
war--and later he insisted that he had obtained what he wanted--the pledge
Last month, a Soviet article based on official archives asserted that Mr.
Khrushchev had agreed to withdraw the Soviet missiles from Cuba after
receiving private assurances from Robert F. Kennedy that the United States
would pull its missiles out of Turkey.
The Cuban adventure cost Mr. Khrushchev dearly in his worsening quarrel
with Mao Tse-tung, who saw it as yet another example of his inability to deal
with American "imperialism." Differences with the Chinese Communists went
back many years, but began to be acute with Mao's victory over Chiang
Kai-shek in 1949.
After 1949 Mao turned to the Soviet Union for material help, seeking
long-term credits and substantial quantities of capital goods. He received
some assistance, but not nearly so much as he believed one Socialist country
should render to another. Mao also did not get the credit he felt he deserved
for his Marxist sagacity in accomplishing the Chinese revolution. Nor did he
make any headway in his proposals for "border rectifications" with the Soviet
Union--changes that would have returned some Chinese territory taken away
under the Czars.
Moreover, Mao adopted a strong world revolutionary line, with American
"imperialism" as its chief target. Taking into account the American setbacks in
Korea in 1953, Soviet nuclear gains and the Soviet sputnik in 1957, he
said--at the 40th anniversary of the Russian Revolution--that "the east wind
now prevails over the west wind."
Offensive Urged by Mao
The world situation, Mao was convinced, had reached a turning point at
which "the Socialist forces are overwhelmingly superior to the imperialist
forces." The time was now, he indicated, to go on the offensive. But that was
exactly what Mr. Khrushchev and his Soviet colleagues were unwilling to do.
They preferred, they said, to "conquer capitalism with a high level of work
and a higher standard of living" rather than to engage in warfare, although
Mao offered his millions of Chinese as troops.
From 1957 onward, Mr. Khrushchev's quarrels with Mao went from bad to
worse. China did not get Soviet nuclear help, credits were discouraged,
technicians were withdrawn and by 1964 the exchange of polemics
threatened to sever bonds between the two countries and the two
As bitterness with China escalated, Mr. Khrushchev was faced with
discontent at home. The virgin lands and the corn program faltered; harvests
were poor; grain had to be imported from the United States, and in 1962
meat and butter prices were raised. Instead of the Khrushchev promises of a
rapid advance to plenty, the economy was creaking.
All of these things came to a head in October, 1964, when members of the
Politburo were quietly called to a meeting, with Leonid I. Brezhnev in the
chair. Mr. Khrushchev was on holiday at his villa in the Black Sea. The vote
went against him both in the Politburo and in the Central Committee. It was all
over quickly and without fanfare.
Although Mr. Khrushchev had wrought tremendous changes, there was no
popular outcry for him. His unfulfilled promises of consumer goods, his rough
treatment of intellectuals--especially in 1962-63--and his attempts to reduce
defense spending left him with few devoted followers. He was officially
"relieved" of his posts and all but vanished.
The fourth volume of the new 30-volume Soviet Encyclopedia, published this
April, even omitted Mr. Khrushchev from its listing of prominent political
commissars of World War II.
From all reports, he was a lonely man in his last years. Relatively well
as a high- ranking pensioner, with a town apartment and a country villa, he
himself chose to be secluded. Friends said that he never got over the shame of
his fallen stature.
Every year, on election day, Mr. Khrushchev did his civic duty and went
the polls in Moscow. His gait was slow and his smile dimmed, even when a
few bystanders might greet him.
In December, 1970, Little, Brown & Co. published a 639-page book--and
Life magazine published excerpts--entitled "Khrushchev Remembers" that
purported to be his reminiscences made up of material emanating from
Khrushchev issued a statement dissociating himself from the reminiscences
which he said of the material, "This is a fabrication and I am indignant at this."
The statement marked the first time his name had been mentioned on Soviet
radio since he was deposed in 1964.
Even at his death, it had not been established whether the book was authentic,
but the weight of expert opinion was that much, if not all, of it was compiled
from authentic material.