Khrushchev: The Man and His Era
by William Taubman
Release Date: March, 2003
No one, least of all Nikita Khrushchev, expected him to survive the purges of Stalin to succeed him as First Secretary of the Soviet Union. In KHRUSHCHEV: THE MAN AND HIS ERA, William Taubman has written what surely ranks as the definitive biography of a Soviet leader, who until recently, was seen as little more than a rather clownish figure who occupied the seat of power only until a more seasoned Brezhnev ousted him in 1964.
Taubman begins, surprisingly enough, with the very day that Khrushchev was ousted in 1964. As far as Khrushchev was concerned, that day was nothing special. Leonid Brezhnev, his long time flunky, verbally attacked his boss in tones that left no doubt in Khrushchev's mind that this was his last day on the job. Khrushchev exits in an unexpectedly obliging way, an exit which shocks the reader since it would have been unimaginable for Stalin to have been similarly replaced. It is this unceremonius exit of Nikita Sergeivich Khrushchev that stamps him as a man full of a myriad of contradictions. Taubman details NSK's early life as a man who used his grubby fingers to climb the slippery pole of industrial communist leadership in Ukraine in the early 1920s. NSK is seen as an uneducated worker who both reveres and fears the mystery that a university degree provides. For the remainder of his life, Taubman portrays a NSK who is in constant internal turmoil with how to deal with degreed types who know more than he does but must take their marching orders from one who all too often has to offer more bluster than reason.
When Stalin began to solidify his hold on Russia with innumerable purges and executions in the mid 1930s, he could not do so alone. Stalin relied on NSK to sign the necessary execution orders, with the result that NSK's hands were forever stained with the very blood of those who, decades later, he would have to somehow explain away without implicating himself. Taubman does not allow NSK to get off the hook lightly, as NSK himself admits that he did what he did because he had no real choice. While many of NSK's communist party friends were getting their heads lopped off, he kept his. He knew that the reason most likely had little to do with his strong party convictions. Rather, with his buffoonish aspect, he was less of a threat than say, Nikolai Ezhov, who as Stalin's chief KGB executioner, was the first to go in a long line of close comrades. Taubman shows NSK as a dedicated party loyalist who overcame astounding odds to succeed Stalin as First Secretary after Stalin's death in 1953.
Taubman shines as he shows how the very qualities that allowed him to survive the purges of the 30s were the same ones that spelled his ouster in 1964. NSK was tempermental, toadying, bullying, blustering, and a host of other adjectives that neither Stalin nor Brezhnev were. What marks NSK as unique in the Soviet pantheon was not merely that he was a transition figure between the suppressive brutality of Stalin and a similar brutishness of Brezhnev and his successors, but rather it is arguable that the collapse of the Soviet state in 1991 was more a result of NSK's liberalization policies than a similar liberalizing under Mikhail Gorbachev. On that day in 1964, when NSK was stripped of power, Taubman delineates the inevitability of the rise and fall of a man of mutually exclusive contradictions. KHRUSHCHEV: THE MAN AND HIS ERA is a readable and scholarly biography that clearly points the way to a country that even now has a leader who has to grapple with a failed history and an uncertain future.
Taubman's biography of Khrushchev is immensely readable, emphasizing the personal aspects of the dictator's life. It is the portrait of a man temperamentally unsuited to lead a great nation. Nevertheless, Khrushchev emerges as more human than the other dictators during the Soviet experiement, and most readers are likely to feel a grudging affection toward him.
Taubman begins with a quick summary of Khrushchev's childhood and quick rise in the Communist Party apparatus under Stalin. Seemingly unambitious, often to the point of evading promotion, Khrushchev thrived and survived during the worst of the Stalin era. After Stalin's death, Khrushchev adeptly asserted himself over supposedly stronger rivals to wield primary power by 1956.
Taubman doesn't give a complete, detailed account of Soviet domestic and foreign policy during the Khrushchev era, but concentrates instead on several key events: The Secret Speech, the Invasion of Hungary, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. There is also a fairly detailed account of Khrushchev's troubled and ambivalent relationship with artists and intellectuals, which reveals him at his worst, often devoid of elementary self-control.
Despite his blustering threats and personal vulgarity, Khrushchev was in many respects admirable and likeable, and it is hard to read of his ouster and lonely retirement without sympathy.
In Taubman's account Khrushchev suffered from an inferiority complex based on his lack of education and culture. I'd like to suggest an additional explanation for his intemperate behavior. I believe Taubman's biography shows Khrushchev as a basically decent man who wanted the party and government to which he'd dedicated his life to succeed. Not a cynical careerist like most of his colleagues, Khrushchev may have been stricken more by doubt about the system he represented than about his own capabilities.