Khrushchev at his Most Khrushchevian

William Taubman
CWIHP e-Dossier No. 18

A collection of translated documents originally published in the journal Istochnik, Dokumenti Ruskoi Istorii, 2003, No. 6; prepared with financial support from CWIHP.

Author: William Taubman , Chairman of the CWIHP advisory board and professor of history at Amherst College

The documents in this collection were, of course, not chosen at random. Neither do they represent all the many facets and phases of Nikita Khrushchev's reign as first secretary of the Soviet Communist party and chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers. Considering that these materials relate to only a few highlights of Khrushchev's career, it is remarkable how many general features of his approach to domestic and foreign policy they capture and reflect. Rather than summarize Khrushchev's career as an introduction to these documents, I will take them up in turn, extracting passages that reveal Khrushchev at his most Khrushchevian.

In the transcript of the meeting of the USSR Supreme Soviet's party group on 8 February 1955, we find Khrushchev indicting his Kremlin colleague Georgy Malenkov for sins that justify dropping him as the first post-Stalin head of the Soviet government. Malenkov's demotion was a key step in the struggle to succeed Stalin, preceded by secret police chief Lavrenty Beria's arrest and execution in 1953, and followed in 1955 and 1956 by Khrushchev moves against Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov. The main charges against Malenkov have long been known, so what is most striking about this transcript is Khrushchev's tone, reflecting his tendency to make politics extremely personal, and to express himself in a direct, earthy way that sometimes came back to haunt him.

Note, for example, that Khrushchev accused Malenkov of "cheap playing up to the masses," an allusion to the agricultural reforms of 1953 in regard to which Malenkov allegedly "did not display initiative," but "artfully seized hold of them, not understanding the substance of many questions." What lies behind these attacks is the fact that Khrushchev claimed authorship of the reforms that Malenkov proclaimed in August 1953, a month before Khrushchev himself could elaborate on them in September.

Note also Khrushchev's description of Malenkov as not only "spineless," but as guilty of "anti-party" behavior. The latter was an extremely serious charge, since it evoked memories of Stalin's blood purge of his Politburo colleagues. But despite such charges, Malenkov was allowed to remain on the Politburo, where he could plot revenge. Not only that, but Khrushchev refuted Malenkov's assertion that a nuclear war would mean not the victory of socialism but "the end of civilization," warning that Malenkov's formula "cannot mobilize but will rather demobilize people, and is useful to our enemies." As for Malenkov's effort to reverse the priority which the Soviets had long given to heavy over light industry, this, Khrushchev said, "would be a gift to our enemies! Our enemies want this very much and we will disappoint them greatly today when they find out that we are replacing the Chairman of the Council of Ministers." The trouble with condemning these heresies so vigorously was that Khrushchev himself would soon adopt them, and hence become vulnerable to the same charges he had leveled against Malenkov.

Three documents from September and October 1956 are Khrushchev reports to the Party Presidium on his talks with Yugoslav President Tito. The previous year Khrushchev had launched a campaign to woo Tito, whom Stalin had excommunicated, back into the Soviet bloc. But while Tito was eager for reconciliation, it would have to be on his own terms. His aim was to reform the Socialist camp, not to buttress it; to protect Yugoslav independence, not restrict it. Having broken with Stalin before Khrushchev did, Tito was proud and touchy, especially when Khrushchev resorted, as he so often did, to crude threats and blandishments.

In late September 1956 Tito and his colleagues visited Khrushchev in the Crimea. On 29 September Khrushchev arranged for his guests to see missiles fired from ship and shore installations, tests that made, he reported, "a staggering impression on Tito." During the same visit, the Yugoslavs were shown films of atomic and hydrogen bomb tests, which, boasted Khrushchev, "made an exceptionally strong impression" on the Yugoslavs. According to Khrushchev, who may well be drawing on transcripts of conversations that the Yugoslavs were certain had been bugged, Tito's colleague, Aleksandar Rankovic, told another member of the Yugoslav delegation that "the hydrogen bomb was so powerful that if it were dropped over Belgrade, Zagreb would not survive either."

Having stooped to such a crass form of intimidation, Khrushchev also tried to be sensitive. On 24 September 1956 he reported that he refrained from bragging about the USSR's good harvest that fall because the Yugoslav harvest wasn't as good, and he didn't want to seem to "put them in a position somewhat dependent on us." In the same report, Khrushchev played the psychologist, having detected that "Tito's mood was very nervous and often changed. From time to time some concern appeared on his face, and some aloofness and restraint in the conversation. … Obviously he has questions on which he does not agree with us but he restrains himself, does not raise them, fearing that we will react to them heatedly and this might lead to a worsening of our relations, which the Yugoslavs obviously do not want." Khrushchev even went so far as to offer a kind of "counseling," advising Tito how to handle certain grievances he seemed to have against Bulgarian Communist leader Todor Zhivkov: "I think it would be better and fairer to tell the truth, although it's not very pleasant, but to tell it to one's face, rather than harbor resentment and stay silent.

Despite Khrushchev's efforts, seemingly minor irritants kept impeding the Soviet-Yugoslav talks, such as the question of whether to refer to the Communist alliance as the "socialist camp" (Khrushchev's preference) or the "socialist world" (Tito's). As John Lewis Gaddis pointed out in We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History, the very fact that the Communist countries insisted on having "fraternal," rather than simply "alliance" relations with each other required them to aim for a kind of closeness that was impossible to achieve, and left them angry with each other when they didn't achieve it. "We felt like one family," Khrushchev reported on October 8, "with common ambitions and hopes. Comrade Tito and the rest of the Yugoslav guests repeatedly declared that they felt at home," while, one might add, at times barely able to hide their resentment that they in fact didn't feel that way at all.

One of Khrushchev's main aims in hosting Tito was to enlist the Yugoslav leader's help in staving off turmoil in Poland and Hungary, the kind of help that Tito could not and would not provide. Only at the last minute did Moscow restrain itself from military intervention in Poland, while Soviet troops proceeded to crush the Hungarian revolution. On 4 November 1956, as Soviet forces moved into Hungary, Khrushchev addressed a gathering of high-ranking party activists in Moscow. Much more candid than his published views, his remarks that day were stunningly direct. He admitted that many Hungarian officials who were the target of the uprising were "horse manure," and that if elections were held there, the Communist party would get "no more than 5 to 10 percent of the vote." He and his Presidium colleagues had at first feared that "if we used armed force to brutally put down the rebels, the Hungarians would not understand this and it might end up that they would all unite against us." But Khrushchev and company were also "very concerned" that the Hungarian unrest would spread to Romania and Czechoslovakia, where, they said, hundreds of thousands of Hungarians lived, and also about the reaction in other countries if the USSR did nothing: "Other countries would cease to respect us." It would look as if "we would be proceeding from some bourgeois concept of morals," standing aside and allowing "the creation of a reactionary government which might lead Hungary into the NATO camp." The West would think: "Either they didn't have enough strength, or they had enough strength but they weren't able to use the strength, but if they weren't able, then why not give them a jolt." Instead, it was the socialist camp that would strengthen its unity, and "on the basis of this unity we will with even greater energy shake the capitalist world and achieve its destruction."

In the transcript of a January 1960 conversation with Indian writer Kh. A. Abbas, we get a vivid glimpse of Khrushchev discoursing on ideology and culture. This role was part of his responsibility as Soviet leader. However, as man with only two or three years of formal education in a village school, plus two tries at adult education during which he quickly became distracted by his role as Communist party cell leader, he never felt comfortable doing so; this transcript shows why.

Asked whether contemporary capitalism had altered its classic nature by developing public sector enterprises and a universal welfare state, Khrushchev replied: "Marx predicted all this. So that "when enemies of socialism say that Marxism is obsolete [or] dead, they nevertheless show that they are afraid of Marxism and want to distort it as a science." Would the concept of family remain as a unifying force in human society as Communism draws near? Khrushchev parried the question with one of his own: "What role does the family play right now, in your opinion?" What would the role of culture and art be under Communism? Another parry: "I would like to afford you the opportunity to fantasize on this subject because this is a field close to you…." Who was Khrushchev's favorite author? Tolstoy, Gorky, and Chekhov, was his predictable answer. Did he have favorite foreign classical authors? "Yes. But I have to admit that right now I don't have much time to read either foreign or Soviet writers." His opinion of classical poets? He mentioned Pushkin and Nekrasov. His favorite lyric poet? Khrushchev cited Gorky, who he admitted was not really a poet. "What value does lyric poetry have for the happiness and life of the people?" Khrushchev's response: "But what else is happiness, in your opinion?"

As the Indian writer peppered him with questions Khrushchev felt uncomfortable answering, one can sense his frustration rising—until, at last, he finds a way to reduce lyric poetry to a category with which he is more conversant: It and other literary genres were "strong weapons…in our struggle. In a word, any weapon is good in a Communist society if it helps strike down shortcomings, clears the path in the struggle for the building of a Communist society, inspires the people in this struggle, and expands their world view."

Khrushchev's brief 10 October 10 1961 memo to the Presidium from New York toward the end of his lengthy stay at the United Nations sparkles with his earthy brand of humor and almost seems mellow. Joking about his approval of plans to buy buildings for the Ukrainian and Belorussian missions to the UN (themselves the result of a deal Stalin had made at the time of the UN's founding to increase Soviet influence in the world organization), Khrushchev admits, "I displayed cowardice and didn't find the strength to resist, and yielded to an ‘evil' influence." If the Presidium doesn't object, he adds, he will authorize purchase of a small American car (to be taken back on the ship with him) "so that our designers can familiarize themselves with modern American automobiles and not invent a camel which has been running around the steppes for a long time." But, as I argued in my book, Khrushchev: The Man and His Era, his overall mood darkened as his UN sojourn dragged on. This too is visible in the memo: "We're already beginning to count the hours, how many we have left to spend in this goddamn capitalist country...." New York in particular was "a real prison for the American people because the people here are like prisoners in stone sacks: neither greenery, nor the opportunity for a walk crowded with automobiles, or walks along dirty sidewalks and blackened streets amid constant noise."

Khrushchev's 16 May 1962 speech in Varna, Bulgaria was delivered at the time he was making up his mind to send medium and intermediate-range missiles to Cuba. Since that decision was, of course, a deep secret, the only hint in his Varna speech was his remark that the Chinese "say that we are supposedly cowards, that we are afraid of war, but they are not afraid of war." Proving to Mao Zedong, among others, that he was prepared to go to great lengths to defend Castro's Cuba was probably one of several motives for dispatching missiles to the island. So determined was Khrushchev to do so that, in taking risks that brought the world closer than it has ever been to nuclear conflict, he apparently forgot his own dictum, which he also repeated to his Varna audience: "Only a fool is not afraid of war because he is afraid of nothing since he doesn't understand anything.…We know what war is."

More than anything else, Khrushchev's Varna talk was about Stalin. Five months later, at the 22nd Party Congress in Moscow, Khrushchev would extend the indictment of Stalin made in his 1956 "secret speech," and in Bulgaria he was already preparing to do so. As always, his discussion of Stalin was contradictory, mixing attacks that ranged from crude to eloquent with sudden defenses of his former boss. So egomaniacal was Stalin that as part of his personality cult he "gave his own name to all the chamber pots in his lifetime." Khrushchev was also capable, at least on this occasion, although rarely on others, of attributing Stalin's crimes not just to him but to the Communist party itself: "…the party created a boss, created a god for itself and it lost power over this god." Yet, a few sentences later, it turned out that "Stalin was actually a Marxist, was actually a genius and talented, but he misused this talent and directed it against the party, against the people." As usual, Khrushchev's remarks were long and rambling, as if he couldn't stop talking about a man who had been both his mentor and tormentor. But he was also capable of self-awareness and humorous self-criticism, noting as he thanked his audience, "What a talkative child was born among you (laughter), but what to do?"

On 25 August 1962 Khrushchev met with UN Secretary General U Thant, who was visiting the Soviet Union. U Thant seemed remarkably well disposed to the Soviet line on Berlin: "…my personal opinion completely agrees with yours, that a peace treaty needs to be signed…I completely agree with the Soviet government in this regard. But as you understand, in my position I cannot make any public statements." Khrushchev seemed remarkably ignorant about cultural life in the United States: "There is no opera house in America. It is a very rich country and it doesn't have an opera house." But the most important thing about this meeting was that it hinted at a Khrushchev trip to the UN that fall, just about the time when the missiles secretly sent to Cuba would be operational. When U Thant remarked that the Soviet leader might well wish to address the General Assembly, Khrushchev noted that he was unlikely to come to the US unless a meeting with Kennedy could produce some positive results, which in turn would require that the Western allies, who "do understand the need to resolve questions which require resolution," at long last do so. Whether the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba, which Khrushchev might well have revealed in the course of such a mission, would have led to such "understanding," whether indeed that was yet another motive for his dispatching the rockets in the first place, is not, as is the case with much of Khrushchev's thinking, entirely clear.

The final document in this collection, minutes of a Presidium meeting on 25 April 1963, reflects the souring of his mood as problems mounted during his last years in office. Khrushchev's response to distinguished writer Konstantin Paustovsky's complaint about a gravel processing plant near his dacha: He's "full of it." As for Paustovsky's lament that the plant was "spoiling the landscape," this was "stupidity, reactionary stupidity, but it's spread by defenders of nature." As for certain writers, they "serve not an idea, but their own pocket. These need to be excluded.…" Especially Solzhenitsyn, who didn't belong in the subsidy- and privilege-dispensing Writers' Union, even though he was seriously ill: "Let him be sick like a person, but why should he be ill as a member of the Writers' Union.…Why do I say this? This is depravity, this is free money, this is irresponsibility." Also the young poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who was attracting huge crowds to his readings: "They shout, Zhenya! Zhenya! Fifteen thousand blockheads shout this way. It's not hard to collect such a population of these blockheads in Moscow. We have thousands of murderers living here undiscovered. …good honest people who adhere to Party positions don't go there. [Those who do go] pay money, but they listen to crap. This was crap being flung."

Quotes of this sort don't capture the full complexity of Khrushchev, who encouraged the cultural thaw of the 1950s and 1960s, just as he often tried to throttle it. In that, as in his on-again, off-again condemnations of Stalin, his erratic reforms, and his efforts to ease the Cold War, which contributed to two of its most dangerous crises in Berlin and Cuba, Khrushchev was as contradictory as he was colorful, qualities that emerge so vividly in the documents collected here.

[Uncorrected] transcript of a meeting of the Party group of the USSR Supreme Soviet on 8 February 1955

Notes from N. Khrushchev to the CPSU CC Presidium regarding conversations with Yugoslav leaders in Yugoslavia

Stenographic record of a 4 November 1956 meeting of Party activists

Conversation of N. S. Khrushchev with Indian writer Kh[oja] A[hmed] Abbas, 6 January 1960

Dictated by Cde. N. S. Khrushchev on 10 October 1960

Comments of N. S. Khrushchev, 11 December 1961

Speech of N. S. Khrushchev at a friendly dinner in Yevksinograd (Varna), 16 May 1962

Conversation of Cde. N. S. Khrushchev and acting United Nations Secretary General U Thant, 28 August 1962

Statements of Cde. N. S. Khrushchev at a CPSU CC Presidium meeting, 25 April 1963