The Case of Khrushchev's Shoe

Article excerpt

All her life, she had been asked about her grandfather's famous display of anger at the UN. Nina Khrushcheva went in search of the truth

New York: "Khrushchev? The one who banged a shoe?" Not again, I thought, as I was asked for the thousandth time whether I had seen pictures of the UN shoe incident.

I hadn't, in fact, and didn't want to. For all these years, I have been slightly embarrassed by my grandfather's uncivilised behaviour exposed the world over. Indeed, my whole family was, so we never talked about it.

Indeed, why? After he was dismissed as premier in 1964, Khrushchev's name was not officially mentioned for 20 years. As far as the authorities were concerned, the incident had never happened, and neither had Khrushchev.

For the thousandth time, I make an apologetic smile and try to switch to another topic. The person insists, however. "Why haven't you?"

"I really should look up those pictures," I squeeze Out an uneasy smile.

It has been 40 years now, and the books on international and Soviet politics can afford inconsistency, giving a variety of reasons for Khrushchev's anger and even different times for the incident: Harold Macmillan's address on 23 September 1960; arguments about Red China's admission to the United Nations on 29 September; Russia's invasion of Hungary in 1956 on 4 October; the location of the United Nations...

All this made me suspicious: Why are the versions so different? And there are no pictures! What if it had never happened? A supposed 40 years anniversary since the scandalous UN shoe banging could be a great chance to commemorate an event that never happened. In my zeal to uncover the truth, I felt very much like Sherlock Holmes.

Magazines from October 1960 covered Khrushchev's visit to the United States better than books. They reported on everything, but still there was no shoe... My heart was pounding. For so many years; I had been ashamed in vain. What if the whole incident was just an anecdote based on the general mode of Khrushchev's behaviour? He was known for strong language, interrupting speakers, banging his fists on the table in protest, pounding his feet, even whistling. None of this, however, was enough to be transformed into a physical symbol of the cold war.

The shoe, on the other hand, as trivial and ridiculous as it is, fits right in: its low place (close to the ground) had been boldly moved up to the table (revolutionaries are tough -- communism and manners don't go together) in order to "stamp its foot", signifying the oppressive character of socialism. After Khrushchev's sincere pronouncement made at the Soviet Mission on Park Avenue, "We will bury you", such convenient behaviour by a communist leader seemed too perfect to be true for those wishing to generate fears of Soviet anti-westernism. A shoe, pounding the table, was the distinctive sound of "cold" war, as much as the report of a gun was the sound of "hot" war.

Not as tragic as a real shooting, shoe banging, in a world divided into two military pacts, was none the less more than purely comic. I considered the possibility that the incident had been an attempt by the west to convey the ideological message: "Our enemy is ridiculous and uncivilised, but since he is so ridiculous and uncivilised, he is capable of everything. Therefore we have to be prepared for anything."

Taking newspapers to be the best reflectors of those events, I searched the contemporary press for the fullest coverage of the famous assembly...

The shoe banging, it seemed likely, was an anecdote created by public demand, consistent with the political needs of the socialist-capitalist division. In short, I was almost sure it had never happened. My grandfather was innocent, and I had no reason to be ashamed.

Studying the papers, I felt as if I was there, in New York City in 1960. It had been 15 years since the end of the Second World War; wounds were healed, and humanity had survived - ready to go on in hope of life becoming better, better and better. …