Khrushchev's Son Finds Happiness on American Soil

Article excerpt

CRANSTON, R.I. -- Sergei Khrushchev is home.

Home, for the favorite son of the late Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, is a clapboard ranch house in the Providence suburbs -- a two-bedroom model surrounded by look-alike houses, driveways full of Buicks and Dodges.

And why is a rocket engineer who designed missiles that were pointed at the United States at the height of the Cold War now living out his years across from the Garden City school playground?

This half-acre of suburbia, he says, is "retirement paradise."

What could better illustrate how the Cold War has come full circle than the sight of this barbecue-loving, 63-year-old dabbling about his American dacha?

SEEKING CITIZENSHIP

This is no ordinary Russian immigrant. This is the son of the bald-headed nemesis who banged his shoe on the table at the United Nations.

The guy who declared, not too tactfully, "We will bury you."

The guy who oversaw the building of the Berlin Wall, who ordered Soviet tanks to crush a revolt in Hungary, who cost the world sleepless nights by sending nuclear missiles to Cuba in 1962.

And now his son, Sergei, wants to become an American. He took the citizenship test on Wednesday and nearly aced it -- he got 19 of 20 questions right. His wife, Valentina, did him one better, with a perfect score. They will take their pledge of allegiance July 12.

On this summer day, he pours some store-brand lemon-lime soda into a whiskey glass for his guest. What? No Stolichnaya?

"Too hot for vodka," he explains with a chuckle. Life, American style, could be worse.

It means waking to the chikchik-chik of lawn sprinklers, shopping for mulch and paneling and paint at the Home Depot.

And on Saturdays, from November through late March, he and Valentina work up a sweat in their basement "banya," the traditional Russian steam bath, thwacking each other's bare backs and bottoms with bundles of birch twigs.

"We did all of the paneling in the basement ourselves," Khrushchev says proudly.

EERIE RESEMBLANCE

On the paneled walls of his basement, on the walls of his study, living room, dining room, giants of history stare from black-and-white photographs taken during a time when the downing of a U-2 spy plane made a newly nuclear world hold its breath:

Nikita Khrushchev, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Nina Petrovna Khrushchev, grinning, albeit nervously, on the steps of the U.S. president's retreat at Camp David, Md.; Papa Khrushchev, Sergei, and his toddler, Nikita Jr., strolling the grounds of the premier's Moscow country gardens in 1962; Sergei with Yuri Gagarin, the first man to orbit the Earth.

Rows and rows of books on his father's life, reports and speeches, in Russian, lining shelves along the wall in his cellar.

From the side, Sergei Khrushchev looks like Papa.

The resemblance is so striking that when he first came to the United States to lecture at Brown University in September 1991 -- nine months after the Soviet Union collapsed -- students, faculty, even mailmen, would stop and stare "as if I were a white elephant. …