Khrushchev and Stalin: Ian D. Thatcher Defends the Record of Stalin's Successor and Sees Him as a Forerunner of Gorbachev

By Thatcher, Ian D. | History Review, March 2009 | Go to article overview

Khrushchev and Stalin: Ian D. Thatcher Defends the Record of Stalin's Successor and Sees Him as a Forerunner of Gorbachev


Thatcher, Ian D., History Review


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Nikita Khrushchev is famous for two key events: the Cuban Missile Crisis, where the superpowers came closest to nuclear war, and deStalinisation. The Cuban Affair, admittedly dramatic and frightening at the time, was a short-term crisis in international affairs. DeStalinisation, however, involved fundamental questions about the Bolshevik Revolution, its past, present and future. After Stalin's death in 1956 it fell to Khrushchev to try to find a justification for the continuation of the Soviet experiment whilst admitting to the past crimes of the regime against its own party and people. This was an unenviable and difficult task.

How would any leader deal with Stalin's legacy, from his personal dictatorship to his remarkable policies, including industrialisation, collectivisation, the Great Terror, and the spreading of the Soviet Empire during and after World War Two? Constructing an historical balance sheet on the Stalin era while taking the USSR into a post-Stalin period of development was quite an agenda. It was furthermore an agenda that could not be approached in a scholarly, 'objective' manner, but one that was conditioned by current politics, both domestic and foreign.

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Khrushchev's answer to the Stalin problem was to address the past and the future. Looking back, he denounced Stalin's misdemeanours as flowing from the 'cult of personality', from the leader's paranoid personality that was given free rein as it broke party and state legality. For the future, Khrushchev promised genuine collective leadership, a law-based society, and a regime that would put more effort into ensuring that its citizens enjoyed something of the good life internally and security internationally. Yet despite the programme of deStalinisation--the Secret Speech of 1956 and removing Stalin from Lenin's Mausoleum in 1961--when Khrushchev was himself ousted from office in 1964, his disgruntled comrades turned his accusations about Stalin against Khrushchev himself.

The Charges against Khrushchev

The anti-Khrushchev charges included policy failures, domestic and foreign. At home industry and agriculture were under-performing. Abroad relations had soured with China. Most importantly, these policy failings were linked to Khrushchev's misdemeanours as leader. Khrushchev, it was claimed, was bypassing the Presidium and the Central Committee. He had taken to issuing decrees in the name of the Central Committee that were in fact on his own initiative. Khrushchev had surrounded himself with sycophants and family members that formed his inner-staff. Presidium colleagues could not reach him directly but had to deal with this entourage. Khrushchev simply ignored the advice of the Politburo, assigning key duties to his private circle outside the control of the party elite. In this sense Khrushchev broke party norms and even engaged in corruption. The award of honours to his son and son-in-law was noted, as well as the use of state money to fund family excursions abroad on what was supposed to be official business.

Such irregularities, it was said, occurred because Khrushchev had concentrated power in his own hands. Moreover, he did not know how to use this power sensibly. While having little or no expertise, he considered himself an expert in agriculture, diplomacy, science, and art, and his interfering had devastating consequences. Khrushchev defended the quack geneticist Lysenko, for example, despite warnings from eminent scientists. Khrushchev was unable to control his thoughts and most importantly his mouth. He had upset prominent friends within the socialist camp, causing trouble in relations with China, Albania, Romania, and Poland. Khrushchev would make promises to foreign heads of state for which he had not received the required authority from the Presidium or Central Committee. In the USSR Khrushchev had engaged in constant reorganisations of economic and party bodies that brought only additional confusion and threatened to split the party.

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