Loudmouth

By Conquest, Robert | The New Yorker, March 31, 2003 | Go to article overview

Loudmouth


Conquest, Robert, The New Yorker


Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev was the unquestioned leader of the Soviet Union from 1957 to 1964. In this fairly short span, he managed to provoke two major international crises; survive a coup (a second toppled him); order two disastrous economic overhauls; and hold erratic confrontations with nearly everyone in sight--with the Chinese leadership, with Presidents Kennedy and Nixon, with the neo-Stalinists in his Presidium and the Russian intellectuals in his midst. On visits to the United States, he pounded his shoe at the United Nations, ogled Marilyn Monroe's derriere, and cheerily shovelled manure in Iowa with the locals.

What was Khrushchev like? William Taubman, a professor of political science at Amherst College, has now published "Khrushchev: The Man and His Era" (Norton; $35), the first comprehensive and scholarly biography of Stalin's successor. As part of a painstaking attempt to answer the question, he quotes the psychologist Nancy McWilliams on the "hypomanic" type: "Elated, energetic, self-promoting . . . work-addicted . . . lacking a systematic approach. . . . grand schemes, racing thoughts . . . constantly 'up'--until exhaustion eventually sets in." It's not everything, but it's a start.

When Stalin died, in March, 1953, Khrushchev was still in the leadership ranks of the Communist Party, despite a series of purges. Shortly before his death, Stalin was preparing yet another purge. Khrushchev was not on the list. What characteristics saved him? Among other things, no doubt, was his very volubility--the impression of holding nothing back. More generally, though, he had an air of being from the people, the narod. Khrushchev was from Ukrainian peasant stock, and at fourteen he went to work in the Ukrainian coal mines. As Stalin's notorious foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, put it, "Khrushchev was no accident. We are primarily a peasant country."

Khrushchev was born in 1894 in the Kursk region, and when he was fourteen the family moved to the proletarian mining city of Yuzovka (which was later renamed Stalino, and then Donetsk). He began reading Pravda in 1915, as a metal-fitter in the mines, but he didn't join the Bolshevik Party until more than a year after the revolution. Khrushchev said that while working at foreign-owned enterprises he "discovered something about capitalists. They are all alike, whatever the nationality. All they wanted from me was the most work for the least money that kept me alive. So I became a Communist." He served in local Party organizations in Ukraine, and in 1929 he went to Moscow, where he became involved in the city Party committee. During the early infighting in the Party, Khrushchev sided first with the Trotskyites--not, as it turned out, an ideal entry on one's Communist curriculum vitae. For nearly any other Soviet politician of the nineteen-thirties, this would have been a blemish worthy of execution. Stalin merely forced Khrushchev to make a frank confession of it. Stalin's view of the matter seems to have been that the true Trotskyites came from the older Party intelligentsia--the professional revolutionaries. A naif, a semiliterate worker member, likely appeared to Stalin an ignorant dupe, not a lost soul. Khrushchev himself seems to have attributed his rise to "luck": he met Stalin's wife, Nadezhda, while taking a course at the industrial academy, and she passed the name, and her approval, along to her husband.

In one sense, Taubman's chapters on the struggle for power, first under Stalin and then among his competing successors, remind one of Saint-Simon (the courtier, not the socialist). Ambition, intrigue, slander, temporary alliances, and betrayals: the essentials are the same. The tone, however, is rather different. In place of the well-turned, feline exchanges of Versailles, there is a certain coarseness. (Khrushchev, a prolific user of profane language, was particularly adept in this regard.) We find, for example, the secret-police chief Lavrenty Beria pinning on the back of Khrushchev's jacket a label bearing the word "prick"--hard to imagine in the Bourbon court. …

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