Wednesday, January 6, 2010
Volkogonov on Khrushchev
In Stalin’s old age, he told his cronies that they were “Pygmies” who would be eaten alive after he was gone. He’s wasn’t too far wrong, but Khrushchev was at least interesting. He wasn’t an intellectual giant, to be sure, but he was folksy, quick-witted, comical, energetic, flamboyant, and mercurial. Deeply implicated in the horrendous crimes of Stalinism—but what Communist bureaucrat who survived the purges wasn’t?—Khrushchev outplayed and outlasted other Party insiders, especially the notorious Beria, and eventually emerged as the third Communist Leader.
Khrushchev probably owed his survival under Stalin to his working class origins and unassuming, comic persona; he probably owed his rise to power in the wake of Stalinism to his craftiness and reputation as a man who was unlikely to kill off too many rivals. In the event, Khrushchev had Beria killed (as the Thermidoreans had Robespierre killed) but soon emerged as a reformer who, somewhat courageously, overturned much of Stalin’s legacy. Self-serving or not, there is not a little sincerity in Khrushchev’s condemnation of Stalin and Stalinism.
Volkogonov’s assessment of Khrushchev is of course mixed. As Taubman’s biography also makes clear, there is much to both hate and admire in this complex man. In the “hate” column, Volkogonov stresses Khrushchev’s participation in collectivization, slave labor, and deportation during the 1930s and 1940s. He shows that Khrushchev was an unevenly educated, boorish, anti-Semitic ideologue, who accepted—despite his critique of the “cult of personality”—his own right to make decisions in every arena of Soviet endeavor, including politics, economics, agriculture, technology, defense, and even art.
The First Secretary was an energetic reformer, but his reforms, especially in the area of agriculture, were poorly thought out and frequently disastrous. Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization campaign was a truly earth-shattering event in the life of the Soviet State; even so, Volkogonov asserts that Khrushchev never really upset any of the principles of the Leninist regime. The security apparatus, the expensive military machine, the Gulag, the Communist ideology—everything was kept in working order.
The Communist hierarchy eventually brought Khrushchev down. They blamed him for his erratic behavior, which was perhaps most embarrassing in the arena of foreign policy. Volkogonov supports the criticism and blames Khrushchev almost exclusively for bringing the world to the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis, as well as for the rupture with China. Even the most critical communications from Moscow during the Cuban Missile Crisis appear a bit disjointed and rambling, if not deluded. For instance, Khrushchev denied that nuclear weapons in Cuba could be considered as offensive weapons at all.
In his way, Khrushchev was interested in peace, and certainly he promoted detente, but he was a bully too, and threatened Poland with invasion, attacked Hungary, banged his shoe in the UN, and constantly provoked the West in unproductive ways. Khrushchev believed what he said, that socialism would “bury” capitalism, that socialism was inherently peaceful, et cetera.
Khrushchev’s final years gave his life a final dignity. Ousted from power and ostracized, Khrushchev braved Party pressure and wrote or rather dictated his memoirs (published in the West by his son) which Volkogonov assures us are one of the best descriptions of this epoch in world affairs. In the end, it’s a strange comment on world history that this strange “Pygmy” steered the ship of state of one of two superpowers in the age of the space race, detente, the U2 incident, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Hungary, the Suez Canal Crisis, the Sino-Russian split, the Tito reconciliation, the Berlin Blockade, etc.