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Khrushchev: The Years in Power, by Roy A. Medvedev and Zhores A. Medvedev

After Stalin

Khrushchev: The Years in Power.
by Roy A. Medvedev and Zhores A. Medvedev.
Translated by Andrew R. Durkin. Columbia University Press. 198 pp. $10.95.

It is doubtful that a gang of thugs ever exercised greater power in the course of modern history than Stalin’s Politburo in the Soviet Union. Yezhov, Yagoda, Kaganovich, Beria, Malenkov, Vishinsky, the Master himself—all gained power through murder and intrigue and held on by similar means until they themselves disappeared, butchers swallowed up by their own meat grinder. Like Stalin, his cronies were vulgar and crude, fawning over his every word. Stalin often kept them up all night (he hated being alone), getting them drunk, inviting them to watch American Westerns (an offer you couldn’t refuse), keeping them at his table until dawn when they would leave to catch a few hours of sleep before going to the Kremlin.

Out of this pack of thugs Nikita Khrushchev also emerged. He, too, climbed over the bodies of former colleagues, victims of Stalin’s wrath. On orders, and, one can be sure, on his own initiative as well, he helped to purge party cadres, both in the Ukraine and during his years in Moscow. And though later he denounced Stalin for the terror waged on the party, Khrushchev never came to believe that collectivization and the murder of Stalin’s leading opponents, like Bukharin, Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Trotsky, were anything but historical necessities on the road to Communism.

Yet, for all that, Khrushchev was different. In World War II, unlike most of his colleagues, he made a point of touring the countryside before, during, and after Hitler’s invasion. He saw the famine, he saw the heroism of the soldiers, the devastation, the stupidity of the party commissars who interfered with the few competent generals and officers who survived the purges of 1936. He “got his boots muddy,” as the Russians say; indeed, he never enjoyed being summoned to Moscow, away from the miners and farmers whom he genuinely liked. In addition, and this is not a trivial point, Khrushchev had a warm, intelligent wife who, by all reports, moderated his temper and encouraged whatever humane and generous instincts he managed to retain.

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Roy and Zhores Medvedev have written a fair-minded, incisive account of Khrushchev’s years in power. For readers familiar with Roy Medvedev’s work, the lack of “liberal-Marxist” rhetoric in this volume will come as a pleasant surprise. But then Zhores, his twin brother, is not a Marxist and it is Zhores, now living in England (he was deprived of his Soviet passport and citizenship during a trip abroad in 1973), who completed the manuscript. Furthermore, the details regarding Soviet agriculture that form the heart of Khrushchev: The Years in Power embody Zhores Medvedev’s well-known work on Trofim Lysenko and Soviet science. And so this volume, too, is a sober piece of scholarship, not a polemic, not even a prescription for reform of the type that Soviet dissidents circulate.

As a piece of scholarship, the book has certain limitations. While it is the first study of Khrushchev’s regime by a Soviet author, it does not add considerably to what Western scholars, like Edward Crankshaw, have reported for some time. What is important about it is the fact that Khrushchev is the subject and not Stalin, whose shadow dominates virtually all historical studies in samizdat. By analyzing Khrushchev’s difficulties in power, moreover, the authors have initiated a discussion of the complex political inadequacies of the Soviet system—in contrast to the usual focus on abuses of power and outright crimes. In this regard, it is relevant to learn, as Zhores Medvedev informs us in the preface, that the authors published articles on Khrushchev’s agricultural policy in the late 1960’s in the unofficial journal, Political Diary, which circulated among high-level members of the party.

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For the West, more than ten years after Khrushchev’s downfall, it is hard to recall the heady optimism generated by his reforms or the bewildering despair over his many impatient and foolish schemes. For the Medvedev brothers, however,

Khrushchev and his times are a still living history—we participated in the hopes and disenchantments of the period; we experienced enthusiasm and bitterness, elation at his bold political and diplomatic reforms, and exasperation at his sometimes startling ignorance when it came to handling simple economic, agronomic, and theoretical problems.

This was a crucial part of Khrushchev’s downfall. Although much has been made of the fact that his reforms were going too far for the party elite, Khrushchev, in fact, was “leading the nation to the brink of economic catastrophe.”

From the outset of his regime, agriculture presented the gravest difficulties. In 1952, the year before Stalin died, grain output per capita was lower than in 1913. The disruptions generated by collectivization and then war only partially explain this lack of development. Soviet agriculture was also affected severely by the bizarre genetic theories of Trofim Lysenko. “Knowledge about ways to develop hybrids remained limited,” the Medvedevs relate, while, under Lysenko’s direction, his protegés attempted “to transform one species into another (e.g., rye into wheat, etc.) by changing its environment.” Later, when Khrushchev encouraged greater corn production in order to increase available fodder, “Lysenko dismissed the new methods of seed-corn production put out by capitalist firms and held inbred-line hybridization to be injurious to a plant’s ‘biology.’” Although Khrushchev ridiculed some of Lysenko’s ideas, he remained under his influence; it was only with Khrushchev’s downfall in 1964 that Lysenko was finally dismissed from all upper-echelon policy-making positions.

Nonetheless, Khrushchev energetically pushed various agricultural reforms. At his suggestion, farmers and other citizens were allowed to own a certain amount of livestock and to plant gardens and orchards without having to pay a tax on them. Although this simple reform affected hardly more than 2 per cent of all land under cultivation, it helped to produce immediate results. Within a few years the number of sheep doubled, the amount of grain sold to the state nearly doubled, and there were sharp increases in both milk and egg production.

All this, however, was not enough for Khrushchev. In his haste, he advocated several new programs that, had they been implemented cautiously, with adequate planning, might have changed the direction of Soviet agriculture. Instead, the headlong cultivation of virgin lands, the corn campaign, and the dismantling of the machine-tractor stations all disrupted agricultural development, prevented an intensive approach to cultivation, and led to the economic catastrophes that, by 1964, compelled Khrushchev’s colleagues to remove him from office.

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While it is true, as the Medvedevs say, that Khrushchev could not govern “a vast country like the Soviet Union in the midst of a complex scientific and technological revolution,” he did accomplish certain reforms that not even his heirs have been able to reverse. Most importantly, Khrushchev made sure that the country would not soon again be, overwhelmed by police terror. He released between seven and eight million political prisoners, allowing them to return home and confirm the unbelievable magnitude of Stalin’s crimes. As late as 1961, at the 22nd Party Congress, Khrushchev renewed his attack on Stalin, providing new disclosures of the dictator’s cruelty. And though Khrushchev exploited these revelations to shore up his declining popularity, his colleagues no doubt grew apprehensive that he was letting too much out of the bag.

Since Khrushchev’s removal, his heirs have not managed things much better. While the Soviet Union contains the largest area of arable land in the world, and employs several times more agricultural workers than the United States, it produces only 80 per cent as much grain for food and fodder, while it uses fifteen dollars’ worth of grain to produce a dollar’s worth of livestock, nearly double the American ratio. Such weary statistics are well known. But the most astonishing indication of the failure of Soviet agriculture is the fact that 30 per cent of total agricultural production comes from private plots that are only a small fraction of cultivated land.

In short, economic stagnation has deepened since Khrushchev’s downfall. His sober, cautious heirs, having repudiated his “hare-brained schemes,” have yet to display greater economic discernment. But where Khrushchev made himself vulnerable with his liberal tendencies and his revelations about Stalin, Brezhnev and his colleagues appear secure. More than the Medvedevs imply in this book, what gave Khrushchev his unique stature may have insured his downfall.

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