Commentary Magazine

Khrushchev Remembers, translated and edited by Strobe Talbot

Proletarian Ruler

Khrushchev Remembers.
by Strobe Talbott
with Introduction, Commentary, and Notes by Edward Crankshaw. Little, Brown. 639 pp. $10.00.

When the young Karl Marx first extolled the dictatorship of the proletariat in the heady days of the pre-revolutionary 1840’s, he doubtless had in mind a state of affairs much different from the rule of Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev a hundred and twenty years later. And had he ever permitted his youthful fantasy to limn the features of the victorious proletarians who would usher in the classless society, he would hardly have assigned to them Nikita’s crafty countenance.

And yet, by one of those ironies of history so dearly beloved by Marx and Engels, Khrushchev has turned out to be a comparatively rare specimen of the proletarian-become-ruler of a modern, post-revolutionary society. As a rule, modern revolutions have not been led by members of the lower classes but by rebellious sons of the bourgeoisie and petit-bourgeoisie—men like Lenin, Mao, and Castro, to stay with modern examples. Moreover, victorious revolutions generally have been perpetuated not by the emancipated lower classes in whose name they were accomplished but by elites of technocrats who, in their life styles and personal aspirations, were far closer to the bourgeoisie than to the proletariat. In the Soviet Union, Messrs. Brezhnev and Kosygin, with their specialists’ diplomas and their Western business suits, are almost caricatures of the type, as are an increasing number of their colleagues in Eastern Europe; and a similar “bourgeoisification” of the leading cadres has only been delayed, not forestalled, in Mao’s China.

A genuine proletarian ruler like Khrushchev, a miner’s son who never properly finished his secondary education and yet rose to become the third-generation leader of a Communist revolution, is therefore a rarity who can be expected to bring to the business of governing a very special perspective and an unusual sensibility. It is all the more noteworthy, then, when the views of such a man are made public, as they have been in this book.

Now a great deal has been written in the press downgrading the value of Khrushchev Remembers. Admittedly, the authenticity of the book has been compromised by the way in which the material was procured and edited. Apparently, much of it was let out of the Soviet Union in tapes, quite probably by elements of the Soviet secret police, and some of it may even have been acquired from Western sources with special collections of Khrushcheviana (how much of each is impossible to tell because of the tight secrecy imposed on the proceedings by the purchaser, Time, Inc.). Furthermore, Time, Inc., permitting no outside expert near their precious holdings, commissioned a young specialist in their employ to cut and paste the various materials into topical sections, covering Khrushchev’s career in rough chronological order, which were then translated and “edited” into a coherent work.

Clearly, then, from one point of view, Khrushchev Remembers is an artifact which did not exist until after the KGB, Time, Inc., and Luce-only-knows-who-else had gotten into the act. And yet, looking at the matter from another point of view, much of the debate about the book’s authenticity is beside the point. For while there are disputes about the genuineness of a relatively small number of tendentious passages, there is general agreement—shared even by those critics who cry “fraud”—that the overwhelming bulk of the material in this book originated with Khrushchev at some time and in some fashion. It should therefore be possible, it seems to me, to take the book as a whole and, without putting undue faith in the literal truth of any specific passage, come up with a generally valid overall impression of Khrushchev. And indeed, despite a number of inaccuracies and some curious omissions which detract from the book, the total Gestalt which emerges from these pages is unmistakably that of the roly-poly, . tough, old party from Kalinovka who, as Stalin’s successor, ruled Russia during the decade of the 1960’s.



It is indicative of the kind of man Khrushchev is that the heart of these reminiscences does not lie in his recollections of the programs and projects on which he, like any other administrator, must have spent most of his waking hours during some forty years of public life, but rather in the often painful portrayal of his association with Stalin—an ambivalent relationship which was both filial and feudal. And no wonder, for Khrushchev was completely Stalin’s creature. Had it not been for the old tyrant’s purge of almost the entire revolutionary leadership, the untutored mechanic from the boondocks would not, in all likelihood, have risen in a scant eight years from the post of party secretary of a Moscow district to full membership in the Politburo.

Khrushchev is always quite clear about whose child he is: he tells us how he first brought himself to Stalin’s attention by acting as the bully boy for the Stalinist faction at the Moscow Industrial Institute, where he was a student and political activist in 1929; how he subsequently rose by invariably taking Stalin’s side in the latter’s struggles with Trotsky, Bukharin et al. in the 1930’s and by acting as Stalin’s faithful steward in running Moscow and later the Ukraine. And when he was recalled to Moscow in 1949, it was, as he points out, to protect Stalin’s power by acting as a counterbalance to Malenkov and Beria in the inner circle of the Kremlin. Khrushchev is nothing if not candid on this score. “I was a product of Stalin’s generation,” he says at one point. And elsewhere: “I was a hundred per cent faithful to Stalin. . . .” And he sums it all up by saying: “I always stood for the Stalinist position.”

Set against these hearty avowals of devotion are expressions of equally cordial filial hatred which, in line with the intimate nature of the relationship, seem to be motivated even more by the recollection of personal slights than by memories of policy disagreements (though the latter are also important). This sense of festering hurt, fostered during an overlong period of dependency on the old man, comes through most strongly in the retelling of individual affronts to Khrushchev’s pride in such episodes as Stalin’s command to him to dance the Gopak—a Ukrainian peasant dance—for the edification of the Premier’s drunken companions; the public dressing-downs he received from Stalin; and the humiliating order Stalin gave him, in his capacity as Moscow’s boss, to make the proper functioning of the capital’s toilets his first order of business. Such memories seem to rankle even more than the recollections of the terrible insecurity and fear of being liquidated, the sense of being “temporary people,” which hung over all of Stalin’s familiars.

This sense of impaired manhood was clearly reinforced toward the end of the relationship by a mounting feeling of revulsion on Khrushchev’s part for Stalin’s more unattractive character traits: his cowardice and indecision in the face of Hitler’s initial onslaught on Russia in 1941, the Byzantine style of his court, his encouragement of drunkenness among his entourage, and his growing paranoia in old age. Finally, there were the disagreements on such policy matters as Stalin’s manner of collectivizing agriculture with its incalculable damage to Russia’s peasantry, the downgrading of the Communist party apparatus in favor of the secret police, the wholesale purges of millions of people—matters which Khrushchev now vigorously deplores and some of which he mitigated during his own rule, but all of which he was compelled to implement vigorously during Stalin’s reign.

The ambivalent nature of Khrushchev’s relationship with Stalin is perhaps best illustrated in his description of Stalin’s deathbed scene, with his successors waiting in attendance—an occasion so grisly and so fraught with innuendo that it recalls Freud’s evocation, in Totem and Taboo, of the slaying of the tribal father by his sons. In this case, such death wishes are ascribed only to Beria, while Khrushchev ostentatiously protests his love for Stalin to the last: “Far from looking forward to Stalin’s death, I actually feared it.” Yet his subsequent actions—and particularly the removal of Stalin’s corpse from its burial place alongside Lenin—speak a different language, the language of a parricide manqué who is trying to compensate for his lack of manhood during the old man’s life by extra-strenuous efforts to exorcise his ghost. Although this scabrous vendetta involved meritorious reversals of policy, like Khrushchev’s mitigation of the use of terror, the emotional driving force at the heart of it should not be overlooked. Even at this distance in time, it leads Khrushchev into some strange manifestations of anti-Stalinism: his interminable denunciation of Stalin’s dislike for Jews, for example, even though this is a trait which Khrushchev is known to share in full measure.



If Khrushchev felt pursued by Stalin’s ghost for a long time, he did gradually liberate himself from its haunting presence. As he began coming into his own in the late 1950’s, he started to display, for all the world to see, the qualities a proletarian could bring to high office. It is perhaps unfortunate for Khrushchev that the most visible of these qualities was a certain coarseness of character and crudity of behavior. But it must be noted that if these qualities were visible it was because Khrushchev chose to exaggerate what came naturally and to flaunt a life style born out of a social consciousness of class that was quite different from Marx’s philosophical concept of class consciousness. Khrushchev’s self-promotion as the quintessential proletarian was calculated, one suspects, both to legitimize himself at home with the Russian people as one of their own—so different from his Byzantine predecessor and from his bourgeoisified underlings and potential successors—and to undercut the aristocratic pretensions of his most prominent counterparts abroad. More than that, his clowning in the UN, his vulgar behavior during state visits, his deliberate gaucheries toward visiting dignitaries, amounted to a proletarian mockery of all Establishments (including his own) that was meant to unite the proletarians of all countries in common derision of those who thought themselves their betters.

The memoirs contain numerous instances of this low-class irreverence, notably in several vignettes drawn from Khrushchev’s visit to England (the account of his journey to the United States in 1959 is missing). When, for instance, Khrushchev was asked by the wife of Prime Minister Anthony Eden how far Soviet missiles could fly, he replied, “They could easily reach your island.” But the best testimonies to Khrushchev’s impishness are the snapshots, most of them presented for the first time publicly in this book, which show him pressing his pudgy Slavic nose into a fragile Chinese flower during a visit to Canton, or participating in a shoot, his posture conveying both enjoyment and ridicule of the sport.

A less evident but perhaps more important feature of Khrushchev’s proletarian persona was his sympathy—empathy is perhaps a better word—for the common people of Russia. The feeling of nearness to the plain folk comes through in those parts of the narrative in which he tells of his early years of hardship, the death of his first wife during the famine of 1921, his pride in being “one of the very few workers” selected for a position on the Ukrainian Central Committee in 1928. “We miners and metalworkers were the real proletariat, the salt of the earth and the bedrock of the party,” he remarks in telling the story. The feeling is further reflected in what he calls his “constitutional block against clerical work,” his aversion to “having to look over a stack of files and forms to see the real world,” and his predilection for getting his boots and hands dirty. It showed itself also in Khrushchev’s repeated journeys away from Moscow to the provinces and his everlasting chats with workers and peasants, from which he seemed to derive genuine pleasure and uplift. It is apparent, finally, in his dislike of the Soviet bureaucracy, which he loved to shake up in recurrent reform campaigns, and in his pro-consumer policies which significantly increased the incomes of peasants and workers.

Another legacy of Khrushchev’s proletarian upbringing was his particular kind of toughness and nerve. During his years as Stalin’s liege, Khrushchev cheerfully bullied the opposition and sternly drove the population to greater exertions; and after Stalin’s death, he played the risky game for Stalin’s succession daringly and coldly against the dreaded Beria and the clever Malenkov. After his accession to power, he waged epic battles—the reverberations of which still rumble through this book—against the ground forces, whose size he cut back drastically, and against their allies in Soviet heavy industry with their endless demands for additional resources. Nor did he shun battle with his own party apparatus, which he reorganized within an inch of its collective life in 1962 and with which he engaged in repeated confrontations that demanded a very special kind of guts.

Finally, Khrushchev was the possessor of a shrewd and cynical common sense which made him distrust ideologists and theoreticians and rely on his own earthy instincts. Some of the more memorable manifestations of his pragmatism were his attempt to reach a détente with the West (after his international gambles had failed) and his decision to reorient the Soviet military posture from a defense based on conventional forces to the more realistic and less expensive posture of deterrence. Unfortunately, such matters of high policy are not recounted in any depth in this book, but Khrushchev’s pragmatic bent of mind comes through in numerous homely observations, like his remark that the way to deal with the USSR’s endemic black market was to provide more consumer goods (though in his heyday he was not above shooting blackmarketeers, particularly when they had Jewish names), and his proposal to let would-be emigrants like Svetlana Alliluyeva leave without molestation.

Set against these virtues, however, were equal and compensating shortcomings, most of them rooted in the inadequacy of the populist response to modern conditions. Perhaps the least serious of these was Khrushchev’s sense of inferiority. At home, this was most evident in his venomous attacks on his competitor, Malenkov, an educated man of middle-class background whose condescension toward Khrushchev during World War II still seems to rankle after a quarter of a century. Abroad, Khrushchev was acutely embarrassed that the Soviet delegation to the Geneva conference arrived in a modest twin-engine plane while its capitalist rivals arrived in big four-engine aircraft. Harmless perhaps, and yet, sentiments such as these contribute to technological and arms races.

Far more serious was the particular narrowness of vision, deriving from Khrushchev’s proletarian upbringing and lack of schooling, which in his case aggravated the ignorance of the outside world common to all Soviet leaders. On the most humble level, this particular failing was exhibited in such silly gibes as the following, directed at Ambassador P. F. Yudin: “Yudin was sent to Yugoslavia, and we had a falling-out with Tito. Yudin went to China, and we had a falling-out with Mao. This was no coincidence.” Such determined simplicity, applied to domestic policies, led Khrushchev to espouse half-baked nostrums to cure major social problems, like his overly-ambitious “virgin lands” scheme, which was designed to remedy at one stroke the chronic failures of Soviet agriculture resulting from decades of neglect and exploitation. Abroad, this blindered vision led him into egregiously dangerous ventures like the Cuban missile crisis, which brought the world to the brink of atomic war.

Perhaps the most serious shortcoming, at least to Khrushchev personally, was his difficulty in dealing efficiently and on terms of mutual respect with the bureaucratic bodies indispensable to the operation of a large and complex society like the Soviet Union. It might have been courageous of Khrushchev and satisfying to his proletarian soul to have downgraded the secret police, reorganized the party and economic administration, and reduced the size of the ground forces. But, in the short run, his anti-bureaucratic campaigns only served to impede the smooth operation of the Soviet superstate, and in the long run, they had the effect of unifying all segments of the bureaucracy in a conspiracy to unseat him.



Looking back at the career of this Ivan-become-Czar from the vantage of the present, how does one strike the balance? Taking all things together, it seems safe to prophesy that future historians in the Soviet Union and in the West will agree in considering Khrushchev a “temporary man.” In the Soviet Union, his successors have already modified or scrapped most of his major policies, including the decentralization of industry, his agricultural schemes, the reorganization of the party, and his attempts at international détente. They are even partially reversing his de-Stalinization program. And their successors will no doubt evaluate Khrushchev’s attempt to enforce his will against the collective wisdom of the party and state apparatuses as worse than harebrained; they will judge it as “objectively reactionary” even though—or maybe because—Khrushchev acted as if he represented the workers and toilers directly, by virtue of his proletarian origins.

Western observers, one suspects, will be inclined to agree. Despite a sneaking affection for Khrushchev’s colorful personality and an appreciation of his efforts on behalf of the common man in Russia and of détente abroad, these observers will in all likelihood see him as a transitional and minor figure. On the level of political statesmanship, his attempt to prevent the evolution of the Communist movement into a stable bureaucratic system will probably be judged as quixotic and futile: after all, Khrushchev, a bureaucrat malgré lui, presided over the inexorable bureaucratization of the Soviet Union. On the level of day-to-day leadership, his pragmatic, populist style of governing not only was marred by inconsistencies (most notably in his vacillations about the amount of freedom to be given artists and intellectuals) but was proved unfeasible in two very specific ways. First, while Khrushchev’s egalitarian leanings could not stop the increasing social stratification of society that went hand in hand with the country’s growing modernization, they could—and did—serve to muddle this development. Secondly, his habit of substituting his proletarian “gut” reactions for the informed judgment of experts, however refreshing and even meritorious in individual instances, was simply too dangerous in the age of the computer and the atomic bomb.

Finally, and somewhat pathetically, on the level where ideology and personal fate mesh, Khrushchev’s career furnished a poignant refutation of his own most deeply-held conviction. For the ultimate ineffectuality of his life, caught kaleidoscopically in the disconnected reflections of his reminiscences, demonstrates, if yet another demonstration is needed, that Marx’s dream of the proletariat as the redeemer of mankind has proven to be precisely what Marx feared most—the unrealizable vision of a Utopia that will never be.



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