The Man and His Era

By William Taubman Norton -- 876pp -- $35

It was a startling notion: "What if we throw a hedgehog down Uncle Sam's pants?"

The speaker is Nikita S. Khrushchev. The time is 1962. And the Soviet leader is discussing with a Communist Party colleague the most dangerous idea of his political career. Against the advice of his Foreign Minister, Khrushchev goes ahead with a harebrained scheme to ship nuclear weapons secretly to Cuba -- and brings the world to the brink of war when the U.S. finds out. Fortunately, after a tense, 13-day standoff with President John F. Kennedy, Khrushchev backs down.

The Cuban missile crisis is just one of the many events analyzed in rich detail in William Taubman's Khrushchev: The Man and His Era. A political science professor at Amherst College and author of several works on the Soviet period, Taubman has produced an impressive synthesis from a vast range of sources. These include not only the memoirs of Khrushchev, his son, and other leading figures of the Communist Party, but also extensive archives that were opened after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, American archives, secondary works on 20th century history, and interviews with Soviets or their descendants. (The footnotes and bibliography account for 167 of the volume's 876 pages.)

The result is a fascinating look at a complicated, self-made man who played a role in pivotal events of post-revolutionary Russia's troubled history. "[T]aken in its entirety, his life holds a mirror to the Soviet age as a whole. Revolution, civil war, collectivization and industrialization, terror, world war, Cold War, late Stalinism, post-Stalinism -- Khrushchev took part in them all," writes Taubman.

On one level, Khrushchev's is a story of remarkable upward mobility. He was born in 1894 to an impoverished peasant family in a southern Russian village. In his teens, Khrushchev moved to a mining town in Ukraine and became a metalworker. He helped lead a strike at his workshop in 1915 -- and went on to organize other work stoppages leading up to the 1917 revolution. It was the start of his political career -- one that would take him to the top of the Communist Party before he was peacefully ousted from his post in 1964.

It took an uncanny survival instinct to navigate the dangerous waters of Communist politics, particularly during Stalin's purges from the 1930s to the '50s. To rise through party ranks and make it into Stalin's inner circle, Khrushchev used bluff, bluster -- and ruthlessness. Although he expressed private doubts about the repression to his friends, and later denounced Stalin in a famous "secret speech" at the 1956 Communist Party Congress, Khrushchev's hands were far from clean. As party leader in Ukraine starting in 1938, "Khrushchev presided over the purges, which apparently accelerated after his arrival," Taubman writes. According to a fellow party boss, Khrushchev personally "sent 54,000 people to the next world" during this time.

One of the achievements of Taubman's book is his exploration of the Soviet leader's character. Khrushchev fell into both deception and self-deception throughout his life, Taubman writes. The peasant's son never seemed to get over the insecurities that lay behind his obsequiousness toward Stalin and that later prompted him to threaten the West and bang his shoe at the U.N. "In his desperate search for respect, he ended up not respecting himself," the author concludes. Khrushchev was devastated when he was deposed in 1964. He died in 1971.

For all the bad things associated with Khrushchev's rise to power, my impression of the Soviet leader was changed for the better by this book. As an American who grew up in the 1960s, I mainly remembered his crudeness, the tensions he created over Berlin, the Cuban missile crisis. Without denying his flaws, Taubman reminds readers of the achievements that Khrushchev presided over, from Sputnik and the pioneering space flight of Yuri Gagarin to the construction of the Moscow subway system. He genuinely tried to better his people's living standards.

What also comes through clearly is that Khrushchev longed for better relations with the U.S. Despite his bluster, he urged the Kennedy Administration to sign a treaty to ban tests of nuclear weapons. At first talks floundered, but eventually, shortly before Kennedy's assassination, the U.S., Soviet Union, and Britain agreed to a ban. Khrushchev was also the first Soviet leader to push for cuts in defense spending. Finally, Khrushchev's effort to loosen restrictions on artists and writers and his ultimately unsuccessful attempts at economic reform paved the way for an even more important reformer.

It took 21 years for Mikhail S. Gorbachev to rise to the top. Gorby came of age in the Khrushchev years and often referred to the period as an inspiration. In the end, he, too, failed as an economic reformer: Half-measures led to the Soviet Union's collapse. But Gorbachev's policy of glasnost -- or political openness -- and his desire to better relations with the U.S. led to the end of the Cold War. Writes Taubman: "Gorbachev's own generation considered itself 'children of the 20th Congress' and regarded the task of renewing what Khrushchev had begun as 'our obligation."'

Khrushchev: The Man and His Era shows both the triumphs and tragedies of a complicated man who led a full life. I consider it a must-read for students of Soviet history and for others interested in the Cold War -- and in the first tiny steps toward bringing it to an end.

By Rose Brady

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