To anyone who saw Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin (2017), the name Nikita Khrushchev will be familiar. Soviet Premier at the height of the Cold War, successor to the tyrant Joseph Stalin, Khrushchev was brilliantly captured in the film by Steve Buscemi, a character whose bumbling persona hid a talent for intrigue and a lust for power. But the reality of Nikita Sergeevich Khrushchev, the USSR’s “Peasant Premier” from 1953 to 1964 and who died 50 years ago today, was far more interesting.
Khrushchev was born in the mud, stink and mosquito-clouds of an off-the-map Russian village, shoelessly tending pigs for a few kopeks a day. But he rose to become the most powerful man in his country, and one of the two or three most powerful in the world. He inherited a country traumatized by decades of terror, but left it breathing easier and sleeping at night. “That’s my legacy,” he said. “The fear has gone.”
“Of all the leaders I’ve met,” wrote Richard Nixon after leaving the White House, “none had a more devastating sense of humour, agile intelligence, tenacious sense of purpose and brutal will to power”. While Soviet leaders before or after him – Lenin, Stalin, Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko – seemed monochrome or forbidding, Khrushchev had almost too much personality for his 5’1” frame.
Whatever you said about Khrushchev, the opposite was also true; he was brutal and humane, boundlessly confident and painfully insecure, pragmatic and over-emotional, at once dauntingly draconian and riotous, 24-carat fun. A man dismissed by his colleagues as an uncultured buffoon, a “fish-monger”, “a man who sold cattle”, he nonetheless outsmarted them all to get the top job following Stalin’s death, banishing his rivals to molder out their prime years in the provinces.
In all his actions, there was similar ambiguity. Khrushchev wanted to forge a new harmony with the US, but ended up taking the world to the brink of Armageddon by stationing nuclear weapons in Cuba. He opened up the gulags, freeing millions of prisoners, but created an administrative nightmare in the process. He hoped to liberalise the Soviet arts scene, neutered and withered from decades of state intervention. But he ended up battling the writers of his country, even threatening them with the death penalty if they stepped out of line – “I shall not flinch from it” he snapped at an assembly of them, turning them pale with fright.
He denounced, before the world, his predecessor Joseph Stalin’s dictatorship and “cult of personality”, but brutally put down the 1956 Hungarian Uprising against the Soviets, earning the nickname “Butcher of Budapest”. He was the leader who terrified the West by threatening “we will bury you” and caused scandal by banging his shoe at the United Nations. But he also demystified the image of Russia and gave it a human face. President Eisenhower, watching his antics, described him as “drunken railway hand”. But even Eisenhower fell for Khrushchev’s charm, when the two weren’t spitting ideological bile at one another.
If the early years of the Cold War were a strange mixture of rock ‘n’ roll, drive-in diners, Doris Day and thermonuclear war, Khrushchev was one of its natural stars. The sense of humour – of which Nixon spoke – was his strongest suit. In this he was hugely helped by his appearance. Khrushchev was squat, bald, Yoda-eared. He had a stomach like a straining beer-barrel, and the gleeful smile of a rude little boy. He twinkled at people with those piggy eyes of his, eyes whose intensity you only had to look at, said one colleague, to see how he’d got the leadership.
For under it all, there was a core of seriousness and sobriety. This was a man who had survived Stalin, who in the worst years of his predecessor’s rule had soberly assessed what needed doing and done it, whether it was the bloodbath purge of post-war Ukraine or the signing of colleagues’ death warrants. He’d come to the Premiership, he said, “up to the elbows in blood”, with a vast weight of guilt to expunge. But the Cold War, as his own grand-daughter Nina L. Khrushcheva put it, was one of the few wars in which horror could coexist with comedy. Khrushchev summed-up both.
Nowhere was this truer than in his dealings with the West. Some of the juiciest scenes from the period come in his clashes with Richard Nixon, consummate cold warrior himself. In filmed sallies between the pair at the Moscow American National Exhibition 1959 – the famous ‘Kitchen Debate’ – we see the pair engaged in geopolitical sniping, a deliciously infantile my-ideology’s-better-than-yours sluggathon like a scene from Dr. Strangelove. Perusing the American products on display – state of the art home appliances – Khrushchev demands whether this is all America has achieved since its founding: “We haven’t quite reached 42 years and in another 7, we’ll catch you up. After that we’ll go farther. As we pass you by, we’ll wave ‘hi’ to you …” The little balletic, flapping wave Khrushchev gives for the camera and his infectiously snickering laugh bring home to you the man’s star quality. No circus clown could have done it better.
It was why half America fell in love with him on his tour a few months later. Commentators compared him to W.C. Fields, gangster Jimmy Hoffa, even Winston Churchill.
In his delightful account of the visit, K Blows Top (2009), the writer Peter Carlson sums of the Abbott and Costello comedy of the era well: the leader of one of the most powerful and terrifying countries on earth downing hotdogs, gladhanding factory-workers, and having a bashful encounter with Marilyn Monroe. Khrushchev thundered nuclear threats at his audience, but also fought back tears in a speech to the Hollywood crème de la creme about being forbidden, for security reasons, to visit Disneyland.
Harangued by an LA mayor, he threatened to go home at once and ramp up the Cold War, but the following day, he was all smiles once again. “Your mayor,” he said to his designated tour-guide, Henry Cabot Lodge, “meant to let out a tiny fart, but ended up shitting his pants.”
The scatology was typical of Khrushchev, and so too was the irreverence. Wherever he went, there was a type to remind him of his Russian village – the man who gets “two pairs of britches” and starts to get above himself, the snooty neighbour with her nose in the air but whose underwear, beneath the pinny, is in rags. Nobody could impress Nikita Khrushchev – he’d seen it all before.
the arms would flap rhythmically, like a conductor orchestrating his own rage
He also knew how to terrify when the occasion called for it. Anger was a tool he deployed masterfully, and he knew all about modulation and crescendo. Khrushchev would start off soft, to bring home how serious the situation was. Then his head would start to jut aggressively in time to the words. Next, as he began to rant and bellow at his audience, the finger would start to wag and jab. Finally, the arms would flap rhythmically, like a conductor orchestrating his own rage. And a room that had been laughing just a few moments before would suddenly be quaking in silence. Was the anger real or just feigned, for effect? “Father was angry,” his son Sergei said. “He also pretended.”
In Russia the antics wore thin after a while. Following one “hare-brained scheme” and diplomatic blunder too many, his colleagues ousted him in 1964. The Cuban missile crisis, the chaos of liberalisation, Khrushchev’s inability to feed his country: all these contributed to his end. Then the laughter and rage gave way to tears. He was now a non-person, virtually under a house arrest, replaced by Leonid Brezhnev, a man more sensible, more biddable, yet infinitely less interesting to the world. Asked what Khrushchev did in his retirement, his grandson’s response was simple: “Grandfather cries.”
His colleagues can be accused of ingratitude. In Khrushchev’s USSR, the sun frequently shone, and if it shone down on fields of desiccated sweetcorn – the crop he planted everywhere in one of his mad, inexplicable enthusiasms, even where it could not ripen – it still generated some longed-for warmth. It is no accident that the Khrushchev years are known in Russia as оттепель, “The Thaw”. It was when an entire empire, frozen by decades of oppression under Stalin, started to come back to irksome, problematic, often unmanageable life. A thaw amidst the Cold War: the paradox of Khrushchev’s ten or so years in power.
His death in 1971 went barely mentioned in the Soviet press. Not so in the West, where Khrushchev came in for accolades. A New York Times piece described him as “a Giant among Men…He let in fresh air and fresh ideas.” In the Washington Post, he was “an authentic person … in a peculiar sense, a great man.”
But one of the best American tributes to Khrushchev – proof of how deeply he’d penetrated the world psyche – came from the actor, Walker Edmiston, who sang in 1962:
I dreamt I saw Khrushchev in a pink Cadillac
He drove down the freeway with two chicks in the back …
He munched on a hot dog and he sipped on a coke
The chicks rubbed his bald head while they told him a joke
He blushed and he chuckled as he rolled away
‘Is good fine country here in USA!’
50 years after his death, it would be nice to think that in an afterlife without ideological or geopolitical divisions, Nikita Khrushchev, the old Shoe-Banger, Cold War Soviet Clown-Premier, is still doing exactly that.
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