Books April 2003

Gaudy Butterfly in a Drab Chrysalis

William Taubman's new biography of Krushchev is compelling as a character study but not fully satisfying as a history

Traveling in Egypt a few months before his fall, Nikita Khrushchev more than once proudly described himself as "still a peasant." So his official cicerone on the trip, Gamal Abdel Nasser's confidante Mohamed Heikal, who had accompanied him on the boat trip from the Crimea to Alexandria, was taken aback when Khrushchev complained that Heikal had described him as such in a newspaper article. How could he object? "But you wrote that I was like a peasant from a story by Dostoyevsky—why didn't you say peasant from Tolstoy?" came the indignant reply. William Taubman's gigantic new biography of the ruler who succeeded Stalin shows how happily Heikal chose his reference—which, contrary to Khrushchev's impression, was entirely to the Russian's credit. It is doubtful whether any human being ever resembled Tolstoy's wise simpletons in their insipid schmaltz; certainly no one less so than Khrushchev. There was, however, much that was Dostoyevskyan in this strange bucolic, in whom so much bluster and self-abasement, cunning and naiveté, impulsiveness and calculation (not to speak of crime and expiation), were inextricably intertwined.

The great achievement of Taubman's book is to offer a psychological portrait of Khrushchev, at once highly critical and deeply sympathetic, that captures this mixture. No other work has brought home so vividly just how extraordinary a figure Khrushchev was in the gallery of modern rulers. His famously uncontrolled harangues—condemning Stalin's crimes in the "secret speech," denouncing the U-2 in Paris, hammering his shoe on the table at the United Nations, bawling out artists at the Manezh exhibition—would be unthinkable today. Although he was sensitive to slights, no twentieth-century politician was more careless of "image" (meaning a manufactured and spurious presentability); and for just that reason few have left images more enduring in the public memory. By comparison, John F. Kennedy was, in more than one sense, virtually as doctored as Leonid Brezhnev. Taubman traces Khrushchev's blend of energy, ebullience, and rueful awareness of his own character limitations to the tensions in his peasant family and the opportunities of his working-class youth, during a period of dramatic industrial growth and social upheaval. We follow his rise through the CPSU in Ukraine to his installation as a precocious Party secretary in Moscow in early 1934; his part in the construction of the Metro; his return in 1938 to Ukraine, where he remained as regional boss for twelve years; his function as political commissar at the front in the war; his return to Stalin's side in Moscow in 1949; his decisive role in dispatching the secret-police chief Lavrenti Beria after Stalin's death, in 1953; his consolidation of supreme power in 1957; the seven tumultuous years of his personal rule of the USSR, till 1964; and the silence and solitude of his disgrace, while he recorded his life—if somewhat more self-critically—in the spirit of Napoleon on Saint Helena.

All this is told grippingly, with consistently good judgment and a feeling for telling detail. We are given a portrait of rare penetration. Perhaps the only significant enigma Taubman leaves underexplored is how Khrushchev's irrepressible tendency to say what he thought or felt after Stalin's death could have been contained so long while the tyrant lived, when the slightest slip—with a tongue later so loose and so sharp —might have cost Khrushchev his life. How could such a flamboyant, colorful figure have burst from the grayest of bureaucracies? Absolute power is, of course, one answer to the puzzle. Once Khrushchev was at the top in the Soviet system, there seemed little to restrain him save his own misgivings or conscience. Age, too, must have played a role. Taubman gives little sense of how old his subject is at any given time (this is a surprisingly common fault in biographers). But Khrushchev was in his sixties when he became the ruler of the USSR, a season in which it is not unknown for long-standing inhibitions to fall away as mortality draws near. Still, there remains some irreducible mystery in the emergence of this gaudy butterfly from the drabbest chrysalis. It is no fault of Taubman's that he seems stumped by it.

Subtitling a biography "The Man and His Era," however, raises expectations that Taubman fails to meet. Explaining that he set out to study Khrushchev's U.S. policy and then became more interested in his personality than his diplomacy, Taubman writes, "Even as I broadened my focus to give equal time to all periods of his life, I narrowed it so as to concentrate on his character." That narrowing has its costs, because what it more or less inevitably scants is context. In part research restrictions are to blame. Taubman has made good use of the abundant, if highly selective, official reports and transcripts and participant recollections that have been published in Russia over the past decade. But he has not enjoyed much direct access to the archives. He was forced to rely heavily on interviews and worked in close collaboration with Khrushchev's family; the shape of his book is thus determined in considerable measure by these sources. The risks of such an approach can be seen from the fact that not merely Khrushchev's son Sergei, now an American citizen, has been tireless in defending his father's reputation: the offspring of his defeated rivals Beria and Georgi Malenkov, and of his erstwhile colleague Anastas Mikoyan, have also sprung into print on behalf of their families. The disputes between these clans can really be resolved only by documentary evidence that is still lacking.

But there is a further reason why Taubman's book, for all its merits as a biography, is skewed as a history. That lies in its starting point, as Taubman candidly describes it. The original concern with Khrushchev's U.S. policies has been submerged but not suppressed by the subsequent turn toward his "life and times," with two main consequences.

First, domestic Soviet politics, other than set-piece clashes in the Politburo, are on the whole treated thinly. Here the lack of context has a significant bearing on the depiction of character. Taubman tends to accept too much at face value Khrushchev's self-description as someone whose forte was getting things done and mixing with ordinary people, who couldn't stand the mere paper pushing at which his deskbound rivals were adept. We are given little or no sense of the skillful bureaucratic patronage and maneuvering that took him to the top. This ranged from a probable behind-the-scenes role in the Doctor's Plot phase of Stalin's final paranoia (when Khrushchev's close associates Mikhail Suslov and Frol Kozlov took the lead in a "vigilance campaign" tacitly targeting Beria) to the brick-by-brick building of a loyal clientele among oblast secretaries, which secured him victory in the Central Committee over the "anti-party group" of Malenkov, Vyacheslav Molotov, and Lazar Kaganovich in the summer of 1957. It was when Khrushchev ceased to exercise his skill, isolating himself from Party functionaries in a small, nepotistic circle of mediocre advisers, that he brought about his own downfall. Mikhail Gorbachev, a smaller figure, made the same mistake a quarter of a century later, and paid the same price. To read a life of Khrushchev that passes over this side of his career is a bit like viewing Lyndon Johnson without benefit of Robert Caro.

Second, we are not granted much overview of the pace of change beyond the somewhat besieged fortress of the CPSU itself—the problems and pressures within Soviet society at large, which set the parameters for decision-making in the Kremlin after Stalin's death. Though Taubman records the failure of Khrushchev's various agricultural schemes, he scarcely hints at the fortunes of the economy as a whole (this was still a period of substantial growth and of technological advance in space and military programs), and he registers the intellectual ferment of these years only in passing. How the country was actually governed remains curiously sketchy in the absence of any concrete account of the way in which Khrushchev allocated his time or spent his days as its Premier. So, too, the complex reckoning of what his rule meant to the mass of ordinary Soviet citizens —what they gained, what they kept, what they lost—is never truly attempted. The weight of Taubman's interests lies elsewhere—in Khrushchev's relations with the world outside his country.

Here, too, an appropriate balance is wanting. From the beginning Stalin's heirs faced three main problems: how to preserve control of Eastern Europe; how to restore or maintain the unity of the world Communist movement, which turned above all on relations with China; and how to achieve a strategic equilibrium with the United States. The combination of Taubman's original interest in Khrushchev's U.S. policy and his eventual focus on Khrushchev's personality means that these problems are never kept even remotely in proportion. Ten pages are devoted to the fortunes of Khrushchev's family during the war, a mere five to the Hungarian Revolution, twenty to his inconsequential trip in 1959 to the United States, a couple to the decisive journey to China that followed it. In all, relations with America get about eight times as much coverage as those with Eastern Europe, and ten times as much as those with China. Entertaining trivia about Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra are given pride of place, at the expense of any coherent account of Sino-Soviet conflict.

It is true, of course, that for Khrushchev himself, U.S.-Soviet relations loomed increasingly large as his reign wore on. Initially this was a function of his need to stabilize East Germany, which, after futile histrionics on all sides, was for a time achieved by simple recourse to building the Berlin Wall. Subsequently, as the Kennedy Administration developed a first-strike strategy and a nuclear superiority capable of delivering it, Khrushchev sought to parry the U.S. advantage by installing short-range Soviet warheads in Cuba. Taubman devotes the longest single chapter in his book to the ensuing standoff in the Caribbean. Yet for all the ink that has been spilled on it, this is an overrated episode. Moscow had no chance of running up a nuclear foresail without detection, and even had it done so, little would have changed: U.S. strategic predominance would have remained what it was—at least until Soviet ICBMs arrived in sufficient numbers a few years later. Khrushchev could comfort himself that even if the withdrawal of the Soviet warheads had given Kennedy a symbolic victory, the Soviets had gained a matching withdrawal of U.S. missiles from Turkey and a tacit U.S. guarantee not to invade Cuba. But these gestures were largely symbolic too, since they simply formalized what Washington was considering anyway. By 1964, when Khrushchev fell, the underlying balance of U.S.-Soviet relations was much as it had been the previous decade, when he came to power.

On the other hand, Sino-Soviet relations had been utterly and permanently transformed. The real drama of Khrushchev's foreign policy lay in the East, not the West. There his impulsiveness—first delivering generous aid, far beyond what his colleagues wanted or he had budgeted, even promising a transfer of a nuclear bomb; then swinging to the opposite extreme, suddenly withdrawing all Soviet technicians and canceling works in progress—had momentous consequences. For it led to a break between Eurasia's two largest states, one that continues to shape world politics to this day. This huge development is still poorly researched and understood. But if we can speak of a Khrushchev era, it is the attack on Stalin and the conflict with Mao—not backchat with Eisenhower or shadowboxing with Kennedy—that define it.

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