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.

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