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.