Remembering Khrushchev—the Man Who Won the Death of Stalin
When Joseph Stalin died in 1953, there were no rules on how to choose the next leader of the USSR. The complex structure of the Soviet leadership failed to provide a clear answer on whether the USSR Council of Ministers or the Party Presidium was the top government institution. No natural, clear successor stood out as an obvious choice to replace Stalin either, ensuring that four men—Georgy Malenkov, Lavrentiy Beria, Nikolai Bulganin, and Nikita Khrushchev—would compete to become the next leader of the Soviet Union.
Through serious political maneuvering and the overwhelming use of patronage, Khrushchev came out on top of the four-man struggle. By 1957, he became both the Premier of the Council of Ministers and the First Secretary of the Party, effectively putting himself in charge of the entire Soviet leadership system. He remained the leader of the Soviet Union until he was ousted by Leonid Brezhnev in 1964.
Who was Khrushchev?
When Khrushchev died in 1971, few mourned his passing. The official communist newspaper, Pravda, only published a short blurb about his death. The single matter-of-fact sentence was a symbol of how much his status diminished in the seven years since the Brezhnev coup. Often leaders end up with libraries named after them, whole institutions, even cities if they're deemed great enough. Khrushchev? Well, his hometown has a couple of streets named after him. That's it.
During his life, people saw Khrushchev as a bit of a simpleton and someone who lacked the manners of the higher classes. He was born to a farming family in a small town in rural Russia and received only two years of formal education as a child. But through his work ethic and his ambition, he slowly worked his way up the ranks of the Communist Party. For what he lacked in education, he certainly made up in natural political talent.
He was sort of a grandpa. A bit fat, short, loud and funny in a cute way. After all, his upbringing ensured that he was a normal dude, so he liked to joke around and keep a friendly demeanor. A gallery of modern art confused him, because why would anyone bother drawing something so unrealistic and ugly?
And although he was clever and tough, nobody feared him like people feared Stalin. That's why Khrushchev had two coups against him, the second of which removed him from power.
Khrushchev’s biggest achievements came in the foreign policy and technology sphere. He crushed the Polish and Hungarian uprisings in 1956, which earned him respect for his tough, Stalinist approach. Sputnik flew into space during his time and Gagarin became the first man in space. The military detonated the Tsar Bomba and shut down an American U-2 over Soviet territory.
There was also a bit of a thaw culturally during the early 60s. Foreigners started to regularly visit the country for the first time. Western films played in movie theaters. The Youth Festival (which still goes on till today) took place in Moscow for the first time, bringing students from all over the world to the Soviet Union. Additionally, many families could, for one of the first times in history, have an apartment completely to themselves due to the construction of new housing.
But ultimately none of those achievements earned him enough respect to outweigh all the mistakes he made during his time.
His first mistake was giving Crimea to Ukraine. It won him short-term support from Ukraine and helped him get elected as First Secretary in 1953. But long-term that move has caused significant tension between Russians and Ukrainians.
His agrarian policy ended up in a huge failure. Khrushchev experimented with the farming industry of the country like he was on his own farm. Years of good harvest followed by years of famine and very little food in grocery stores. Khrushchev famously pushed to grow more food in northern Kazakhstan and western Siberia, places where the crops depleted the soil of nutrients in a few short years.
Khrushchev kept blaming the legacy of Stalin for many of his failures. Although Khrushchev denounced Stalin, many wondered why he did so years after the death of Stalin. During his time in government, Khrushchev himself carried out Stalinist policies and was very close to the man. Khrushchev claimed he felt enthralled by Stalin and didn’t understand him until after his death. This excuse failed to win him a lot of respect.
And for his common-man personality, the elite saw Khrushchev as an embarrassment and a laughing stock when he represented the country abroad. The incident at the UN, during which Khrushchev had, allegedly, banged his shoe on the delegate-desk, was a huge embarrassment to the educated, sophisticated Soviet leadership.
Decline of Khrushchev
Khrushchev's power and respect came crashing down after the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. During this Cold War incident, the United States and the Soviet Union very nearly started a war between each other. When the countries were on the absolute brink of conflict, Khrushchev was seen as the first one who backed down and gave in to the Americans (although both Kennedy and Khrushchev wanted to avoid war and both of them should be credited for saving the world during those tense weeks). Because he “lost” the conflict to the Americans and gave up nuclear weapons on Cuba, his reputation was forever tarnished.
The planning of the second coup was an open secret in the halls of the Soviet government. Khrushchev had certainly heard about the planning of the coup, but he refused to believe that it could actually remove him from power. As a result, he spent significant time away from Moscow in the months prior to the coup. But by 1964, he had lost authority, even amongst those who owed him their government jobs. Khrushchev was forced into “voluntary” retirement from his government positions later that year.
Today, Khrushchev’s legacy remains mixed in the history of the Soviet Union. He certainly achieved some good things during his time in charge, but he is mostly remembered for the failures of his policies. That doesn’t mean he is a hated figure, however. He is someone who never managed to fully implement his vision when he was in power. His era was an inspiration for change and potential opening up of relations with the West. But, at the same time, it was a cautionary tale of failed and ineffective government policies.
Khrushchev: A Political Life by Tompson, William J.
The Khrushchev Era 1953-1964 by Martin McCauley.
Russian documentary film: Khrushchev. First After Stalin. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SvebBtXFxLE&t=8s