The Jacana

 Great Lives Site


Back to Jacana

Great Lives index


Nikita Sergeevich Khrushchev
1894 - 1971

The Soviet political leader Nikita Sergeevich Khrushchev was a major force in world politics in the post-Stalin period.


Nikita Khrushchev was born in Kalinovka in southern Russia on April 17, 1894. At 15 he became an apprentice mechanic in Yuzovka, where his father was working as a miner. When his apprenticeship ended, he was employed as a machine repairman in coal mines and coke plants of the region.

In 1918 Khrushchev joined the Communist party, and he enrolled in the Red Army to fight in the civil war then in progress. After nearly 3 years of service, he returned to Yuzovka and was appointed assistant manager of a mine. Soon thereafter, he entered the Donets Industrial Institute, from which he graduated in 1925. He then took up his career as a full-time party official, beginning as secretary of a district party committee near Yuzovka.

Four years later Khrushchev attended the Industrial Academy in Moscow for training in industrial administration, leaving in 1931 to become secretary of a district party committee in Moscow. Within 4 years he became head of the party organization of Moscow and its environs, thus joining the highest ranks of party officialdom. In Moscow he used his industrial training as he helped to supervise the construction of the city's subway system.

When Stalin began purging the Communist party's leadership of those he mistrusted, Khrushchev was fortunate to be one of the trusted. In 1938, when most of the chief party leaders in the Ukraine were purged, he was made first secretary of the Ukrainian Communist party and at the same time was named to the Politburo, the ruling body of the Soviet Communist party. As first secretary, he was in fact, though not in name, the chief executive of the Ukraine. Except for a short interval in 1947, he retained his authority in that area until 1949.

During World War II, while still first secretary of the Ukrainian Communist party, Khrushchev served in the Red Army both in the Ukraine and in other southern parts of the former U.S.S.R., finally advancing to the rank of lieutenant general.

In 1949 Khrushchev was summoned to Moscow to serve in the party's Secretariat, directed by Stalin. Then, after Stalin's death in 1953, Khrushchev was among the eight men in whose hands power became concentrated. In the allocation of the various spheres of power, the party was recognized as his sphere; within a few months he became first secretary of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist party - that is, its chief official.

By installing his supporters in important party positions and making some shrewd political alliances, Khrushchev gained ascendancy over the seven who shared power with him; by 1955 he was clearly the foremost political figure in the Soviet Union. Even that prestigious status was enhanced 3 years later, when he became chairman of the Council of Ministers, succeeding Nikolai Bulganin. With that, he became the most powerful man in the country: as chairman of the Council of Ministers, he was head of the government; and, as first secretary of the Soviet Communist party's Central Committee, he was head of the party.

Instead of emulating Stalin by becoming a dictator, Khrushchev encouraged the policy of de-Stalinization, which the government had been following since 1953, for the purpose of ending the worst practices of the Stalin dictatorship. Although the Soviet Union under Khrushchev continued to be a one-party totalitarian state, its citizens enjoyed conditions more favourable than had been possible under Stalin. The standard of living rose, intellectual and artistic life became somewhat freer, and the authority of the political police was reduced. In addition, relations with the outside world were generally improved, and Soviet prestige rose.

Khrushchev's fortunes eventually began to take a downward turn, however. Some of his ambitious economic projects failed; his handling of foreign affairs resulted in a number of setbacks; and de-Stalinization produced discord in the Communist ranks of other countries. These developments caused concern among party leaders in the U.S.S.R., many of them already fearful that Khrushchev might be planning to extend his power. In October 1964, while Khrushchev was away from Moscow, they united in an effort whereby they managed to deprive him of his office and require his retirement. He died on Sept. 11, 1971, in Moscow.


Nikita Khrushchev rose from obscurity into Stalin's inner circle, unexpectedly triumphed in the battle to succeed Stalin, equally unexpectedly attacked Stalin and embarked on a program of de-Stalinization, and was suddenly ousted from power after his reforms in internal and foreign policy proved erratic and ineffective.

Khrushchev was born in the poor southern Russian village of Kalinovka, and his childhood there profoundly shaped his character and his self-image. His parents dreamed of owning land and a horse but achieved neither goal. His father, who later worked in the mines of Yuzovka in the Donbas, was a failure in the eyes of Khrushchev's mother, a strong-willed woman who invested her hopes in her son.

In 1908 Khrushchev's family moved to Yuzovka. By 1914 he had become a skilled, highly paid metalworker, had married an educated woman from a fairly prosperous family, and dreamed of becoming an engineer or industrial manager. Ironically, the Russian Revolution "distracted" him into a political career that culminated in supreme power in the Kremlin.

Between 1917 and 1929, Khrushchev's path led him from a minor position on the periphery of the revolution to a role as an up-and-coming apparatchik in the Ukrainian Communist party. Along the way he served as a political commissar in the Red Army during the Russian civil war, assistant director for political affairs of a mine, party cell leader of a technical college in whose adult education division he briefly continued his education, party secretary of a district near Stalino (formerly Yuzovka), and head of the Ukrainian Central Committee's organization department.

In 1929 Khrushchev enrolled in the Stalin Industrial Academy in Moscow. Over the next nine years his career rocketed upward: party leader of the academy in 1930; party boss of two of Moscow's leading boroughs in 1931; second secretary of the Moscow city party organization itself in 1932; city party leader in 1934; party chief of Moscow Province, additionally, in 1935; candidate-member of the party Central Committee in 1934; and party leader of Ukraine in 1938. He was powerful enough not only to have superintended the rebuilding of Moscow, but to have been complicit in the Great Terror that Stalin unleashed, particularly in the Moscow purge of men who worked for Khrushchev and of whose innocence he must have been convinced.

Between 1938 and 1941, Khrushchev was Stalin's viceroy in Ukraine. During these years, he grew more independent of Stalin while at the same time serving Stalin ever more effectively. Even as he developed doubts about the purges, Khrushchev grew more dedicated to the cause of socialism and proud of his own service to it, particularly of conquering Western Ukrainian lands and uniting them with the rest of Ukraine as part of Stalin's 1939 deal with Hitler.

Khrushchev's role in World War II blended triumph and tragedy. A political commissar on several key fronts, he was involved in, although not primarily responsible for, great victories at Stalin-grad and Kursk. But he also contributed to disastrous defeats at Kiev and Kharkov by helping to convince Stalin that the victories the dictator sought were possible when in fact they proved not to be. After the war in Ukraine, where Khrushchev remained until 1949, his record continued to be contradictory: on the one hand, directing the rebuilding of the Ukrainian economy, and attempting to pry aid out of the Kremlin when Stalinist policies led to famine in 1946; on the other hand, acting as the driving force in a brutal, bloody war against the Ukrainian independence movement in Western Ukraine.

In 1949 Stalin called Khrushchev back to Moscow as a counterweight to Georgy Malenkov and Lavrenti Beria in the Kremlin. For the next four years, Khrushchev seemed the least likely of Stalin's men to succeed him. Yet, when Stalin died on March 5, 1953, Khrushchev moved quickly to do so. After leading a conspiracy to oust Beria in June 1953, he demoted Malenkov and then Vyacheslav Molotov in 1955.

By the beginning of 1956, Khrushchev was the first among equals in the ruling Presidium. Yet a mere year and half later, he was nearly ousted in an attempted Kremlin coup. His near-defeat resulted from a variety of factors, of which the most important were the consequences of Khrushchev's Secret Speech attacking Stalin at the Twentieth Party Congress in February 1956. This speech, the content of which became widely known, sparked turmoil in the USSR, a political upheaval in Poland, and a revolution in Hungary, which Soviet troops crushed in November 1956. Khrushchev's aims in unmasking Stalin ranged from compromising Stalinist colleagues to expiating his own sins. The result of the speech, however, was to begin the process of undermining the Soviet system while at the same time undermining himself.

Khrushchev's opponents, primarily Malenkov, Molotov, and Lazar Kaganovich, took advantage of the disarray to try to oust him in June 1957. With their defeat, he might have been expected to intensify his anti-Stalin campaign. Instead, his policies proved contradictory, as if the tumultuous consequences of the Secret Speech had taught Khrushchev that his own authority depended on Stalin's not being totally discredited.

Even before Khrushchev was fully in charge, improving Soviet agriculture had been perhaps his highest priority. In 1953 he had endorsed long-needed reforms designed to increase incentives: a reduction in taxes, an increase in procurement prices paid by the state for obligatory collective farm deliveries, and encouragement of individual peasant plots, which produced much of the nation's vegetables and milk. By 1954, however, he was pushing an ill-conceived crash program to develop the so-called Virgin Lands of western Siberia and Kazakhstan as a quick way to increase overall output. Another example of Khrushchev's impulsiveness was his wildly unrealistic 1957 pledge to overtake the United States in the per capita output of meat, butter, and milk in only a few years, a promise that counted on a radical expansion of corn-growing even in regions where that ultimately proved impossible to sustain.

That all these policies failed to set Soviet agriculture on the path to sustained growth was visible in the disappointing harvests of 1960 and 1962. These setbacks led Khrushchev to raise retail prices for meat and poultry products in May 1962, breaking with popular expectations. The move triggered riots, including those in Novocherkassk, where nearly twenty-five people were killed by troops brought in to quell the disturbances. Khrushchev's next would-be panacea was his November 1962 proposal to divide the Communist Party itself into agricultural and industrial wings, a move that alienated party officials while failing to improve the harvest, which was so bad in 1963 that Moscow was forced to buy wheat overseas, including from the United States.

The party split was the latest in a series of reorganizations that characterized Khrushchev's approach to economic administration. In 1957 he replaced many of the central Moscow ministries that had been running the economy with regional "councils of the national economy," a change that alienated the former central ministers who were forced to relocate to the provinces.

Housing and school reform were also on Khrushchev's agenda. To address the dreadful urban housing shortage bequeathed by Stalin, Khrushchev encouraged rapid, assembly-line construction of standardized, prefabricated five-story apartment houses, which proved to be a quick fix, but not a long-term solution. Khrushchev's idea of school reform was to add a year to the basic ten-year program, to be partly devoted to learning a manual trade at a local factory or farm, an idea that reflected his own training but met widespread resistance from parents, teachers, and factory and farm directors loath to take on new teenage charges.

The Thaw in Soviet culture began before Khrushchev's Secret Speech but gained momentum from it. The cultural and scientific intelligentsia was a natural constituency for a reformer like Khrushchev, but he and his Kremlin colleagues feared the Thaw might become a flood. His inconsistent actions alienated all elements of the intelligentsia while deepening Khrushchev's own love-hate feelings toward writers and artists. On the one hand, he authorized the 1957 World Youth Festival, for which thousands of young people from around the world flooded into Moscow. On the other hand, he encouraged the fierce campaign against Boris Pasternak after the poet and author of Dr. Zhivago was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1958. The Twenty-second Party Congress in October 1961, which was marked by an eruption of anti-Stalinist rhetoric, seemed to recommit Khrushchev to an alliance with liberal intellectuals, especially when followed by the decision to authorize publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's novel about the Gulag, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and Yevgeny Yevtushenko's poem "The Heirs of Stalin." But after the Cuban missile crisis ended in defeat, Khrushchev turned to chastising and browbeating the liberal intelligentsia at a series of ugly confrontations in the winter of 1962 and 1963.

As little as his minimal education prepared him to run the internal affairs of a vast, transcontinental empire, it prepared him even less for foreign policy. For the first fifty years of his life he had little exposure to the outside world and almost none to the great powers, and after Stalin's death, he initially remained on the foreign policy sidelines. Even before defeating the Anti-Party Group, however, he began to direct Soviet foreign relations, and afterward it was almost entirely his to command. Stalin's legacy in foreign affairs was abysmal: When he died, the West was mobilizing against Moscow, and even allies (in Eastern Europe and China) and neutrals had been alienated. All Stalin's heirs sought to address these problems, but Khrushchev did so most boldly and energetically.

To China Khrushchev offered extensive economic and technical assistance of the sort for which Stalin had driven a hard bargain, along with benevolent tutelage that he assumed Mao would appreciate. Initially the Chinese were pleased, but Khrushchev's failure to consult them before denouncing Stalin in 1956, his fumbling attempts to cope with the Polish and Hungarian turmoil of the same year, and his requests for military concessions in 1958 led to two acrimonious summit meetings with Mao (in August 1958 and September 1959), after which he precipitously withdrew Soviet technical experts from China in 1960. The result was an open, apparently irrevocable Sino-Soviet split.

Khrushchev tried to bring Yugoslavia back into the Soviet bloc, the better to tie the Communist camp together by substituting tolerance of diversity and domestic autonomy for Stalinist terror. Khrushchev's trip to Belgrade in May 1955, undertaken against the opposition of Molotov, gave him a stake in obtaining Yugoslav President Tito's cooperation. But if Tito, too, was eager for reconciliation, it was on his own terms, which Khrushchev could not entirely accept. As with China, therefore, Khrushchev's embrace of a would-be Communist ally ended not in new harmony but in new stresses and strains.

Whereas Stalin had mostly ignored Third World countries, since he had little interest in what he could not control, Khrushchev set out to woo them as a way of undermining "Western imperialism." In 1955 he and Prime Minister Nikolai Bulganin traveled to India, Burma, and Afghanistan. In 1960 he returned to these three countries and visited Indonesia as well. He backed the radical president of the Congo, Patrice Lumumba, and reached out to support Fidel Castro in Cuba. Yet, despite these and other moves, Khrushchev also tried to ease Cold War tensions with the West, and particularly with his main capitalist rival, the United States. As Khrushchev saw it, he had opened up the USSR to Western influences, abandoned the Stalinist notion that world war was inevitable, made deep unilateral cuts in Soviet armed forces, pulled Soviet troops out of Austria and Finland, and encouraged reform in Eastern Europe.

The Berlin ultimatum that Khrushchev issued in November 1958 - that if the West didn't recognize East Germany, Moscow would give the German Communists control over access to West Berlin, thus abrogating Western rights stipulated in postwar Potsdam accords - was designed not only to ensure the survival of the beleaguered German Democratic Republic, but to force the Western allies into negotiations on a broad range of issues. And at first the strategy worked. It secured Khrushchev an invitation to the United States in September 1959, the first time a Soviet leader had visited the United States, after which a four-power summit was scheduled for Paris in May 1960. But in the end, Khrushchev's talks with Eisenhower produced little progress, the Paris summit collapsed when an American U-2 spy flight was shot down on May 1, 1960, and his Vienna summit meeting with President John F. Kennedy in June 1961 produced no progress either. Instead of a German agreement, he had to settle for the Berlin Wall which was constructed in August 1961.

By deploying nuclear missiles in Cuba in October 1962, Khrushchev aimed to protect Fidel Castro from an American invasion, to rectify the strategic nuclear imbalance, which had swung in America's favor, and just possibly to prepare the way for one last diplomatic offensive on Berlin. After he was forced ignominiously to remove those missiles, not only was Khrushchev's foreign policy momentum spent, but his domestic authority began to unravel. With so many of his domestic and foreign policies at dead ends, with diverse groups ranging from the military to the intelligentsia alienated, and with his own energy and confidence running down, the way was open for his colleagues, most of them his own appointees but by now disillusioned with him, to conspire against him. In October 1964, in contrast to 1957, the plotters prepared carefully and well. Led by Leonid Brezhnev, they confronted him with a united opposition in the Presidium and the Central Committee, and forced him to resign on grounds of age and health.

From 1964 to 1971 Khrushchev lived under de facto house arrest outside Moscow. Almost entirely isolated, he at first became ill and depressed. Later, he mustered the energy and determination to dictate his memoirs; the first ever by a Soviet leader, they also served as a harbinger of glasnost to come under Mikhail Gorbachev. Called in by party authorities to account for the Western publication of his memoirs, Khrushchev revealed the depth not only of his anger at his colleagues-turned-tormentors, but his deep sense of guilt at his complicity in Stalin's crimes. By the very end of his life, to judge by a Kremlin doctor's recollections, he was even losing faith in the cause of socialism.

After his death, Khrushchev became a "non-person" in the USSR, his name suppressed by his successors and ignored by most Soviet citizens until the late 1980s, when his record received a burst of attention in connection with Gorbachev's new round of reform. Khrushchev's legacy, like his life, is remarkably mixed. Perhaps his most long-lasting bequest is the way his efforts at de-Stalinization, awkward and erratic though they were, prepared the ground for the reform and then the collapse of the Soviet Union.











This web page was last updated on: 11 December, 2008