Nikita Khrushchev

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Nikita Khrushchev in Berlin, 1963

Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchyov (surname commonly romanized as Khrushchev) (April 17, 1894 – September 11, 1971) assumed leadership of the Soviet Union during the period following the death of Josef Stalin in 1953. Khrushchev served as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1953 to 1964, and as Chairman of the Council of Ministers from 1958 to 1964. Nikita Khrushchev was removed from from power by Party leadership, in 1964, and was initially replaced by a troika consisting of Alexey Kosygin who assumed the role of Soviet Premier, Leonid Brezhnev who served as Party Secretary, and Anastas Mikoyan who served as Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. Brezhnev eventually arose to assume the central role among the three and, under Brezhnev's rule, the Soviet expanded its sphere of influence to include much of Southeast Asia, Africa, parts of Central America and the Caribbean. Until his death, in 1971, Khrushchev was closely monitored by the government.

Khrushchev is remembered for his rejection of the “personality cult” that Stalin had fostered during his thirty year rule. He is less remembered for his revival of a campaign to suppress all remnant religious institutions in the Soviet Union. He also supported the invasion and crackdown on Hungary in 1956, the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 and the deployment of Soviet weapons in Cuba by 1962.

In this respect, Khrushchev is something of an enigma. In terms of his foreign policy and his position on religion and on Marxist-Leninist doctrine, he was clearly a hardliner. However, he was a reformer in the sense that, although he did not allow for criticism of Marxism-Leninism, he did allow for criticism of Stalin and permitted some anti-Stalinist literature to be disseminated in Soviet society. Khrushchev did hope to raise the Soviet citizens' standard of living so that they could benefit from the transference of the ownership of "the means of production" to the State. His De-Stalinization policies reduced the powers of the secret police and opened up new freedoms in culture and in the academy. It has been suggested that Khrushchev's efforts in these areas informed and provided a context for the reformist policies of Mikhail Gorbachev. Khrushchev's downfall largely resulted from the multifaceted levels of domestic and international destablization that occurred during his tenure in office. Without Khrushchev's being removed from office, it is unlikely that the Soviet Union could have experienced the revival and the growth of its sphere of influence that occurred during the Brezhnev era.

Early life

Nikita Khrushchev was born in the village of Kalinovka, Dmitriyev Uyezd, Kursk Guberniya, Russian Empire, now occupied by the present-day Kursk Oblast in Russia. His father was the peasant Sergei Nicanorovich Khrushchev. In 1908, his family moved to Yuzovka (modern-day Donetsk), Ukraine. Although he was apparently highly intelligent, he only received approximately two years of education as a child and probably only became fully literate in his late 1920s or early 1930s.

Khrushchev and his first wife Euphrasinia (Yefrosinia) in 1916

He worked as a joiner in various factories and mines. During World War I, Khrushchev became involved in trade union activities and, after the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, he fought in the Red Army. He became a Party member, in 1918, and worked at various management and party positions in Donbass and Kiev.

Khrushchev's first wife, Euphrasinia (Yefrosinia), died in 1921 of hunger and exhaustion during the famine following the Russian Civil War; she had borne a son, Leonid, and a daughter, Julia. His second wife was Nina Petrovna Kukharchuk, whom he married in 1924; she bore him a son, Sergei, and two daughters, Rada and Lena. Nina died in 1984.

In 1931, Khrushchev was transferred to Moscow and in 1935, he became First Secretary of the Moscow City Committee (Moscow Gorkom) of VKP(b). In 1938, he became the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Ukrainian Communist Party.

Beginning in 1934, Khrushchev was a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and he was a member of Politburo from 1939.

Great Patriotic War

Khrushchev (left) at the military council of Stalingrad Front.

During the Great Patriotic War (the Eastern Front of World War II, as known in Russia and several other countries), Khrushchev served as a political officer (zampolit) with the equivalent rank of Lieutenant General.

In the months following the German invasion in 1941, Khrushchev, as a local party leader, was coordinating the defense of Ukraine, but was dismissed and recalled to Moscow after surrendering Kiev. Later, he was a political commissar at the Battle of Stalingrad and was the senior political officer in the south of the Soviet Union throughout the war time period—at Kursk, entering Kiev on liberation, and played a key role in the suppression of the Bandera nationalists of the Ukrainian Nationalist Organization, who had earlier allied with the Nazis before fighting them in the Western Ukraine.

Rise to power

After Stalin's death in March 1953, there was a power struggle between different factions within the party. Initially Lavrenty Beria, key architect of Stalin's repression campaigns, controlled much of the political realm and he merged the Ministry of Internal Affairs and state security. Fearing that Beria would eventually eliminate them as he had so many others, Georgy Malenkov, Lazar Kaganovich, Vyacheslav Molotov, Nikolai Bulganin, and others united under Khrushchev to denounce Beria and remove him from power. Beria was imprisoned and sentenced to death. His execution took place in December 1953.

Georgy Malenkov was the heir apparent. Khrushchev was not nearly as powerful as he would eventually become, even after his promotion following the removal of Beria. Few of the top members of the Central Committee saw the ambition lurking within him. Becoming party leader on September 7 of that year, and eventually rising above his rivals, Khrushchev's leadership marked a crucial transition for the Soviet Union. He advocated a reform (based on his understanding of Marxism-Leninism). Khrushchev shocked delegates of the 20th Party Congress on February 23, 1956, by making his famous Secret Speech denouncing the "cult of personality" that surrounded Stalin (although he himself had no small part in cultivating it) and accusing Stalin of the crimes committed during the Great Purges. This denunciation effectively alienated Khrushchev from the more conservative elements of the party and it also resulted in a deepening wedge between the Soviet Union and China that led to the Sino-Soviet split of 1960. However, he managed to prevent what he referred to as an Anti-Party Group that attempted to oust him from the party leadership in 1957.

In 1958, Khrushchev replaced Bulganin as prime minister and established himself as the clear leader of both the Soviet state and Communist party. He became Premier of the Soviet Union on March 27, 1958. In this role, Khrushchev promoted reform of the Soviet system and began to place an emphasis on the production of consumer goods rather than on heavy industry.

In 1959, during Richard Nixon's journey to the Soviet Union, Khrushchev took part in what was later known as the Kitchen Debate where Nixon touted the superiority of American products over Soviet products. Khrushchev reciprocated the visit that September, when he spent 13 days in the United States. He is said to have shifted his views toward the West because of this experience. This led him to begin to see the West as a rival instead of as an evil entity. This position further alienated Mao Zedong. As the Chinese Cultural Revolution proceeded, there was no worse insult than to be scorned for being a "Chinese Khrushchev," the equivalent of an ideological turncoat. The Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China would later be involved in their own "Cold War" triggered by the Sino-Soviet Split in 1960.

In 1961, Khrushchev approved plans proposed by East German leader Walter Ulbricht to build the Berlin Wall, thereby reinforcing the Cold War division of Germany and wider Europe. Although Khrushchev attacked Stalin, he supported hard line control of the Warsaw Pact countries. He also did not hesitate to challenge the United States by strengthening ties in Cuba and deploying nuclear weapons there.

Khrushchev's personality

Khrushchev was regarded by his political enemies in the Soviet Union as boorish and overbearing, with a reputation for interrupting speakers to insult them. The Politburo accused him once of “hare-brained scheming,” referring to his erratic policies. He regularly humiliated the Soviet nomenklatura, or ruling elite, with his political and military blunders. He once branded Mao, who was at odds with Khrushchev because of the denunciation of Stalin at the 1956 Congress, an "old boot." In Mandarin, the word "boot" is regularly used to describe a prostitute or immoral woman. The Soviet leader also famously condemned his Bulgarian counterpart, making several xenophobic comments about the Bulgarian people as well.

Khrushchev's blunders were partially the result of his limited formal education. Although intelligent, as his political enemies admitted after he had defeated them, and certainly cunning, he lacked knowledge and understanding of the world outside of his direct experience and so would often prove easy to manipulate for scientific hucksters that knew how to appeal to his vanity and prejudices. For example, he was a supporter of Trofim Lysenko even after the Stalin years and became convinced that the Soviet Union's agricultural crises could be solved through the planting of maize (corn) on the same scale as the United States, failing to realize that the differences in climate and soil made this inadvisable.

Did you know?
Khrushchev often interrupted speakers, including at the United Nations, where he famously banged his shoe on the desk in anger at the comments of the Filipino delegate

Khrushchev repeatedly disrupted the proceedings in the United Nations General Assembly in September-October 1960 by pounding his fists on the desk and shouting in Russian. On September 29, 1960, Khrushchev twice interrupted a speech by British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan by shouting out and pounding his desk. The unflappable Macmillan famously commented over his shoulder to Frederick Boland (Ireland), the Assembly President, that if Mr. Khrushchev wished to continue, he would like a translation.

At the United Nations two weeks later, in one of the most surreal moments in Cold War history, the premier waved his shoe and banged it on his desk, adding to the lengthening list of antics with which he had been nettling the General Assembly. During a debate over a Russian resolution decrying colonialism, he was infuriated by a statement, expressed from the rostrum by Lorenzo Sumulong. The Filipino delegate had charged the Soviets with employing a double standard, pointing to their domination of Eastern Europe as an example of the very type of colonialism their resolution criticized. The enraged Khrushchev accused Mr. Sumulong of being "Холуй и ставленник империализма" (kholuj i stavlennik imperializma), which was translated as "a jerk, a stooge, and a lackey of imperialism." Mr. Khrushchev then picked up his right shoe, stood up, and banged it on the desk. The chaotic scene finally ended when General Assembly President Frederick Boland broke his gavel calling the meeting to order, but not before the image of Khrushchev as a hotheaded buffoon was indelibly etched into America’s collective memory. At another occasion, Khrushchev said in reference to capitalism, "Мы вас похороним!," translated to "We will bury you!" This phrase, ambiguous both in the English language and in the Russian language, was interpreted in several ways.

Forced retirement

Khrushchev's rivals in the party deposed him at a Central Committee meeting on October 14, 1964. His removal was largely prompted by his erratic and cantankerous behavior, which was regarded by the party as a tremendous embarrassment on the international stage. The Communist Party subsequently accused Khrushchev of making political mistakes, such as mishandling the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and disorganizing the Soviet economy, especially in the agricultural sector.

Following his ousting, Khrushchev spent seven years under house arrest. He died at his home in Moscow on September 11, 1971, and is interred in the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow.

Key political actions

  • In his On the Personality Cult and its Consequences, Krushchev denounced Stalin for his personality cult, and his regime for "violation of Leninist norms of legality," marking the onset of the Khrushchev Thaw.
  • Dissolved the Cominform organization and reconciled with Josip Broz Tito, which ended the Informbiro period in the history of Yugoslavia.
  • Established the Warsaw Pact in 1955, in response to the formation of NATO.
  • Ordered the 1956 Soviet military intervention in Hungary.
  • Ceded Crimea from the Russian SFSR to the Ukrainian SSR in 1955.
  • Provided support for Egypt against the West during the 1956 Suez Crisis.
  • Promoted the doctrine of "Peaceful co-existence" in the foreign policy, accompanied by the slogan "To catch up and overtake the West" in internal policy.
  • Triggered Sino-Soviet Split by his denouncing Stalin in 1956, by agreeing to talks with the U.S. and by refusing to support the Chinese nuclear program.
  • Initiated the Soviet space program that launched Sputnik I and Yuri Gagarin, getting a head start in the space race.
  • Participated in negotiations with U.S. President John F. Kennedy for a joint moon program—negotiations that ended when Kennedy was assassinated in 1963.
  • Canceled a summit meeting over the Gary Powers U-2 incident.
  • Met with Richard Nixon in Iowa.
  • Initiated the deployment of nuclear missiles in Cuba, which led to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
  • Approved East Germany's construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, after the West ignored his ultimatum that West Berlin be incorporated into a neutral, demilitarized "free city."
  • Removed nuclear warheads from Cuba in 1962 based on agreement that the United States would remove its nuclear warheads from Turkey and would not invade Cuba.

Key economic actions

  • Induced the second wave of the reclamation of virgin and abandoned lands.
  • Introduced the sovnarkhozes, (Councils of People's Economy), regional organizations in an attempt to combat the centralization and departmentalism of the ministries.
  • Initiated a reorganization of agriculture, with preference given to sovkhozes (state farms), including the conversion of kolkhozes into sovkhozes and the introduction of maize (earning him the sobriquet kukuruznik, "the maize enthusiast").
  • Coped with housing crisis by quickly building millions of apartments according to simplified floor plans, dubbed khrushchovkas.
  • Created a minimum wage in 1956.
  • Redenominated of the ruble 10:1 in 1961.


Khrushchev sculpture at Nixon Library.

On the positive side, Khrushchev was admired for his efficiency and for maintaining an economy which, during the 1950s and 1960s, had growth rates higher than most Western countries, contrasting with the stagnation begun by his successors. He is also renowned for his liberalization policies, whose results began with the widespread exoneration of political sentences.

With Khrushchev's amnesty program, former political prisoners and their surviving relatives could now live a normal life without the infamous "wolf ticket."

His policies also increased the importance of the consumer, since Khrushchev himself placed more resources in the production of consumer goods and housing instead of heavy industry, precipitating a rapid rise in living standards.

The arts also benefited from this environment of liberalization, where works like Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich created an attitude of dissent that would escalate during the subsequent Brezhnev-Kosygin era.

He also allowed Eastern Europe to have some freedom of action in their domestic and external affairs without the intervention of the Soviet Union.

His De-Stalinization caused a huge impact on young Communists of the day. Khrushchev encouraged more liberal communist leaders to replace hard-line Stalinists throughout the Eastern bloc. Alexander Dubček, who became the leader of Czechoslovakia in January 1968, accelerated the process of liberalization in his own country with his Prague Spring program. Mikhail Gorbachev, who became the Soviet Union's leader in 1985, was inspired by it and it became evident in his policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (reconstruction). Khrushchev is sometimes cited as "the last great reformer" among Soviet leaders before Gorbachev.

On the negative side, he was criticized for his ruthless crackdown of the 1956 revolution in Hungary, despite the fact that he and Georgy Zhukov were pushing against intervention up until the declaration of withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact, and also for encouraging the East German authorities to set up the notorious Berlin Wall in August 1961. He also had very poor diplomatic skills, giving him the reputation of being a rude, uncivilized peasant in the West and as an irresponsible clown in his own country. He had also renewed persecutions against the Russian Orthodox Church, publicly promising that by 1980 "I will show you the last priest!" He also made unrealistic predictions on when the ideal communist society would emerge, predicting 1980. This is one of the factors that led his successors to add a new stage between socialism and communism, dubbed "developed socialism," which Soviet leaders predicted could go on for many years before an idyllic communist society could emerge.

His methods of administration, although efficient, were also known to be erratic since they threatened to disband a large number of Stalinist-era agencies. He made a dangerous gamble in 1962, over Cuba, which almost made a Third World War inevitable. Agriculture barely kept up with population growth, as bad harvests mixed with good ones, culminating with a disastrous one in 1963 that was triggered by bad weather. All this damaged his prestige after 1962, and was enough for the Central Committee, Khrushchev's critical base for support, to take action against him. They used his right-hand man Leonid Brezhnev to lead the bloodless coup.

Due to the results of his policies, as well as the increasingly regressive attitudes of his successors, he became more popular after he gave up power, which led many dissidents to view his era with nostalgia as his successors began discrediting or slowing down his reforms.

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