You know, when I started planning this series of posts, I didn't mean to go hurling myself straight at the Soviet Union. And yet here we are. I start the series with a badass Soviet marksman lady, and now I'm moving right on to a hardass Soviet premier guy. Nikita Khrushchev.
Khrushchev was born in 1894 in Kalinovka, near the Ukraine border. This may or may not explain why he was one of, like, two Russian leaders who even vaguely gave a shit about the Ukrainian people.
After spending his teens as a coal miner, Khrushchev got involved with the communists in 1918, just in time to be involved in the Russian civil war. His first wife, sadly, succumbed to typhus at this time, meaning he had two children to look after alone while fighting for the Bolsheviks. Soon, Khrushchev was rising through the ranks of the party. Let that be a lesson to us all. It's a short leap from being cursed to serve The Man and being The Man. One day, you're mining coal and raising your kids and the next, you're lining up revisionist sympathizers and shooting them in the head (and they might not even deserve it this time).
So, depending on how you look at it, he got in with the wrong crowd, or got dragged into the wrong crowd. He was in the wrong crowd, in any event.
Khrushchev came into the confidence of Joseph Stalin. This was a very precarious position. On the one hand, the great and powerful leader of the USSR recognized and valued his skills as a leader and member of the party. On the other hand, being close to Joseph Stalin was a great way to disappear from the space/time continuum, so efficient was he at disposing of those who fell out of favor.
Compounding on the complexity and peril of Khrushchev's life, Nazi Germany launched Operation Barbarossa in late June, 1941. This was the beginning of the Ostfront of World War II, or, as the Soviets would later call it, the Great Patriotic War. Khrushchev was involved in coordination and planning during the Battle of Stalingrad, which meant he had one of the most important and least fulfilling tasks of the war. During this time, he made good friends with Georgy Zhukov. Rumor has it that Khrushchev accidentally became involved in the then-secret plans for Operation Uranus (A push to encircle and eliminate German units in late 1942) when proposing a counteroffensive of his own.
The Soviet Union's troubles, sadly, did not end with the war. They stopped the Nazis at the cost of putting Eastern Europe under the control of Stalin. The Allies saved the world, but the price for doing so was to split the world in half. In March of 1953, all of creation breathed a thorough, but tentative sigh of relief as Joseph Stalin was declared dead. There are some theories that Stalin was poisoned, but that is the topic of another article. No doubt calling on his experience crushing fascists, Khrushchev crushed a brief coup attempt and was appointed the Premier of the Soviet Union.
Khrushchev's ability to hold the Union together and consolidate it into a true world Superpower surprised the West. The United States did not anticipate such organization and power to come from Stalin's legacy. Meanwhile, that same year, dissidents in an Asian nation called Vietnam began a communist uprising against French occupation. The soviets began lending increasing amounts of support to this movement. The United States, in turn, lent increasing levels of support to the residing government, hoping to halt the advance of communist power and doctrine.
In February of 1956, Khrushchev called a secret meeting of the soviet 20th Congress. In this session, he shocked the Communist community by decrying the legacy of Joseph Stalin. Khrushchev drew upon recent discussion of the dangers of "cults of individualism" within the party. From this, he highlighted that Stalin himself had fostered a powerful cult of personality around himself. With the power granted by this social status, Stalin had engaged in evil, destructive acts that were contrary to the purposes of the Communist party.
Khrushchev's speech began a process of de-Stalinization. Stalin's crimes were made apparent, and his infallible demi-god image was erased. Countless prisoners of the infamous gulags were released, and draconian laws restricting expression and speech were loosened. Of course, the Communist party still asserted absolute dominance of the Soviet Union.
Despite rising tensions between the USSR and the USA, Khrushchev did his part to reach out and became the first Soviet leader to visit the United States.
Khrushchev's relationship with Eisenhower was irreparably damaged in 1960. A Lockheed U-2 Spyplane was downed over Russia. The pilot, Gary Powers, along with equipment and photographs from the plane were recovered.
Eisenhower claimed the plane was an off-course weather surveyor. The Soviets didn't like that, and produced evidence that Powers was alive and in custody, along with equipment from the downed plane which was inappropriate for weather forecasting, but very good at photographing nuclear assets.
The united states would somewhat rebuild Khrushchev's trust after the transition to the Kennedy presidency. But things would never really be okay between the East and West. Especially not with escalating warfare in Vietnam, with each superpower backing their respective interests.
Closer to US soil, in 1961, American operatives utterly failed to ruin the rising Communist government in Cuba. In the wake of that failure rose Fidel Castro. Castro was a mangy, cigar smoking pile of evil, and also super cool and possibly invulnerable to the puny weapons of man. He and Khrushchev had an understanding.
In 1962, American spy planes were once again photographing suspicious Communist activity (all communist activity is suspicious). Their findings were more alarming this time. Soviet freighters were moving cargo to their Cuban allies. This cargo was quickly determined to be nuclear warheads and launch equipment.
In response, the US went on full alert, since someone was moving nukes right off their coast. Cuba was blockaded, and the entire world hit the dirt, prepared for everyone in possession of nuclear weapons to start using them.
Fortunately, neither the United States nor the USSR actually wanted a nuclear war.
Khrushchev and Kennedy talked it out. The US made some minor concessions over in Europe, and Khrushchev withdrew the nuclear weapons from Cuba. The World avoided nuclear war, but to this day, most people agree that the Cuban Missile Crisis was too damn close.
Between 1963 and 1964, Khrushchev's control over the Soviet government began to diminish. When US President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Khrushchev lost a friend and a connection to the West that he could rely on. At the same time, his attempts to revise domestic agricultural policies failed, resulting in shortages and dissent.
Poised to take control was an old guard Soviet, cut from the cloth of Stalin. His name was Leonid Brezhnev, and he had the support of the military, which was enough to fill the gaps in Khrushchev's waning political power. Khrushchev stepped down in October of 1964, and Brezhnev took control.
Brezhnev's power and militaristic leaning rolled back many elements of Khrushchev's de-Stalinization policies. He also continued the escalation in Vietnam, leading to a full-on war between the Communist backed NVA and the US backed South Vietnam, a war that would last another decade.
As for Khrushchev, I think history is still deciding where he sits in the spectrum of heroism and villainy. He participated in a government that was often cruel and oppressive. When he came to control that government, he tried, with limited success, to undo the damage. He reached out to his ideological enemies in the west, and the west reached back, for a brief moment, anyways.
As for my assessment, I'll just say this: Nikita Khrushchev was not a bad man, but he *was* a good Communist.
Main sources for this article were as follows:
"Nikita Khrushchev." Biography.com. Biography.com, n.d. Web. <http://www.biography.com/people/nikita-khrushchev-9364384>.
Khrushchev, Nikita. "Speech to 20th Congress of the C.P.S.U." Marxists.org. Marxists.org, n.d. Web. <https://www.marxists.org/archive/khrushchev/1956/02/24.htm>.