Nikita Khrushchev was born in 1894 to a peasant family in the Ukraine. As a child he remained in the village tending livestock for most of the year, though in the winter he was able to attend an elementary school (a rarity for peasant children before the Russian Revolution). Shortly before World War I Khrushchev took on a job as a pipe fitter but was also involved in trade unions. In 1917 he was elected chairman of a village soviet (council) in his hometown of Kalinovka, after which he fought for the Red Army during the Russian Civil War (1918-21). His first wife died from typhus during the deprivation of the Civil War, Khrushchev remaining so true to his communist principles that he insisted her coffin be hauled over a fence into the graveyard rather than pass through the church. After the Civil War Khrushchev’s loyalty and his ability as an organiser was noticed by leading Bolsheviks and he began to ascend through party ranks.
Stalin took Khrushchev under his wing in the early 1930s, with records showing Khrushchev as a regular attendant at high-level meetings and at Stalin’s private residence for dinners. Khrushchev admired the dictator, though like other party members he was also intimidated by and wary of Stalin. Khrushchev later supported – and to a limited extent was involved in – Stalin’s murderous purges during the mid-1930s. He became party leader in the Ukraine and then, in 1939, a member of the Soviet Politburo (ministry). Khrushchev served during the war with Nazi Germany as a party commissar; like many Russians of his age he lost a son during this conflict. He returned to the Ukraine after the war where he oversaw the continued collectivisation of farms. In 1949 Khrushchev was recalled to Moscow, probably because Stalin, fearing a conspiracy against his leadership, wanted to surround himself with loyal acolytes. After Stalin’s death in 1953, Khrushchev engaged in a power struggle with other members of the Politburo. By 1955 he had become the most powerful figure in the Soviet government, dispensing with secret police head Lavrenti Beria and elbowing out Stalin’s successor Georgy Malenkov.
Arguably Khrushchev’s best-known domestic act was his 1956 speech in which he denounced many aspects of the Stalinist era and urged a return to the original principles of Lenin. Khrushchev attacked the personality cult employed by Stalin, the absence of collective decision-making, the attacks on leading Bolsheviks, the victimisation of nationalist groups and the main conspiracies that motivated Stalin. Above all, he condemned Stalin’s systematic use of murder and intimidation against those who disagreed with his policies:
We have to consider seriously and analyze correctly [the crimes of the Stalin era] in order that we may prevent any possibility of a repetition in any form… Stalin acted not through persuasion, explanation, and patient cooperation with people, but by imposing his concepts and demanding absolute submission to his opinion. Whoever opposed this concept or tried to prove his viewpoint … was doomed to removal from the leading collective and to subsequent moral and physical annihilation. This was especially true during the period following the XVIIth Party Congress , when many prominent Party leaders and rank-and-file Party workers, honest and dedicated to the cause of Communism, fell victim to Stalin’s despotism … Stalin originated the concept ‘enemy of the people’. This term made possible the usage of the most cruel repression, violating all norms of revolutionary legality, against anyone who in any way disagreed with Stalin.
Though the contents of this speech were delivered in closed session to a party congress and were not released until after the Cold War, news of Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin soon circulated around Russia, the Soviet bloc and beyond. It caused a sensation (many party members committed suicide after hearing the speech) and marked the beginning of relaxed policies in the USSR. For a brief period it seemed as though Khrushchev might be a leader in whom the West could invest more trust. But within months Soviet forces had invaded Hungary and Khrushchev had delivered his famous ‘we will bury you’ speech to foreign ambassadors, restoring Cold War tensions to previous levels.
Khrushchev and the West
Khrushchev’s public image in the West and his relationship with Western politicians was better than that of Stalin – at least at first. The ‘kitchen debate’ exposed him to American audiences as a belligerent defender of communism – but he was also a man with some humour and was at least prepared to meet and communicate. Khrushchev accepted vice-president Richard Nixon’s invitation to visit the United States, becoming the first Soviet leader to do so in late 1959. Khrushchev spent two weeks in America, touring many major cities and some rural areas; he was pursued by a media circus eager to capture a controversial statement from the Soviet leader, though he rarely indulged them. US-Soviet relations soured again in 1960 following the U-2 spy plane crisis. Later that year Khrushchev gave a ranting speech to the United Nations general assembly about US aggression, taking off his shoe and pounding it against the lectern. The Western media, already cultivating an image of Khrushchev as an unrestrained bully who might start a war in a fit of bad temper, seized upon this incident.
Khrushchev’s leadership of the USSR would last another four years, during which time he was confronted with new American leadership and new crises. Khrushchev believed newly elected US president John F. Kennedy was too young and weak to handle confrontation – yet he was proved wrong by Kennedy’s actions during the 1961 Berlin crisis and the Cuban missile crisis the following year. Relations between the two powers again eased in 1963-64, during which time Khrushchev’s main problem was at home in Moscow. Soviet hardliners, disappointed with Khrushchev’s inability to gain ground on an inexperienced president like Kennedy, were mobilising to oust him from power. Khrushchev spent most of 1964 out of Moscow, which gave his opponents ample opportunity to organise. In October 1964 Khrushchev was summoned to a meeting with members of the Politburo and persuaded to retire from office. Khrushchev, by now 70 years of age and fatigued from a decade of leadership, did not put up a fight. He was given a house, a dacha (holiday home) and a modest state pension, spending the final years of his life in seclusion, drafting his memoirs. After Khrushchev’s death in 1971 the men who had replaced him refused the family’s request for a state funeral and burial behind the Kremlin wall.
1. Nikita Khrushchev, a veteran of Russia’s revolutions and World War II, emerged as the successor to Stalin in 1953.
2. He had been one of Stalin’s proteges, however shortly after taking power he denounced Stalin’s tyrannical rule.
3. Khrushchev enjoyed a honeymoon period in the West, soon dispersed by his inflammatory and belligerent rhetoric.
4. He led the USSR through several key Cold War events, such as the U2 spyplane affair and Cuban missile crisis.
5. Khrushchev’s inability to gain the upper hand over the US saw him ousted from the leadership by hardliners in 1964. He went into immediate retirement, taking no further part in Soviet politics.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “Nikita Khrushchev”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date], http://alphahistory.com/coldwar/nikita-khrushchev/.