Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971) was leader of the Soviet Union after the death of Joseph Stalin. Lasting a little over a decade, his leadership spanned a crucial phase of the Cold War.
Khrushchev was born in 1894 to a peasant family in 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, also becoming 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, caused by the deprivation of the Civil War. True to his communist principles, Khrushchev 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 were noticed by leading Bolsheviks. He ascended quickly through the ranks of the party, in part because of his loyalty to Joseph Stalin. This loyalty extended to his direct involvement in Stalin’s purges of the Communist Party in the 1930s.
During the late 1930s, Khrushchev served as party secretary in Moscow, where he oversaw construction of the capital’s metro [train] system. In 1938 he was appointed party chief in Ukraine, and during World War II he served on the Eastern Front and in Stalingrad as a party commissar.
In 1949, Khrushchev was recalled to Moscow by Stalin, who feared a move against him and wanted to surround himself with acolytes. When Stalin died in 1953 Khrushchev became a contender for the Soviet leadership, though he first had to stave off challenges from others, including Stalin’s premier Georgy Malenkov and secret police chief Lavrentiy Beria.
It took Khrushchev some time to consolidate his power. By early 1956, he was the dominant figure in the Soviet government, established enough to deliver his famous ‘Secret Speech‘ denouncing the brutal methods and “abuse of power” used by Stalin.
Domestically, Khrushchev was considered something of a liberal reformer, at least in comparison to Stalin. Coming from peasant stock, Khrushchev had a strong interest in agriculture. He authorised important reforms in 1953-54, opening up new land in the east for farming. These initiatives increased food production, though the results were not sustained. Khrushchev also took a personal interest in Russia’s space program, allowed greater freedom in arts and culture, and relaxed (but did not abolish) state censorship.
On the international front, Khrushchev’s relationships with the US and the West were more amicable at first, though this was shattered by his ranting speeches and ultimatums on Berlin in the late 1950s. In 1961, Khrushchev attempted to intimidate the incoming American president, John F Kennedy, at a summit in Vienna. The following year he authorised the installation of Soviet missile launchers in Cuba and engaged in brinkmanship with Kennedy and the US, culminating in the Cuban missile crisis. Khrushchev’s handling of the Cuban crisis prevented war, however, hardliners in the Soviet government and military perceived it as a back down and were critical of his judgement.
Khrushchev’s liberal economic reforms also began to fail in the early 1960s, further discrediting his leadership. He was forced out of power in October 1964, retired to his Moscow dacha and took no further part in Soviet politics. When Khrushchev died in 1971, he was not even given the honour of a state funeral.