The giant of Soviet brinkmanship

Strobe Talbott, former deputy secretary of State in the Clinton administration, is president of the Brookings Institution. He translated and edited two volumes of Nikita Khrushchev's memoirs in the 1970s.

The collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the extinction of the USSR two years later seemed as sudden as they were spectacular. But those events, in fact, had their origins in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when Nikita Khrushchev ruled the world's last empire. Khrushchev, who had been a protege and henchman of Joseph Stalin's, used the power he inherited from the dictator to proclaim a policy of de-Stalinization and experiment with liberal reforms.

Khrushchev's personal evolution prefigured the transformation of his country -- and of the world -- a quarter of a century later. It took that long for the contradictions that Khrushchev himself personified to be reconciled in favor of a decisive break with Russia's totalitarian past. His own reign was erratic and often bloody. While preaching "peaceful coexistence," he famously threatened to "bury" the capitalist West, and his recklessness in putting missiles in Cuba brought the world close to an all-out nuclear war. Still, the Khrushchev "thaw" gave rise to a youthful, reformist generation known as "the people of the sixties," many of whom spearheaded the peaceful revolution against Soviet power in the 1980s.

Khrushchev has been the subject of a long shelf full of books but never, until now, a comprehensive and authoritative biography. William Taubman, a professor of political science at Amherst College, has filled that gap with a masterpiece of scholarship, investigation and narrative. He has, as his subtitle promises, brought alive Khrushchev and his era. He has also established the salient connections between that momentous story and the drama underway in Russia today.

Khrushchev has been dead more than 30 years, and Taubman's book has been in progress for more than a dozen years. The result is worth waiting for. Every chapter reflects the author's deep knowledge of the Soviet Union. It was an education that began in the '60s, when he was an exchange student at Moscow State University, and it incorporates his numerous trips to the places Khrushchev lived and worked; his cultivation of sources among Khrushchev's family and colleagues; his judicious sifting of the vast literature, Russian and foreign, on those murky years; and, most important, his determination to answer the core question of Khrushchev's career: How was it that a creature of one of the most corrupt and murderous political cultures of all time would attempt a change for the better when he had a chance?

To answer that question, Taubman marshals the resources of the art of biography at its best. In reconstructing a single paradoxical life, he helps us understand better the complexity of the human condition, with its mixture of frailty, ambition, resilience and capacity for growth.

Khrushchev was born into a society in turmoil. He seized early on the opportunity to make his way upward in a system that was as brutalizing as it was brutal. He was sometimes racked by guilt, but more often he sought to justify what he did by convincing himself that he was serving his country, his party, his leader and the ideology that was supposed to embrace all three.

Taubman is unstinting in his portrayal of Khrushchev as the willing instrument of the Terror. In the purge trials of the late '30s, there is Khrushchev, "one of the most voluble cheerleaders for the Stalinist line," exhorting hatred for the enemies in the dock and braying for their execution. But, also in those early years, Taubman finds in Khrushchev's maneuverings occasional flashes of an intuitive independence and a willful spontaneity, an instinct to ask basic questions and a bumptious confidence in his own answers rather than those he's learned by rote. These qualities are uncharacteristic of cogs in the machine; and they may, Taubman suggests, help explain a degree of decency -- or, to use a word that Khrushchev himself favored, "honesty" -- that survived in Khrushchev the Stalinist and allowed him to become the Great de-Stalinizer.

At the same time, Khrushchev's cocky and mercurial nature also contained the germ of his eventual undoing. Even in the early '30s, Taubman details cases in which Khrushchev's "tendency to decide too quickly and to take things to extremes got him into trouble."

Taubman poignantly recounts the strains and deformations of personal and family life at the top of the Soviet system. Khrushchev's second wife, Nina, is often the sympathetic focus of these tales. In order not to arouse suspicions that either she or he was mixing business and professional life, she had to hide her marriage to Khrushchev from her bosses for years. She also made a point of keeping the subject of Stalin from coming up in front of their children so that she would not have to praise him or -- far more dangerous -- say what she really thought about the "meat-grinder" of the purges. She tried to ease the return to society, and to the family, of a relative who was sent to the concentration camps.

Taubman's book is full of evidence that being close to Stalin was often fatal. The dictator's paranoia was part of his management technique. He had a way of liquidating those who worked for him most loyally just to show others who was boss. Khrushchev escaped this fate through a combination of luck and skill. Taubman recounts how Khrushchev once saved his skin by calling Stalin's attention to the accusations of Khrushchev's own enemies. "By boldly raising the subject himself, Khrushchev proved he had nothing to hide from Stalin, who took even small signs of nervousness as indications of guilt."

Khrushchev, along with the rest of Stalin's inner circle, might well have been purged had it not been for the dictator's sudden and still mystery-laden death in 1953. After a brutal and in several cases bloody scramble for succession, Khrushchev came out on top.

Taubman sees Khrushchev's speech to the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956 denouncing Stalin as "the bravest and most reckless thing he ever did. The Soviet regime never fully recovered, and neither did he." Khrushchev embarked on the policy of de-Stalinization in part to discredit his competitors for absolute power, since they were all heavily implicated in the crimes of the dictator. But so was virtually everyone in the vast system and so, of course, was Khrushchev himself. That meant he was assuming a double jeopardy: He was arousing resentment among those who had risen through the system, and, by demolishing the myth of the leader's infallibility, he was laying the basis for a move against him when there was a consensus among his comrades that he had made too many mistakes.

It is in Taubman's account of that epochal year of 1956 that Mikhail S. Gorbachev, then an official of the Communist Youth League, first appears in the book. Gorbachev had the assignment of reporting to rural party organizations on the bombshell that Khrushchev had dropped back in Moscow. He was glad to find that younger and better-educated citizens welcomed Khrushchev's speech. But many others clung to the idea that by massacring his enemies, real and imagined, Stalin had saved both the motherland and the Marxist-Leninist ideal.

Like almost everything about Khrushchev, his speech unmasking Stalin, positive as it was in its essence, had ambiguous and tragic consequences. It sent a shock through Eastern Europe that sparked a spirit of resistance. Shortly after the speech, revolution broke out in Hungary. When Khrushchev sent in the tanks, he became, in the eyes of the world, "the Butcher of Budapest." Thus, his own greatest crime and the ignominy it brought him was, indirectly but unmistakably, a result of his greatest contribution to his country's slow progress toward liberation and the eventual unraveling of Soviet control over Eastern Europe.

In the early '60s, Khrushchev tried to drive another stake through the heart of Stalin by authorizing the publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's masterpiece about the camps, "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" and Yevgeny Yevtushenko's poem "The Heirs of Stalin." Taubman believes Khrushchev would have gone further in that direction if he had not stumbled into the Cuban missile crisis, which marked the beginning of the end of his career.

This and the other confrontations between Khrushchev and his American counterparts -- Dwight D. Eisenhower over the downing of a U-2 spy plane, John F. Kennedy over Berlin as well as Cuba -- are among the most well-plowed fields of history, political science and, for that matter, Hollywood movies (most recently, Kevin Costner's star turn in "Thirteen Days"). But in these chapters too, Taubman brings fresh insight, information and coherence. He puts those crises into the context of his full-textured portrait of Khrushchev -- the gambler who was prepared to play high-stakes poker but not Russian roulette. And he includes some truly wonderful incidents, such as a wild encounter between Khrushchev and Hubert H. Humphrey during a showdown over Berlin ("two more ebullient, not to say manic, interlocutors can hardly be imagined"). At one point, Khrushchev, out of mock courtesy to his guest, drew a circle around Minneapolis on a map and promised to spare that city in the nuclear attack he was threatening to unleash against the U.S.

Taubman's account of the Cuban missile crisis confirms what a close call it was -- and what a fragile concept mutual deterrence was in practice. Khrushchev, having misjudged Kennedy, quickly found himself looking for a way out of the dangerous pass. But events took on a momentum of their own, especially with Fidel Castro urging Khrushchev to consider a preemptive strike against the U.S. Unless the USSR was willing to launch first, Castro argued, the USSR would be on the receiving end of an American bolt-from-the-blue attack like the one that Hitler launched against Stalin in 1941.

Taubman leaves little doubt that Khrushchev's decision to accommodate Kennedy rather than Castro was, while merciful, also decisive in setting the scene for his demise. He'd put the Soviet military in the position of being part of a bluff. When it was called, the generals never forgave him, and they had their allies in the Politburo.

Khrushchev's last years were marked more than ever by wild swings in behavior and attitude, but they included harbingers of a better, if still distant, future. "Khrushchev flirted," writes Taubman, "with radical economic reforms and prepared a new Soviet constitution that pointed toward the sorts of changes Gorbachev later adopted." In overriding the demands of the Soviet army and the leviathans of the Soviet military-industrial complex, Khrushchev "was anticipating deep cuts in Russian armed forces carried out by Gorbachev and Yeltsin."

When Khrushchev was strutting across the world stage in his notoriously bad suits, spewing bombast and cornpone, there was a temptation -- including among his own subjects -- to regard him as something of a buffoon. He emerges as anything but that in Taubman's pages. Khrushchev's ability to win the brass ring in the most ruthlessly competitive game on earth and to hold on to his job for nearly a decade is not hard to understand in Taubman's account. Khrushchev could be thoroughly disciplined, and he could outwit and out-tough anyone who crossed him. Taubman recounts how Khrushchev did in Marshal Zhukov -- not just a hero but an icon of World War II, a man nervy enough to contradict Stalin's orders and survive. Zhukov was instrumental in arresting the bloody police chief Lavrenty Beria; in crushing the Hungarian revolution of 1956; and in saving Khrushchev from a Kremlin conspiracy which nearly toppled him in 1957. Taubman's meticulous reconstruction of Zhukov's downfall is a masterpiece of historical detective work and a good yarn. But Khrushchev had, somewhere along the way, shed the most literal version of a killer instinct that was one of the defining traits of a true Stalinist. Having bested Zhukov, Khrushchev let him live in respectable retirement. He did the same with other members of the old gang whom he shunted aside: party leaders Vyacheslav Molotov, Georgi Malenkov and Lazar Kaganovich.

Partly because of that change in Soviet practice, when Khrushchev's own turn came for a fall from grace in 1964, Leonid I. Brezhnev and the other comrades-turned-usurpers created for him the category of "special pensioner" and confined him to a dacha outside of Moscow. There he dictated his memoirs: another breakthrough, and a precedent that those other war horses put out to pasture followed, to the benefit of historians like Taubman.

In his epilogue, Taubman quotes Khrushchev's real successor, Gorbachev, as dismissing "Brezhnevism [as] nothing but a conservative reaction against Khrushchev's attempt at reform." Gorbachev added that he and his contemporaries were "children of the Twentieth Party Congress," at which Khrushchev had broken Stalin's grip on the country. Gorbachev and the other reformers "regarded the task of renewing what Khrushchev had begun as 'our obligation.' "

Thanks to Taubman, one of the most important figures of the 20th century finally has the biography he deserves.

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