Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev

Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev
Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev

Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev was first secretary of the Communist Party and de facto leader of the Soviet Union between 1953 and 1964; he concurrently served as premier from 1958 to 1964.

Colorful and highly controversial, Khrushchev was a reformer whose shrewd intellect was frequently overshadowed by his impulsive personality. He abolished the most ruthless aspects of the political system and tried with limited success to catch up with and overtake the U.S. economy.

In foreign affairs he forcefully maintained the unity of the Eastern bloc and veered between “peaceful coexistence” and several dangerous confrontations with the United States. He was, without question, one of the most important figures of the cold war.

Khrushchev was born in April 1894 in Kalinovka, Russia, near the border with Ukraine. His parents were illiterate peasants, and young Nikita was more familiar with hard labor than formal education. The family relocated to Ukraine in 1908, where he worked various factory jobs and got involved in the organized labor movement.

In 1917 he joined the revolutionary Bolsheviks and he later fought for the Red Army. After the war he obtained some Marxist training at a technical college and was assigned a political post in the Ukraine. Over the next 20 years Khrushchev would rise rapidly through the ranks of the Communist Party, and in 1939 he became a full member of the Politburo.

His success was largely due to his loyalty to Stalin. During World War II he helped organize the defense of the Ukraine and the relocation of heavy industry into the Russian interior, and he was at Stalingrad when the Red Army turned the tide of the war against Germany.

After the war Khrushchev remained an influential member of the Politburo, and when Stalin died in March 1953, he battled with Georgy Malenkov, Lavrenty Beria, and Nikolai Bulganin for the leadership.

Malenkov was made premier and initially seemed to be the true successor, but as first secretary of the Communist Party, Khrushchev possessed the real power. By early 1955 he had emerged as the clear leader of the Soviet Union.

Khrushchev with Mao
Khrushchev with Mao

Once in firm control, Khrushchev embarked on ambitious economic reforms. Khrushchev also continued the policy of spending heavily on the military. Under his leadership, the Soviet Union kept pace in the nuclear arms race with the United States and developed a space program that had significant successes. The launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 and the first manned space flight in 1961 were great technical triumphs for the Soviet Union.

Khrushchev also decided, in a very risky move, to expose the horrors of the Stalinist era and to promote political reforms. In February 1956 he gave a speech to the 20th Party Congress that denounced Stalin’s “cult of personality,” documented various crimes of the old regime, and introduced the policy of “de-Stalinization.”

The speech sparked hopes that Khrushchev would tolerate autonomy and perhaps even democracy within the Eastern bloc. These hopes proved illusory when a popular 1956 uprising in Hungary was suppressed by a brutal military intervention authorized by Khrushchev.

This action shocked the West, which had welcomed the assurances of Khrushchev that the Soviet Union desired “peaceful coexistence” between capitalism and communism. Khrushchev seemed unable to resist the temptation to taunt the West periodically, and he had several alarming showdowns with the United States.

He tried fruitlessly to force the United States and its allies out of Berlin between 1958 and 1961, eventually building the infamous Berlin Wall. He also humiliated Eisenhower in 1960 by revealing the capture of a U.S. U-2 spy plane and its pilot.

Riskiest of all, in 1962 Khrushchev secretly placed nuclear missiles in communist Cuba. The purpose of this gamble was to protect Cuba from U.S. attack and to provide the Soviet Union with instant strategic parity. When U.S. spy planes detected the missiles, however, a standoff resulted that brought the world alarmingly close to nuclear war.

In the end the Cuban missile crisis was resolved through diplomatic back channels, with the Soviets removing the missiles in exchange for a U.S. pledge not to invade Cuba and the removal of U.S. missiles from Turkey. Both sides gained something, but Khrushchev was widely perceived to have backed down in the face of U.S. resolve.

By this time he had already made too many enemies within the Soviet Union. Finally, in late 1964, Khrushchev was removed from power by a conservative faction led by Leonid Brezhnev. His life was spared, perhaps a testament to the success of his political reforms, but Khrushchev spent the rest of his life under house arrest. He died in Moscow in September 1971.