The Book of the Week is “Nikita Khrushchev, and the Creation of a Superpower” by Sergei N. Khrushchev, published in 2000. This is the Soviet leader’s biography, written by his younger son, born in 1935.
Born in April 1894 in Kurskaya, Nikita possessed excellent survival skills as a politician until the mid-1960’s. In the 1930’s, his growing family’s living standards were almost comparable to that of the West, considering they received government-provided housing and food.
During WWII, in March 1943, Nikita’s older son’s (vulnerable Soviet) warplane (of inferior quality) was shot down and he was killed (a not uncommon occurrence). The Soviet government arrested his widow and charged her with spying for Britain or Sweden (also a not uncommon occurrence). The author’s mother (Nikita’s wife) spread propaganda for the district party committee, and cared for the author’s young cousins whose older relatives were doing war work or who had been killed in the fighting. Those who Americans would call “draft dodgers” consisted of privileged family members of government officials, who did “theatre administration” stateside.
After WWII ended, the USSR’s government featured a “…morbidly suspicious Stalin surrounded by backstabbing and cutthroat courtiers jockeying for position.” In 1950, the Khrushchev family moved from the Ukraine to Moscow. Nikita had to choose his friends carefully, even when taking a walk with a comrade outside his vacation house (dacha), as they were closely tailed by gossipy bodyguards. As a Politburo member, he rode in an armored limousine.
Nikita made various policy changes after Stalin’s death in 1953. In connection with weaponry, in order to keep up with the United States, he ordered his country to make nuclear submarines, which required less exorbitant spending than cruisers, battleships and aircraft carriers. He also felt that ballistic missiles were the wave of the future.
In early 1956, a Central Committee secretary found documentation on Stalin’s purges and show trials. Like any good bureaucrat, the secretary felt obliged to draft a memo on the heinous crimes described therein. A few of the many disturbing lines included: “During 1937-1938 alone, 1,548,366 people were arrested, 681,692 of whom were shot. Top level leaders in republics, territories, and provinces were arrested; then their replacements were arrested, and so on. Of the 1,966 delegates to the Seventeenth Congress of the all-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks), 1,108 were arrested, 848 were shot, and so on.”
Soviet dissidents– victims of Stalin’s arbitrary human rights abuses but faithful to Communism– who were still alive, were soon to be released from the gulag. They could potentially present a public relations disaster for Nikita. Thus, Nikita formed a “truth and reconciliation” commission of sorts, to air their grievances, and put all the blame on Stalin for past totalitarian policies. However, no compensation was forthcoming for the victims and no punishments were imposed on the offenders.
In October 1956, just prior to the bloody suppression of protestors in Hungary, Soviet spies were led to believe that the Poles were planning to break away from the Union, and get Westernized. So the Soviets conferred with the Poles and the other Soviet satellites Romania and Czechoslovakia to keep them in the Soviet fold. Tito, the Yugoslavian leader, was still on speaking terms with the Soviets, but he had declared his territory’s independence from the USSR some time before.
In the following weeks, Nikita certainly did not want the Poles, Romanians and Czechs to copy Hungary’s rebellious action; that might lead to their defecting to the hostile, imperialist capitalists. He gave the order to send tanks to Budapest because “… the imperialists threatened to oppress the people, the workers and the peasants.” Fortunately, no violence ensued elsewhere, as Nikita struck a deal with the Poles. They would no longer receive reduced-price coal from Silesia, but their substantial debt to the USSR was canceled.
By summer 1957, political enemies of Nikita were starting to plot against him in the USSR’s two governing bodies, the Central Committee and the Politburo (Presidium). However, Nikita was able to hang on to his power in a vote that resulted in demotions and exiles of the perpetrators.
By late August 1957, the Soviets had developed an intercontinental ballistic missile that could potentially hit any place on earth. However, expensively, the army (which possessed no experience in weaponry) rather than the aviation industry, was the governmental entity producing it. Two years later, Nikita formed an entity that made only strategic missiles.
The author spent many, many pages recounting the details of the Cuban Missile Crisis. All through the summer of 1962, Nikita had actively pursued an aggressive military mission: secretly, actually shipping Soviet missiles from the Union to Cuba for the purpose of “defense.”
For, the United States had launched a (botched) clandestine military operation at the Bay of Pigs to try to destabilize Cuba. It had nuclear weapons at the ready in Turkey and Italy, that could reach the USSR; in previous months, it had been sending a few U-2 spy planes over Soviet territory– a violation of the Union’s airspace. Not that the Soviet government hadn’t launched sixteen surveillance missions over France by 1960. And installed listening devices in private homes throughout the USSR. Pox on everyone’s houses.
Anyway, the possibility of actual mutual assured destruction reared its ugly head when, in the third week of October 1962, American intelligence officials discovered that the Soviets had assembled twelve nuclear missiles and more were on the way. Shortly thereafter, the United States declared an embargo on Soviet ships heading toward Cuba because presumably, they were carrying weapons parts. The Soviets didn’t take kindly to that, but the embargo was never actually strictly enforced.
Nevertheless, Nikita had an ally in Fidel Castro, who allowed the weaponry to be assembled and potentially launched from his nation’s soil in Cuba.
There were indications from Nikita’s conversations with Castro that Castro was a sociopathic hawk, spoiling for a fight with the United States. Castro was almost looking forward to becoming a martyr by preemptively taking out major American cities via the weaponry. He had heard from his intelligence agents that America was going to send ground troops to his country within two days.
Five days into the crisis, when Nikita realized Castro meant what he said, Nikita told American President John F. Kennedy that he was willing to withdraw the missiles on certain conditions. The United Nations hammered out the details. Castro was furious at Nikita.
So according to this book, Castro’s saber-rattling was why Nikita reconsidered his own aggressive stance with the Americans, not because Kennedy stared him down.
The development of nuclear missiles in the USSR was not without trials and errors; many costly errors. In October 1960, there occurred a rocket-testing accident in which nearly 150 tons of fuel and oxidizer burst into flames of three thousand degrees Fahrenheit, vaporizing 74 people in the vicinity. There were a lot of very important spectators at the test, so safety procedures were neglected in the rush to launch the rocket.
Read the book to learn of the power and ideological struggles among members of the Soviet government during Nikita’s reign, the serious problems suffered by East Germany, Nikita’s ouster, and much more.