Nikita Khrushchev

[kroosh-chef, -chawf, kroosh-; Russ. khroo-shchyawf]
Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev (April 17, 1894 – September 11, 1971) served as First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1953 to 1964, following the death of Joseph Stalin, and Chairman of the Council of Ministers from 1958 to 1964. Khrushchev was responsible for the de-Stalinization of the USSR, as well as several liberal reforms ranging from agriculture to foreign policy. Khrushchev's party colleagues removed him from power in 1964, replacing him with Leonid Brezhnev.

Early years

Khrushchev was born in Kalinovka. His father was the peasant Sergey Nikanorovich Khrushchev (who died in 1938 of tuberculosis); his mother was Aksiniya Ivanovna Khrushcheva. He had a sister two years his junior, Irina. In 1908, his family moved to Yuzovka.

He trained and worked as a joiner in various factories and mines. Khrushchev became involved in trade union activities in World War I and, after the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, he fought in the Red Army. He became a Party member in 1918 and worked at various management and Party positions in Donbass and Kiev.

In 1931, the government transferred Khrushchev to Moscow. He became the 1st Secretary of the Moscow City Committee (Moscow Gorkom) of VKP(b) in 1935. The Moscow city secretaryship was a traditional proving ground for rising stars in the party (cf Boris Yeltsin) and Khrushchev apparently impressed with his leadership of the Moscow Metro works. In 1938, he became the 1st Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party (Bolsheviks) of Ukraine, one of the most senior regional party positions. Khrushchev became a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in Moscow in 1934 and the Politburo in 1939.

Great Patriotic War

During the Great Patriotic War (i.e., the Eastern Front of World War II), Khrushchev served as a political commissar (zampolit) with the equivalent rank of Lieutenant General.

In the months following the German invasion, in 1941, Khrushchev, as a local party leader, coordinated the defense of Ukraine but was dismissed and recalled to Moscow after surrendering Kiev. Later, he was a political commissar at the Battle of Stalingrad and was the senior political officer in the south of the Soviet Union throughout the wartime period — at Kursk, entering Kiev on liberation, and in the suppression of the Bandera nationalists of the Ukrainian Nationalist Organisation, who had earlier allied with the Nazis before fighting them in Western Ukraine.

In the years leading up to 1953, Khrushchev carried out Stalin's orders with uncritical obedience, earning the nickname "the Butcher of the Ukraine" in the late 1940s.

Rise to power

After Joseph Stalin's death on March 5, 1953 there was a power struggle between different factions within the party. Initially Lavrenty Beria controlled much of the political realm by merging the Ministry of Internal Affairs and State security. Fearing that Beria would eventually kill them, Georgy Malenkov, Lazar Kaganovich, Vyacheslav Molotov, Nikolai Bulganin and others united under Khrushchev to denounce Beria and remove him from power. With Beria imprisoned awaiting execution (which followed in December), Malenkov was the heir apparent. Khrushchev was not nearly as powerful as he would eventually become even after his promotion. Becoming party leader on September 7 of that year, and eventually rising above his rivals, Khrushchev's leadership marked a crucial transition for the Soviet Union. He pursued a course of reform and shocked delegates to the 20th Party Congress on February 25, 1956 by making his famous Secret Speech denouncing the "cult of personality" that surrounded Stalin, though he himself played no small part in cultivating it, and accusing Stalin of crimes committed during the Great Purges. This effectively alienated Khrushchev from the more conservative elements of the Party, but he managed to defeat what he termed the Anti-Party Group after they failed in a bid to oust him from the party leadership in 1957.

In 1958, Khrushchev replaced Bulganin as prime minister and established himself as the undisputed leader of both state and party. He became Premier of the Soviet Union on March 27, 1958. Khrushchev promoted reform of the Soviet system and began to place an emphasis on the production of consumer goods rather than on heavy industry.

He sought to lower the burden of defense spending on the Soviet economy by placing a new emphasis on rocket based defense. The Soviet lead in this technology was emphasized by the success of Sputnik 1 and subsequently Yuri Gagarin's Vostok flight. However, real Soviet missile forces remained small and the price that Khrushchev paid inside the Soviet system — hostility from the armed forces — was a major contribution to his eventual removal from office.

At the same time the fear of Soviet missile forces was real enough in the West — prompting then US Senator John F. Kennedy to attack then-Vice President Richard Nixon over the missile gap in the 1960 U.S. presidential election and culminating in the stand off of the Cuban missile crisis.

Domestically, Khrushchev did not seek to roll back the collectivization of agriculture. Instead he promoted the Virgin Lands Campaign program, saying the Soviet Union could meet and surpass Western agricultural production through the application of modern techniques and the use of new crops. Initial successes here rapidly turned sour.

In 1959, during Richard Nixon's visit to the Soviet Union, Khrushchev took part in what later became known as the Kitchen Debate. Khrushchev reciprocated the visit that September, spending thirteen days in the United States. On his visit Khrushchev had two requests: to visit Disneyland and to meet John Wayne, Hollywood's top box-office draw. Due to the Cold War tension and security concerns, he was famously denied an excursion to Disneyland.

On his California visit, the Soviet leader got a show of American consumerism and the American way of life. This marked the first time a Soviet leader set foot on U.S. soil. But he was annoyed that the main event of his first day was a lunch with 300 movie stars and other celebrities and a visit to the set of the movie Can-Can at 20th Century Fox in Los Angeles, rather than an inspection of an aerospace plant.

After Khrushchev left the studio, gawkers pasted tomatoes on his limo as the doubly offended leader and his 30-car, heavily guarded caravan made its way through city streets. Local authorities would later report that a bomb was planted in a tree along the route and that a man who said he was deer hunting was arrested on suspicion of carrying concealed weapons just moments before Khrushchev's motorcade passed by a Los Angeles street.

Khrushchev declared himself offended by the chilly reception.

The Kremlin boss' new attitude towards the West as a rival instead of as an evil entity alienated Mao Zedong's People's Republic of China. The Soviet Union and the PRC, too, would later be involved in a similar "cold war" triggered by the Sino-Soviet Split in 1960.

In 1961, Khrushchev approved plans proposed by East German leader Walter Ulbricht to build the Berlin Wall, thereby reinforcing the Cold War division of Germany and Europe as a whole.

Khrushchev's personality

Khrushchev was regarded by his political enemies in the Soviet Union as boorish. He had a reputation for interrupting speakers to insult them. The Politburo accused him once of 'hare-brained scheming' — referring to his erratic policies. He regularly humiliated the Soviet nomenklatura, or ruling elite, with his gaffes. He once branded Mao, who was at odds with Khrushchev ever since the denunciation of Stalin at the 1956 Congress, an "old galosh", which was translated as "old boot". In Mandarin, the word "boot" is used to describe a prostitute or immoral woman. The Soviet leader also famously condemned his Bulgarian counterpart.

Khrushchev's blunders were partially the result of his limited formal education. Although intelligent, as even his political enemies admitted after he had defeated them, and certainly cunning, he lacked knowledge and understanding of the world outside of his direct experience and often proved easy to manipulate by hucksters who knew how to appeal to his vanity and prejudices. For example, he was a supporter of Trofim Lysenko even after the Stalin years and became convinced that the Soviet Union's agricultural crises could be solved through the planting of maize on the same scale as the United States, failing to realize that the differences in climate and soil made this inadvisable.

Khrushchev repeatedly disrupted the proceedings in the United Nations General Assembly in September-October 1960 by pounding his fists on the desk and shouting in Russian. On September 29, 1960, Khrushchev twice interrupted a speech by British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. The unflappable Macmillan famously commented over his shoulder to Frederick Boland, the Assembly President (Ireland), that if Mr Khrushchev wished to continue, he would like a translation.

The notorious shoe-banging incident occurred during a debate, on October 11, over a Russian resolution decrying colonialism. Infuriated by a statement of the Filipino delegate Lorenzo Sumulong which charged the Soviets with employing a double standard, Khrushchev accused Mr. Sumulong of being "a jerk, a stooge and a lackey of imperialism". Later Mr. Khrushchev appeared to have pulled off his right shoe and started banging it on his desk. On another occasion, Khrushchev said in reference to capitalism, "Мы вас похороним!" (My vas pokhoronim!), translated to "We will bury you". This phrase, ambiguous both in the English language and in the Russian language, was interpreted in several ways. Later, he would refer back to the comment and state, "I once got in trouble for saying, 'We will bury you'. Of course, we will not bury you with a shovel. Your own working class will bury you".


Khrushchev's policies alienated significant sections of the Communist party leadership. Although Khrushchev abandoned the physical repression of Stalin, he made frequent changes in party structures and personnel in his efforts to improve economic efficiency - especially in agriculture. Many leading cadres feared for their jobs. Similarly he alienated many in the army by directing investment to missile forces and seeking to release more manpower for economically productive tasks.

The latter contributed to his humiliation over Cuba, where his faith in missiles led him to site them in Cuba and then risk a global nuclear conflagration. Here Khrushchev alienated both hardliners - who saw the Soviet retreat as a victory for the west - and doves - who saw the whole thing as adventurism played for high stakes.

His enemies learned the lessons from Khrushchev's defeat of the neo-Stalinist 'Anti-Party Group' - where Khrushchev had successfully appealed to the central committee over the Politburo's head. To remove their leader his enemies would have to secure the widest support in the upper echelons of the party, not simply amongst the very inner core.

Khrushchev's downfall came as a result of a conspiracy among the Party bosses, irritated by his erratic policies and cantankerous behavior, which was seen by the Party as an embarrassment on the international stage. The Communist Party accused Khrushchev of making political mistakes, such as mishandling the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the cold war with China and disorganizing the Soviet economy, especially in the agricultural sector.

The conspirators, led by Leonid Brezhnev, Aleksandr Shelepin and the KGB chief Vladimir Semichastny, struck in October 1964, when Khrushchev was on vacation in Pitsunda, Abkhazia, Georgia. They called a special meeting of the Presidium of the Central Committee and Alexi Inauri, chief of the Georgian KGB, escorted Khrushchev to Moscow. When Khrushchev arrived on October 13, the Presidium voted to remove him from his positions in the Party and in the Soviet government. A special meeting of the Central Committee was hastily convened the next day and approved the decisions of the Presidium without debate. On October 15, 1964, the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet accepted Khrushchev's resignation as the Premier of the Soviet Union.

Life in retirement

Unlike Georgy Malenkov, Vyacheslav Molotov or Lazar Kaganovich, who were removed from Party and forced to live as ordinary citizens, Khruschev remained a member of the Central Committee until 1966 and party member until his death. He received a special pension and was allowed to live in a state-owned residence. He also received a security detail. He, however, remained under KGB close watch (who also used this security detail comprising their officers) until his death.

Initially he lived under house arrest, but later resumed a more active social life (particularly with the members of the Moscow intelligentsia), but never publicly commented on the policy of his successors, focusing instead on writing his memoirs, which, despite KGB watch, were smuggled to the West.

He died of a heart attack in a hospital near his home in Moscow on September 11, 1971 and is buried in the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow, having been denied a state funeral and interment in the Kremlin wall.

Key political actions

Key economic actions

  • Second wave of the reclamation of virgin and abandoned lands (see Virgin Lands Campaign).
  • Introduction of sovnarkhozes (Councils of People's Economy), regional organizations, in an attempt to combat the centralization and departmentalism of the ministries
  • Reorganization of agriculture, with preference given to sovkhozes (state farms), including conversion of kolkhozes into sovkhozes, introduction of maize (earning him the sobriquet kukuruznik, "the maize enthusiast").
  • Coping with housing crisis by quickly building millions of apartments according to simplified floor plans, dubbed khrushchovkas.
  • Created a minimum wage in 1956.
  • Redenomination of the ruble 10:1 in 1961.



Khrushchev was admired for his efficiency and for maintaining an economy which, during the 1950s and 1960s, had growth rates higher than most Western countries, contrasted with the stagnation beginning with his successors. He is renowned for his liberalisation policies, whose results began with the widespread exoneration of political sentences. With Khrushchev's amnesty program, former political prisoners and their surviving relatives could now live a normal life without the infamous "wolf ticket".

Khrushchev placed more emphasis on the production of consumer goods and housing instead of heavy industry, precipitating a rapid rise in living standards.

The arts benefited from this environment of liberalisation, where works like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich created an attitude of dissent that would escalate during the subsequent Brezhnev-Kosygin era.

His de-Stalinization had a huge impact on young Communists of the day. Khrushchev encouraged more liberal communist leaders to replace hard-line Stalinists throughout the Eastern bloc. Alexander Dubček, who became the leader of Czechoslovakia in January 1968, accelerated the process of liberalisation in his own country with his Prague Spring program. Mikhail Gorbachev, who became the Soviet Union's leader in 1985, was inspired by it and it became evident with his policies of glasnost and perestroika. Khrushchev is sometimes known as "the last great reformer" among Soviet leaders before Gorbachev.


He was criticized for his ruthless crackdown of the 1956 revolution in Hungary, even though he and Zhukov were pushing against intervention until Hungary's declaration of withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact. He encouraged the East German authorities to set up the notorious Berlin Wall in August 1961, although this action halted East Germany's crippling "brain-drain". He had very poor diplomatic skills, giving him the reputation of being a rude, uncivilized peasant in the West and as an irresponsible clown in his own country. He renewed persecutions against the Russian Orthodox Church, publicly promising to show the "last priest" on Soviet television. Between 1960 and 1962, as many as 30 percent of churches were destroyed, with the number of monasteries falling by a quarter.

His administration, although efficient, was also known to be erratic since he disbanded a large number of Stalinist-era agencies. He took a dangerous gamble in 1962 over Cuba, which took the Superpowers to the brink of a Third World War. Agriculture barely kept up with population growth, as bad harvests mixed with good ones, culminating in a disastrous harvest in 1963, due to weather. All this damaged his prestige after 1962 and was enough for the Central Committee, Khrushchev's critical base of support, to take action against him. His right-hand man, Leonid Brezhnev, led the bloodless coup.

Many dissidents tended to view the Khrushchev era with nostalgia as his successors began discrediting or backtracking on his liberal reforms.

Personal life

Khrushchev married Yefrosinia Pisareva (1896–1921) in 1914. A year later their daughter Yulia (d. 1918) was born, and they had a son, Leonid, three days after the October Revolution. Yefrosinia died in 1921 of hunger, exhaustion, and typhus during the famine following the Russian Civil War. In 1922 Khrushchev married a girl of 17 named Marusia but, as she attended to her young daughter and neglected her stepchildren, Khrushchev's mother soon persuaded him to leave her. His third wife was Nina Petrovna Kukharchuk (1900–1984), with whom he began living soon afterward (though the marriage was not officially registered until the late 1960s); besides Sergei, they had two daughters, Rada (born 1929) and Lena (1937–1972).

Khrushchev's eldest son Leonid died in 1943 during the Great Patriotic War. His younger son Sergei emigrated to the United States and is now an American citizen and a Professor at Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies. He often speaks to American audiences to share his memories of the "other" side of the Cold War.


Further reading

  • William Taubman, Khrushchev: The Man and His Era, London: Free Press, 2004
  • Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali, Khrushchev's Cold War: The Inside Story of an American Adversary, New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.
  • Schecter, Jerrold L, ed. and trans., Khrushchev Remembers: The Glasnost Tapes, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1990
  • Talbott, Strobe, ed., Khrushchev Remembers, 1970
  • Khrushchev, Sergei N., Nikita Khrushchev and the Creation of a Superpower, Penn State Press, 2000.
  • Levy, Alan, Nazi Hunter: The Wiesenthal Files, Carroll and Graf, 2002
  • Khrushchev, Sergei N., translated by William Taubman, Khrushchev on Khrushchev, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1990.
  • Rettie, John. "How Khrushchev Leaked his Secret Speech to the World", Hist Workshop J. 2006; 62: 187–193.
  • Tompson, William J. Khrushchev: A Political Life. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995

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