Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971) was the leader of the Soviet Union from 1954 to 1964 (formally from 1953 to 1964). Regarded as the first great Soviet reformer, he initiated "the Thaw" in the Cold War, led an efforts to de-Stalinize Russia and attempted to liberalize the Soviet Union in the he late 1950s. But was no immune to getting blood on his hands and taking the world to the brink of nuclear war. He had a hand in the Budapest uprising and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Khrushchev was the unlikely victor of the power struggle in the mid-1950s that took place after Stalin’s death. He denounced Stalin's use of terror and eased repressive controls over party and society. Khrushchev's reforms in agriculture and administration, however, were generally unproductive, and foreign policy toward China and the United States suffered reverses. Khrushchev's colleagues in the leadership removed him from power in 1964. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The historian Robert Conquest wrote: in a relatively short period of time “he managed to provoke two major international crises, survive a coup (a second toppled him); order disastrous economic overhauls; and hold erratic confrontations with nearly everyone in sight—with the Chinese leadership, with Presidents Kennedy and Nixon, with neo-Stalinists in his Presidium and the Russian intellectuals in his midst.”

Khrushchev was a short, chubby, ebullient risk taker not shy about using profane language. He was also described as smart, friendly, down to earth and tough. He seemed genuinely interested in helping the Russian people. His biographer William Taubman said he fit the definition of a “hypomaniac”—“elated, energetic, a systematic approach...Grand schemes, racing thought...constantly ‘up’—until exhaustion eventually sets in.”

Taubman described him as “both a true believer and cold-eyed realist, opportunistic yet principled in his own way, fearful of war while all to prone ro risk it, the most unpretentious of men as he pretended to power and glory exceeding his grasp, complicity in great evil yet also the author of much good.”

“Khrushchev: The Man and His Era” by William Taubman (Norton, 2003). Taubman is a professor of political science at Amherst College.

Khrushchev Era

The end of the Stalin era brought immediate liberalization in several aspects of Soviet life. As Party leader Khrushchev denounced Stalin's tyrannical reign in 1956, signaling a sharp break with the past. Because Khrushchev lacked the all-encompassing power of Stalin, his time in office was marked by continuous maneuvering against political enemies much more real than Stalin's had been. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Party control of cultural activity became much less restrictive with the onset of the first "thaw" in the mid-1950s. Khrushchev attempted reforms in both domestic and foreign policy, with mixed results. During his tenure (1953-64), world politics became much more complex as the insecurities of the Cold War persisted; Khrushchev ultimately was undone by a combination of failed policy innovations in agriculture, party politics, and industry. *

Khrushchev's Life

Khrushchev was born on April 17, 1894 in peasant hut in a poor Ukrainian village in Kalinovka in the Kursk region of southern Russia. Like his father, he became a coal miner and had very little education. He started working in a coal mine as a metal fitter at the age of 14 when his family moved to the mining town of Yuzoka (later renamed Stalino, then Donetsk).

Khrushchev joined the Communist Party in 1918, during the Civil War, a year after he Revolution. While working at a foreign-owned mine he “discovered something about capitalists. They are all alike, whatever the nationality. All they wanted from me was the most work for the least money that kept me alive. That is why I became a Communist. ”

Khrushchev distinguished himself as an tireless organizer loyal to the party line. He served in local Party organizations in Ukraine. In 1929 he moved to Moscow and became a member of the city’s Communist Party committee there. In early disputes within the party he sided with the Trotskyites, a mistake many were later executed for by Stalin, but Khrushchev was excused of after a “frank confession.”

Khrushchev Under Stalin

Khrushchev served as head of the Ukrainian party organization during and after World War II, and he was a member of the Soviet political elite during the late Stalin period. His big break came when he met Stalin’s wife while taking a course at the Industrial Academy and she put on a good word with her husband. He became friendly with other key party members, Lavrenty Beria, the founder of the KGB, who once pinmed a label on the back of Khrushchev’s jacket that read “prick.”

Under Stalin, Khrushchev was in charge of purges and seizing peasant land for collectivization in the Ukraine. As head of the Ukrainian Party committee during the Great Terror he vowed to “spare no efforts in seizing and annihilating all agents of fascism, Trotskyites, Bukharinites, and all those despicable bourgeois nationalists.” Under his direction in World War II, more than 750,000 men, aged 19 to 50, were given eight days of training and thrown into battled against the Germans.

Khrushchev was also in charge of the Virgin Lands campaign which brought vast tracts of Kazakhstan and Central Asia under cultivation and boosted the Soviet Union's grain supply. Later was a party secretary in the Moscow region and a member of the Politburo.

One of the big questions about Khrushchev was how did he survive Stalin’s purges. One of the main reasons its seems is that he presented no threat to Stalin. He had even less education than Stalin and was five inches shorter. Khrushchev also seemed to genuinely admire Stalin and was an enthusiastic participant in his atrocities. His loyalty to Stalin seemed beyond reproach.

Khrushchev's Family

Khrushchev married his first wife in 1920 and lost her in the famine of 1921. They had two children Leonid and Yulia. Leonid was killed while serving as a combat pilot in World War II. Khrushchev reportedly married his second wife, Nina Petrova, in 1938 (she insisted they were married in 1924). They had one son Sergei and two daughters, Yeleba and Rada.

Khrushchev liked to take long walks with Sergei who later said, "No 'golden youth' for me. No playboy. No pocket money. No cars. I went by subway to the university and I hung on the side of crowded trams like everyone else in Moscow."

Yelena later became a Russia expert for an American think tank and a frequent guest on political affairs talk shows. Sergei now teaches at Brown University. He and his wife became U.S. citizens in 1999.

Struggle for Power After Stalin’s Death

After Stalin died in March 1953, Communist party leaders announced that the Soviet Union would be ruled by a committee headed first by Georgi M. Malenkov. At the time Khrushchev seemed like a minor member of the committee. A few days after the committee was created Malenkov "voluntarily" resigned the key post as secretary of the party but kept the title of premier.

Stalin died without naming an heir, and none of his associates had the power to make an immediate claim to supreme leadership. In the absence of an acceptable successor, Stalin's closest associates opted to rule the Soviet Union jointly, although a struggle for power took place behind the facade of collective leadership.

At first Stalin’s colleagues tried to rule jointly, with Malenkov holding the top position of prime minister. The first challenge to this arrangement occurred in 1953, when Lavrenti Beria plotted a coup. Beria was the powerful the head of Stalin's secret police and the NKVD (precursor of the KGB) and a driving force behind the Stalin-era purges, foreign intelligence, gulags and the Soviet nuclear weapons programs. While Beria was honorary chairman of Dynamo Moscow, he had players on rival teams sent to Siberia.

But Beria had made many enemies during his bloody term as security chief, and was arrested and executed by order of the Presidium. His death reduced the inordinate power of the secret police, although the party's strict control over the state security organs ended only with the demise of the Soviet Union itself. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Khrushchev Seizes Power

The power struggle lasted for four years. Khrushchev became a contender for the Communist party leadership after Beria’s execution. After the elimination of Beria, the succession struggle became more subtle. Malenkov found a formidable rival in Khrushchev, whom the Presidium elected first secretary (Stalin's title of general secretary was abolished after his death) in September 1953.

Taubman wrote: “like Stalin in the 20s,”Khrushchev “identified his cause with the Communist apparatus...and made and betrayed allies.” He eliminated his rivals one by one. In some cases he discredited rivals for colluded with Stalin while ignoring his own role.

Khrushchev is thought have played a key role in the purge of Beria. In an episode the resembled a scene from a spaghetti Western, Khrushchev supporters burst into a meeting with their weapons drawn to arrest Beria. Khrushchev was there. He carried a revolver in his pocket in case Beria pointed a gun at him. Beria was arrested in June 1953 and executed in December along with many of his supporters. Khrushchev took the title first secretary of the Communist party shortly after that.

Later he forced Malenkov to resign in February 1955. After that Khrushchev was the uncontested leader of the Soviet Union. The rivalry between Malenkov and Khrushchev manifested itself publicly in the contrast between Malenkov's support for increased production of consumer goods and Khrushchev's stand-pat backing for continued development of heavy industry. After a poor showing by light industry and agriculture, Malenkov resigned as prime minister in February 1955. Because the new prime minister, Nikolay Bulganin, had little influence or real power, the departure of Malenkov made Khrushchev the most important figure within the collective leadership. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Khrushchev’s De-Stalinization Speech

Nikita Khrushchev stunned the Communist leadership at the secret Twentieth Party Congress in February 1956 when he spent three hours denouncing Stalin's “cult of personality,” his “capricious and despotic character,” the brutal violence” and his abuse of power and admitted that Stalin committed crimes against innocent people such as mass arrests, deportations and executions. The speech was leaked to the world press by Polish Communists. Afterwards political prisoners were released and there was a "thaw" in international relations and the political and intellectual climate.

The speech is regarded by many as Khrushchev’s most lasting legacy. It was made partly to remove blame from his generation and to allow the regime to continue. In many ways the speech opened the eyes of the world to the horrors that occurred during the Stalinist era. It was the first step in a long process that would ultimately spark rebellions in Poland and Hungary and undermine the authority of the Soviet regime.

Khrushchev revealed that Stalin had arbitrarily liquidated thousands of party members and military leaders, thereby contributing to the initial Soviet defeats in World War II, and had established what Khrushchev characterized as a pernicious cult of personality. With this speech, Khrushchev not only distanced himself from Stalin and from Stalin's close associates, Molotov, Malenkov, and Lazar Kaganovich, but he also abjured the dictator's use of terror as an instrument of policy.

Impact of Khrushchev’s De-Stalinization

As a direct result of the "de-Stalinization" campaign launched by Khrushchev's speech, the release of political prisoners, which had begun in 1953, was stepped up, and some of Stalin's victims were posthumously rehabilitated. Khrushchev intensified his campaign against Stalin at the Twenty-Second Party Congress in 1961, winning approval to remove Stalin's body from the Lenin Mausoleum, where it had originally been interred. De-Stalinization encouraged many in artistic and intellectual circles to speak out against the abuses of the former regime. Although Khrushchev's tolerance for critical creative works varied during his tenure, the new cultural period — known as the "thaw" — represented a clear break with the repression of the arts under Stalin. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

After the second anti-Stalin speech by Khrushchev in 1961, all signs of Stalinism disappeared almost over night. Pictures vanished from office and school and statues were unbolted from their pedestals. His named was removed from buildings, streets and factories named fater him. Stalingrad became Volgagrad.

In 1961 Stalin's embalmed body, which lay next to Lenin's in the Lenin Mausoleum, was removed in the middle of the night and was "deaccessioned, hoicked out" and cremated and placed in a grave in a cemetery for lesser Communist heros within the Kremlin and covered in cement. Later a pedestal with a bust was placed on the grave to identify who it belonged to.

Khrushchev Insecure Leadership of the Soviet Union

Despite his rank, Khrushchev never exercised the dictatorial authority of Stalin, nor did he ever completely control the party, even at the peak of his power. His attacks on members of the "antiparty group" at the Twenty-First Party Congress in 1959 and the Twenty-Second Party Congress in 1961 suggest that his opponents retained support within the party. Khrushchev's relative political insecurity probably accounted for some of his grandiose pronouncements, for example his 1961 promise that the Soviet Union would attain communism by 1980. His desire to undermine opposition and mollify critics explained the nature of many of his domestic reforms and the vacillations in his foreign policy toward the West. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

After the Twentieth Party Congress, Khrushchev in 1956 continued to expand his influence, although he still faced opposition. His rivals in the Presidium, spurred by reversals in Soviet foreign policy in Eastern Europe in 1956, potentially threatening economic reforms, and the de-Stalinization campaign, united to vote him out of office in June 1957. Khrushchev, however, demanded that the matter be put to the Central Committee of the CPSU, where he enjoyed strong support. The Central Committee overturned the Presidium's decision and expelled Khrushchev's opponents (Malenkov, Molotov, and Kaganovich), whom Khrushchev labeled the "antiparty group." In a departure from Stalinist procedure, Khrushchev did not order the imprisonment or execution of his defeated rivals but instead placed them in relatively minor offices. *

Khrushchev moved to consolidate his power further in the ensuing months. In October he removed Marshal Zhukov (who had helped Khrushchev squelch the "antiparty group") from the office of defense minister, presumably because he feared Zhukov's influence in the armed forces. Khrushchev became prime minister in March 1958 when Bulganin resigned, thus formally confirming his predominant position in the state as well as in the party. *

Khrushchev's Domestic Policies

Khrushchev attempted to make reforms gradually within the Soviet system. He let prisoners out of the gulags, posthumously rehabilitated 20 million terror victims, helping their families, and relaxed censorship. Richard Pipes wrote in the New York Times, “The greatest achievement of Khrushchev's 10-year rule was to dispel the paralyzing fear that gripped the country. By the early 1960s a certain degree of normalcy had returned to the Soviet Union.”

Khrushchev's primary domestic concerns were improving agriculture and creating enough housing to meet demand. When he took the helm many people still lived in World War II ruins. After the war money was spent on rebuilding industry rather than homes. Many of the Soviet Union’s apartment blocks were built under Khrushchev. Great tomes on agriculture were written in his name,

In the late 1950s, Khrushchev began a new wave of religious persecution. He reduced the number of surviving churches, already decimated from the Stalin years, by half to around 15,000 and had religious followers watched by the KGB. Some churches became museums of atheism. Soviet authorities closed down all of Moscow's synagogues in 1961.

The Russian sculptor Ernst Neizvestny once called Khrushchev a “most uncultured man.” The Soviet leader threw a temper tantrum at Moscow's first exhibit of modern art in 1962 and compared what he saw to his grandson's toilet droppings. He used similar language to describe his subordinates. He called foreign minister Adrei Gromyko “a piece of shit” and once said that his underlings in the Kremlin acted like “dogs peeing on curbstones.”

Khrushchev's Failed Reforms in Agriculture and Industry

Throughout his years of leadership, Khrushchev attempted to carry out reform in a range of fields. The problems of Soviet agriculture, a major concern of Khrushchev's, had earlier attracted the attention of the collective leadership, which introduced important innovations in this area of the Soviet economy. The state encouraged peasants to grow more on their private plots, increased payments for crops grown on collective farms, and invested more heavily in agriculture. [Source: Library of Congress *]

In his dramatic Virgin Lands campaign in the mid-1950s, Khrushchev opened vast tracts of land to farming in the northern part of the Kazak Republic and neighboring areas of the Russian Republic. These new farmlands turned out to be susceptible to droughts, but in some years they produced excellent harvests. Later innovations by Khrushchev, however, proved counterproductive. His plans for growing corn and increasing meat and dairy production failed miserably, and his reorganization of collective farms into larger units produced confusion in the countryside. *

Khrushchev's attempts at reform in industry and administrative organization created even greater problems. In a politically motivated move to weaken the central state bureaucracy, in 1957 Khrushchev did away with the industrial ministries in Moscow and replaced them with regional economic councils. Although he intended these economic councils to be more responsive to local needs, the decentralization of industry led to disruption and inefficiency. Connected with this decentralization was Khrushchev's decision in 1962 to recast party organizations along economic, rather than administrative, lines. The resulting bifurcation of the party apparatus into industrial and agricultural sectors at the oblast (province) level and below contributed to the disarray and alienated many party officials at all levels. Symptomatic of the country's economic difficulties was the abandonment in 1963 of Khrushchev's special seven-year economic plan (1959-65) two years short of its completion. *

Foreign Policy under Khrushchev

Almost immediately after Stalin died, the collective leadership began altering the conduct of Soviet foreign policy to permit better relations with the West and new approaches to the nonaligned countries. Malenkov introduced a change in tone by speaking out against nuclear war as a threat to civilization. Khrushchev initially contradicted this position, saying capitalism alone would be destroyed in a nuclear war, but he adopted Malenkov's view after securing his domestic political position. In 1955, to ease tensions between East and West, Khrushchev recognized permanent neutrality for Austria. Meeting President Dwight D. Eisenhower in Geneva later that year, Khrushchev confirmed a Soviet commitment to "peaceful coexistence" with capitalism. Regarding the developing nations, Khrushchev tried to win the goodwill of their national leaders, instead of following the established Soviet policy of shunning the governments while supporting local communist parties. Soviet influence over the international alignments of India and Egypt, as well as of other Third World countries, began in the middle of the 1950s. Cuba's entry into the socialist camp in 1961 was a coup for the Soviet Union.[Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

With the gains of the new diplomacy came reversals as well. By conceding Yugoslavia's independent approach to communism in 1955 as well as by his de-Stalinization campaign, Khrushchev created an opening for unrest in Eastern Europe, where the policies of the Stalin era had been particularly onerous. In Poland, riots brought about a change in communist party leadership, which the Soviet Union reluctantly recognized in October 1956. A popular uprising against Soviet control then broke out in Hungary, where the local communist leaders, headed by Imre Nagy, called for a multiparty political system and withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact, the defensive alliance founded by the Soviet Union and its East European satellites in 1955. The Soviet army crushed the revolt early in November 1956, causing numerous casualties. Although the Hungarian Revolution hurt Soviet standing in world opinion, it demonstrated that the Soviet Union would use force if necessary to maintain control over its satellite states in Eastern Europe. *

Outside the Soviet sphere of control, China grew increasingly restive under Chinese Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong. Chinese discontent with the new Soviet leadership stemmed from low levels of Soviet aid, feeble Soviet support for China in its disputes with Taiwan and India, and the new Soviet doctrine of peaceful coexistence with the West, which Mao viewed as a betrayal of Marxism-Leninism. Against Khrushchev's wishes, China embarked on a nuclear arms program, declaring in 1960 that communism could defeat "imperialism" in a nuclear war. The dispute between militant China and the more moderate Soviet Union escalated into a schism in the world communist movement after 1960. Albania left the Soviet camp and became an ally of China, Romania distanced itself from the Soviet Union in international affairs, and communist parties around the world split over whether they should be oriented toward Moscow or Beijing. The monolithic bloc of world communism had shattered. *

Foreign Policy Towards the West under Khrushchev

In regards to policy with the United States and the West, Khrushchev gave lipservice to a doctrine of peaceful coexistence while trying to encircle the West through the Third World, with the seizure of Cuba by the Communist in the late 1950s his greatest success.

Soviet relations with the West, especially the United States, seesawed between moments of relative relaxation and periods of tension and crisis. For his part, Khrushchev wanted peaceful coexistence with the West, not only to avoid nuclear war but also to permit the Soviet Union to develop its economy. Khrushchev's meetings with President Eisenhower in 1955 and President John F. Kennedy in 1961 and his tour of the United States in 1959 demonstrated the Soviet leader's desire for fundamentally smooth relations between the West and the Soviet Union and its allies. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Yet Khrushchev also needed to demonstrate to Soviet conservatives and the militant Chinese that the Soviet Union was a firm defender of the socialist camp. Thus, in 1958 Khrushchev challenged the status of Berlin; when the West would not yield to his demands that the western sectors be incorporated into East Germany, he approved the erection of the Berlin Wall between the eastern and western sectors of the city in 1961. To maintain national prestige, Khrushchev canceled a summit meeting with Eisenhower in 1960 after Soviet air defense troops shot down a United States reconnaissance aircraft over Soviet territory. Finally, mistrust over military intentions clouded East-West relations during this time. The West feared the implications of Soviet innovations in space technology and saw in the buildup of the Soviet military an emerging "missile gap" in the Soviet Union's favor. *

By contrast, the Soviet Union felt threatened by a rearmed Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany), by a United States alliance system that seemed to be encircling the Soviet Union, and by the West's superior strategic and economic strength. To offset the United States military advantage and thereby improve the Soviet negotiating position, Khrushchev in 1962 tried to install nuclear missiles in Cuba, but he agreed to withdraw them after Kennedy ordered a blockade around the island nation. After coming close to war during the Cuban missile crisis, the Soviet Union and the United States took steps to reduce the nuclear threat. In 1963 the two countries established a "hot line" between Washington and Moscow to provide instant communication that would reduce the likelihood of accidental nuclear war. In the same year, the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which forbade nuclear weapons testing in the atmosphere. *

See Separate Article on the Cold War.

Khrushchev's Bombast and Foreign Policy

Khrushchev was very sensitive to any real or perceived disrespect at the Soviet Union. In Paris when he wrongly thought that West German journalists were hissing at him he called them “fascist bastards we didn’t finish off at Stalingrad.” After a confrontation with Britain’s Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in Moscow he boasted he had “fished” the Prime Minister “with a telephone pole.”

Khrushchev could be disrespectful to other world leaders. During meetings with Chinese Communist leaders in Beijing, he called Mao “old galoshes”—a slang term used for condom in both Russia and China—and entertained members of his delegation with obscene verse about various Chinese leaders. Not surprisingly, under Khrushchev, relations with China, the Soviet Union’s most important ally, deteriorated to near a breaking point.

Khrushchev famously told a group of Western diplomats, “We will bury you.” It was actually a Russian colloquialism that meant Communism outlast capitalism. He also boasted about the size of the Soviet nuclear arsenal. He was behind the Cuban Missile Crisis and the standoff in Berlin. Khrushchev authorized Stalinist methods for the crushing of the Budapest uprising. But was also behind he first nuclear arms control treaty and freed Austria from four-power occupation and reopened contacts with the non-Communist world.

Khrushchev in the United States

Khrushchev made a historical trip to the United States in 1959. He visited Iowa to learn about farming and was shown on the cover of the October, 5, 1959 issue of Life magazine holding an ear of corn in the air during a stop at an Iowa farm, where he insisted on shoveling manure with local farmers.

Before the visit, Khrushchev said he needed three black Cadillacs. He sent KGB agents to New York to buy them and paid six times the going price to have them delivered on time. On his return home he tried to introduce corn farming to the Soviet Union. Impressed by the vast corn fields in the United States Khrushchev ordered that large tracts of Soviet land also be planted with corn—a move that proved to be a big mistake because corn doesn’t grow well in the Russian climate. Some people still complain about the failure today.

On his trip to the United States, Khrushchev admired the rear end of Marilyn Monroe. He asked if he could see Disneyland but the U.S. State Department turned down his request on the grounds that it would be too difficult to guarantee his security. On his visit to the United States in 1961, Khrushchev expressed outrage over the "indecencies" in the film “Can Can”. At the Empire State Building, Khrushchev got on an elevator and the doors closed before his security detail could get on and the guards ran up 86 flights of stairs.

Khrushchev Bangs His Shoe at the U.N., or Did He?

Khrushchev famously banged his shoe at his desk at a general assembly meeting at the United Nations in New York in October 1960. Even today, the most frequently asked question by visitors to the U.N. is where Khrushchev banged his shoe. But there is some debate as to what really went down that day. Many witnesses insist he didn’t bang his shoe while other insist he did. [Source: New York Times, July 26, 2003]

According to New York Times correspondent Benjamin Welles, Khrushchev was reacting to speech by a delegate of the Philippines who accused the Soviet Union of “swallowing” Eastern Europe and “depriving [it] of political and civil rights.” Welles wrote, Khrushchev “pulled off his right shoe, stood up and brandished the shoe at the Philippine delegate on the side of the hall, he then banged his shoe on the desk.” Another New York Times reporter, who was at the United Nations but did not report on the event later told Taubman, “I actually saw Khrushchev not bang his shoe.” He “leaned over, took off a slip-on shoe, waved its pseudomenaciningly, and put it on his desk, but he never banged the shoe.”

A KGB general told Taubman that Khrushchev banged the shoe rhythmically. A United Nations staffer said he didn’t remove the shoe himself (his large stomach prevented him reaching down to his feet, she said). A journalist stepped on the heel, she said, and passed the shoe to Khrushchev, holding it with a napkin. And he did indeed bang it, she said. Khrushchev’s interpreter remembers that Khrushchev pounded his desk so hard with his fists his watch broke and then took of his shoe and began striking the desk with that.

No video or photo of the event has been found that proves the case one way or the other. John Loengard, a photographer and editor with Life magazine who was there, told Taubman: Khrushchev “did not bang him on his desk” but “he certainly meant to do so.” Khrushchev, he said “reached down and took off a brown loafer from his right foot and put it on the desk. He grinned to a delegate from the United Arab Republic who sat across the aisle and mimed (with an empty hand) that the next time he’d use the shoe to bang...Every camera was trained on Khrushchev, waiting for him to use the shoe. He only put it on again and left. None of us missed the picture—which would have been a serious professional error.”

Khrushchev, Nixon and Kennedy

Khrushchev got into the famous 1959 "kitchen debate" with Vice President Richard Nixon in a model American home in Moscow at the American Exhibition, a display of the American lifestyle, with American cars, appliances and washing machines. Nixon and Khrushchev argued which society was better for its citizens. New York Times photographer Elliott Erwitt recalled, "Nixon suddenly poked Khrushchev in the chest and was saying something like this: 'We, in America, eat a lot more meat than you do. You eat a lot more cabbage.' And Khrushchev's response was something like, 'You can #*!** my grandmother.' "

Kennedy and Khrushchev met in Vienna in 1961. The meeting did not go well. The two leaders came away from the meeting feeling very alienated. Berlin and Cuba followed. Just days after John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Jacqueline Kennedy wrote Khrushchev and appealed with him to maintain peaceful relations with the United States.

Khrushchev's Ouster, Retirement and Death

By 1964 Khrushchev's prestige had been damaged in a number of areas. Industrial growth had slowed, while agriculture showed no new progress. Abroad, the split with China, the Berlin crisis, and the Cuban fiasco hurt the Soviet Union's international stature, and Khrushchev's efforts to improve relations with the West antagonized many in the military. Lastly, the 1962 party reorganization caused turmoil throughout the Soviet political chain of command. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

In October 1964, while Khrushchev was vacationing on the Black Seain Crimea, the Presidium voted him out of office and refused to permit him to take his case to the Central Committee. Khrushchev had survived an attempt by Stalinists to oust in June 1957 when his enemies took over the presidium and booted him out. Khrushchev refused to go and took his case to the Central Committee, where he had more support. He survived but he didn't survive in 1964, after a series of disastrous harvests forced the Soviet Union to import grain from Canada.

Khrushchev was ousted on October 14-15, 1964 in a Communist Party coup by Leonid Brezhnev and the KGB, which were angered by Khrushchev's efforts to curtail their power. The move was quick and was done with little resistence. The excuse for his departure: "advanced age and poor health" An editorial in Pravda that followed his ouster indirectly labeling his policies as "hare-brained schemes, half-baked conclusions, and hasty decisions and actions divorced from reality.”

Khrushchev retired as a private citizen after his successors denounced him. He finished his life peacefully as a gardener. He was forced to live in KGB-monitored dacha outside of Moscow under what amounted to house arrest. and was not allowed make speeches or publish pieces on politics. He was able to dictate his memoirs, which were published in the West even though the original tapes were seized by the KGB. Khrushchev reportedly suffered from deep depression after his ouster and felt badly about the mistakes he made as leader. Those that saw said he was led around by his wife. When one of his grandsons was asked what the ex-premier was doing in retirement, the boy replied, "Grandfather cries.

Khrushchev died of a heart attack in a hospital near his home in Moscow on September 11, 1971. By that time e was made a nonperson to such an extent that the thirty-volume Soviet Encyclopedia omitted his name from the list of prominent political commissars during the Great Patriotic War. Yet along with his failed policies, Khrushchev must also be remembered for his public disavowal of Stalinism and the greater flexibility he brought to Soviet leadership after a long period of monolithic terror.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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