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Nikita Khrushchev

Soviet loyalist and Stalin's trusted heir, Khrushchev was also responsible for an opening up of the country and "de-Stalinization." In 1956, as Soviet premier, he denounced his former patron and set into motion a new freedom. He reorganized Soviet industry, stemmed the tide of desertions from the Western Communist parties, soothed the incipient rebellion in Poland and Hungary, and got from China's Mao Tse-tung a showpiece pledge of allegiance.

fter Stalin's death, Stalin's handpicked successor, George Malenkov, found that nobody wanted him around, now that Stalin was gone. He only held the post of secretary general for nine days before he stepped down to become premier, giving the top post to a junior politburo member, Nikita Khrushchev.

Three months later police chief Beria tried to seize power for himself; he was arrested by army sentries and executed.

Nikita Khrushchev was born in 1894 to a small farmer in the Ukraine. He only had three years of formal schooling and struggled to make ends meet as a miner and locksmith until he joined the Communist Party in 1918.

Khrushchev's interest in agriculture was not misplaced because the annual harvests had been exceptionally poor in recent years. Stating that "the agricultural sector" had become a major bottleneck for economic progress, Khrushchev tried to reorganize it along functional, more efficient lines. To start with, taxes on farmers were reduced and the government paid more for the food taken from them. Then came what was called "The Virgin Lands Campaign," in which thousands of young peasants were dispatched to Kazakhstan and west Siberia to plow up arable land there. At first it was his greatest success: by 1956 the amount of farmland in the Soviet Union had been increased by 87 million acres, or 50%. Corn, meat and milk production increased so dramatically that Khrushchev predicted the USSR's total agricultural production would overtake that of the United States by 1970. Those successes made Khrushchev very popular, and encouraged him to make sweeping changes in other areas as well.

Khrushchev meeting with Kennedy.During Khrushchev's first three years it seemed that Stalin still controlled the Soviet Union from the grave. His monuments were visible everywhere; everybody in the government was there because he stayed in Stalin's good graces; and only 12,000 of the five or six million prisoners that were still living in the Gulag had been freed. The Twentieth Party Congress in February 1956 seemed to continue this trend when it opened with a tribute to the late "Great Leader and Teacher." But on the last day, after the routine work was finished, Khrushchev suddenly convened an extraordinary session that no foreigners were allowed to attend. For the next four and a half hours he stunned the world by giving a passionate speech that denounced Stalin's personality, methods and policies with words that only the most virulent anticommunists would use, calling him a "criminal murderer" and a "purveyor of moral and physical annihilation," among other things. He denounced the mass purges, calling all of the cases fabrications that crippled the country's leadership just before World War II began. He questioned Stalin's policy toward minorities and his rigid centralized planning of the economy.

"Politicians are the same all over. They promise to build a bridge even where there is no river." - Nikita Khrushchev.

President Eisenhower and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev pose in front of Aspen Lodge at Camp David, Maryland, September 25, 1959.A wave of de-Stalinization followed the secret speech. The ethnic groups deported by Stalin to Siberia/Central Asia were immediately returned to their homelands. The political prisoners were freed, though not all were rehabilitated. Stalin's victims in the Red Army, like Marshall Tukhachevsky, were posthumously rehabilitated. Most of Stalin's pictures and statues disappeared from public places. In 1961 his remains were removed from a place of honor beside Lenin and buried outside Lenin's Tomb; that year also saw the five cities named after Stalin renamed. But by discrediting Stalin, Khrushchev had also destroyed the myth that Soviet leaders were the infallible interpreters of Marxism-Leninism. He had unknowingly cast doubt on the legitimacy of all future leaders. If a sadistic monster could rule Russia for three decades and claim to be following Marxism correctly, how reliable could the system be? Russians learned for the first time to question authority, and the political dissidents that have been a part of Russian life since the 1960s got started as a result of the secret speech.

As the 1950s ended and the 60s began, Khrushchev was at the height of his career, popular at home and feared abroad. But while Khrushchev was enjoying his successes, his mistakes were catching up with him. It has been said that Khrushchev's downfall was caused by three words beginning with the letter "C": China, Cuba, and Corn.

Mao Zedong, Chineese leader at the time, regarded Stalin as a teacher and never approved of de-Stalinization.

Soviet poster -
Soviet poster - "The End Result is what's important".

The thawing of Soviet-US relations in the late 50s was followed by a series of tension-raising incidents in the early 60s: the capture of an American spy plane pilot, Soviet-US rivalry for influence in the new nations of the Third World, an unsuccessful invasion of Cuba by US-backed guerrillas, and a world crisis caused by the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961. But the most dangerous event was the placing of Soviet troops and missiles in Cuba in 1962. Never did the two superpowers come closer to starting World War III than they did here. Khrushchev blinked first and removed the missiles when the USA promised not to invade Cuba again. The troops stayed, but the Soviet Union took an enormous blow to its prestige.

hile all this was going on, the Soviet economy deteriorated. The agricultural situation was especially bad, with harvests in 1959 and 1960 that were far less than expected. At the 22nd Party Congress in October 1961, Khrushchev unveiled a vast twenty-year plan to revolutionize agriculture. The success of the "Virgin Lands" campaign made him set extremely high goals for this plan: grain output was to double, milk to triple, and meat to quadruple. He especially encouraged the growing of corn, ordering farms to cultivate that more than anything else. It was a disaster; the seeds, fertilizer, machinery, silos and experience needed were just not there. Bad land management caused the topsoil of the Virgin Lands area to be blown away, turning Kazakhstan into a dustbowl, and old agricultural regions like the Ukraine fell into neglect as manpower and machines were poured into Central Asia. To prevent starvation Khrushchev was forced to buy 6.5 million tons of grain from Canada and Australia in 1963, the first of the many grain purchases in recent Russian history.

Khrushchev's style of leadership and his blunders made him a national embarrassment; the most notorious example came during a 1960 UN speech, when he got so mad that he banged his shoe on the podium! The last straw was Khrushchev's announcement that he would divide the Communist Party in two and place the two halves under an agricultural and an industrial bureau, a move that gave him more power at the expense of other bureaucrats. The Politburo voted to expel him a second time in October 1964, and this time the Central Committee voted against him too. Khrushchev lost his job, but not his head; he lived in comfortable obscurity until he died of natural causes in 1971. Khrushchev is remembered for many things, but most of all he was the only Soviet leader to leave Russia a better place than it had been under his predecessor.


More about Khrushchev on, the rise of Khrushchev, interview with Khrushchev's son, article "The Andropov Hoax". (in English).

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