Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971) was First Secretary of
the Communist Party of the
miner who had joined the Bolsheviks in 1918, Khrushchev was able to receive a
technical education thanks to the October Revolution and became a true believer
in the benefits of the workers' state. Rising through the Party's ranks, he
became a member of the Central Committee in 1934 and of the Politburo in 1939.
After Stalin's death in 1953, Khrushchev became the Party's First Secretary in
the collective leadership that emerged after it had eliminated Lavrenti Beria and his faction.
Subsequently, he used Stalin's established technique to divide and conquer his
rivals, replace them with his own people, and emerge as the undisputed leader
In 1956, at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party, Khrushchev stunned the delegates with his so-called "secret speech", during which he denounced the excesses of the Stalin era and Stalin's personality cult for six hours. Until the speech, it was still considered taboo to say anything negative about Stalin. Khrushchev's speech seems somewhat mild in hindsight, now that the scale of the horrors of the Great Purges and the Gulag are well known. At the time, however, his revelations (limited only to Stalin's crimes against the Party, not the country at large) were earth shattering.
honestly believed in the superiority of Communism, and felt that it was only a
matter of time before it would destroy the Capitalist system once and for all.
He set bold (and ultimately unattainable) goals of "overtaking the West"
in food production, initiating massive programs to put vast tracts of virgin
lands in Kazakhstan and Siberia under the plow with
the help of thousands of urban Komsomol volunteers
who brought little but their enthusiasm with them to the open steppes. Despite
being hailed as an expert on agriculture, Khrushchev miscalculated when, after
a trip to
Another one of the achievements of Khrushchev's post-Stalin "thaw" was a relaxation of the political climate, in particular censorship. "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich", Solzhenitsyn's tale of life in the Gulag camps, was published in 1961 at Khrushchev's personal behest, and an entire dissident movement of writers and intellectuals appeared. While they were persecuted and had to function underground, this was still a major change, since any dissidents whatsoever simply would not have remained alive under Stalin.
In foreign affairs, Khrushchev also enthusiastically set lofty but
often-unattainable goals, and enjoyed dramatically snubbing the West. He flew
to a summit in
Khrushchev's enthusiasm for flashy gestures had not
been liked by more conservative elements from the very start; many Soviets were
greatly embarrassed by his antics, such as banging a shoe on the podium during
a speech to the UN General Assembly. There were elements in the Party who were
actively looking for an opportunity to oust him. Their opportunity came with
the Cuban Missile Crisis. In yet another case of showmanship that he was unable
to back up with deeds, in 1962 Khrushchev deployed nuclear missiles in newly
Communist Cuba, within easy striking distance of most major American population
centres. Thanks to intelligence received from Oleg Penkovsky,
a Soviet double agent, the
Address to the General Assembly of the United Nations on
BBC report on Khrushchev's eruption of anger at the United Nations,
last revised: 27 March 2010