Published 1970 by Little, Brown and Company
Library Of Congress Catalog Card No. 70-144137
618 pages, including appendices
In 1964, the Presidium of the USSR and the Communist Party Central Committee ousted Nikita Khrushchev from leadership of the nation and the party. He might have expected he’d be tried and shot, as had been the fate of thousands of prominent people. Instead, however, he was pensioned off and exiled to his home in Moscow and his dacha in the country. He lived the remaining seven years of his life, in typical Soviet fashion, as a “nonperson,” omitted from the records and the histories, and was watched over by security guards. In 1966 he began to write his memoirs. The new leaders disapproved of his take on them and on the dramatic events of his life, but a copy was smuggled out to the West and published under the title KHRUSHCHEV REMEMBERS.
As is understandable with anyone writing about his own life, Khrushchev omitted, glossed over, or simply lied as it suited him in portraying himself as he wanted history to see him. The reader can’t simply accept something as true because he says it. Nevertheless, in reading this book I learned much about the first half of the twentieth century and had a chance to consider things from the point of view of someone I was taught to regard as the nasty and deceitful enemy in my youth. Here are some of the things I found most interesting:
1. Khrushchev’s real dedication to an ideology that, from our side, seemed specious: “The way I looked at it, if someone carried a Party card and was a true Communist, then he was my brother --- he was really more than that. We were bound together by the invisible threads of our shared belief in the lofty struggle. The building of Communism was something almost sacred to me.” The book contains enough similar comments to persuade me that, as is true with Americans and capitalism, he simply didn’t see --- or want to see --- any flaws in his system, and truly believed it was the best thing for the working people and the future.
2. His almost matter-of-fact way of relating some of the millions of murders committed under the orders of Stalin or some of his henchmen:
- “The chief of the [Moscow office of the NKVD] was Comrade Redens. He was Stalin’s brother-in-law, a Pole by nationality. He was a good comrade and had been a member of the Party since 1914. Stalin later had him shot.”
- “Take Rykov for example. He became Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars after Lenin’s death. He was a man of merit in the eyes of the Party and a worthy representative of Soviet Power. Yet he was shot.”
- “Where is this Lomov now? I knew him well. I met him frequently when I was working in the Donbass after the Civil War. He was put in charge of coal output in the Ukraine.... He was much respected in the Party as a man with a Party record going back to the days of the pre-Revolutionary underground. But still you want to know where this Lomov is? The answer is --- shot.”
- “In those days it was easy enough to get rid of someone you didn’t like. All you had to do was submit a report denouncing him as an enemy of the people; the local Party organization would glance at your report, beat its breast in righteous indignation, and have the man taken care of.” He relates a story of one man who saved his own life only by being quickly clever. He had just spoken at a party meeting somewhere. A woman in the audience stood, pointed at him, and shouted “I’ve never met this man who just spoke but I can tell by looking in his eyes that he’s a enemy of the people.” That probably would have been enough to doom the fellow had he not been sharp enough to turn the tense moment to laughter with the rejoinder “I’ve never met that woman who just spoke.....but I can tell by looking in her eyes that she’s a whore.”
However, when his account gets to the years in which Nikita Khrushchev himself has risen to a powerful position, he treats this matter with much more sensitivity because now it was he himself who sometimes crossed Stalin and had reason to be frightened for his own life. And he never makes any reference at all to the numerous killings he ordered when he was given the task of putting the Ukraine back on its feet after the devastation brought to it by WWII. Though he admired Stalin for many things, he lays the blame for mass murder on Stalin and on his henchmen, chiefly Lavrenty Beria (whom, you might remember, Khrushchev and the other men involved in the so-called “collective leadership” after Stalin’s death feared so much that they quickly ordered arrested and disposed of).
3. His reporting on WWII, the Berlin Blockade, the Berlin Wall, the Korean War, the Cold War, Viet Nam, the Bay of Pigs invasion, and the Cuban Missile Crisis as seen from a very different perspective than my own. For example, he says his decision to put Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962 had two purposes. One was to deter the U.S. from following up the Bay Of Pigs invasion with a better planned, better equipped, and more successful effort against his little ally in the Caribbean. The other was to restore some balance in the mutually-assured-destruction standoff, given that we already had missiles in Germany, Italy, Iran, and Turkey that were aimed at the USSR. We’d have scoffed at that explanation back in the years when we were conditioned to believe that any conflict between us and the USSR was simply caused by a wicked Communist effort to conquer and enslave us. And that’s certainly not the motivation attributed to him by our leaders then!
4. His evaluation of American leaders. For instance, he dismisses Truman as worthless. He says Eisenhower was sincere, but cites things he was aware of that convinced him the general was a mediocre military leader and a none-too-bright President. He says Nixon was shrewd, but didn’t like him. Kennedy he rather admired.
Nikita Khrushchev led a remarkable life during remarkable times. Being clever enough, brutal enough, deceitful enough, and lucky enough to have survived wars and purges when millions around him were dying, and eventually rising to leadership over the whole vast Soviet empire, was an extraordinary accomplishment, especially for a man born a peasant and without a background of more than a few years of formal education. This book is not an easy read, but I found it fascinating.
Edward Crankshaw, who was a correspondent for The Observer, assembled and organized what were written as separate reminiscences of separate events and also provided an introduction, commentary, and notes for the book. He didn’t see it as his role to debate with Khrushchev, point by point, but he does provide enough information that those as poorly informed as I found I was can see and understand instances in which the author was being forgetful or misleading. There are also appendices that provide helpful information on important men and on Soviet terminology. He also provides many photographs of Khrushchev and of the people of whom he wrote. I found all that very helpful.
Thanks to my dad for another great guest review!