An Unsung Hero
Most people have heard of Stalin and Lenin , but comparatively very few remember Nikita Khrushchev. He held power from 1953 till his ouster in 1964.
Nikita Khrushchev was a coal miner’s son and one can say without hesitation that he was the product of the Soviet revolution of 1917. Khrushchev joined the communist party, but his instinct for survival made him support the purges of Stalin, for after he came to power he was the first man who ushered in an era of liberalization and stopped the purges.
Rise of Khrushchev
Khrushchev rose slowly in the party hierarchy and Stalin liked him. He carried out Stalin’s orders and was the Governor of Ukraine for 10 years. The death of Stalin opened the safety valve in Russia and there was a power struggle. One of the contenders was Beria the chief of the secret police (NKVD) under Stalin. However in the power struggle Beria lost support and after a makeshift trial he along with 5 supporters were executed in December 1953.
Khrushchev now consolidated his power and in 1956 made a secret speech to the members of the central committee in Moscow in which he denounced Stalin and his policies. This was something revolutionary as Stalin even after death inspired a feeling of fear and awe in Russia. The speech is considered a watershed in the history of the Soviet Union and for the first time the Soviet state looked at itself in the mirror. The speech was circulated to all leaders of the Eastern block as well.
Khrushchev was a realist and realized that Russia to catch up with the west needed to improve its economy and cut military expenditure. He embarked on a missile program which he felt was a better defense of the Soviet Union and reduced the standing army by one third. This was not liked by Mao, who had earlier disapproved the de-Stalinism campaign as well.
Visiting the USA
In 1959 he visited the USA at the invitation of the US President Dwight Eisenhower. Khrushchev spent 13days in the USA and over all was impressed with the all round progress of the USA. He came back and vowed to emulate the USA in economic progress and further cut the military expenditure. Khrushchev was an old world man .On a visit to Hollywood and after seeing a can-can dance at a function where backless American girls and actresses danced commented ‘ A woman’s face is more beautiful than her back’. The 1959 visit led to some thaw in US-Soviet relations. This was the beginning of ‘détente’ that Leonid Brezhnev ushered in the seventies.
The Air Espionage Incident
However one incident put Khrushchev on the back foot and that was the famous U-2 incident in 1960. The U-2 was a spy plane and it was regularly used by the USA to overfly the Soviet military installations and take photos with a high resolution camera. The plane which flew at a height of 70,000 ft was virtually outside the pale of the Soviet defenses. The Russians knew this but could only privately fume. However in 1960 one of the planes lost power and height and the Russians were able to shoot it with a missile. The pilot Gary Powers was captured and tried. Khrushchev wanted an apology from Eisenhower for this. But ‘Ike’ refused, but assured that over flights over the Soviet Union are suspended. The relations turned icy and detractors of Khrushchev in the central committee questioned his decision to cut conventional forces.
Khrushchev thought to hit back and as he believed in missiles as a better defense. He planned with his advisors of installing missiles in Cuba. Fidel Castro after initial reluctance agreed and the Soviets began to assemble medium range missiles in Cuba for a possible assault on the USA and also to hold a threat. President Kennedy came to know about the installation of Soviet missiles through photographs by US Spy planes. He privately asked Khrushchev to withdraw the missiles, which the latter was reluctant. At that time the USA announced a blockade of Cuba and the US Navy with a carrier task force enforced the blockade. In comparison the Russian navy was primitive with no aircraft carrier and was unable to operate in the Caribbean Sea. Khrushchev looked for a face saving way out and offered to dismantle the missiles if the USA agreed not to attack Cuba and also remove missiles from Turkey. Kennedy agreed with this though the fact of removal of missiles from Turkey was kept as a ‘secret protocol’.
Castro advocated a limited nuclear attack from Cuba on USA, but Khrushchev did not agree and the Soviets began to dismantle the missiles. This was a climb down despite the assurance by Kennedy on Cuba and Turkey. The missile crisis’s further lost Khrushchev his hold in the central committee.
Failure on the Agricultural Front
Khrushchev wanted Russia to catch up with the USA in agricultural production. He appointed a man named Trofim Lysenko as advisor and many schemes were launched. But all of them failed including his famous attempt to plant corn in Siberia. But food production fell and the Russians had less and less to eat. Meat prices rose by 30% and Khrushchev was at the receiving end.
Many in the Politbureau and the central committee plotted his removal and in 1964 he was voted out. But Khrushchev did not put up a fight and told his son “I am glad to go. I have removed fear in Russia…”
Khrushchev was pensioned off and allowed to stay in a Dacha (country House) near Moscow.
What was the contribution of Khrushchev? Yes, he had his failures in Agriculture and the missile crisis. But he transformed the Police state of Stalin to a state where fear went away. Mid night knocks and killings were a thing of the past and for that Russians thank him. He was also a man who went Global and cultivated India and African countries. His legacy will remain, but alas the Soviet empire has itself collapsed, for that Khrushchev cannot be held responsible