Khrushchev, Nikita (1894–1971)

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Head of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and leader of the Soviet Union from 1953 to 1964.

Like many Soviet leaders of his generation, Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev came from simple origins. He was born in a workers' family in the village of Kalinovka in southern Russia and spent his youth as a metalworker in the Donbas coalmining region of eastern Ukraine. It was only the civil war that propelled him into a political career, when he became a political commissar in the Red Army. After the war he studied at the workers' education department of a technical college and advanced to prominent positions in the Ukrainian Communist Party bureaucracy, up to heading the organizational department of the Ukrainian Central Committee. In 1929 he enrolled in the Industrial Academy in Moscow and in 1930 became a party boss there. From then on Khrushchev began his swift and impressive move upward in the Communist Party bureaucracy. He consecutively headed the Bauman and Krasnaya Presnya District Party Committees in Moscow (1931), then (1932–1934) became the deputy head and later head of the Moscow City Party Committee and deputy head of the Moscow Regional Party Committee. In 1935–1938 he was simultaneously the head of the Moscow City and Region Party Committees, the top figure in the administration of the nation's capital. In this capacity he played an important role in the repression of thousands of innocent people during the Great Terror of 1937–1938—an act he remembered all his life and felt intensely guilty about even decades later.

From January 1938 through March 1947, and then again in December 1947–December 1949, Khrushchev headed the Ukrainian Communist Party. During the Great Patriotic War (1941–1945) he served as a top-rank political commissar in several important battle groups of the Red Army, participating, for example, in the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942–1943. Acknowledging his organizational energy, Khrushchev's biographers associate his name during the war with impressive victories but also a few defeats, for which he was partly responsible. After the war Khrushchev vigorously worked on the postwar rebuilding of Ukraine and proved a tough fighter against the nationalist guerrilla movement.

In 1949 he returned to Moscow as a secretary of the party's Central Committee and, again, the head of the Moscow regional party organization. Khrushchev's energy, combined with his simple ways and ostensible lack of claims for higher power, seems to have won him Stalin's trust, by no means a small accomplishment. Khrushchev was one of the very top leaders of the Soviet Union, and it was not accidental that after Stalin's death in March 1953 he was in a position to begin struggling for prominence in the country's leadership.


In September 1953 Khrushchev became the head of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the post Stalin had held during his successful bid for power in the 1920s. Just as it was with Stalin, leadership of the party proved to be a key weapon in power struggles. In June 1953, together with several other Politburo members, Khrushchev organized a plot that toppled one of his main rivals, Lavrenty Beria, the head and later patron of the special police under Stalin. After Beria was deposed and then shot (December 1953), Khrushchev successfully struggled against his other major rivals, Georgy Malenkov and Vyacheslav Molotov. By 1955 Khrushchev had won the fight for power, which enabled him to rule the country for the next decade.

Khrushchev's internal policies were marked, first of all, by a resolution to overcome the legacy of the Stalin terror. He promoted the dismantling of the repressive system and the release and rehabilitation (1953–1956) of the hundreds of thousands of concentration camp prisoners as well as the return of several deported nationalities to their original areas of residence. Proving bolder than his counterparts, Khrushchev was the first to attack Stalin openly. In February 1956, at the Twentieth Party Congress, he delivered a revolutionary speech, slamming the dead Stalin for having created a "cult of personality" around himself, for unleashing terror against millions of innocent people, and for committing grave blunders in state leadership.

Khrushchev's "secret speech," called so because it remained unpublished in the Soviet Union at the time, was nonetheless read aloud to party members in local and institutional party organizations all across the country and thus became widely known. Although the dismantling of the repressive order and the homecoming of prisoners had started before the Twentieth Congress, Khrushchev's speech nonetheless shocked many Soviet people. For the first time they heard the country's top leader condemn Stalin, thus undermining the foundations of the worldview in which they had been raised during the previous quarter of a century. The attack on Stalin produced a major crisis of legitimacy of the Soviet order: since so much in the system had emerged under Stalin and was associated with his name, criticizing him could not but cast grave doubts about the validity of the entire Soviet project.

Khrushchev's anti-Stalin crusade had tremendous effects not only within the Soviet Union but also outside its borders, particularly in the communist bloc. In 1956, revelations about the terror brought about uprisings against Soviet power in Poland and particularly Hungary. The dethroning of Stalin also created a rift between the Soviet Union and Maoist China, which could never accept destalinization. After unsuccessful attempts to patch up Sino-Soviet relations in the late 1950s, Khrushchev abruptly withdrew Soviet specialists from China in 1960, and in the next decade the two countries occasionally found themselves on the brink of war.

All these complications of Khrushchev's attack on Stalin brought about a plot against him in the party leadership. In June 1957 his counterparts since Stalin's times, Vyacheslav Molotov, Georgy Malenkov, and Lazar Kaganovich, attempted to overthrow Khrushchev. However, the support of regional party secretaries, who were urgently flown to Moscow for an extraordinary plenum of the Central Committee, thwarted the coup.

Khrushchev took an active interest in trying to reform the Stalinist mechanism of economic administration. In 1957, within a project of decentralizing industrial management, many branch ministries in Moscow were liquidated and their powers were handed down to the newly created "councils of the economy" (sovnarkhozy) in the regions. Decentralization did not make industry much more efficient, though, because the producers still largely lacked market incentives to work.

Khrushchev took comparatively greater interest in agriculture, where he considered himself an expert. In 1953 taxes on agricultural produce were lowered, debts written off, procurement prices raised, and peasant private plots encouraged. Furthermore, it was now easier for peasants to travel or move to cities and thus the restrictions upon peasant mobility imposed during collectivization in the early 1930s became much less severe. In 1954, however, Khrushchev launched a campaign of growing grain in the Virgin Lands, uncultivated steppes in southwestern Siberia and northern Kazakhstan. Through a combination of draft and propaganda, thousands of young men and women were mobilized for that purpose. Although the territory was indeed cultivated, the Virgin Lands campaign brought mixed results. Even less successful was Khrushchev's other agricultural project: the 1957 visionary plan to outstrip the United States in the production of meat, milk, butter, and other basic foods. He instigated a campaign of boosting agriculture by planting corn in various parts of the country often unsuitable for corn cultivation, which predictably failed.

Khrushchev's economic projects were not simply random disjointed initiatives but rather reflected his ideas of what socialism was to be. He seriously emphasized improving the quality of people's everyday lives, in the belief that the advantages of socialism as a world system could be demonstrated primarily through the well-being of Soviet citizens. Despite his many failures, Khrushchev was a vigorous, energetic administrator, and some of his projects were more successful than others. From the mid-1950s on, a massive program of affordable-housing construction was launched. In the course of a decade, millions of families moved from barracks, dugouts, and cramped communal premises to comparatively modern although cheap separate apartments with central heating, sewerage, and running water. Together with his dismantling of the Stalin terror regime, his housing reform was something for which Khrushchev was positively remembered in the Soviet Union during the decades to come.

Under Khrushchev the Soviet Union embarked on a rapprochement with the West. Cultural exchange started in 1954–1955, and trips abroad became easier for a (limited) number of Soviet citizens. One of such tourists was Khrushchev himself, who in 1956 traveled (together with Molotov) to Great Britain and in 1959 went on his famous trip to the United States, the first time a Soviet leader had ever visited the United States. Khrushchev's interest in the West brought quite a few Western artistic and economic exhibits to the Soviet Union, and Western books and films were imported in large numbers, influencing the ideas Soviet people held of their country and the world around. Above all, foreigners themselves began coming in increasing numbers to the Soviet Union, especially during the 1957 Moscow Festival of Youth and Students, one of the cultural landmarks of the Khrushchev years. Building ties with the West, however, did not go smoothly and was punctuated by numerous clashes between the two still-hostile sociopolitical systems. Khrushchev's relations with the intelligentsia were contradictory. The intelligentsia largely welcomed his denunciation of Stalin at the Twentieth and especially at the Twenty-Second Party Congress (1961), after which Stalin's monuments all over the country were destroyed, places named after him renamed, and his body taken out of the Lenin Mausoleum. The years 1962–1964 witnessed the peak of criticism against the Stalin terror in the Soviet press. A few powerful works of literature on the terror theme appeared in print, notably Alexander Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), the publication of which was sanctioned by Khrushchev himself. Yet, although the intelligentsia welcomed Khrushchev's efforts at dismantling the terror regime, it was alienated by his attempts to monitor intellectual life, such as the anti-Pasternak campaign (1958) and his censuring of artists and writers in 1962–1963.

While popular overall with the intelligentsia, Khrushchev ended up alienating much of the military establishment. His emphasis on peaceful coexistence with the West and on consumer-oriented economic production resulted in major cuts of the conventional armed forces, which was highly unpopular with many cadre officers.


In 1963–1964 Khrushchev's situation became unstable as his popularity in the country ebbed. With the failure of his agricultural experiments and the corresponding crop failure, food supplies in the cities were dismal. Combined with rather tactlessly introduced pay cuts for workers, this brought about the riots of 1962, in which troops ended up firing at crowds in the city of Novocherkassk. But above all, what brought about Khrushchev's end was his policy toward the party apparatus. In 1962, in another act of administrative experimentation, he divided the regional party organs into industrial and agricultural committees—a reform that generated great resentment among the party bureaucracy. This time Khrushchev was deprived of the support of regional party leaders that had once saved him in 1957.

In October 1964 a well-prepared plot of the top party leaders, headed by his closest associates Leonid Brezhnev and Mikhail Suslov, deposed Khrushchev, stripped him of his rank of first secretary, and sent him into forced retirement. He spent the remaining seven years of his life in a country house near Moscow. There he managed to record on audiotapes his lengthy memoirs, which were published in the West while he was still alive—an act of unprecedented courage for the former leader of the Soviet Communist Party.

Khrushchev was a major political figure in twentieth-century history and a colorful, remarkable individual. A product of the Stalinist political and cultural order, he found strength and courage in himself to challenge, often successfully, many crucial aspects of that order and to begin its destruction. He also retained elements of utopian communist thinking of the 1920s—something that led him to numerous and frequently fatal blunders but also made his rule a dynamic, memorable time that, as research increasingly shows, proved highly significant for the historic fortunes of the Soviet Union.

See alsoBrezhnev, Leonid; Destalinization; Soviet Union; Stalin, Joseph .


Primary Sources

Khrushchev, Nikita. Khrushchev Remembers. 2 vols. Translated and edited by Strobe Talbott. New York and Toronto, 1971–1976.

——. Doklad N. S. Khrushcheva o kul'te lichnosti Stalina na XX s'ezde KPSS—dokumenty. Edited by Karl Eimermacher and Vitalii IU. Afiani. Moscow, 2002.

Secondary Sources

Breslauer, George W. Khrushchev and Brezhnev as Leaders: Building Authority in Soviet Politics. London, 1982.

Jones, Polly, ed. The Dilemmas of Destalinisation: A Social and Cultural History of Reform in the Khrushchev Era. London, 2005.

Taubman, William. Khrushchev: The Man and His Era. New York and London, 2003.

Taubman, William, Sergei Khrushchev, and Abbott Gleason, eds. Nikita Khrushchev. New Haven, Conn., and London, 2000.

Tompson, William J. Khrushchev: A Political Life. New York, 1995.

Zubkova, Elena. Russia after the War: Hopes, Illusions, and Disappointments, 1945–1957. Armonk, N.Y., 1998.

Denis Kozlov