Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev

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Nikita Khrushchev

Born April 17, 1894
Kalinovka, Russia
Died September 11, 1971
Petrovo-Dalneye, Soviet Union

Soviet premier and first secretary of Communist Party

N ikita Khrushchev was the most colorful Soviet leader during the Cold War. After being a loyal supporter of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin (1879–1953; see entry) through his early political career, Khrushchev denounced Stalin's policies when he assumed Soviet leadership in the mid-1950s. Khrushchev had a loud and blunt personality that took other leaders by surprise. His efforts to introduce major domestic reforms within the Soviet Union during his long period of leadership while fending off pressures from old guard Soviet communists led to erratic foreign policies that confounded U.S. leaders, including presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969; served 1953–61; see entry) and John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63; see entry), and took the world to the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

A humble beginning

Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev was born in southern Russia, in the village of Kalinovka, near the Ukrainian border. His father was a poor peasant who farmed in the summer and worked in the Ukrainian coal mines in the winter. When Nikita was a teenager, the family moved close to Yuzovka, Ukraine, to be nearer the mines. Although he was a bright student, Khrushchev attended school sporadically for several years because he was busy working. He took jobs herding cattle and working in a factory and finally became a mechanic in the coal mines. Working under dismal conditions in the factory and mine, Khrushchev saw first-hand that his country needed social and economic change to help the working classes.

In 1914, Khrushchev married Galina Yefronsinya. The Bolshevik Revolution occurred in 1917, when Khrushchev was twenty-three years old. During the revolution, the communist Bolsheviks took control of Russia's government. Communism is a system of government in which a single political party, the Communist Party, controls almost all aspects of people's lives. In a communist economy, private ownership of property and businesses is prohibited so that goods produced and wealth accumulated can be shared equally by all. Khrushchev apparently did not take part in the revolution but did join the Communist Party in early 1918.

Khrushchev served in the Red Army in 1919, successfully defending the new communist regime against forces trying to regain control of the government. Following the war, Khrushchev returned to work in the Ukrainian mines in 1920. By 1921, he was put in charge of political affairs at the mine. In the winter of 1921–22, his wife died from a famine, or a shortage of food, leaving him with two young children. He returned to his hometown of Yuzovka in 1922. Through the 1920s, he was able to attend educational institutions established by the Communist Party. These schools gave young workers basic education and political instruction. At Donbass Technical College, he was elected to a top Communist Party position.

A Stalin supporter

Khrushchev remarried in 1924. He and his new wife, schoolteacher Nina Petrovna, had three children together. A staunch supporter of Soviet premier Joseph Stalin, Khrushchev moved up rapidly through various posts in the Ukrainian Communist Party bureaucracy. The first secretary of the Ukrainian Communist Party, Lazar Kaganovich (1893–1991), became a mentor for Khrushchev. Both Khrushchev and Kaganovich left for Moscow in 1929.

In Moscow, Khrushchev enrolled in the city's Industrial Academy. One of his classmates and friends was Joseph Stalin's wife, Nadezhada Allilueva. While at the academy, Khrushchev spent most of his energy on political work. By 1931, Kaganovich had become head of Moscow's Communist Party, and he brought Khrushchev into the city's political administration. Continuing to move up rapidly, Khrushchev became Kaganovich's assistant, the second secretary of the Moscow Central Committee, in 1933. (In both local and national branches of the Communist Party, the Central Committee is an important administrative body that oversees day-to-day party activities.) In 1935, at age forty, Khrushchev succeeded Kaganovich as first secretary of the Moscow city party. He was also elected to the Soviet Central Committee. Khrushchev was a major figure in Moscow economic developments, including construction of the city's highly regarded subway system.

During the late 1930s, Khrushchev took an active role in Stalin's purges of party leadership. Stalin executed or exiled millions of Soviet citizens, including his opponents and some supporters. Khrushchev was one of the few to survive among his colleagues at the higher levels of office, perhaps because of his close connections to Kaganovich and his past friendship with Stalin's wife. Stalin rewarded Khrushchev for his loyalty during the purges by taking an active role in getting Khrushchev elected to the Supreme Soviet in late 1937. Khrushchev was also elected to the Politburo. The Politburo was the executive body for the Central Committee and was responsible for making policy decisions. In 1938, Khrushchev was elected first secretary of the Ukrainian Communist Party. The Ukraine was the most important agricultural region in the Soviet Union and also an area that had strongly resisted Stalin's collective farming policies, which would provide more local control. In 1937 alone, 150,000 Ukrainian party members had been purged. Khrushchev focused on improving agricultural production under the new Soviet system. By the end of the decade, Khrushchev had risen to national prominence.

In June 1941, Germany's Nazi Party, known primarily for its brutal policies of racism, launched a massive invasion against the Soviet Union, drawing the Soviets into World War II (1939–45). Khrushchev became an officer in the Soviet army, serving in the thick of the fighting. He was at the Battle of Stalingrad, in which the Soviets turned back a major German invasion. Hundreds of thousands were killed. Khrushchev rose to the rank of lieutenant general. By late 1943, when the momentum of the war shifted in favor of the Soviet troops, Khrushchev returned to Ukrainian politics. He regained his position as first secretary of the Ukrainian Communist Party and was also appointed chairman of the Ukrainian Council of Ministers in charge of economic affairs. Khrushchev led the postwar reconstruction of the Ukraine's economy.

Rise to power in Moscow

In 1949, Khrushchev returned to Moscow to once again serve as first secretary of the Moscow Central Committee. He regularly dined with Stalin. In March 1953, Stalin died of a stroke, and a prolonged power struggle followed. By September 1953, Khrushchev was named first secretary of the Soviet Central Committee. His chief rival, Georgy Malenkov (1902–1988), remained premier (head of state) of the Soviet Union. He and Khrushchev fought over domestic economic policies. The power struggle came to an end in 1955, when Khrushchev was able to replace Malenkov with a close associate, Nikolay Bulganin (1895–1975).

Khrushchev took the Soviet Union in a distinctly different direction than Stalin had charted. He openly criticized some of Stalin's policies and began a Communist Party reform movement known as de-Stalinization, a plan to introduce reforms to the Soviet Union. These reforms included allowing greater personal freedoms for Soviet citizens, lessening the powers of the secret police, closing concentration and hard-labor camps, and restoring certain legal processes. Khrushchev's criticism of Stalin was courageous; few in the Soviet Union dared to make such statements. Khrushchev freed many of the people imprisoned by Stalin. Unlike previous Soviet leaders, he traveled freely to foreign countries, including Great Britain and the United States. Khrushchev's behavior was often flamboyant, unconventional, and rude. For example, he drew a $10,000 fine from the United Nations (UN) for banging his shoe on a table at a UN meeting on October 13, 1960; he was using the shoe for emphasis as he responded angrily to a speech that sharply criticized the Soviet Union.

Though he had little formal education, Khrushchev had a quick mind and learned rapidly from experience, exhibiting considerable energy and enthusiasm. Khrushchev was often ruthless and independent, but he could also be warm and showed genuine care for common people; he was always interested in the Soviet farming population. Yet Khrushchev took a hard-line communist approach against religion and closed many churches. The communists looked at religion as an anticommunist concept that gave people false ideas of life. Many churches were destroyed, but underground religious worship survived.

Although the Communist Party controlled such forms of expression as the arts, Khrushchev was inconsistent in enforcing that policy. For example, he approved the publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918–), which describes the brutality of Soviet life under Stalin. At the same time, Khrushchev did not allow Doctor Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak (1890–1960), to be published in Russia (the book was published elsewhere in 1957). Doctor Zhivago is a novel about a Russian poet's life in conflict with the times in which he lives (1902 to 1953).

Khrushchev's campaign to reform the Communist Party was not entirely well received. In 1957, members of the Politburo moved to dismiss Khrushchev. However, he forced the Politburo to seek final approval from the larger Central Committee, where he had strong support. The Central Committee reversed the Politburo decision by voting to retain Khrushchev as Soviet leader. As a result, he was able to remove those who opposed his leadership and bring in his supporters to strengthen his position. Those who led the effort to dismiss him, including Malenkov, his old mentor Kaganovich, and former Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov (1890–1986; see entry), were demoted or expelled from the Communist Party because they disagreed with Khrushchev's reform and de-Stalinization efforts. To complete his hold on power, Khrushchev removed Bulganin as head of state in 1958. Khrushchev was now leader of the Communist Party and the Soviet government.

An erratic Cold War path

Khrushchev's prestige at home and abroad was enhanced by the stunning success of the Soviet space program. In early October 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite to orbit Earth. The Western world was shocked; it seemed that the Soviets had passed the United States in technological development. However, Sputnik brought unexpected consequences for the Soviets. The United States began a massive space program, which forced the Soviets to continue with costly research and development in order to keep up. This expensive "space race" was another component of the Cold War rivalry between the two superpowers.

Despite the continuing rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States, one of Khrushchev's stated goals was to "peacefully coexist" with the West. His de-Stalinization program was part of an effort to give the Soviet Union better international standing. Perhaps trying to demonstrate goodwill toward the West, Khrushchev refused to share space technology information with communist China, even though Chinese leaders eagerly sought this information. Khrushchev also refused to share nuclear technology with the Chinese. China's leadership thought Khrushchev's policies weakened the original principles of communism. His decisions seemed to indicate that Khrushchev was willing to forgo communist loyalties in order to promote better relations with Western countries.

Despite Khrushchev's promotion of peaceful coexistence, his foreign policy decisions often seemed erratic. For example, at a press conference in 1958 Khrushchev surprisingly announced that the United States and other Western countries must withdraw from West Berlin. The situation in West Berlin had been bothering the Soviets for a long time. During World War II, the Soviet Union fought on the side of the Western allies—the United States, Great Britain, and France. When the Allies defeated Germany and brought the war to a close, they agreed to divide Germany into two parts: West Germany, which was to be a democratic nation, and East Germany, which would be controlled by the communist Soviets. They also agreed to divide Berlin, the capital of Germany, into four sectors; each country would control one sector of the city. The three Western countries then agreed to rule jointly over their sectors, which were collectively referred to as West Berlin. The Soviets occupied East Berlin. However, the entire city of Berlin was located well within communist-controlled East Germany.

It was a nagging irritation to the Soviets to have West Berlin—an island of capitalism—existing within a communist country. Capitalism is an economic system in which property and businesses can be privately owned. Production, distribution, and prices of goods are determined by competition in a market relatively free of government intervention. Capitalism is incompatible with communism.

U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower decided to ignore Khrushchev's demand, and Khrushchev backed down. Khrushchev again demanded Western withdrawal from West Berlin in 1961, but he backed down a second time. However, he then ordered the construction of the Berlin Wall to stop East German residents from fleeing communist rule via West Berlin. Heavily guarded on the East Berlin side, the Wall would stand as a barrier between the capitalist West and the communist East for three decades. Historians believe that Khrushchev's demands and his decision to erect the Wall were intended to quiet his hard-line communist critics.

Unfriendly era with the United States

In July 1959, Vice President Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994; see entry) visited Khrushchev during an international trade fair in the Soviet Union. While in front of an exhibit featuring a typical American kitchen, the two leaders got into a much publicized discussion over the merits of communism and capitalism, which became known as the "kitchen debate." In September 1959, Khrushchev became the first Soviet leader to visit the United States. He was not warmly received on a brief tour around the country. Relations between Khrushchev and President Eisenhower cooled even further when the Soviets shot down an American spy plane that was flying over the Soviet Union. Khrushchev did not participate in a previously scheduled Paris summit meeting with Eisenhower in May 1960. In September 1960, Khrushchev returned uninvited to the United States to attend a United Nations meeting. There, he staged his famous out-burst that included banging his shoe on a table in anger.

Khrushchev placed a strong emphasis on domestic issues such as housing and agricultural expansion. One massive project, the "Virgin Lands" program, involved 9 million acres of uncultivated land in Kazakhstan; the acreage was to be converted to grain crops. Khrushchev appointed Leonid Brezhnev (1906–1982; see entry) to direct the ambitious program. Brezhnev would later succeed Khrushchev as Soviet leader. The Virgin Lands program was somewhat successful but fell far short of meeting Soviet needs.

In 1962, lacking nuclear missiles capable of reaching the North American continent, Khrushchev decided to place some in pro-Soviet Cuba, located only 90 miles (145 kilometers) from the U.S. mainland. President John F. Kennedy responded by ordering a quarantine of Cuba to prevent Soviet ships from delivering more missiles. (Because blockades were against international law, the term "quarantine" was used instead.) Kennedy demanded that the Cuban missiles already in place be removed. During the brief but intense standoff, the dire threat of nuclear war loomed over both superpowers—and the entire world. This incident, known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, was the most dramatic Cold War confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. Again, Khrushchev backed down. He agreed to remove the missiles if the United States would promise not to invade Cuba in the future.

The scare of coming so close to nuclear war actually led to an improved relationship between the two countries. A hot line was established between Moscow and Washington, D.C., to improve direct communications during times of crisis. In addition, Khrushchev signed a nuclear test-ban treaty in August 1963, which prohibited nuclear testing in the atmosphere. With a poor harvest in 1963, Khrushchev also began purchasing large amounts of food from the United States; this was an embarrassment to the Soviet leader. To make matters worse, he still had to ration basics such as bread and flour.

Besides his setbacks in Berlin and Cuba, Khrushchev had problems at home in the Soviet Union. He irritated other Communist Party leaders with his efforts to reorganize the party and the state government. For instance, he created regional economic councils in the government in an effort to replace the higher bureaucracies and their ministers overseeing industrial production. This threatened the existing Soviet system created under Stalin. With his greater reliance on nuclear weapons, Khrushchev also reduced the size of the Soviet army and reduced the powers of the secret police, known as the KGB. This change caused the Soviet Union's top military leaders to withdraw their support for Khrushchev. Khrushchev's vigor in pursuing these changes, along with the unpredictability of his actions and policies, caused increasing concern among party leaders and others.

In October 1964, while Khrushchev was on vacation in the Crimean region of southern Russia, he was suddenly summoned back to the Kremlin, or Communist headquarters, in Moscow. There, the Politburo members removed him from leadership as first secretary of the Soviet Communist Party; they also removed him as chairman of the Council of Ministers, a position he had held since 1958. Khrushchev did not resist removal as he had in 1957. Instead, he peacefully accepted his fate. Party leaders instituted a collective leadership structure, with Brezhnev, much less colorful and more predictable than Khrushchev, in the key role of first secretary.

Khrushchev became practically nonexistent in Soviet society. Living both in Moscow and at a country house, he spent the rest of his life in peace, though under guard. He enjoyed working in gardens and playing with his grandchildren. He was rarely seen in public or even mentioned in newspapers and books. He did try to establish his place in history by dictating two volumes of memoirs that were published abroad. Khrushchev died in September 1971 at age seventy-seven. It was not until the late 1980s that historians would begin to study Khrushchev's role in Soviet history.

For More Information


Crankshaw, Edward. Khrushchev: A Career. New York: Viking, 1966.

Frankland, Mark. Khrushchev. New York: Stein and Day, 1979.

Khrushchev, Nikita S. Khrushchev Remembers. Boston: Little, Brown, 1970.

Khrushchev, Nikita S. Khrushchev Remembers: The Glasnost Tapes. Boston: Little, Brown, 1990.

Khrushchev, Nikita S. Khrushchev Remembers: The Last Testament. Boston: Little, Brown, 1974.

Linden, Carl A. Khrushchev and the Soviet Leadership. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.


Nikita Khrushchev's most dramatic moment as Communist Party leader came in February 1956 during a speech commonly known as the "Crimes of Stalin" speech. From 1924 to 1953, Joseph Stalin had ruled the Soviet Union with an iron hand. His legacy as a dictator included the Great Terror, a series of massive purges involving the execution or exile of millions of Soviet citizens—both opponents and supporters of the Communist Party. Khrushchev had been a key Stalin supporter for many years and apparently assisted in the purges. Therefore, it was an incredible moment in Soviet history when, three years after Stalin's death, Khrushchev denounced the policies of Stalin in a secret speech in the concluding session of the Twentieth Communist Party Congress.

For the first time, a Soviet leader boldly pointed out the flaws of the Communist past. Khrushchev recounted Stalin's crimes against the Communist Party, particularly the Great Terror purges of the 1930s. He accused Stalin of key strategy errors in World War II. He said Stalin had sought glory for himself rather than promoting the Communist Party. He also called Stalin's rule a "cult of personality," in which an individual becomes more important than the political movement itself, which is counter to pure communist beliefs in which everyone shares in the system. This act of discrediting Stalin is referred to as de-Stalinization. Throughout the Soviet Union, special Communist Party meetings followed Khrushchev's epic speech, as party leaders discussed the best way to initiate de-Stalinization.

Historians have long pondered what led Khrushchev to make the speech. Many believe he was trying to strengthen his leadership against staunch Stalin supporters, including Georgy Malenkov, Vyacheslav Molotov, and Lazar Kaganovich. It is also possible that he wanted to formally recognize the many Soviet citizens who had been victims of the Stalin reign. He may have been trying to revitalize the Communist Party, hoping to turn de-Stalinization into a reform movement. Whatever Khrushchev's intentions, his bold words brought unintended results. The "Crimes of Stalin" speech caused great shock in Eastern European countries. It fed a mood of rebellion against communist rule and leftover communist hard-liners from the Stalin era. The most dramatic consequence was a widespread rebellion in Hungary in November 1956. Seeking to reestablish some order, Khrushchev ruthlessly crushed the revolt, killing thousands of soldiers and civilians. Through his actions in Hungary, Khrushchev lost international prestige and caused many to leave the Communist Party.

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(18941971), leader of the USSR during the first decade after Stalin's death.

Nikita Khrushchev rose from obscurity into Stalin's inner circle, unexpectedly triumphed in the battle to succeed Stalin, equally unexpectedly attacked Stalin and embarked on a program of de-Stalinization, and was suddenly ousted from power after his reforms in internal and foreign policy proved erratic and ineffective.

Khrushchev was born in the poor southern Russian village of Kalinovka, and his childhood there profoundly shaped his character and his self-image. His parents dreamed of owning land and a horse but achieved neither goal. His father, who later worked in the mines of Yuzovka in the Donbas, was a failure in the eyes of Khrushchev's mother, a strong-willed woman who invested her hopes in her son.

In 1908 Khrushchev's family moved to Yuzovka. By 1914 he had become a skilled, highly paid metalworker, had married an educated woman from a fairly prosperous family, and dreamed of becoming an engineer or industrial manager. Ironically, the Russian Revolution "distracted" him into a political career that culminated in supreme power in the Kremlin.

Between 1917 and 1929, Khrushchev's path led him from a minor position on the periphery of the revolution to a role as an up-and-coming apparatchik in the Ukrainian Communist party. Along the way he served as a political commissar in the Red Army during the Russian civil war, assistant director for political affairs of a mine, party cell leader of a technical college in whose adult education division he briefly continued his education, party secretary of a district near Stalino (formerly Yuzovka), and head of the Ukrainian Central Committee's organization department.

In 1929 Khrushchev enrolled in the Stalin Industrial Academy in Moscow. Over the next nine years his career rocketed upward: party leader of the academy in 1930; party boss of two of Moscow's leading boroughs in 1931; second secretary of the Moscow city party organization itself in 1932; city party leader in 1934; party chief of Moscow Province, additionally, in 1935; candidate-member of the party Central Committee in 1934; and party leader of Ukraine in 1938. He was powerful enough not only to have superintended the rebuilding of Moscow, but to have been complicit in the Great Terror that Stalin unleashed, particularly in the Moscow purge of men who worked for Khrushchev and of whose innocence he must have been convinced.

Between 1938 and 1941, Khrushchev was Stalin's viceroy in Ukraine. During these years, he grew more independent of Stalin while at the same time serving Stalin ever more effectively. Even as he developed doubts about the purges, Khrushchev grew more dedicated to the cause of socialism and proud of his own service to it, particularly of conquering Western Ukrainian lands and uniting them with the rest of Ukraine as part of Stalin's 1939 deal with Hitler.

Khrushchev's role in World War II blended triumph and tragedy. A political commissar on several key fronts, he was involved in, although not primarily responsible for, great victories at Stalin-grad and Kursk. But he also contributed to disastrous defeats at Kiev and Kharkov by helping to convince Stalin that the victories the dictator sought were possible when in fact they proved not to be. After the war in Ukraine, where Khrushchev remained until 1949, his record continued to be contradictory: on the one hand, directing the rebuilding of the Ukrainian economy, and attempting to pry aid out of the Kremlin when Stalinist policies led to famine in 1946; on the other hand, acting as the driving force in a brutal, bloody war against the Ukrainian independence movement in Western Ukraine.

In 1949 Stalin called Khrushchev back to Moscow as a counterweight to Georgy Malenkov and Lavrenti Beria in the Kremlin. For the next four years, Khrushchev seemed the least likely of Stalin's men to succeed him. Yet, when Stalin died on March 5, 1953, Khrushchev moved quickly to do so. After leading a conspiracy to oust Beria in June 1953, he demoted Malenkov and then Vyacheslav Molotov in 1955.

By the beginning of 1956, Khrushchev was the first among equals in the ruling Presidium. Yet a mere year and half later, he was nearly ousted in an attempted Kremlin coup. His near-defeat resulted from a variety of factors, of which the most important were the consequences of Khrushchev's Secret Speech attacking Stalin at the Twentieth Party Congress in February 1956. This speech, the content of which became widely known, sparked turmoil in the USSR, a political upheaval in Poland, and a revolution in Hungary, which Soviet troops crushed in November 1956. Khrushchev's aims in unmasking Stalin ranged from compromising Stalinist colleagues to expiating his own sins. The result of the speech, however, was to begin the process of undermining the Soviet system while at the same time undermining himself.

Khrushchev's opponents, primarily Malenkov, Molotov, and Lazar Kaganovich, took advantage of the disarray to try to oust him in June 1957. With their defeat, he might have been expected to intensify his anti-Stalin campaign. Instead, his policies proved contradictory, as if the tumultuous consequences of the Secret Speech had taught Khrushchev that his own authority depended on Stalin's not being totally discredited.

Even before Khrushchev was fully in charge, improving Soviet agriculture had been perhaps his highest priority. In 1953 he had endorsed long-needed reforms designed to increase incentives: a reduction in taxes, an increase in procurement prices paid by the state for obligatory collective farm deliveries, and encouragement of individual peasant plots, which produced much of the nation's vegetables and milk. By 1954, however, he was pushing an ill-conceived crash program to develop the so-called Virgin Lands of western Siberia and Kazakhstan as a quick way to increase overall output. Another example of Khrushchev's impulsiveness was his wildly unrealistic 1957 pledge to overtake the United States in the per capita output of meat, butter, and milk in only a few years, a promise that counted on a radical expansion of corn-growing even in regions where that ultimately proved impossible to sustain.

That all these policies failed to set Soviet agriculture on the path to sustained growth was visible in the disappointing harvests of 1960 and 1962. These setbacks led Khrushchev to raise retail prices for meat and poultry products in May 1962, breaking with popular expectations. The move triggered riots, including those in Novocherkassk, where nearly twenty-five people were killed by troops brought in to quell the disturbances. Khrushchev's next would-be panacea was his November 1962 proposal to divide the Communist Party itself into agricultural and industrial wings, a move that alienated party officials while failing to improve the harvest, which was so bad in 1963 that Moscow

was forced to buy wheat overseas, including from the United States.

The party split was the latest in a series of reorganizations that characterized Khrushchev's approach to economic administration. In 1957 he replaced many of the central Moscow ministries that had been running the economy with regional "councils of the national economy," a change that alienated the former central ministers who were forced to relocate to the provinces.

Housing and school reform were also on Khrushchev's agenda. To address the dreadful urban housing shortage bequeathed by Stalin, Khrushchev encouraged rapid, assembly-line construction of standardized, prefabricated five-story apartment houses, which proved to be a quick fix, but not a long-term solution. Khrushchev's idea of school reform was to add a year to the basic ten-year program, to be partly devoted to learning a manual trade at a local factory or farm, an idea that reflected his own training but met widespread resistance from parents, teachers, and factory and farm directors loath to take on new teenage charges.

The Thaw in Soviet culture began before Khrushchev's Secret Speech but gained momentum from it. The cultural and scientific intelligentsia was a natural constituency for a reformer like Khrushchev, but he and his Kremlin colleagues feared the Thaw might become a flood. His inconsistent actions alienated all elements of the intelligentsia while deepening Khrushchev's own love-hate feelings toward writers and artists. On the one hand, he authorized the 1957 World Youth Festival, for which thousands of young people from around the world flooded into Moscow. On the other hand, he encouraged the fierce campaign against Boris Pasternak after the poet and author of Dr. Zhivago was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1958. The Twenty-second Party Congress in October 1961, which was marked by an eruption of anti-Stalinist rhetoric, seemed to recommit Khrushchev to an alliance with liberal intellectuals, especially when followed by the decision to authorize publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's novel about the Gulag, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and Yevgeny Yevtushenko's poem "The Heirs of Stalin." But after the Cuban missile crisis ended in defeat, Khrushchev turned to chastising and browbeating the liberal intelligentsia at a series of ugly confrontations in the winter of 1962 and 1963.

As little as his minimal education prepared him to run the internal affairs of a vast, transcontinental empire, it prepared him even less for foreign policy. For the first fifty years of his life he had little exposure to the outside world and almost none to the great powers, and after Stalin's death, he initially remained on the foreign policy sidelines. Even before defeating the Anti-Party Group, however, he began to direct Soviet foreign relations, and afterward it was almost entirely his to command. Stalin's legacy in foreign affairs was abysmal: When he died, the West was mobilizing against Moscow, and even allies (in Eastern Europe and China) and neutrals had been alienated. All Stalin's heirs sought to address these problems, but Khrushchev did so most boldly and energetically.

To China Khrushchev offered extensive economic and technical assistance of the sort for which Stalin had driven a hard bargain, along with benevolent tutelage that he assumed Mao would appreciate. Initially the Chinese were pleased, but Khrushchev's failure to consult them before denouncing Stalin in 1956, his fumbling attempts to cope with the Polish and Hungarian turmoil of the same year, and his requests for military concessions in 1958 led to two acrimonious summit meetings with Mao (in August 1958 and September 1959), after which he precipitously withdrew Soviet technical experts from China in 1960. The result was an open, apparently irrevocable Sino-Soviet split.

Khrushchev tried to bring Yugoslavia back into the Soviet bloc, the better to tie the Communist camp together by substituting tolerance of diversity and domestic autonomy for Stalinist terror. Khrushchev's trip to Belgrade in May 1955, undertaken against the opposition of Molotov, gave him a stake in obtaining Yugoslav President Tito's cooperation. But if Tito, too, was eager for reconciliation, it was on his own terms, which Khrushchev could not entirely accept. As with China, therefore, Khrushchev's embrace of a would-be Communist ally ended not in new harmony but in new stresses and strains.

Whereas Stalin had mostly ignored Third World countries, since he had little interest in what he could not control, Khrushchev set out to woo them as a way of undermining "Western imperialism." In 1955 he and Prime Minister Nikolai Bulganin traveled to India, Burma, and Afghanistan. In 1960 he returned to these three countries and visited Indonesia as well. He backed the radical president of the Congo, Patrice Lumumba, and reached out to support Fidel Castro in Cuba. Yet, despite these and other moves, Khrushchev also tried to ease Cold War tensions with the West, and particularly with his main capitalist rival, the United States. As Khrushchev saw it, he had opened up the USSR to Western influences, abandoned the Stalinist notion that world war was inevitable, made deep unilateral cuts in Soviet armed forces, pulled Soviet troops out of Austria and Finland, and encouraged reform in Eastern Europe.

The Berlin ultimatum that Khrushchev issued in November 1958that if the West didn't recognize East Germany, Moscow would give the German Communists control over access to West Berlin, thus abrogating Western rights stipulated in postwar Potsdam accordswas designed not only to ensure the survival of the beleaguered German Democratic Republic, but to force the Western allies into negotiations on a broad range of issues. And at first the strategy worked. It secured Khrushchev an invitation to the United States in September 1959, the first time a Soviet leader had visited the United States, after which a four-power summit was scheduled for Paris in May 1960. But in the end, Khrushchev's talks with Eisenhower produced little progress, the Paris summit collapsed when an American U-2 spy flight was shot down on May 1, 1960, and his Vienna summit meeting with President John F. Kennedy in June 1961 produced no progress either. Instead of a German agreement, he had to settle for the Berlin Wall which was constructed in August 1961.

By deploying nuclear missiles in Cuba in October 1962, Khrushchev aimed to protect Fidel Castro from an American invasion, to rectify the strategic nuclear imbalance, which had swung in America's favor, and just possibly to prepare the way for one last diplomatic offensive on Berlin. After he was forced ignominiously to remove those missiles, not only was Khrushchev's foreign policy momentum spent, but his domestic authority began to unravel. With so many of his domestic and foreign policies at dead ends, with diverse groups ranging from the military to the intelligentsia alienated, and with his own energy and confidence running down, the way was open for his colleagues, most of them his own appointees but by now disillusioned with him, to conspire against him. In October 1964, in contrast to 1957, the plotters prepared carefully and well. Led by Leonid Brezhnev, they confronted him with a united opposition in the Presidium and the Central Committee, and forced him to resign on grounds of age and health.

From 1964 to 1971 Khrushchev lived under de facto house arrest outside Moscow. Almost entirely isolated, he at first became ill and depressed. Later, he mustered the energy and determination to dictate his memoirs; the first ever by a Soviet leader, they also served as a harbinger of glasnost to come under Mikhail Gorbachev. Called in by party authorities to account for the Western publication of his memoirs, Khrushchev revealed the depth not only of his anger at his colleagues-turned-tormentors, but his deep sense of guilt at his complicity in Stalin's crimes. By the very end of his life, to judge by a Kremlin doctor's recollections, he was even losing faith in the cause of socialism.

After his death, Khrushchev became a "non-person" in the USSR, his name suppressed by his successors and ignored by most Soviet citizens until the late 1980s, when his record received a burst of attention in connection with Gorbachev's new round of reform. Khrushchev's legacy, like his life, is remarkably mixed. Perhaps his most long-lasting bequest is the way his efforts at de-Stalinization, awkward and erratic though they were, prepared the ground for the reform and then the collapse of the Soviet Union.

See also: brezhnev, leonid ilich; cold war; cuban missile crisis; de-stalinization; stalin, josef vissarionovich; thaw, the


Breslauer, George. (1982). Khrushchev and Brezhnev as Leaders: Building Authority in Soviet Politics. Boston: Allen and Unwin.

Khrushchev, Nikita S. (1970). Khrushchev Remembers, tr. and ed. Strobe Talbott. Boston: Little, Brown.

Khrushchev, Nikita S. (1974). Khrushchev Remembers: The Last Testament, tr. and ed. Strobe Talbott. Boston: Little, Brown.

Khrushchev, Nikita S. (1990). Khrushchev Remembers: The Glasnost Tapes, tr. and ed. Jerrold L. Schecter with Vyacheslav Luchkov. Boston: Little, Brown.

Khrushchev, Sergei. (1990). Khrushchev on Khrushchev, tr. and ed. William Taubman. Boston: Little, Brown.

Khrushchev, Sergei N. (2000). Nikita Khrushchev and the Creation of a Superpower, tr. Shirley Benson. University Park: Penn State University Press.

Medvedev, Roy. (1983). Khrushchev, tr. Brian Pearce. Garden City, NY: Doubleday/Anchor.

Taubman, William. (2003). Khrushchev: The Man and His Era. New York: W. W. Norton.

Taubman, William; Khrushchev, Sergei; and Gleason Abbott, eds. (2000). Nikita Khrushchev. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Tompson, William J. (1995). Khrushchev: A Political Life. New York. St. Martin's.

William Taubman

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Nikita Khrushchev

Excerpt from "Peace and Progress Must Triumph in Our Time"

Originally published in Soviet Booklets

"A great deal would perish in [a nuclear] war. It would be too late to discuss what peaceful co-existence means when such frightful means of destruction as atom and hydrogen bombs, and ballistic rockets which are practically impossible to intercept and are capable of delivering nuclear warheads to any part of the globe, go into action. To disregard this is to shut one's eyes and ears and bury one's head like the ostrich does when in danger."

I n September 1959, Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971), accompanied by his wife, Nina Petrovina Khrushchev (1900–1984), visited the United States for the first time at the invitation of U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969; served 1953–61). On his return home, he reported on his trip to the people of Moscow at the packed Sports Palace of Lenin Stadium. His address, delivered on September 28, 1959, cleverly intertwined a call for peaceful coexistence of the world's nations, a travelogue-like accounting of each U.S. city he visited, and a call for disarmament discussions between the superpowers.

At each stop, Khrushchev perceptively related to his Moscovites how he was received. The trip began in Washington, D.C., where President Eisenhower greeted him with a welcome suitable for the leader of "our great country." Khrushchev was annoyed, however, at Vice President Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994), who had just delivered a speech before the Association of Dentists that indicated that he did not want the Cold War (1945–91) to end. Khrushchev moved onward to New York City, where he addressed the United Nations. Khrushchev reported that he was tightly guarded as he proceeded to Los Angeles,

California. Because of security concerns, he was not allowed to visit Disneyland, which he had very much wanted to do. Also he kept hearing speeches quoting him as saying the Soviets would "bury the capitalists." He said the quote was taken out of context, and to him it seemed that U.S. speech makers were "using the communist bogey to frighten people [Americans] who have only a vague notion of what communism is." Khrushchev complained of the too-tight security and the mean-spirited speeches while in Los Angeles.

The next morning, Khrushchev traveled to the "big and beautiful city" of San Francisco, and "everything had indeed changed." He was "unhandcuffed" (he could go out among crowds of people) and heard no more divisive speeches. He was warmly greeted there and spoke to the Longshoremen's Union. Soon he was off to Iowa, where he met his friend, farmer and businessman Roswell Garst (1898–1977), toured cornfields, and met with other farmers. It was then on to the industrial city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he chatted not only with workers but also with businessmen and intellectuals. Lastly, he returned to Washington, D.C., for his meetings with Eisenhower.

The following excerpt is taken from the portions of the speech that dealt with the very serious points of peaceful coexistence and disarmament. Khrushchev related that in the twentieth century, humans should no longer live like beasts ready to destroy each other. Instead, he believed that nations must meet to resolve problems and begin to live peacefully side by side in "peaceful co-existence." He insisted that those who did not earnestly seek a peaceful coexistence were only intensifying the Cold War. Khrushchev next told the Soviet audience that indeed there were those in the United States who were against relieving Cold War tensions, and then he proceeded to thoroughly scold them. Khrushchev turned to the end of his trip—three days at Camp David, the U.S. presidential retreat 70 miles (113 kilometers) from Washington. It was during this time that Khrushchev and Eisenhower began to actually develop a dialogue of mutual confidence.

Things to remember while reading "Peace and Progress Must Triumph in Our Time":

  • Although he felt warmly greeted by many people, Khrushchev also related that there were hostile and grim American faces in the crowd. The Cold War was, after all, still in a highly tense period.
  • Despite tensions, Khrushchev was eager to relate that he wanted to "thaw the ice and normalize international relations."
  • Relating his travels gave his curious audience a picture of America on a human level. It gave a human face to the need for peaceful coexistence.

Excerpt from "Peace and Progress Must Triumph in Our Time"

On his Visit to the United States to a meeting of Moscow People at the Sports Palace of the Lenin Stadium September 28, 1959.

The most farsighted statesmen of a number of countries have come to realize the need to make some kind of efforts to end the cold war, to do away with the tension which has developed in international relations, to clear the atmosphere and create more or less normal relations among states. Then the nations would be able to live and look to the future without fear.

The 20th century is a century of the greatest flourishing of human thought and genius.… Must we, in this period of the flourishing of human genius, which is penetrating the secrets of nature and harnessing its mighty forces, put up with primitive relations being maintained like those that existed between people when man was still a beast?…

Our times can and should become a time of the fulfillment of great ideals, a time of peace and progress.

The Soviet government has long been aware of this. Precisely for this reason we have repeatedly proposed to the great powers that a meeting between heads of government be arranged so as to exchange views on urgent international problems. When we made these proposals we were expressing our belief in man's reason. We believed that, given a wise approach, the proponents of various political views, countries with differing social systems, would be able to find a common language so as to resolve correctly and in the interests of consolidating peace the present-day problems that cause concern to all mankind.

In our age of great technical progress, in conditions when there are states with different social systems, international problems cannot be resolved successfully in any other way than on principles of peaceful co-existence. There is no other way.

Those people who say they do not understand what peaceful coexistence is and are fearful of it, contribute, willingly or unwillingly, to the further intensification of the cold war, which will certainly extend if we do not interfere and stop it. It will reach a pitch where a spark might at any moment set off a world conflagration.

A great deal would perish in such a war. It would be too late to discuss what peaceful co-existence means when such frightful means of destruction as atom and hydrogen bombs, and ballistic rockets which are practically impossible to intercept and are capable of delivering nuclear warheads to any part of the globe, go into action. To disregard this is to shut one's eyes and ears and bury one's head like the ostrich does when in danger.

But if we, the people, imitate this ostrich and hide our heads in the sand, then, I ask you: What is the use of having this head if it is unable to avert the threat to its very life?

No, we must display human reason and confidence in this reason, confidence in the possibility of reaching agreement with statesmenof different countries, and mobilize the people by joint efforts to avert the war danger. It is necessary to have the will-power and courage to go against those who persist in continuing the cold war. It is necessary to bar the road to it, to thaw the ice and normalize international relations.…

We also met with hostile and grim American faces.…

What am I saying this for? Is it because I want to cool the relations between the Soviet Union and the United States? No, I am speaking about this because you ought to know the truth and so that you may see, not only the side that is pleasant to us, but also the other, backstage, side which should not be concealed. There are forces in America which are acting against us, against the easing of tension and for the continuation of the cold war.

To disregard that would mean showing weakness in the struggle against those evil forces, against those evil spirits. No, they must be exposed; they must be shown to the world and publicly whipped; they must be subjected to the torments of Hades. Let those who want to continue the cold war fume. No ordinary people anywhere in the world, no sensible person will support them.…

I jokingly said to Mr. [U.N. ambassador John Cabot] Lodge that if I, a representative of the working class, of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and he, a representative of the capitalist world, were by chance cast away on a desert island we would probably find a common language and ensure peaceful co-existence there. Why, then, cannot the states with differing social systems ensure co-existence? Our states are also, so to speak, on an island—after all, with the present-day means of communication, which have brought the continents so close together, our planet really resembles a small island, and we should realize this. Having understood the need for co-existence, we should pursue a peaceful policy, live in friendship, not brandish weapons but destroy them.

Comrades, on September 25 we again met the United States President at the White House and left together with him by helicopter for his country residence, which is called Camp David. We stayed there on September 25, 26 and 27.…

It should be taken into account, however, that with the President we could not, of course, clear out at one go all the cold war rubble that has piled up during many years. It will take time to clear out this rubbish, and not only clear it out but destroy it. Things dividing us are still too fresh in the memory. Sometimes it isdifficult for certain statesmen to give up the old positions, the old views and formulas.

But I will tell you with all frankness, dear comrades, that I got the impression from the talks and discussions on concrete questions with the United States President that he sincerely wishes to end the state of cold war, to create normal relations between our two countries, to promote the improvement of relations among all states. Peace is indivisible now and it cannot be ensured by the efforts of two or three countries alone. So we must strive for peace in such a way that all the nations, all the countries are drawn into this struggle.

We exchanged views with the United States President on questions of disarmament. He said that the United States government was studying our proposal and that the United States, just as we did, wanted complete disarmament under proper control [some sort of inspection program to ensure compliance].…

I want to tell you, dear comrades, that I do not doubt the President's readiness to exert his will and efforts to reach agreement between our two countries, to create friendly relations between our two nations and to solve urgent problems in the interests of strengthening peace.

At the same time I got the impression that there are forces in America which are not working in the same direction as the President. Those forces are in favor of continuing the cold war and in favor of the arms race. I would not be in a hurry to say whether those forces are large or small, influential or not influential, whether the forces supporting the President—and he is backed by the absolute majority of the American people—can win.…

For our part we shall do everything we can to turn the barometer's hand away from "stormy," and even from "changeable," towards "fine".…

In our actions we rely on reason, on truth, on the support of all the people. Moreover, we rely on our great potential.

And let it be known to those who want to continue the cold war so as to turn it sooner or later into a shooting war, that in our times only a madman can start a war, and he himself will perish in its flames.…

Dear Comrades Muscovites, we are boundlessly happy to return home, to see the faces of the Soviet people which are so dear to our hearts.

Long live the great Soviet people, who are successfully building communism under the leadership of the glorious Leninist party!

Long live Soviet-American friendship!

Long live friendship among all the peoples of the world!

What happened next …

When Khrushchev left Camp David, the two super-power leaders' relationship seemed to be on a much stronger footing. The improved relations were referred to as the Spirit of Camp David. Although no agreements were concluded, Khrushchev and Eisenhower conferred on such topics as the high cost of developing and producing military "toys" to be sure they are ready for a future war. They commiserated on the power of the military leaders demanding more and more funds for more and more weapons. According to Sergei Khrushchev (see previous excerpt in this chapter), the first signs of mutual confidence appeared. They agreed to meet again in Europe in May 1960.

The improving relations chilled, however, just before the next scheduled meeting. On May 1, an American U-2 spy plane was shot down by a Soviet antiaircraft missile. The pilot was captured alive. Eisenhower refused to apologize, and Khrushchev refused to participate in the summit in protest. It also resulted in cancellation of the U.S. president's visit to the Soviet Union that had been widely heralded. The two would not meet again. Nevertheless, a foundation for future negotiations now existed.

Did you know …

  • Khrushchev's trip to the United States was followed intently by the Soviet public. The general feeling was pride that he was reaching out to the Americans.
  • Khrushchev saw the trip as a starting point for ending the Cold War.
  • Just before his arrival, a significant portion of the U.S. press had published statements, editorials, and articles that had a very anti-Khrushchev tone. Khrushchev considered this a "propaganda campaign against my visit."

Consider the following …

  • Relate Khrushchev's following symbolism of an ostrich to the Cold War: "But if we, the people, imitate this ostrich and hide our heads in the sand, then, I ask you: What is the use of having this head if it is unable to avert the threat to its very life?"
  • What did Khrushchev and Eisenhower learn during their Camp David meeting?
  • According to Sergei Khrushchev, with what does the ultimate fate of humankind "rest"?

For More Information


Crankshaw, Edward. Khrushchev: A Career. New York: Viking, 1966.

Dockrill, Michael. The Cold War, 1945–1963. London: Macmillan, 1988.

Frankland, Mark. Khrushchev. New York: Stein and Day, 1979.

Khrushchev, Sergei. Nikita Khrushchev: Creation of a Superpower. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000.

Linden, Carl A. Khrushchev and the Soviet Leadership. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.

Soviet Booklets. London: March Publicity Press, Ltd.

Corn, Khrushchev, and Roswell Garst

Nikita Khrushchev saw Soviet production of corn as a means of raising the level of food production toward levels in America. Corn would supply feed for livestock and thereby raise meat production as well.

In 1955, about the same time as the end of the Geneva Conference, the KGB, the Soviet intelligence agency, placed a newspaper editorial from an Iowa paper, the Des Moines Register, on Khrushchev's desk. The article called on the superpowers to compete on the farm fields, a "corn race" instead of an "arms race." Immediately, Khrushchev sent the best Soviet agricultural scientists to Iowa to see the latest advances in corn production. Then the Soviet delegation invited American farmers to the Soviet Union. The Cold War was at its height, and only one Iowa farmer dared to take up the offer. He was Roswell Garst. Garst would subsequently make many visits to the Soviet Union, as he and Khrushchev got along famously. Garst traveled to southern Russian cornfields to advise and supervise planting techniques. Khrushchev remarked, "This American capitalist cares more about our harvests than Soviet collective farmers do."

In his book Nikita Khrushchev and the Creation of a Superpower, Sergei Khrushchev, Nikita's son, related that on a trip to Iowa in the 1990s, the governor of Iowa quipped that when he had gone to the Soviet Union, the Russians he encountered exclaimed, "Iowa! The most famous American state! Nikita Khrushchev brought corn from there to the Soviet Union." It seemed the Iowa governor never ran into anyone in a foreign country that had ever even heard of Iowa. Sergei also related he believed the friendship between Garst and his father was no less fruitful than many months of negotiations of veteran diplomats in easing tensions between the two countries.

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Nikita Khrushchev

Excerpt from "Crimes of Stalin Speech"

Published in A Treasury of the World's Great Speeches, published in 1954

"After Stalin's death the Central Committee of the Party began to implement a policy of explaining concisely and consistently that it is impermissible … to elevate one person, to transform him into a superman possessing supernaturalistic characteristics akin to those of a god. Such a man supposedly knows everything, thinks for everyone, can do anything, is infallible in his behavior."

O n the night of February 24, 1956, during the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party being held at the Kremlin, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971) ordered a select group of delegates to a secret meeting under tight security. The Kremlin was a centuries-old fort in Moscow that was used as the headquarters of the Communist Party. As the delegates approached the doors of the room where the unscheduled night meeting was to occur, they were apprehensive. Some, no doubt remembering the Stalin purges, were quietly terrified. What would befall them in the next hour was completely unknown.

The gathering of the Twentieth Congress had been going on for ten days, since February 14. The last day would be Saturday, February 25. The number of delegates with voting rights in attendance was 1,355, with 81 more delegates there as advisors. The conference session had covered all aspects of Soviet society from economy, agriculture, and health, to the problems of unemployment of youth. There were a few subtle changes from previous Congresses. Noticeably absent was the picture of former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin (1879–1953) in the main hall. In addition, Khrushchev, First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, addressing a general meeting, had delivered a seven-hour report with hardly a mention of Stalin.

Unknown to those entering the secret Friday night meeting was that there was little to fear. Gone were the days when Stalin would simply look into a man's eyes and, depending on what he thought he read in those eyes, the man's life would continue or be shortly ended. A new day had dawned in the Soviet Union. No longer were all problems, perceived problems, or controversies settled by torture and murder as they had been under Stalin. When Stalin died, so did the terror. Nikita Khrushchev spoke to the delegates gathered on Friday night as no Soviet official had dared to speak for three decades. In a several-hour speech, he carefully explained the years of rule by Stalin and pointed out the flaws and crimes of the communist past. The speech became known as Khrushchev's "Crimes of Stalin Speech."

Things to remember while reading "Crimes of Stalin Speech":

  • For thirty years, most of the delegates at the conference had been terrified of Stalin. A secret meeting could have easily meant the announcement of their death sentences.
  • Stalin's legacy as a dictator was the Great Terror. The Terror involved execution or exile of millions of both opponents and supporters of the Communist Party.
  • The Twentieth Congress was the first all-Party member conference since Stalin's death in 1953.

Excerpt from "Crimes of Stalin Speech"

Comrades! [fellow communists, friends]

After [Joseph] Stalin's death the Central Committee of the Party began to implement a policy of explaining concisely and consistentlythat it is impermissible and foreign to the spirit of Marxism-Leninism [the founding theory of communism] to elevate one person, to transform him into a superman possessing supernaturalistic characteristics akin to those of a god. Such a man supposedly knows everything, thinks for everyone, can do anything, is infallible in his behavior.

Such a belief about a man, and specifically about Stalin, was cultivated among us for many years.…

In December 1922, in a letter to the Party Congress, Vladimir Ilyich [Lenin] wrote: "After taking over the position of Secretary General [head of the Communist Party and consequently of the Soviet Union as well], Comrade Stalin accumulated in his hands immeasurable power and I am not certain whether he will be able to use this power with the required care.… Stalin is excessively rude, and this defect, which can be freely tolerated in our midst and in contacts among us Communists, becomes a defect which cannot be tolerated in one holding the position of the Secretary General. Because of this, I propose that the comrades consider the method by which Stalin would be removed from this position and by which another man would be selected for it, a man who, above all, would differ from Stalin in only one direction, namely, greater tolerance, greater loyalty, greater kindness and a more considerate attitude toward the comrades, a less capricious temper, etc."…

Some years later, when socialism in our country was fundamentally constructed, when the exploiting classes were generally liquidated, when the Soviet social structure had radically changed, when the social basis for political movements and groups hostile to the Party had violently contracted, when the ideological opponents [opposition to communism] of the Party were long since defeated politically—then the repression against them began.

It was precisely during this period [1935 to 1938] that the practice of mass repression through the government was born, first against the enemies of Leninism … and subsequently also against many honest Communists, against those Party cadres who had borne the heavy load of the civil war [the Bolshevik Revolution of 1918] and the first and most difficult years of industrialization and collectivization.

Stalin originated the concept "enemy of the people." This term … made possible the usage of the most cruel repression … against anyone who in any way disagreed with Stalin, against those who were only suspected of hostile intent, against those who had bad reputations.

This concept, "enemy of the people," actually eliminated the possibility of any kind of ideological fight or the making of one's views known on this or that issue, even those of a practical character. In the main, and in actuality, the only proof of guilt used … was the "confession" of the accused himself, and, as subsequent probing proved, "confessions" were acquired through physical pressures [torture] against the accused.

This led to … the fact that many entirely innocent victims, who in the past had defended the Party line [communist ideals], became victims.…

It was determined that of the one hundred thirty-nine members and candidates of the Party's Central Committee who were elected at the Seventeenth Congress, ninety-eight persons, i.e., 70 percent, were arrested and shot [mostly 1937 to 1938]. [Indignation in the hall.]

Facts prove that many abuses were made on Stalin's orders.… He could look at a man and say: "Why are your eyes so shifty today?" or, "Why do you turn so much today and avoid looking medirectly in the eyes?" This sickly suspiciousness created in him a general distrust, even toward eminent party workers whom he had known for years. Everywhere and in everything he saw "enemies," "two-faces," and "spies."

Possessing unlimited power, he indulged in great willfulness and choked a person morally and physically [destroyed the person]. A situation was created where one could not express one's own will.…

Comrades, let us reach for some other facts. The Soviet Union is justly considered as a model of a multinational State because we have in practice assured the equality and friendship of all nations which live in our great Fatherland.

All the more monstrous are the acts whose initiator was Stalin and which are rude violations of the basic Leninist principles of the nationality policy [communism] of the Soviet State. We refer to the mass deportations from their native places of whole nations,… this deportation action was not dictated by any military considerations.…

I recall the days when the conflict between the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia began to be blown up artificially. Once, when I came from Kiev to Moscow, I was invited to visit Stalin, who, pointing to a copy of a letter sent to [Yugoslavian leader Josip] Tito, asked me, "Have you read this?"

Not waiting for my reply he answered, "I will shake my little finger and there will be no more Tito. He will fall."

We have paid dearly for this "shaking of the little finger." This statement reflects Stalin's mania for greatness, but he acted just that way: "I will shake my little finger—and there will be no Kossior"; "I will shake my little finger again and Postyshev and Chubar will be no more"; "I will shake my little finger once more—and Voznesensky, Kuznetsov [all Soviets that disappeared] and many others will disappear."

But this did not happen to Tito. No matter how much or little Stalin shook, not only his little finger but everything else that he could shake, Tito did not fall.…

The question arises why [Lavrenty] Beria [head of the Soviet secret police, Stalin's main enforcer], who had liquidated tens of thousands of Party and Soviet workers, was not unmasked during Stalin's life? He was not unmasked earlier because he had very skillfully played on Stalin's weaknesses; feeding him with suspicion, he assisted Stalin in everything and acted with his support.…

Stalin's reluctance to consider life's realities and the fact that he was not aware of the real state of affairs in the provinces can be illustrated by his direction of agriculture. All those who interested themselves even a little in the national situation saw the difficult situation in agriculture, but Stalin never even noted it. Did we tell Stalin about this? Yes, we told him, but he did not support us. Why? Because Stalin never traveled anywhere, did not meet city and kolkhoz [collective farm] workers; he did not know the actual situation in the provinces. He knew the country and agriculture only from films. And these films had dressed up and beautified the existing situation in agriculture. Many films so pictured kolkhoz life that the tables were bending from the weight of turkeys and geese. Evidently Stalin thought it was actually so.…

Comrades! The Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union has manifested with a new strength the unshakable unity of our Party, its cohesiveness around the Central Committee, its resolute will to accomplish the great task of building communism. [Tumultuous applause.] And the fact that we present in all their ramifications the basic problems of over-coming the cult of the individual which is alien to Marxism-Leninism, as well as the problem of liquidating its burdensome consequences [righting the wrongs done under Stalin], is an evidence of the great moral and political strength of our party. [Prolonged applause.]

We are absolutely certain that our Party, armed with the historical resolutions of the Twentieth Congress, will lead the Soviet people along the Leninist path to new successes, to new victories. [Tumultuous, prolonged applause.]

Long live the victorious banner of our Party—Leninism. [Tumultuous, prolonged applause ending in ovation. All rise.]

What happened next …

The relief in the hall was overwhelming. Astonished at Khrushchev's words, the delegates broke out in thunderous, sustained applause. Copies of the speech were released to party leaders. Following the epic speech, special Communist Party meetings were held throughout the Soviet Union to carry forward Khrushchev's message. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) managed to get a copy of the speech out of Moscow. On June 4, 1956, a translated copy was released to the press by the U.S. State Department.

The Communist government in China under Mao Zedong (1893–1976) highly disapproved of Khrushchev's speech. To the Chinese, it broke from traditional communist doctrine. The speech also caused shock in Eastern European countries. Unintentionally, it fostered a mood of rebellion against communist rule, especially against hard-line Stalin supporters. The rebellious mood in Hungary broke into open revolt on November 1956. Khrushchev felt compelled to crush the revolt, killing soldiers and civilians alike. With his actions in Hungary, the prestige he had gained within the international community was lost.

Nevertheless, Khrushchev indeed went down a different path from Stalin. Rather than secluding himself in the Kremlin, he traveled widely across the Soviet Union and to foreign countries, including Great Britain and the United States.

Did you know …

  • Khrushchev, to survive the purges of Stalin, worked with Stalin as a close advisor in the 1930s and 1940s. In a January 1937 speech, he said, "Stalin is hope; … Stalin is our banner! Stalin is our will! Stalin is our victory!"
  • It was not surprising to many who knew the flamboyant, independent-thinking Khrushchev that he could deliver such a risky, revolutionary speech.
  • The "Crimes of Stalin Speech" is considered Khrushchev's most dramatic moment in his colorful history as leader of the Soviet Union.

Consider the following …

  • According to Khrushchev, Stalin was out of touch with "life's realities," or the real conditions facing Soviet citizens. Why?
  • Khrushchev spoke of "overcoming the cult of the individual." Explain what a "cult of the individual" is and why it is dangerous. Can you think of any European leaders during World War II who enjoyed "cult of the individual" status?
  • If Stalin "shook his little finger" at you, what would happen?

For More Information


Antonov-Ovseyenko, Anton. The Time of Stalin: Portrait of a Tyranny. New York: Harper & Row, 1980.

Conquest, Robert. Stalin: Breaker of Nations. New York: Viking, 1991.

Djilas, Milovan. Conversations with Stalin. London: Penguin, 1962.

Lewis, Jonathan, and Phillip Whitehead. Stalin: A Time for Judgement. New York: Pantheon Books, 1990.

Peterson, Houston. A Treasury of the World's Great Speeches. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1954.

Tucker, Robert C. Stalin in Power: The Revolution from Above, 1928–1941. New York: W. W. Norton, 1990.

Zubok, Vladislav M., and Constantine Pleshakov. Inside the Kremlin's Cold War: From Stalin to Khrushchev. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.

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Nikita Khrushchev

Excerpt from "Communiqué to President Kennedy Accepting an End to the Missile Crisis, October 28, 1962"

Originally published in The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962: National Security Archive Documents Reader, 1992

"I very well understand your anxiety and the anxiety of the United States people in connection with the fact that the weapons which you describe as "offensive" are, in fact, grim weapons. Both you and I understand what kind of weapon they are."

O n Wednesday, October 24, 1962, the first day of the U.S. naval quarantine, or blockade, designed to prevent Soviet ships carrying military equipment from reaching the island of Cuba, the U.S. military was at alert level DEFCON 2 (DEFense CONdition 2). DEFCON 2 is the last level before DEFCON 1, which means a nuclear war is imminent or has begun. At no other time in U.S. history had the level been at DEFCON 2. Then by midday, the Soviet ships apparently had stopped in the water and not challenged the U.S. ships forming the quarantine ring. On Thursday, October 25, the Soviet vessels carrying military equipment indeed turned around and headed back to the Soviet Union. However, this did not end the crisis. It was only a momentary breather because missiles with nuclear warheads already on site on the island remained.

By Friday, October 26, Attorney General Robert Kennedy (1925–1968), at the request of his brother, President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63), was having "backdoor" meetings with the Soviet ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Dobrynin (1919–). That evening, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971) sent President Kennedy a letter

offering to remove the missiles already located on the island if President Kennedy would assure him that the United States would not invade Cuba. That same evening, Dobrynin and Attorney General Kennedy met, and Dobrynin hinted that the United States should remove the U.S. missiles located in Turkey. On Saturday morning, Khrushchev sent President Kennedy yet another letter demanding those missiles in Turkey be removed if the Soviets agreed to remove the missiles in Cuba.

Before President Kennedy could reply to either of Khrushchev's letters, more rapid-fire events turned Saturday, October 27, into "Black Saturday." It was so named because many thought it was the day the world came closest to annihilation. Two incidents occurred involving U.S. U-2 reconnaissance (spy-photography) aircraft. In the first instance, a U-2 flying over Alaska drifted into Soviet airspace. The Soviets took the incident as a test of their defense system. The second incident occurred over Cuba, where a U-2 was shot down and the pilot killed. By the afternoon, the U.S. military and various members of Congress were pressing President Kennedy hard for an immediate invasion of Cuba.

Ignoring much of the uproar and staying intensely focused, Attorney General Kennedy came up with a simple compromise. He told the president to ignore the second letter from Khrushchev and accept the terms of the first—promising Khrushchev the United States would not invade Cuba and would halt the quarantine if he removed the missiles. This was the public part of the agreement. Then, privately, Dobrynin got his assurance that the missiles in Turkey would be removed. The next morning, Sunday, October 28, Khrushchev sent a message to President Kennedy agreeing to remove the missiles from Cuba. The following is an excerpt from Khrushchev's October 28 message.

Things to remember while reading the excerpt from "Communiqué to President Kennedy Accepting an End to the Missile Crisis, October 28, 1962":

  • President Kennedy was under intense U.S. military and congressional pressure to invade Cuba.
  • Sergei Khrushchev (1935–), son of Nikita Khrushchev, writes in his book Nikita Khrushchev: Creation of a Super-power, "When Father argued at a meeting of the Soviet leadership in favor of withdrawing the missiles, he made this unprecedented statement: 'We have to help Kennedy withstand pressure from the hawks [supporters of war]. They are demanding an immediate military invasion.'" Khrushchev knew an invasion would lead to nuclear war.
  • Nikita Khrushchev agreed to a U.S. president's "promise" not to invade Cuba again. According to Sergei Khrushchev, this would have been "inconceivable" only a few years earlier.

Excerpt from "Communiqué to President Kennedy Accepting an End to the Missile Crisis, October 28, 1962"

Esteemed Mr. President: I have received your message of October 27, 1962. I express my satisfaction and gratitude for the sense of proportion and understanding of the responsibility borne by you at present for the preservation of peace throughout the world which you have shown. I very well understand your anxiety and the anxiety of the United States people in connection with the fact that the weapons which you describe as "offensive" are, in fact, grim weapons. Both you and I understand what kind of weapon they are.

In order to complete with greater speed the liquidation of the conflict dangerous to the cause of peace, to give confidence to all people longing for peace, and to calm the American people, who, I am certain, want peace as much as the people of the Soviet Union, the Soviet Government, in addition to previously issued instructions on the cessation of further work at building sites for the weapons, has issued a new order on the dismantling of the weapons which you describe as "offensive," and their crating and return to the Soviet Union.

Mr. President, I would like to repeat once more what I had already written to you in my preceding letters—that the Soviet Government has placed at the disposal of the Cuban Government economic aid, as well as arms, inasmuch as Cuba and the Cuban

people have constantly been under the continuous danger of an invasion [from the United States].…

We stationed them there in order that no attack should be made against Cuba and that no rash action should be permitted to take place.

I regard with respect and trust your statement in your message of October 27, 1962, that no attack will be made on Cuba—that no invasion will take place—not only by the United States, but also by other countries of the Western Hemisphere, as your message pointed out. Then the motives which promoted us to give aid of this nature to Cuba cease. They are no longer applicable, hence we have instructed our officers—and these means, as I have already stated, are in the hands of Soviet officers—to take necessary measures for stopping the building of the said projects and their dismantling and return to the Soviet Union.…

I note with satisfaction that you have responded to my wish that the said dangerous situation should be liquidated and also that conditions should be created for a more thoughtful appraisal of theinternational situation which is fraught with great dangers in our age of thermonuclear weapons, rocket technology … global rockets, and other lethal weapons. All people are interested in insuring peace. Therefore, we who are invested with trust and great responsibility must not permit an exacerbation of the situation and must liquidate the breeding grounds where a dangerous situation has been created fraught with serious consequences for the cause of peace. If we succeed along with you and with the aid of other people of good will in liquidating this tense situation, we must also concern ourselves to see that other dangerous conflicts do not arise which might lead to a world thermonuclear catastrophe.…

Mr. President, I trust your statement. However, on the other hand, there are responsible people who would like to carry out an invasionof Cuba at this time, and in such a way to spark off a war. If we take practical steps and announce the dismantling and evacuation of the appropriate means from Cuba, then, doing that, we wish to establish at the same time the confidence of the Cuban people that we are with them and are not divesting ourselves of the responsibility of granting help to them.

We are convinced that the people of all countries, like yourself, Mr. President, will understand me correctly. We do not issue threats. We desire only peace. Our country is now on the upsurge. Our people are enjoying the fruits of their peaceful labor.…

We value peace, perhaps even more than other people, because we experienced the terrible war against Hitler. However, our people

will not flinch in the face of any ordeal. Our people trust their government, and we assure our people and the world public that the Soviet government will not allow itself to be provoked.

Should the provocateurs unleash a war, they would not escape the grave consequences of such a war. However, we are confident that reason will triumph. War will not be unleashed and the peace and security of people will be insured.…

With respect for you, Khrushchev. October 28, 1962.

What happened next …

With the agreement, both sides immediately breathed easier. The U.S. military alert level went to DEFCON 5, the lowest level of military concern. Khrushchev proceeded to bring the missiles back to the Soviet Union. Both sides claimed victory. President Kennedy had achieved the goal of moving the missiles out of Cuba. Khrushchev had gotten a promise of protection for communist Cuba. As of 2003, the United States had never invaded Cuba. Both Khrushchev and Kennedy claimed victory that a nuclear war was avoided.

The primary consequence of the Cuban Missile Crisis was that the American public now believed that the Soviet Union's nuclear capabilities equalled those of the United States. Citizens would not listen to numbers that showed the United States with far more missiles. As far as Americans were concerned, each country could totally annihilate the other—or, for that matter, all life on earth. It was the last of the Cold War "missile bluff" diplomacies.

Both sides had so frightened the other during the Cuban Missile Crisis that the first serious negotiations in controlling nuclear weaponry began in August 1963. The United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain—which also had nuclear capabilities—signed the Limited Test-Ban Treaty to ban nuclear testing underwater, in the atmosphere, and in outer space.

Did you know …

  • For the first time in Cold War history, the two superpower leaders negotiated not with mutual public threats and propaganda but in reasoned secret personal correspondence.
  • Knowing mutual dialogue and a new trust had averted a disaster for the world, President Kennedy asked the news media to tone down their shouts of victory as Khrushchev withdrew the missiles from Cuba.
  • In June 1963, a direct hot line was set up between the Kremlin (Soviet government headquarters) in Moscow and the White House in Washington, D.C., to reduce the chance of nuclear war through miscalculation or misunderstanding.

Consider the following …

  • The Cuban Missile Crisis is rarely thought of in terms of positive outcomes. Find and list at least five good results or consequences (for either the Americans or the Soviets or both) stemming from the Cuban Missile Crisis.
  • One of the reasons Khrushchev brought Soviet missiles to Cuba was to protect Cuba from invasion. Could this have been accomplished with less drastic tactics? What might be another underlying reason Khrushchev wanted missiles in Cuba?
  • Do you think the Soviets really intended to fire the missiles at the United States? Why or why not?

For More Information


Chrisp, Peter. Cuban Missile Crisis. Milwaukee, WI: World Almanac Library, 2002.

Finkelstein, Norman H. Thirteen Days/Ninety Miles: The Cuban Missile Crisis. New York: J. Messner, 1994.

Frankland, Mark. Khrushchev. New York: Stein and Day, 1979.

Huchthausen, Peter A., and Alexander Hoyt. October Fury. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons, 2002.

Khrushchev, Nikita S. Edited by Strobe Talbott. Khrushchev Remembers. Boston: Little, Brown, 1970.

Khrushchev, Sergei. Nikita Khrushchev: Creation of a Superpower. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000.

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Nikita Khrushchev

Excerpt from "Khrushchev's Secret Speech on the Berlin Crisis, August 1961"

Excerpted from Cold War International History Project Virtual Archive (Web site)

"If [Kennedy] starts a war then he would probably become the last president of the United States of America."

I n this excerpt from "Khrushchev's Secret Speech on the Berlin Crisis, August 1961," Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971) spoke to his Communist Party leaders. These leaders included Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko (1909–1989); the leaders of Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Rumania; and most importantly, Walter Ulbricht (1893–1973) of East Germany. He was responding to the radio and television address of U.S. president John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63) on July 25,1961. Kennedy was speaking to American citizens about Berlin and Khrushchev. Much of Khrushchev's speech revolved around his conversation with U.S. envoy John J. McCloy (1895–1989), a disarmament expert who happened to be in Moscow at the time of Kennedy's speech. First, Khrushchev stressed that the Soviets must continue to push for a German peace treaty that would permanently separate East and West Germany, giving independent country status to both. (The United States would agree only to a reunited Germany.)

The excerpt begins with Khrushchev considering whether or not the United States will go to war over German

reunification and over West Berlin, where the Western powers maintained a military presence. Khrushchev spoke of the possibility of nuclear war and his belief that pursuing a German peace treaty was worth the risk of war. He also gave his impression of the young president. He described Kennedy as a "rather unknown quantity … a light-weight," hardly capable of influencing the U.S. government.

Khrushchev vowed to meet the Western powers on a strong and equal basis if war came. He also defended Soviet involvement in East Germany as a vital buffer between the Soviet Union and the West.

Things to remember while reading the excerpt from "Khrushchev's Secret Speech on the Berlin Crisis, August 1961":

  • It was imperative that Khrushchev maintain a very hard line in front of his fellow communist leaders.
  • Khrushchev believed the young Kennedy did not measure up to past U.S. statesmen and was confident that he could frighten and overwhelm the new president.
  • The original translated version of Khrushchev's speech that follows includes text in brackets generally meant to clarify certain passages; in some instances, the original Russian word or phrase is included as well.

Excerpt from "Khrushchev's Secret Speech on the Berlin Crisis, August 1961"

[There was always an understanding … that the West] would intimidate us, call out all spirits against us to test our courage, our acumen and our will.… As for me and my colleagues in the state and party leadership, we think that the adversary [the United States] proved to be less staunch [zhestokii] than we had estimated.… We expected there would be more blustering and … so far the worst spurt of intimidation was in the Kennedy speech [on 25 July 1961].… Kennedy spoke [to frighten us] and then got scared himself [referring to Kennedy strengthening U.S. civil defense].…

Immediately after Kennedy delivered his speech I spoke with[U.S. envoy John J. McCloy]. We had a long conversation, talking about disarmament instead of talking, as we needed to, about Germany and conclusion of a peace treaty on West Berlin. So I suggested: come to my place [Black Sea resort in Pitsunda] tomorrow and we will continue our conversation.…

I said [to McCloy]: "I don't understand what sort of disarmament we can talk about, when Kennedy in his speech declared war on us and set down his conditions. What can I say? Please tell your president that we accept his ultimatum and his terms and will respond in kind.…"

He then said … [that] Kennedy did not mean it, he meant to negotiate. I responded: "Mr. McCloy, but you said you did not read Kennedy's speech?" He faltered [zamialsia], for clearly he knew about the content of the speech.…

"You want to frighten us," I went on [to McCloy]. "You convinced yourself, that Khrushchev will never go to war … so youscare us [expecting] us to retreat. True, we will not declare war, but we will not withdraw either, if you push it on us. We will respond to your war in kind.…"

I told him to let Kennedy know … that if he starts a war then he would probably become the last president of the United States of America.…

[Khrushchev said he had met Italian Prime Minister Amintore Fanfani, who came to Moscow ostensibly at his own initiative, but in fact at Kennedy's prodding.]

[Khrushchev reports that he told Fanfani:] We have means [to retaliate]. Kennedy himself acknowledged, that there is equality of forces, i.e. the Soviet Union has as many hydrogen and atomic weapons as they have. I agree with that, [although] we did not crunch numbers. [But, if you recognize that] let us speak about equal opportunities. Instead they [Western leaders] behave as if they were a father dealing with a toddler: if it doesn't come their way [the Soviets do not agree on a peace treaty with a united Germany], they threaten to pull our ears.… We already passed that age, we wear long trousers, not short ones.…

I told Fanfani yesterday: "I don't believe, though, there will be war. What am I counting on? I believe in your [Western leaders'] common sense. Do you know who will argue most against war? [West German chancellor Konrad] Adenauer. [Because, if the war starts] there will not be a single stone left in place in Germany.…"

[British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan visited Moscow in 1959 and told Khrushchev that war was impossible. Khrushchev presumes that Western leaders continue to act on that conviction.] Macmillan could not have lost his mind since then. He considered war impossible then and, suddenly, now he changes his mind? No, no. The outcome of modern war will be decided by atomic weapons.…

Can we clash? Possibly.… I told Fanfani, that [the American state] is a barely governed state.… Kennedy himself hardly influences the direction and development of policies [politiki] in the American state.… The American Senate and other [state] organizations are very similar to our Veche of Novgorod .… One party there defeated the other when it tore off half of the beards of another party.… They shouted, yelled, pulled each other's beards, and in such a way resolved the question who was right.…

Hence anything is possible in the United States. War is also possible. They can unleash it. There are more stable situations in England,France, Italy, Germany. I would even say that, when our "friend" [U.S. secretary of state John Foster] Dulles was alive, they had more stability [in the United States]. I told McCloy about it.…

I told McCloy, that if they deploy one division in Germany, we will respond with two divisions, if they declare mobilization, we will do the same. If they mobilize such and such numbers, we will put out 150–200 divisions, as many as necessary. We are considering now … to deploy tanks defensively along the entire border [between the GDR (German Democratic Republic, East Germany) and the FRG (Federal Republic of Germany, West Germany)]. In short, we have to seal every weak spot they might look for.…

[Khrushchev admitted the GDR cost the Soviets much more than they needed for their own defense.] Each division there costs us many times more, than if it had been located [on the Soviet territory]. Some might say, why do we need the GDR, we are strong, we have armaments and all, and we will stand on our borders. This would have really been a narrow nationalist vision [a point of view considering only the Soviet Union].…

Summing up, our Central Committee and government believe, that now preparations are proceeding better, but there will be a thaw, and, more importantly, a cooling down.… We have to work out our tactics now and perhaps it is already the right time.

What happened next …

After Kennedy's speech and Khrushchev's reply, thousands and thousands of East Germans crossed into West Berlin. They sensed something was about to happen. Then, in the early morning hours of August 13, 1961, Khrushchev made his move on Berlin. It was not with tanks, guns, or missiles but jackhammers and rolls of barbed wire. He ordered the construction of the Berlin Wall.

Did you know …

  • In part of Khrushchev's talk not excerpted here, he sounded as if the Soviets also used domino theory thinking. He

stated that if Germany were united, East Germany would disappear and be absorbed under the Western powers. Then Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union would be next to fall, like dominos, to the Western powers. Dean G. Acheson (1893–1971), secretary of state under President Harry S. Truman (1884–1972; served 1945–53), had earlier expressed the same domino concern in connection with the likelihood of countries in Western Europe, the Middle East, or Africa falling to communism.

  • Even though East Germany had the highest standard of living of Eastern European countries, East Germans continued to vote with their feet—and headed west through Berlin.

Consider the following …

  • Look back to the introduction to this entire chapter and the introduction to the first excerpt. Find the overriding reason that the Soviets wanted a German peace treaty recognizing both separate countries of East and West Germany.
  • For all his blustering, Khrushchev says he does not really believe there will be a war. Why?
  • What impression of President Kennedy did Khrushchev have during his talk?

For More Information


Frankland, Mark. Khrushchev. New York: Stein and Day, 1979.

Khrushchev, Nikita S. Khrushchev Remembers. Boston: Little, Brown, 1970.

Khrushchev, Nikita S. Khrushchev Remembers: The Last Testament. Boston: Little, Brown, 1974.

Khrushchev, Sergei. Nikita Khrushchev: Creation of a Superpower. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000.

Web Site

Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "Khrushchev's Secret Speech on the Berlin Crisis, August 1961." Cold War International History Project Virtual Archive. (accessed on September 17, 2003).

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Khrushchev, Nikita 1894-1971


Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, born into an illiterate peasant family in Kalinovka, Russia, rose through the Communist Party ranks to become the third leader of the Soviet Union. An activist from his teenage years, and a political commissar with the Bolshevik forces during the Russian Civil War, Khrushchev joined the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1918. After studying at Kharkov University, he undertook a series of political assignments, which gained the attention of top party leaders in the Ukraine (see Smith 1992). In 1931 Khrushchev moved to Moscow, where he served as secretary of the Bauman district party organization. He became first secretary of the Moscow party organization in 1935.

By 1938 Khrushchev had become a member of the Politburo and went on to serve as first secretary in the Ukraine, where he oversaw the Ukrainian party organizations purges. He fought in World War II (19391945) and afterward became chairman of the Ukrainian Council of Ministers. Other notable positions held by Khrushchev include first secretary of the Moscow City Party Committee (1949), member of the Central Committee Secretariat responsible for supervising party affairs in the various republics, and full member of the Presidium, which well situated him for ascension to the Communist Partys top leadership after the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953. Khrushchev almost immediately espoused a plan for reforming the economy and stimulating agricultural output. For example, the Virgin Lands program called for plowing up virgin prairie lands in the Caucasus regions, Siberia, and the Volga Basin, and planting corn to use as feed to expand beef production. The plan, a dismal failure, coupled with other failures and leadership challenges, had an impact on Khrushchevs popularity (see Breslauer 1982).

In 1956 Khrushchev launched a de-Stalinization campaign as a means to shore up his popularity, but it also enhanced the rule of law in Soviet society. The de-Stalinization campaign called attention to a series of Stalinist abuses and breaches of power that included establishing a personality cult, orchestrating purges that terrorized innocent people, and violating the Leninist principle of collective leadership. Khrushchevs campaign and reforms also yielded unintended results, as exemplified by the burst of artistic creativity, strikes, demonstrations, and political reform efforts in Eastern Europe. This aside, he also sought to reduce the Soviet Unions isolation in the world.

Khrushchev was the first Soviet leader to advocate peaceful coexistence with the West, and the first Soviet leader to visit the United States. In 1959 he met with President Dwight D. Eisenhower (18901969) at Camp David, traveled to Iowa to learn about hybrid corn, and toured IBM and Disneyland. The path to improved relations was, however, short-circuited by the 1960 U-2 affair, the 1961 U.S.sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion, and the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Interestingly, Khrushchevs public persona, as exemplified by heated exchanges with Richard Nixon (19131994) during the so-called kitchen debate in 1959, his shoe-banging demonstration at the United Nations in 1960, and communications with John F. Kennedy (19171963) during the Cuban missile crisis, most likely contributed to his downfall and banishment from Soviet politics.

SEE ALSO Communism; Cuban Missile Crisis; Eisenhower, Dwight D.; Kennedy, John F.; Nixon, Richard M.; Stalin, Joseph; Stalinism; Union of Soviet Socialist Republics; United Nations


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

Fainsod, Merle. 1953. How Russia Is Ruled. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Nogee, Joseph L., and Robert H. Donaldson. 1992. Soviet Foreign Policy Since World War II. New York: Macmillan.

Smith, Gordon B. 1992. Soviet Politics: Struggling with Change. 2nd ed. New York: St. Martins Press.

Kathie Stromile Golden

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Nikita Khrushchev

Born: April 17, 1894
Kalinovka, Russia
Died: September 11, 1971
Moscow, Russia

Russian Communist leader and Soviet premier

The Soviet political leader Nikita Khrushchev was a major force in world politics in the second half of the twentieth century. His leadership played a key role in the 1960s during the height of the Cold War, a four-decade standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Childhood and revolution

Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev was born in Kalinovka in southern Russia on April 17, 1894. As a child, Khrushchev attended a religious school where he learned to read and write. He also took a job taking care of cattle and continued until he was in his early teens. At the age of fifteen he became an apprentice (a student learning the trade) mechanic in Yuzovka, a growing town in the Ukraine, where his father was working as a miner. When his apprenticeship ended, he was employed as a machine repairman in coal mines of the region, where he worked for nearly a decade.

In 1918, at the age of twenty-four, Khrushchev joined the Communist Party, a political party that believes goods and services should be owned and distributed by the government. As a Communist, he enrolled in the Red Army to fight in the civil war then in progress. At the time, the Russian Revolution was storming the country. The Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin (18701924), were Communists that overthrew the czarist rule (rule by a czar, or king) of Russia. Communism took control of Russia in 1917. But not all of Russia agreed with the new government and soon civil war broke out between the Red Guards, who supported the Bolsheviks and the Whites, who opposed the new rule.

After nearly three years of service in the civil war, Khrushchev returned to Yuzovka and was appointed assistant manager of a mine. Soon thereafter, he entered the Donets Industrial Institute, a worker's school run by the Soviets, the new Communist ruling party. There he received additional instruction in the Communist Party. He became a political leader at school and was named the secretary of the school's Communist Party Committee. He graduated in 1925 and soon became a full-time party official as secretary of the Petrovsko-Mariinsk district of Yuzovka. There, he came to know Lazar M. Kaganovich, the secretary general of the Ukrainian Party's Central Committee and a close associate of future Soviet leader Joseph Stalin (18791953).

Khrushchev married in 1915, but his wife died during the famine (a severe shortage of food) which resulted from the civil war. In 1924 he remarried, this time to Nina Petrovna, a schoolteacher. The couple eventually had two children.

Entering politics

In 1929 Khrushchev attended the Industrial Academy in Moscow for training in industrial administration, leaving in 1931 to become secretary of a district party committee in Moscow. Within four years he became head of the party organization of Moscow, thus joining the highest ranks of party officials. There he used his industrial training as he helped to supervise the construction of the city's subway system.

When Stalin began eliminating those he mistrusted from the Communist Party's leadership, Khrushchev was fortunate to be one of the trusted. In 1938, when most of the chief party leaders in the Ukraine were gone, he was made first secretary of the Ukrainian Communist Party and at the same time was named to the Politburo, the ruling body of the Soviet Communist Party. As first secretary, he was in fact, though not in name, the chief executive of the Ukraine. Except for a short interval in 1947, he held on to his authority in that area until 1949.

During World War II (193945), where the Allies of Russia, America, and Great Britain fought the Axis of Germany, Japan, and Italy, Khrushchev served in the Red Army both in the Ukraine and in other southern parts of the former Soviet Union, and advanced to the rank of lieutenant general. He achieved all of this while still first secretary of the Ukrainian Communist Party.

In 1949 Khrushchev was summoned to Moscow to serve in the party's Secretariat, directed by Stalin. Then, after Stalin's death in 1953, Khrushchev was among the eight men in whose hands power became concentrated. In the distribution of the various spheres of power, the party was recognized as his sphere. Within a few months he became first secretary of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Partythat is, its chief official.

Gaining power

By installing his supporters in important party positions and making some critical political alliances, Khrushchev gained power over the seven who shared power with him and by 1955 he was clearly the foremost political figure in the Soviet Union. Even that important status was enhanced three years later, when he became chairman of the Council of Ministers, succeeding Nikolai Bulganin (18951975). With that, he became the most powerful man in the countryas chairman of the Council of Ministers, he was head of the government and, as first secretary of the Soviet Communist Party's Central Committee, he was head of the party.

Instead of looking to equal Stalin by becoming a dictator, or someone who possesses supreme power, Khrushchev encouraged the policy of de-Stalinization, which the government had been following since 1953, for the purpose of ending the worst practices of the Stalin dictatorship. Although the Soviet Union under Khrushchev continued to be a one-party totalitarian state, where one party had complete political power, its citizens enjoyed conditions more favorable than had been possible under Stalin. The standard of living rose, intellectual and artistic life became somewhat more free, and the authority of the political police was reduced. In addition, relations with the outside world were generally improved, and the Soviet reputation began to gain favor.

Meanwhile, the onset of the Cold War (194591) began to escalate in 1960, when Khrushchev broke off talks with President Dwight Eisenhower (18901969) after announcing an American spy plane had been shot down in the Soviet Union. Two years later, the United States and Soviet Union stood at the doorstep of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when America waited for Khrushchev to withdraw Soviet-owned nuclear arms from Cuba, the Soviet's Communist ally.

However, Khrushchev's fortunes in the Soviet Union eventually began to take a downward turn. Some of his ambitious economic projects failed and his handling of foreign affairs resulted in a number of setbacks. The de-Stalinization produced unrest in the Communist ranks of other countries. These developments caused concern among party leaders in the Soviet Union, many of them already fearful that Khrushchev might be planning to extend his power. In October 1964, Khrushchev was forced into retirement by other party leaders.

As a citizen, he lived a quiet life until his death on September 11, 1971, in Moscow. Although Khrushchev's legacy is still very much open to debate, no one can deny his attempts to de-Stalinize his nation that led to the improvement of everyday life in the Soviet Union.

For More Information

Khrushchev, Nikita Sergeevich. Khrushchev Remembers: The Glasnost Tapes. Translated and edited by Jerrold L. Schecter with Vyacheslav V. Luchkov. Boston: Little, Brown, 1990.

Khrushchev, Sergei. Nikita Khrushchev: Creation of a Superpower. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000.

Taubman, William, Sergei Khrushchev, and Abbott Gleason. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000.

Tompson, William J. KhrushchevA Political Life. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.

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Nikita Sergeevich Khrushchev

The Soviet political leader Nikita Sergeevich Khrushchev (1894-1971) was a major force in world politics in the post-Stalin period.

Nikita Khrushchev was born in Kalinovka in southern Russia on April 17, 1894. At 15 he became an apprentice mechanic in Yuzovka, where his father was working as a miner. When his apprenticeship ended, he was employed as a machine repairman in coal mines and coke plants of the region.

In 1918 Khrushchev joined the Communist party, and he enrolled in the Red Army to fight in the civil war then in progress. After nearly 3 years of service, he returned to Yuzovka and was appointed assistant manager of a mine. Soon thereafter, he entered the Donets Industrial Institute, from which he graduated in 1925. He then took up his career as a full-time party official, beginning as secretary of a district party committee near Yuzovka.

Four years later Khrushchev attended the Industrial Academy in Moscow for training in industrial administration, leaving in 1931 to become secretary of a district party committee in Moscow. Within 4 years he became head of the party organization of Moscow and its environs, thus joining the highest ranks of party officialdom. In Moscow he used his industrial training as he helped to supervise the construction of the city's subway system.

When Stalin began purging the Communist party's leadership of those he mistrusted, Khrushchev was fortunate to be one of the trusted. In 1938, when most of the chief party leaders in the Ukraine were purged, he was made first secretary of the Ukrainian Communist party and at the same time was named to the Politburo, the ruling body of the Soviet Communist party. As first secretary, he was in fact, though not in name, the chief executive of the Ukraine. Except for a short interval in 1947, he retained his authority in that area until 1949.

During World War II, while still first secretary of the Ukrainian Communist party, Khrushchev served in the Red Army both in the Ukraine and in other southern parts of the former U.S.S.R., finally advancing to the rank of lieutenant general.

In 1949 Khrushchev was summoned to Moscow to serve in the party's Secretariat, directed by Stalin. Then, after Stalin's death in 1953, Khrushchev was among the eight men in whose hands power became concentrated. In the allocation of the various spheres of power, the party was recognized as his sphere; within a few months he became first secretary of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist party—that is, its chief official.

By installing his supporters in important party positions and making some shrewd political alliances, Khrushchev gained ascendancy over the seven who shared power with him; by 1955 he was clearly the foremost political figure in the Soviet Union. Even that prestigious status was enhanced 3 years later, when he became chairman of the Council of Ministers, succeeding Nikolai Bulganin. With that, he became the most powerful man in the country: as chairman of the Council of Ministers, he was head of the government; and, as first secretary of the Soviet Communist party's Central Committee, he was head of the party.

Instead of emulating Stalin by becoming a dictator, Khrushchev encouraged the policy of de-Stalinization, which the government had been following since 1953, for the purpose of ending the worst practices of the Stalin dictatorship. Although the Soviet Union under Khrushchev continued to be a one-party totalitarian state, its citizens enjoyed conditions more favorable than had been possible under Stalin. The standard of living rose, intellectual and artistic life became somewhat freer, and the authority of the political police was reduced. In addition, relations with the outside world were generally improved, and Soviet prestige rose.

Khrushchev's fortunes eventually began to take a downward turn, however. Some of his ambitious economic projects failed; his handling of foreign affairs resulted in a number of setbacks; and de-Stalinization produced discord in the Communist ranks of other countries. These developments caused concern among party leaders in the U.S.S.R., many of them already fearful that Khrushchev might be planning to extend his power. In October 1964, while Khrushchev was away from Moscow, they united in an effort whereby they managed to deprive him of his office and require his retirement. He died on Sept. 11, 1971, in Moscow.

Further Reading

Khrushchev's purported memoirs are Khrushchev Remembers, with an introduction, commentary, and notes by Edward Crankshaw (1970). Crankshaw's Khrushchev: A Career (1967) is a well-written account covering many phases of his career. Myron Rush, The Rise of Khrushchev (1965), concentrates on Khrushchev's ascent to power. An incisive biography is Mark Frankland, Khrushchev (1967). Khrushchev and the Arts: The Politics of Soviet Culture, 1962-1964, selected and edited by Priscilla Johnson and Leopold Labedz (1965), deals with the de-Stalinization of Soviet literature, in which Khrushchev played a crucial role. Although all data are not yet available, William Hyland and Richard Shryock, The Fall of Khrushchev (1968), attempts to account for the change in Soviet leadership in 1964. Michel Tatu, Power in the Kremlin: From Khrushchev to Kosygin (1967; trans. 1969), and Adam B. Ulam, Expansion and Coexistence: The History of Soviet Foreign Policy, 1917-67 (1968), are recommended for general background. □