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Khrushchev in Retirement
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Did the ouster of Nikita Khrushchev in 1964 indicate that the Soviet Union had fundamentally changed its political system since the death of Stalin in 1953?
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After Stalin's death in March 1953, his successors realized that they could not continue to use his methods.  Nikita Sergeevich Khrushchev, (5/17 April 1894 - 11 September 1971), a self-made man who had entered the Politburo in 1939, soon emerged as the leading figure.  Over the next five years Khrushchev out maneuvered his political rivals and became the most powerful political figure in Russia.
Born in 1894, Khrushchev--unlike Lenin and most of the other Soviet leaders--was the son of a miner and the grandfather of a serf.  After a village education, he began work as a pipe fitter at the age of fifteen in Donetsk.  Because of his factory employment, he was not conscripted into the tsarist army during World War I.  In 1918 he became a member of the Bolshevik party and served in the Red Army during the Civil War.  In the 1920s he began a rapid rise in the party ranks as a full time party worker, and by 1933 he had become the second secretary of the Moscow Regional Committee.
During the early 1930s Khrushchev consolidated his hold on the Moscow party and emerged on the national scene.  In 1934, at the Seventeenth Party Congress, he became a full member of the Central Committee of the Party.  He was a firm supporter of Stalin in those years and participated in the purges of party leadership.  By 1939, he had become a full member of the Politburo.
During the war Khrushchev was attached to the Soviet Army with the rank of lieutenant general.  He was the political adviser to Marshal Andrei Yeromenko during the defense of Stalingrad (Volgograd).  In 1949 Stalin called him back to Moscow, where he took over his old job as head of the Moscow city party and concurrently was appointed a secretary of the Central Committee.  Khrushchev became more and more involved in agriculture and proposed a new scheme for the creation of agrogorods ("farming towns").
Within six months of Stalin's death in 1953 and the execution of the deputy prime minister and KGB chief, Lavrentii Beria, Khrushchev engaged in a power struggle with Georgii Malenkov, Stalin's heir apparent, and gained the decisive margin by his control of the party machinery.  :In September 1953 he replaced Malenkov as first secretary and in 1955 removed Malenkov from the premiership in favor of his hand-picked nominee, Marshal Nikolai Bulganin.
On the night of 24-25 February 1956, during the 20th Party Congress in Moscow, Khrushchev delivered his memorable Secret Speech about the excesses of Stalin's one-man rule, attacking the late Soviet ruler's "intolerance, his brutality, his abuse of power" and blaming it on the "cult of personality" that Stalin had forged.  The sight of the First Secretary of the Communist Party exposing the wrongful executions of the purges of the 1930s and the excesses of Soviet repression had far-reaching effects.  The resulting "thaw" in the Soviet Union led to the release of thousands of political prisoners and the "rehabilitation" of many thousands more who had perished.
The destalinization movement also had repercussions in the communist countries of Eastern Europe. Poland revolted against its government in October 1956, and Hungary followed shortly afterward.  Faced with open revolution, Khrushchev flew to Warsaw on 19 October and ultimately acquiesced in the Polish leader Wladyslaw Gomulka's solution, which allowed the Poles a great deal of freedom.  But Khrushchev's decided to crush the Hungarian Revolution by force, largely because of the Hungarian Premier Imre Nagy's decision to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact.
In June 1957 Khrushchev almost lost his position, and, although a vote in the Presidium actually went against him, he managed to reverse this by appealing to the full membership of the party Central Committee.  In retaliation, he secured the permanent disgrace of Malenkov, Vyacheslav Molotov, and others, who were labeled members of the anti-party group.  In March 1958 he assumed the premiership of the Soviet Union.
Khrushchev's record in power was a decidedly mixed one.  On one hand he could repeatedly assert the doctrine of peaceful coexistence and could visit with President Dwight Eisenhower in 1959 in a "spirit of Camp David," yet he could also be combative as in the U-2 Incident or the construction of the Berlin Wall.  His attempt, in 1962, to place Soviet medium-range nuclear missiles in Cuba, led to a tense confrontation in October of that year, yet he also helped to negotiate the 1963 Test Ban Treaty.  Khrushchev also had to deal with Sino-Soviet split, which partly resulted from Chinese insistence on all-out "war against the imperialists," no matter what the case.
During Khrushchev's time in office, he had to deal with many disparate pressures.  Intellectuals urged greater freedom of expression, while the bureaucracy felt that reform would get out of hand.  Khrushchev himself, on one hand, refused to allow Boris Pasternak to accept the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958, while, on the other hand, he personally permitted the 1962 publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, with its denunciation of Stalinist repression.  Khrushchev's desire to reduce conventional armaments in favor of nuclear missiles was bitterly resisted by the Soviet military. His repeated efforts to improve agriculture and decentralize the party structure antagonized many of those who once supported him.  He opened up more than seventy million acres of virgin land in Siberia and Central Asia and sent thousands of laborers to till them; but his plan was unsuccessful, and the Soviet Union eventually again had to import wheat from Canada and the United States.
On 14 October 1964, in the "Little October Revolution," the Central Committee accepted Khrushchev's orchestrated request to retire from his position as the Party's first secretary and chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Soviet Union because of "advanced age and poor health."  For almost seven years thereafter, Khrushchev lived quietly in Moscow and at his country dacha as a special pensioner of the Soviet government.  He was mentioned in the Soviet press occasionally and appeared in public only to vote in Soviet elections.  The one change in this ordered obscurity came in 1970 with the publication of his memoirs (Khrushchev Remembers) in the United States and Europe, although not in the Soviet Union.  Almost 48 hours elapsed after his death before it was announced to the Soviet public.  He was denied a state funeral and internment in the Kremlin Wall, although he was allowed a quiet burial at Novodevichy Convent Cemetery in Moscow.
In sum, Khrushchev was a thoroughgoing political pragmatist who had learned his Marxism on the job, but he never hesitated to adapt his beliefs to the political urgencies of the moment.  His experience with international realities confirmed him in his doctrine of peaceful coexistence with the non-Communist world--in itself a drastic break with established Soviet Communist teaching.  Whatever one might say about his personal eccentricities, his boisterous nature, his vulgarity and his bewildering policy shifts, he was a man of his people.  His son Sergei pronounced a short eulogy at the cemetery:  "There were those who loved him, there were those who hated him, but there were few who would pass him by without looking in his direction."
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  • 17 April 1894, Born in Kalinovka, Kursk Province.
  • 1912-18, Worked as a metal fitter in the generator plants of  the Ruchenkov and Pastukhov mines.
  • 1918, Joined the Bolsheviks.
  • 1919, Joined the Red Army and served as a soldier and party worker in the Ninth Rifle Division, attached to Budyennii's First Mounted Army.
  • 1922, Began work in the Iuzovka Party organization.
  • 1924, Married Nina Petrovna.
  • 1925-34, Rose through party ranks and elected to the Central Committee at the Seventeenth Party Congress in 1934.
  • 1939, Made full member of Politburo.
  • 1941-43, Served as a political commissar on various fronts during the war with the rank of lieutenant general.
  • 1947, Accused of insufficient vigilance in stamping out nationalism in Ukraine. Relieved of position as First Secretary of Ukraine, although he retained his post of Chairman of the Ukrainian Soviet and his position on Politburo (Restored to full power in the Ukraine the following year).
  • 1949, Made head of Moscow oblast and city committees and made Secretary of the Central Committee.  Given control of agriculture and began to propose his "agrogorod" scheme.
  • 22 March 1953, Became First Secretary of the party after Stalin's death.
  • 28 June 1953, Lavrentii Beriia, head of KGB, arrested. (He was executed in December.)
  • 1954, Virgin Lands campaign.
  • 1955, Khrushchev consolidated power when Malenkov (because of participation in the "Leningrad Case") resigned as Chairman of the Council of Ministers.
  • 1956, Secret Speech to 20th Party Congress that denounced the "cult of personality."
  • 1957, Experiments began with the Machine Tractor Stations (MTS) and the decentralization of light industry with special regional economic councils (sovnarkhozy) set up.
  • 1957, In June Malenkov, Molotov and Lazar Kaganovich orchestrated a Presidium vote to dismiss Khrushchev by a vote of 8-4 (Suslov, Furtseva and Mikoyan supported Khrushchev), but the Central Committee overturned the vote. Malenkov sent as director of a power station in a remote corner of Central Asia; Kaganovich made director of a cement factory in Sverdlovsk; and Molotov became ambassador to Mongolia.
  • 1957, First sputnik launched.
  • 1958, Assumed the role of chairman (Premier) of the Soviet of Ministers as well as party leader, forcing Bulganin to resign.
  • 1960, U-2 spy plane piloted by F.Gary Powers shot down.
  • September 1960, Addressed the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
  • 1961, Met Kennedy in Vienna.
  • April 1961, Iurii Gagarin became the first man in space.
  • 1961, Stalin's body removed from Lenin's Mausoleum.
  • 1962, Khrushchev ordered the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's One Day In the Live of Ivan Denisovich.
  • June 1962, Ordered the shooting of striking workers in Novocherkassk. Hundreds died with more executed and jailed.
  • October 1962, Cuban missile crisis.
  • 1963, US-USSR hotline established.
  • August 1963, Nuclear test-ban treaty signed.
  • October 1964, Deposed by Leonid Brezhnev, et al, in the Little October Revolution.
  • 11 September 1971, Died.
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WWW sites

There are some on the web (see my HIS 242 course and remarks on the "Thaw" in the Soviet Union under Khrushchev; I also have further biographical information there along with a more extensive list of web links).  His 1956 Secret Speech denouncing the crimes of the Stalin era is available on the web, as is the article from Time Magazine naming Khrushchev the man of the year for 1957.  When Vice President Richard Nixon visited the Moscow Fair with Khrushchev on 24 July 1959, they engaged in a famous kitchen debate about the pros and cons of communism and democracy.

Other useful sites include:


Recommended Books
There are a some good biographies of Khrushchev.  The best include Carl Linden, Khrushchev and the Soviet Leadership, 1957-64 (1966), Edward Crankshaw, Khrushchev:  A Career (1966) and Mark Frankland, Khrushchev (1966).  Khrushchev Remembers (1970) is the controversial memoir, generally accepted as genuine, with invaluable notes by Edward Crankshaw.  Also interesting is Wolfgang Leonhard, Nikita Sergeievitch Khrushchev:  ascencion et chute d'un homme d'état sovietique (1965).  On Khrushchev and destalinization, see Roy and Zhores Medvedev, Khrushchev:  The Years in Power (1977) and Bertram Wolfe, Khrushchev and Stalin's Ghost (1957).
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Related Events
Secret Speech
Suez Canal Crisis 1956
Sino-Soviet Split
U-2 Incident
Berlin Wall 1961
Cuban Missile Crisis 1962
Richard Nixon

This page is copyright © 2010, C.T. Evans
For information contact cevans@nvcc.edu