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The giant of Soviet brinkmanship

Khrushchev: The Man and the Era, William Taubman, W.W. Norton: 876 pp., $35

March 09, 2003|Strobe Talbott | Strobe Talbott, former deputy secretary of State in the Clinton administration, is president of the Brookings Institution. He translated and edited two volumes of Nikita Khrushchev's memoirs in the 1970s.

The collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the extinction of the USSR two years later seemed as sudden as they were spectacular. But those events, in fact, had their origins in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when Nikita Khrushchev ruled the world's last empire. Khrushchev, who had been a protege and henchman of Joseph Stalin's, used the power he inherited from the dictator to proclaim a policy of de-Stalinization and experiment with liberal reforms.

Khrushchev's personal evolution prefigured the transformation of his country -- and of the world -- a quarter of a century later. It took that long for the contradictions that Khrushchev himself personified to be reconciled in favor of a decisive break with Russia's totalitarian past. His own reign was erratic and often bloody. While preaching "peaceful coexistence," he famously threatened to "bury" the capitalist West, and his recklessness in putting missiles in Cuba brought the world close to an all-out nuclear war. Still, the Khrushchev "thaw" gave rise to a youthful, reformist generation known as "the people of the sixties," many of whom spearheaded the peaceful revolution against Soviet power in the 1980s.

Khrushchev has been the subject of a long shelf full of books but never, until now, a comprehensive and authoritative biography. William Taubman, a professor of political science at Amherst College, has filled that gap with a masterpiece of scholarship, investigation and narrative. He has, as his subtitle promises, brought alive Khrushchev and his era. He has also established the salient connections between that momentous story and the drama underway in Russia today.

Khrushchev has been dead more than 30 years, and Taubman's book has been in progress for more than a dozen years. The result is worth waiting for. Every chapter reflects the author's deep knowledge of the Soviet Union. It was an education that began in the '60s, when he was an exchange student at Moscow State University, and it incorporates his numerous trips to the places Khrushchev lived and worked; his cultivation of sources among Khrushchev's family and colleagues; his judicious sifting of the vast literature, Russian and foreign, on those murky years; and, most important, his determination to answer the core question of Khrushchev's career: How was it that a creature of one of the most corrupt and murderous political cultures of all time would attempt a change for the better when he had a chance?

To answer that question, Taubman marshals the resources of the art of biography at its best. In reconstructing a single paradoxical life, he helps us understand better the complexity of the human condition, with its mixture of frailty, ambition, resilience and capacity for growth.

Khrushchev was born into a society in turmoil. He seized early on the opportunity to make his way upward in a system that was as brutalizing as it was brutal. He was sometimes racked by guilt, but more often he sought to justify what he did by convincing himself that he was serving his country, his party, his leader and the ideology that was supposed to embrace all three.

Taubman is unstinting in his portrayal of Khrushchev as the willing instrument of the Terror. In the purge trials of the late '30s, there is Khrushchev, "one of the most voluble cheerleaders for the Stalinist line," exhorting hatred for the enemies in the dock and braying for their execution. But, also in those early years, Taubman finds in Khrushchev's maneuverings occasional flashes of an intuitive independence and a willful spontaneity, an instinct to ask basic questions and a bumptious confidence in his own answers rather than those he's learned by rote. These qualities are uncharacteristic of cogs in the machine; and they may, Taubman suggests, help explain a degree of decency -- or, to use a word that Khrushchev himself favored, "honesty" -- that survived in Khrushchev the Stalinist and allowed him to become the Great de-Stalinizer.

At the same time, Khrushchev's cocky and mercurial nature also contained the germ of his eventual undoing. Even in the early '30s, Taubman details cases in which Khrushchev's "tendency to decide too quickly and to take things to extremes got him into trouble."

Taubman poignantly recounts the strains and deformations of personal and family life at the top of the Soviet system. Khrushchev's second wife, Nina, is often the sympathetic focus of these tales. In order not to arouse suspicions that either she or he was mixing business and professional life, she had to hide her marriage to Khrushchev from her bosses for years. She also made a point of keeping the subject of Stalin from coming up in front of their children so that she would not have to praise him or -- far more dangerous -- say what she really thought about the "meat-grinder" of the purges. She tried to ease the return to society, and to the family, of a relative who was sent to the concentration camps.

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