Sunday, February 01, 2015

Book Notes: Krushchev, The Man and His Era by William Taubman

In a far corner of the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow, lie the remains of a man who at the height of his career had unparallelled power and influence in the world - but whose grave lay unmarked for years after his death. Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev's (1894-1971) rise from peasantry via industry to the Russian Army was eclipsed by his meteoric rise through the all-encompassing Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). By the time Khrushchev came to dominate the party, the party itself dominated not just Russia, the Soviet Empire and the Eastern European Bloc; but swathes of the bi-polar Cold War world too.

The Khrushchev family eventually managed to erect a memorial at the burial site. William Taubman in his magisterial account of Khrushchev and his era (20003), describes the monumental headstone of this man who succeeded Stalin, in these words:

Designed by Ernst Neizvestny, the artist whom Khrushchev had excoriated in 1962 and 1963, the monument consists of intersecting slabs of white marble and black granite on one of which sits a bronze head of Khrushchev with what looks like a pained expression on his face. It sums up a man in whose character so many contrasts were so starkly intertwined: both true believer and cold-eyed realist, opportunistic yet principled in his own way, fearful of war while all too prone to risk it, the most unpretentious of men even as he pretended to power and glory exceeding his grasp, complicit in great evil yet also the author of much good. (p647)

I was barely half a year old when Khrushchev died in relative obscurity, yet I grew up in a world which he had had an extraordinary role in creating. Hazy black and white pictures of the stony-faced Brezhnev, atop the Lenin Mausoleum filled our TV sets, but the context in which the West and the East glared at each other with mutual suspicion and bristling arsenals was forged by the mercurial Khrushchev and his psychopathic predecessor.

Having recently read Simon Sebag Montifiore's two volume biography of Stalin, "Young Stalin" and "Stalin: In the Court of the Red Tsar", I was intrigued as to how it was Khrushchev who emerged as his successor. It would perhaps be an understatement to suggest that he was not the obvious candidate. A little research suggested that Taubman's was 'the' biography of Khrushchev to get, as it comes loaded down with worthy commendations and a Pulitzer Prize for biography. The first chunk of this 800+ page tome is concerned with that rise to power, and the developing character of the central protagonist. Working his way up the "bloody pole" (sic) under Stalin, Khrushchev was both thoroughly implicated in Stalin's crimes, "up to his elbows in blood" he would later lament; but also horrified by the purges and in denial about them. His relationship with Stalin was also complex, when as Moscow Party chief constructing the Metro, or as Ukraine Party boss overseeing agriculture and purges, or defending Stalingrad from the Nazi's; he both worshipped, feared, loved and hated his all-seeing mentor. 

Taubman takes time to explore not just the facts and politics of Khrushchev's development but also his psychological development - and the extraordinary personality who would so capture the world's imagination in the 1960s. He does so without an annoying deluge of pyschobabble, but with probing insight into the factors which came together to produce the leader he became. The man who emerges from this incredible book is insecure, emotional, sentimental. arrogant, determined, eager, flawed, vain, curiously principled, brave, and an adept schemer. Take for example Taubman's account of Khrushchev's encounter with an Academician called Paton who was advancing metal-welding techniques and whom he persuaded Stalin to admit to The Party:

How easily Khrushchev could be beguiled by a charismatic scientist promising miracles! How sentimental he could be when his benevolent image of himself was confirmed! Khrushchev had an appalling ability, during Stalin's lifetime and after, to separate the horrors carried out by the party from the great cause it supposedly served. No matter how much blood flowed in the name of socialism, tears came to his eyes when some-one like Paton declared themselves converted. (p131)

After a detailed consideration of his emergence, Taubman's book traces the improbable survival of Khrushchev, who along with Molotov and Beria emerged as one of the very few of Stalin's inner circle to outlive the paranoid, purging tyrant. This leads onto his unlikely rise as Stalin's successor as head of party and state, with total control over the machinery of government. The key to these surprising triumphs seems to have been (like Stalin in the early 1920s), the complete underestimation of him by his rivals - a result of the simpleton image that he both exaggerated and projected.

Taubman then moves to considering Khrushchev in power - which is the era of his life most familiar to Western readers, as the Khrushchev-Kennedy confrontations are lodged in popular culture; lampooned in Kubrick's Dr Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, and lyrically referenced by the likes of Queen (Killer Queen, 1974). In Taubman's biography, it was once he had achieved unchallengeable power that the full extremes of Khrushchev's bizarre personality were able to come to the fore without check or balance. In fact, as he progresses through international tours, summits, crises (Berlin; Cuba) that his personality starts to unfold. Ranting, cajoling, re-organising, shouting, Khrushchev took to the world stage - famously bringing the world to the brink of nuclear war, and banging his shoe on the desk at the UN. Most significantly of all, Khrushchev denounced Stalin's crimes, ended the personality cult, and emptied many of the gulags - at huge personal risk, and danger to the party; and sought detente with the West (causing the split with Mao).

The Kremlin under the USSR was nothing if not an enigmatic and surreal place. As Chairman Khrushchev received the obligatory standing ovations for his mammoth and incoherent speeches; and won every Presidium vote unanimously; plots built up against him. The first plot Khrushchev crushed was entirely of his own imagining (he was after all a Stalinist!), the second he triumphed over his adversaries; but finally the Brezhnev-led plot in 1964 removed him. Unlike in the 1930s, the fallen leader was spared the firing squad or show trial; but was quietly marooned in a small country dacha; left to his gardening, family, his deep depression and the distillation of his secret memoirs published in the West as Khrushchev Remembers. Despite the ghastly nature of so much of his career, the reader cannot help but feel some empathy for the broken colossus, alone in his garden - harbouring secret doubts about whether the planned economy could ever deliver for the masses.

Despite the massive length of this book (which surely would be better as a two-volume work), it is mesmerising biographical writing. Taubman has the ability to condense vast amounts of research into fast-paced narrative and insightful analysis. Taubman's task is made all the easier by the extremes of his subject (the thought of a long biog of some dull entertainer is tedious), and the result is an 800page book in which the interest level never wanes and the reader gains extraordinary insight into this idiosyncratic man and his tumultuous career.

To hear William Taubman discussing his work on Khrushchev, press here.

No comments: