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Nikita Khruschev, after Lenin and Stalin, was arguably the most important Soviet ruler. He denounced Stalin’s murderous excesses in his “Secret Speech” to the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956. He presided over the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 (a series of events that pushed the USA and the Soviet Union towards nuclear war). Khrushchev acted as a bridge between the horrors of World War II and the new cultural and economic desires of the 1950s and 1960s.
Despite Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” he idolised Stalin for many years. As he transitioned from a humble worker to a Party apparatchik he was overawed by Stalin’s personality and achievements. It was Khrushchev’s closeness to Stalin that enabled him to climb the political ladder and also survive the murderous purges of the 1930s. Khrushchev was complicit in the deaths of many of his party colleagues and acquaintances. He stayed silent when innocent people were vilified and signed their death warrants. Khrushchev seemed to believe some of the slanders against the accused but there were others he would have known were innocent. Taubman notes that Khrushchev only refers tangentially to this period in his own writings. It is as if he has tried to blank out this most shameful episode of his life. His willing participation in Stalin’s purges, even if he didn’t agree with its extent, is impossible to overlook.
However Khrushchev was vital in preventing Lavrentiy Beria from taking power after Stalin’s death. Rule by the psychopathic Beria could have been as bad as under Stalin. Khrushchev was also played a part vital in de-Stalinization through his “Secret Speech” (“On the Cult of Personality and its Consequences“) to the 1956 Party Conference and by outwitting remaining Stalinists. He also freed many political prisoners.
Khrushchev was wedded to communism and never doubted its superiority to capitalism. Of course it is easy to be wedded to a political system that insulated Khrushchev and his family from the economic and cultural hardships that afflicted the average Soviet citizen. While Khrushchev wanted to destroy Stalinism he still wanted to ensure the superiority of Soviet power. He crushed opposition to Soviet power in Hungary, suppressed unrest in Poland, and he almost brought the world to war over the Cuban missile crisis.
Khrushchev’s genuine working class roots made him feel insecure among his better educated colleagues even when he was Supreme Leader. He drank to excess and struggled to control his emotions. He rejected expert advice on agricultural policies. This resulted in a failed attempt to grow maize across the Soviet Union. He failed to accept that the world was changing and that the supposed security offered by communism failed to satisfy younger citizens. Like many dictators he was surprised when others came to claim his throne. His final years following his removal from power were spent in unhappy isolation at his dacha. Unlike many of his Soviet peers Khrushchev had the luxury of dying in his bed.