Nikita Khrushchev, One of the Most Interesting Characters of the Cold War Era

William Taubman’s 2003 biography, Khrushchev — The Man and His Era won a Pulitzer Prize, and deservedly so. Taubman is a political science professor at Amherst and has written extensively on the Soviet Union. His biography of Khrushchev is very long at 651 pages, but it provides crucial insight into one of the most unusual personalities of the Soviet era. If you want to understand Nikita Khrushchev and his place in history, this is an excellent place to start.

Khrushchev was born in 1894 and died in 1971, so he was there for the rise of Communism in Russia. Largely uneducated and often crude, Khrushchev managed to rise through the ranks and then survive the Stalinist era. No political survivor of that period could emerge with clean hands, but Khrushchev managed to avoid the worst of the blame for that period.

Taubman, in great detail, shows how Khrushchev became a Bolshevik and was chosen by Stalin to be one of his principal lieutenants. How Khrushchev managed to out-maneuver his rivals and become top dog remains something of a mystery, but Taubman offers a lot of information to consider. As a leader, Khrushchev presented a bizarre combination of bumbling peasant, lucky political tactician and good-hearted realist. At the end, he became increasingly impulsive and oblivious to the opposition to his rule. He didn’t see. it coming.

Although Khrushchev wasn’t exactly surrounded by rocket scientists, he was always insecure about his lack of education. At times he trumpeted it and claimed that he had particular insight into how collective farms and factories need to be run. To Khrushchev’s discredit, he was stained by Stalin’s purges, but to his credit, he disavowed Stalinism as he came to power. Crucially, Khrushchev was often impulsive and frequently put world peace at risk as he lurched through the Cold War period with ill-considered pronouncements and initiatives.

He risked nuclear war with some of his “antics. Fortunately, Eisenhower and Kennedy, although highly frustrated by Khrushchev’s pronouncements and behavior, generally did their homework and responded with appropriate restraints and quieter displays of force.

This book is rich because Khrushchev talked a lot about what he had done and what he was thinking. He even wrote a memoir. He may have started as a Zelig, but he became the leader of the Communist world during a particularly dangerous part of history. Because he survived, he was able to write about Stalinism and its excesses, even as he went back and forth about how much personal responsibility he was prepared to assume.

All in all this is a very good book. It is a necessary, scholarly book. It did cause me to wish at times that a more abridged version were available, a shorter book that did not describe so many meetings and so much of Khrushchev’s daily activities in such great detail. Maybe that is biography-light, but the sheer length of this book renders it somewhat inaccessible for non-scholars who could really benefit form its core content.

My recommendation is to read this book if you want to better understanding of the Soviet Union and the Cold War.