Communist murderer, reluctant despot—or pretty good guy? The answer that emerges from this complex, massive, but engagingly written study: all of the above.
Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971), suggests Taubman (Political Science/Amherst College), was less paradoxical than opportunistic. “A study in unresolved contrasts,” he had a survivor’s gift for being in the right place at the right time and a strong sense of how to avoid trouble though constantly beset by it. Indeed, he was frequently in danger during the first decades of his long career; amazingly, as Taubman documents, he was one of the few one-time (if short-time) followers of Trotsky not to have been murdered at Stalin’s orders, and despite remarkable failures at many turns—including the disastrous Kharkov feint against the invading Nazi forces, which cost the Red Army 267,000 casualties—he managed to avoid the firing squad time and again. Khrushchev enthusiastically endorsed the liquidation of the regime’s enemies, though he was tormented in his final years by his complicity in murder; he crushed freedom movements in Hungary, Poland, and East Germany, though he set in motion some democratizing efforts in his own country that Gorbachev and Yeltsin would fulfill three decades later; and he made every effort to educate and cultivate himself, fostering the arts even while heavily censoring the likes of Boris Pasternak, another of many acts he would come to regret. Taubman shows us Khrushchev in all his guises, revealing a man far different from the shoe-banging clod of Western media caricature. The account of Khrushchev’s masterful destruction of secret policeman Lavrenty Beria, his chief rival to become Stalin’s successor, reveals astonishing Machiavellian powers that Khrushchev had hitherto carefully concealed. Taubman’s analysis of Khrushchev’s eventual fall before what amounted to a right-wing coup is similarly masterful, supplementing the partial record Khrushchev left in his own memoirs and making good use of newly declassified documents from Soviet archives.
Altogether superb: an essential study of power and its corruptions and contradictions.