In December 1955, the State Department offered Marvin Kalb a yearlong assignment abroad, translating Russian newspaper articles into English for the Joint Press Reading Service. He had one day to decide.
“I checked with a few of my colleagues,” Kalb writes in The Year I Was Peter the Great: 1956—Khrushchev, Stalin’s Ghost, and a Young American and Russia (he was a Ph.D. candidate in Soviet studies at Harvard at the time), “who all responded with the Monopoly equivalent of ‘Go! And don’t stop to collect two hundred dollars.’ ”
It would be the first of many Moscow trips for the scholar and Korean War veteran from New York City: Kalb is a former chief diplomatic correspondent for CBS News and anchor of NBC’s Meet the Press. He is senior advisor to the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, a Harvard professor emeritus and founding director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and the author of 15 previous nonfiction books (Imperial Gamble: Putin, Ukraine, and the New World War, 2015, etc.).
The Year I Was Peter the Great spans a momentous year in its author’s life and Russian history, which would come to be known by modern historians as the “year of the thaw.”
“In that moment in time, Russia was then just beginning to open up,” says Kalb, who Kirkus reached by phone in Washington, D.C. “Because of the 20th [Communist] Party Congress, Khrushchev, and de-Stalinization, Russian people began to feel for the first time in their history a whiff of freedom, just an inkling of what it could be, and they liked it.”
The keystone of progress was Nikita Khrushchev’s address to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, denouncing secular god Joseph Stalin as a criminal, murderer, and the man who’d brought the socialist state to the brink of ruination. The extremity of Khrushchev’s speech reportedly caused weakhearted party officials to guzzle nitroglycerin tablets and others to commit suicide.
“Khrushchev always knew that his decision to dethrone Stalin was a huge risk,” Kalb writes in The Year I Was Peter the Great, “to himself, to his party, and to his country. Yet he took it. He was convinced that without meaningful change the communist system would slowly rot. Stalin’s legacy had to be uprooted and destroyed: fear had to be replaced by hope, economic stagnation had to give way to genuine reform, and the pervasive paralysis of Kremlin politics had to yield to new ideas and new leaders.”
Kalb met Khrushchev at the American embassy (the leader nicknamed him “Peter the Great” for his formidable height) in 1956, beginning a long association between journalist and subject. But the greatest sources in The Year I Was Peter the Great are regular citizens, particularly students, tasting democratic freedoms for the first time.
In one extraordinary scene, students mount tables in the Lenin Library, in the presence of police, to shout down not just Stalin, but Khrushchev and communism itself. Months prior, this was unimaginable.
“It was fantastic,” Kalb tells Kirkus. “I can only tell you that I hope that one day you can have the thrill of watching young people in a state of new discovery—the excitement of being able to say something out loud that up to that moment you had been afraid to express out loud.”
For many young Russians, it was a profound liberation: “You knew that your parents were afraid to speak like that,” he says. “Your uncle, your aunt, your grandmother were afraid to speak like that. Then, suddenly, you felt the courage to stand up and denounce communism—boy, that was a big moment.”
Absent substantive economic and political overhauls, amidst bloody uprisings in Poland and Hungary, Khrushchev was forced to backpedal on de-Stalinization at the end of 1956. But Russia would not—could not—return to what it was before the thaw.
“At the end of the [year],” says Kalb, “when Khrushchev felt the need to crack down in Hungary and then begin to praise Stalin again, the Russians knew that they had fallen back considerably. They hoped that they could move forward again. They clearly had a glorious moment in 1956, and then it slipped away from them at the very end of the year.
“I was very fortunate to have been able to be there and to watch some of these things unfold.”
Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews and is the co-host of the Kirkus podcast, Fully Booked.