Book Review: Khrushchev: The Man and His Era, by William Taubman
Reviewed by Bruce Rhodes
Nikita Khrushchev was an enigma, a contradiction, and a study in contrasts. He could be shrewd and calculating, and he could also be ignorant and shortsighted. He could be rude, bombastic and thoroughly insulting, and he could also be self-deprecating and sentimental. These traits are held by lots of people, no doubt, but they became highly relevant in the 1950s and 60s as Khrushchev led the Soviet Union in a series of events on the world stage that were often dramatic and, sometimes, potentially cataclysmic.
Author William Taubman brings the reader close to the true character that was N. Khrushchev. We get detailed insights into his upbringing and youth, and his peasant origins. Later, Taubman describes the stressful and ambivalent relationship that Khrushchev had with his predecessor, Joseph Stalin. The intrigues that surrounded the leadership transition from the latter to the former are one of the more fascinating parts of the book.
I highly recommend this work, which at times almost serves as a transcript of countless top-level meetings that involved Khrushchev, so plentiful are the direct quotations of the key players. The reader cannot help but feel close to the personalities, making the history of this troubled country, in those tumultuous times, very much alive.
The amazing thing that I learned from this book is just how informal and haphazard the running of the USSR was under Khrushchev. Policy was often formulated at a whim. Khrushchev would rant and rave about conditions in his country, make pronouncements accordingly as to how things should be managed, and his underlings would obediently carry out his wishes, seldom challenging or questioning him. Really, it is amazing that the USSR functioned as well as it did in the 1950's and 60's, given how few people there were "at the top" who actually thought through what was right for the country and its people.
Taubman provides wonderful detail on the relationships Khrushchev had, or tried to have, with Stalin, Mao Zedong, Castro, and US presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy. Khrushchev often used "bluff and bluster" with these men as a way of compensating for his lack of sophistication and formal education, of which he was all too often very conscious. For example, Mao got under Khrushchev's skin on a couple of occasions by swimming proficiently when he and the aquatically-challenged Khrushchev got took time out from meetings.
I never expected to laugh as much as I did when I set out to read this book. There are dozens of passages that reveal the baseness and profanity that Khrushchev was capable of dishing out, often as not while abroad, in the company of leaders and dignitaries. Khrushchev's shoe-banging at the UN was just one example of his unpredictable, wild behaviour that typically left his entire audience embarrassed and looking for a place to hide.
This book is well written, well researched, in all a smooth read despite its 650-page length. I also recommend Gulag, by Anne Applebaum, and The Fall of Berlin, by Antony Beevor, both of which shed light on the period prior to and in the early days of Khrushchev's influence on the USSR and the world.