(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, leader of the Soviet Union from 1954 to 1964, left a complicated and often contradictory image in the historical memories of the West and of Russia. Khrushchev publicized the brutal and murderous character of the regime of his predecessor, Joseph Stalin, and he tried to reform the political system he had inherited from Stalin. Under Khrushchev, a nation that had suffered nearly thirty years of state-produced famine, constricting thought control, secret police arrests, and widespread imprisonment and execution of citizens of all ages and backgrounds began to relax into a condition that people in other countries would recognize as normal life. He showed a sincere concern with the prosperity of his country and with the well-being of its people. He sporadically attempted to loosen controls over freedom of expression.

There is a memory of a “bad Khrushchev” as well as one of a “good Khrushchev.” In 1956 he sent Soviet forces into Hungary to smash the Hungarian uprising. His efforts at lessening censorship alternated with periodic crackdowns on the arts, and he was guilty of sanctioning a campaign against poet and novelist Boris Pasternak, author of Doktor Zhivago (1957; Doctor Zhivago, 1958). Khrushchev brought the world to the edge of nuclear war in 1962 when he installed nuclear missiles in Cuba, posing a threat to the United States.

William Taubman’s authoritative, Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of the mercurial Soviet leader suggests that Khrushchev’s contradictions were products both of the man himself and of the Soviet system. In the introduction, Taubman draws on a study of Khrushchev produced by a team of psychiatrists and psychologists working for the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in 1960. This study characterized its subject as “hypomanic,” a personality type given to extreme and rapid shifts in mood, to sudden states of elation, depression, and anger. Although Taubman does not emphasize this analysis in the main part of the biography, Khrushchev’s contradictory behavior supports the claim that the leader was acting under the influence of unpredictable mood swings.

The Soviet political system placed great psychological pressures on its political figures and left the country particularly sensitive to character flaws in the leadership. Vladimir Ilich Lenin and his Bolshevik followers had managed to bring the country under single-party rule. There was no clearly established method of governing the party, though, and no constitutional principles of succession. This meant that rising to power became a matter of scheming against rivals within the party. The most effective schemer in the years after Lenin’s death, Joseph Stalin, reached absolute power through a ruthless game of strategy and secured his position by having all potential challengers killed.

Khrushchev survived by serving Stalin. Stalin, in Taubman’s account, was the younger man’s hero and, as party boss in Ukraine, Khrushchev carried out savage purges as required. Even shorter than the diminutive Stalin and having little formal education, Khrushchev was not an apparently threatening figure, and this also helped him keep his life and his career. When his hidden cleverness and ambition enabled him to reach Stalin’s place, though, Khrushchev was surrounded by yes-men and toadies. His temperamental nature and lack of training in statesmanship received little support or balance from colleagues.

Taubman begins his account of the volatile Soviet ruler with the events of Khrushchev’s sudden fall from power in October, 1964. To most people in the world, he seemed to be his nation’s undisputed dictator. Despite this appearance, his nation was suffering from food shortages after he had promised abundance, Communist Party officials were feeling insecure in their jobs, and military officers were disturbed by cutbacks in troops and weapons. Khrushchev was suddenly called back from vacation to a...

(The entire section is 1626 words.)