the fall of nikita khrushchev -- 11/22/22

Today's selection -- from The Shortest History of the Soviet Union by Sheila Fitzpatrick. After his poor leadership in the Cuban Missile Crisis, Nikita Khrushchev’s fall from power was rapid:
In 1957, [Khrushchev] pushed through a plan to dissolve the central industrial ministries and create regional economic councils (sovnarkhozy) in their place -- a move that had the side benefit of weakening the central government bureau­crats (who were not part of his power base) and strengthening the regional party secretaries (who were). This reform trod on multiple bureaucratic toes and encountered major implemen­tation problems, but in 1962 Khrushchev tried to push further, with a bifurcation of republican and regional party committees to deal respectively with agriculture and industry, each branch having its first secretary. This meant treading on the toes of his own power base. A third of the regional party committees never actually split, and the whole program, considered one of Khrushchev's 'harebrained schemes', was dropped imme­diately after his fall.
"[Anastas] Mikoyan, though generally a Khrushchev ally, thought that Khrushchev 'got conceited' after his victory over the Anti-Party Group and started to feel that 'he didn't have to reckon with anyone'. But there was, in fact, a Politburo to reckon with, not to mention something like a public opinion. Politburo col­leagues winced when in various meetings with the intelligen­tsia, intended as an overture to 'civil society', Khrushchev lost his cool, denouncing modern art as 'dog-shit', calling sculptor Ernst Neizvestny 'a faggot' and getting into a shouting match with Evcushenko. Lower down the social scale, the popular conversations monitored by the security police were becom­ing more and more disrespectful, with an unprecedented abundance of jokes and epithets on Khrushchev -- 'corn­pedlar', 'comedian', 'trickster', 'usurper', 'Tsar Nikita' and even 'Trotskyite' among them.

"Two events placed the nails in his political coffin. The first was a workers' strike in Novocherkassk in southern Russia in the summer of 1962, brought on by a raising of production quotas that coincided with much-resented price hikes for meat and butter. In another country, at another time, this might seem rather ho-hum news, but the Soviet Union didn't do strikes and riots (Tbilisi in 1956 was a rare exception), so it was a shock, and the regional leadership coped with it badly. Troops opened fire on demonstrators outside the Novocherkassk party committee building, resulting in at least twenty-four fatalities.

"Worse was to come on the international scene with the Cuban missile crisis in November 1962. Fidel Castro's pro­Soviet government in Cuba had asked for Soviet military aid against a feared US attack, and Khrushchev secretly sent them some intercontinental nuclear missiles from the Soviet Union's small stockpile. He was not planning to start a war, but intending to deter the Americans from military action, not to mention show them what it felt like 'to have enemy mis­siles pointed at you [he was thinking of those in Turkey] ... giving them a little of their own medicine'.

"US President Ken­nedy called his bluff, threatening nuclear war if Khrushchev did not back off and have the missiles removed, and after a tense stand-off, Khrushchev complied. To an appalled watch­ing world, it seemed as if superpower competition had taken them to the brink of catastrophe. Khrushchev's Politburo col­leagues had the same reaction -- plus humiliation that it was the Soviet Union that had blinked, and anger that Khrushchev had got them into the mess in the first place.

Khrushchev and John F. Kennedy, Vienna, June 1961

"Khrushchev's seventieth birthday in April 1964 marked the height of his public cult, but by this point his colleagues were totally fed up with him. Leonid Brezhnev, Khrushchev's protege, who had had headed the Kazakhstan party commit­tee during the Virgin Lands program and was now back in Moscow as a Politburo member and second secretary of the party, took the lead, quietly lining up Politburo members in support of Khrushchev's dismissal. Vladimir Semichastny of the KGB was in the loop, changing Khrushchev's personal guards as a protection, but it was unneeded insurance. In October, after a two-day discussion in which his colleagues criticised his lack of collegiality and errors of judgement, and Khrushchev, taken aback, made a fumbling response, he was stripped of his offices by a totally democratic procedure -- a unanimous Politburo vote.

"Khrushchev lived out the remaining seven years of his life as a pensioner in Moscow (a first for a deposed leader) and, after a period of demoralisation, set to dictating his mem­oirs. This was perhaps not quite a first, because Trotsky had done it before him, but unlike Trotsky, Khrushchev remained loyal, careful not to reveal state secrets, though he was frank and often funny about his colleagues. As his former speech­writer Fedor Burlatsky later commented, the inflated self­-confidence of his later years in politics was gone, leaving the peasant commonsense and curiosity. These were still Soviet times, however, so it was obvious that the memoirs couldn't be published at home. The manuscript was smuggled abroad for publication in the United States and became an interna­tional bestseller. Soviet politicians avoided Khrushchev in his retirement, but he unexpectedly made friends with some artists and writers who were not afraid to visit. One of them was Neizvestny, the target of Khrushchev's scorn in 1962. The bust that marks Khrushchev's grave in Moscow's Novodevichy Cemetery is his work."



Sheila Fitzpatrick


The Shortest History of the Soviet Union


Columbia University Press


Copyright 2022 Sheila Fitzpatrick


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