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9-08-2015, 22:31


The Polish and Hungarian crises, following on Khrushchev’s violent denunciation of Stalin and advocacy of reform, undermined the Soviet leader’s position within the Kremlin. He had never been strong enough to oust the Stalinists in the Praesidium (Politburo), among them Molotov and Malenkov, who now attacked him on the easiest of targets – the economy, which under centralist control never lived up to expectations. The struggle took the form of disputing which were the right reforms to follow: reforms which sought to make the government ministries more efficient, a policy backed by Malenkov and Molotov, or reforms based on reconstituted party control over the economy regionally organised, as advocated by Khrushchev. The conflict came to a head in June 1957 when the Praesidium, by a majority of seven to four, voted against Khrushchev. That should have been the end. But Khrushchev turned the tables by appealing to the larger party body, the Central Committee, which he claimed alone could deprive him of the post of first secretary. With Marshal Zhukov’s help, military aircraft flew the party representatives to Moscow from the outlying provinces. Khrushchev won the support he needed and dubbed his opponents on the Praesidium the ‘anti-party’ group. All these opponents now lost real power for good, but there was to be no return to Stalinist vengeance. They were sent far away; it was with a touch of humour that Khrushchev decided to send the dour Molotov as ambassador to Mongolia and Malenkov to manage a power station in Kazakhstan; only Bulganin was allowed to remain at the centre, acting as titular premier until 1958. From 1957 until his sudden deposition by the Praesidium in 1964, Khrushchev dominated the Soviet Union in its domestic and foreign relations, though not as Stalin had done. Opponents no longer had to fear death, but a displeased Khrushchev could end their careers and demote them or banish them. His enduring contribution was to dismantle the Stalinist terror regime and to discredit it. Indeed, discrediting it became a potent weapon with which to defeat his rivals, who had played subordinate roles in it. Khrushchev restored the party, with its hierarchy appointed by him, to primacy in the economic and political administration of the country. This meant that no far-reaching economic reforms would be possible: the Soviet Union remained a command economy. But it had become a more tolerant country; its leader was the son of a miner, robustly human, resilient, tough, with a sense of humour, unpolished in speech and manner, but someone with whom it was thought in the West it was possible to do business. Khrushchev announced that he believed in peaceful competition and that the Soviet Union would win; boastfully he added, ‘We will bury you’, a remark which was taken too literally in the West. Khrushchev genuinely wanted to better the lot of the ordinary people in his own day, not to sacrifice them to some future goal. He comes across as a man who wanted to be liked, but also as one who wished to be acknowledged as leader without the danger of Stalin’s cult of the personality re-emerging. Despite Khrushchev’s goals, which seemed to be not unlike those of the West, the apparent convergence of West and East was an illusion. Khrushchev had lived all his life within a state system that was ruled from above. He wished to correct its most gross errors, but believed that centralised planning was essential to communism. The Soviet Union would continue to be ruled from above; reforms would be introduced only as the necessity for them was perceived in the Kremlin. At the same time the people would be brought into more active participation. Khrushchev tried to reduce the dead weight of bureaucracy but was caught in the paradox that this could not be done unless decision-making was decentralised. The most maddening aspect of Khrushchev’s period of power was its unpredictability, a reflection of Khrushchev’s mercurial temperament; he delighted in springing surprises. Typically, writers and intellectuals could never be sure where they were. Thus, in 1958 Boris Pasternak was persecuted and forbidden to collect the Nobel Prize, but Solzhenitsyn’s novel about a day in Stalin’s labour camp was allowed to be published because it was in line with Khrushchev’s own denunciation. Censorship remained erratic, though more freedom was allowed to writers. But Khrushchev was far less tolerant of organised religion, and many churches and synagogues were closed. Unrestrained by powerful rivals, Khrushchev’s policies were frequently changed, which contributed to their lack of success. His various reorganisations of industrial and agricultural controls created confusion and waste. In the area most vital to Soviet living standards, agriculture, the improvements of the early years were not sustained after 1958. Bad weather and unsound farming methods reduced the contribution from the virgin lands. In industry, Khrushchev’s decentralising reforms, removing one level of planning to the regions, also caused severe disruption. The growth rate of Soviet industry slowed down and failed to fulfil his unrealistic plans. Khrushchev understood the enormous changes the Soviet Union was undergoing as it developed from a mainly rural to an urbanised country with a population that was better educated and a large section of professional people demanding higher standards of living: more consumer goods, better housing, better health provision, more varied and more plentiful food and more opportunities for higher education. He launched special campaigns concentrating on one or other sector of supply, organised and reorganised the running of the economy and made promises and set ambitious targets that could not be fulfilled. In the decade from 1955 to 1965 growth was impressive but could not match expanding expectations. The failure of agriculture to make anything like the progress planned is illustrated by the figures in the table below. Khrushchev was not only ambitiously attempting to raise production, and nuclear-missile capacity, but simultaneously working to rejuvenate and make the party more effective. Neither he nor his successors could solve the basic problem of how to organise an increasingly sophisticated economy without relegating the party to a subordinate role in the state, a subordination which they feared would undermine the leadership and government of the USSR. Yet a centralised authoritarian party structure seeking to take the major decisions without reference to self-regulatory market forces is simply not equipped to manage the vast and complex industry of a modern state. In agriculture various communist efforts to stimulate production also proved wasteful of resources. Khrushchev’s erratic course was especially evident in his handling of the Soviet Union’s external relations. He correctly foresaw the importance of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles as the vital deterrent and measure of military power. ‘Going nuclear’, moreover, allowed a reduction in the size of the Red Army at a time of labour shortage due to the smaller wartime birth rate. The launching into space of Sputnik in October 1957 was a rare propaganda triumph – the Soviet Union appeared briefly to be technologically ahead of the US. The reverse was true, and the Soviet Union paid dearly for this propaganda first. It helped to discredit Eisenhower’s more restrained armaments policies and prompted John F. Kennedy to close the ‘missile gap’ that never was. The nuclear-arms race was significantly accelerated just as the Soviet Union was closing the real missile gap with the US in the 1960s. In the Middle East, Khrushchev took advantage of Western hostility to Egypt to establish bases in Egypt and in Syria and to assist in building the Aswan High Dam. But the benefits Russia gained were limited and its Arab allies proved uncertain friends more concerned to take advantage of Soviet aid than to offer much in return. But Soviet commitments, though costly, were likewise limited. Khrushchev threatened Britain and France during the Suez War in November 1956, but they were idle threats. The US did not withdraw its fundamental support of Israel, and the Soviet Union would not risk a direct military confrontation with the Americans by involving Russian ‘volunteers’ and pilots in actual fighting in the Middle East. The Arab states did not want to introduce Sovietstyle communism, or to be dominated by the Soviet Union as its East European allies were. Indeed, the identity of interests was a tenuous one. The shift from Stalin’s European-centred policy to the post-Stalin global policies cost the USSR a great deal and yielded few dividends. The Horn of Africa, Afghanistan, Egypt, Cuba, Ghana, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Iraq, Angola and India all received Soviet aid at various times and were courted by the Soviet Union. But the Russians suffered setbacks in all these relationships, most spectacularly in China. China had expected to be treated as an equal after Stalin’s death, but although it had developed an independent world policy it still relied on Soviet aid. Divergences between the Chinese and Soviet viewpoints increased as the 1950s drew to a close. According to Mao, Khrushchev’s emphasis on Soviet material advances sapped the true revolutionary spirit that should be impelling the communist camp forward in the world. The Russian leader’s pursuit of detente with the US after 1958 led the Chinese to conclude that the world was once again endangered by the national chauvinism of the two superpowers. This became even more evident to the Chinese when the Russians refused to help them to become a nuclear power. During Khrushchev’s last two years of leadership the Sino-Soviet break became unbridgeable. Ironically, the Soviet–US detente did not last long, given the way Khrushchev handled it. The Paris summit in May 1960, intended to seek solutions to Berlin and the German question, was called off before it began, Khrushchev deciding against negotiating with Eisenhower in the terminal period of his presidency, and the U-2 incident provided the means to humiliate the American president. A meeting with President Kennedy in Vienna in June 1961 brought the Russians no nearer to their desired solution of the German problem. Meanwhile, Berlin remained the open door through which the citizens of East Germany poured to express their preference for the West. The construction of the Berlin Wall in August 1961 to block that exit became an open admission of the bankruptcy of Soviet policies and those of the East German regime. Neither conciliatory statements nor threats, which succeeded on each other, had much effect on the West except to accelerate the arms race. Khrushchev’s most daring attempt to redress America’s geographical advantage in its confrontation with the Soviet Union came to grief in the seas surrounding the island of Cuba. America’s allies on the borders of the Soviet eastern empire provided bases from which missiles could hit Soviet cities; the Soviet Union at this time could threaten only America’s European allies and had no reliable missiles with which to attack the US. Rebuffed by the US in 1960, Castro had turned to Russia for aid, and agreements to provide credit to Cuba and to purchase its sugar crop were concluded in 1960. The failure of the CIA’s Bay of Pigs landing of Cuban exiles to overthrow Castro in April 1961 convinced the Cuban leader that the US was determined to subjugate his country and drove him deeper into Russia’s arms. Khrushchev promised to defend the island and accused the US of banditry. In the following year, 1962, Khrushchev decided to install nuclear missiles in Cuba and to build a Soviet base there. This daring Soviet move, which would bring the US within range of many more Soviet missiles, was carried out secretly. The Cuban missile crisis that followed appeared to bring the Soviet Union and the US to the brink of nuclear war. But Khrushchev was obliged to withdraw. For the Soviet Union this perceived failure marked a great setback, less in its relations with the West, which soon improved again, than with its standing in the socialist camp. The Chinese took due note: the Soviet Union too had proved a paper tiger. Finally, any hope the Kremlin might have had of overawing the West in future negotiations over Berlin or Germany lay in ruins. But the world beyond the two superpowers could breathe again, relieved that sanity had prevailed and that ideological fanaticism had not this time as in 1939 plunged the world into unimaginable devastation. Khrushchev’s dynamism and experimentation alarmed the party bureaucracy. His lack of success, especially in agriculture, did nothing to compensate for the constant upsets he inflicted on the power establishment. He probably paid less and less attention to other members of the Praesidium, and in due course they decided to get rid of him, having had enough of his erratic policies or ‘hare-brained schemes’, to use their phrase. In October 1964, while he was holidaying on the Black Sea, his removal from the leadership was announced in Moscow. He was allowed to retire quietly and died in obscurity in 1971 – at least that had been the intention of the new Soviet leaders. They underlined their contempt by not honouring his remains with a state funeral or a burial place close to Lenin. But Khrushchev refused to become a nonentity and had one more surprise in store before his unceremonious end. He had recorded his memoirs on tape and shortly before his death saw their first publication in the West. Like his other breaches with the past, this was a first in Soviet history. In the decades between Stalin and Gorbachev, Khrushchev did more to change the Soviet Union than any other leader, albeit without finding remedies for the shortcomings of communist rule of the economy. Nor could communism be reconciled with basic freedoms. History will nevertheless accord him a more important place than the Soviet leadership was willing to acknowledge. From a later vantage point, Khrushchev’s years of power are viewed in a different light inside and outside the Soviet Union. The Russian people could look back on Khrushchev with gratitude for introducing the first breath of fresh air and freedom, although it was stifled again during the long interlude of the Brezhnev decades. Banished from Red Square, Khrushchev lies buried in the Novodevichy Convent grounds with other famous Russians, Chekhov, Scriabin and Gogol. The grave is not neglected, but is covered with flowers in memory of the man who first opened the gates of the vast prison complex of Stalin’s Gulag.