In the current national climate, the notion that Washington might learn from the experience of former Soviet leaders Nikita Khrushchev or Mikhail Gorbachev would strike most as ludicrous. Certainly the Bush Administration consensus is that the cold war’s overriding lesson was that only power really matters in international affairs. The dwindling number of Americans who even know of Khrushchev mostly recall him as the buffoon who banged his shoe at the United Nations, or the gambler whose nuclear bluff was called over Cuba. And even such liberal tribunes as the New York Times no longer question the right’s claim that it was essentially American might–“Star Wars brought the Soviets to their knees!”–that forced Gorbachev into retreat and reform.
How timely, then, is the appearance of several important books that call these flawed and dangerous certitudes into question. Although they examine different periods of Soviet history, through varied lenses, they point to some common lessons of enduring relevance. Among these are the enormous difficulties of reforming a quasi-autocratic political system, the cultural as well as political obstacles to liberalizing and opening a long-isolated society, and the attendant need for more patience and subtlety in relations toward such states than Washington has usually shown. These books also invite a rethinking of the conventional wisdom on several key historical judgments. For example, in the real context of the tremendous opposition they faced, the failures of the “bumbling” Khrushchev and “fatally indecisive” Gorbachev are surely outweighed by their accomplishments. Similarly, in light of the real international opportunities that were missed–both during and after the cold war–the reigning triumphalist assessments of US foreign policy cry out for revision. It hardly needs emphasizing that, in dictatorial or autocratic political systems, leadership is of paramount importance. This certainly was so for Soviet Russia when, at the end of the 1920s, Joseph Stalin turned his country from the evolutionary path of market socialism to that of hyper-centralization and militarization via a murderous “revolution from above.” So pitiless was Stalin’s twenty-year purging of the Soviet political and intellectual elite, and so extensive was his cultivation of xenophobia and international confrontation, that when the tyrant finally died in 1953 the chances of liberalizing the country’s domestic and foreign policy were judged to be virtually nil by most foreign observers. Party members with reformist inclinations, they argued, would inevitably be crushed by the totalitarian structures Stalin had created –the “permanent purge,” in one famous description. Therefore, one of the enduring puzzles of Soviet history is how quickly these judgments were proved wrong when, shortly after Stalin’s death, Khrushchev embarked on the reforms commonly known as “the thaw.”
What were Khrushchev’s motives? Was he seeking primarily to outflank Stalinist rivals, or to revive stagnant production, or to ease confrontation with the West? All of these explanations are well developed in the political science literature. But only a political biography could illuminate the personal, human dimension of Khrushchev’s decision to follow the risky path of de-Stalinization. William Taubman subtly explores that dimension, and much else, in his comprehensive new study of the enigmatic Soviet leader, Khrushchev: The Man and His Era. Drawing on a vast range of documentary and interview sources, Taubman’s treatment of Khrushchev’s youth and political rise shows the persistent dualities in his character and career: his yearning for education and culture, matched by an often-shocking coarseness; his ambition and opportunism, tempered by an enduring idealism; his capacity for both ruthlessness and remorse; and his schizophrenic attitude toward the towering figure of Stalin.
Taubman vividly recounts Khrushchev’s advance from peasant childhood to accomplished (and well-paid) metalworker on the eve of the Russian Revolution. At the time, Khrushchev was living in Yuzkova, in Russian-dominated Eastern Ukraine, and also working as a labor activist. He later admitted that it pained him “to remember that as a worker under capitalism I’d had much better living conditions than my fellow workers living under Soviet power.” Recalling Khrushchev’s early trade-unionist orientation, Stalin’s henchman Vyacheslav Molotov once sneered, “He was no revolutionary. It was only in 1918 that he joined the party. That’s how active he was! By that time plenty of simple workers had joined. Yet this is the kind of man who later became leader of our party! It’s absurd!”
Yet once Khrushchev had joined, his organizing talent and inexhaustible energy propelled him rapidly, particularly in the midst of the intraparty struggles that followed Bolshevik founder Lenin’s death in 1924. Here Taubman’s readers unfamiliar with Soviet history may find the going a bit rough, as such figures as Leon Trotsky and Nikolai Bukharin–and the political alternatives they represented–are difficult to distinguish. But so were they for Khrushchev, who, like other workers-cum-rising party officials, was confused by the policy debates of the late 1920s and so drawn to Stalin’s simple, brutal promises to stamp out vestiges of capitalism and accelerate progress toward socialism. Still, by the time of Khrushchev’s service as Moscow party boss (and Central Committee member) in the mid-to-late 1930s, he began to experience doubts about the human costs of Stalinist Communism as the purge trials and attendant terror mowed down former friends and associates. At the time, however, these doubts were pushed aside by the euphoria he felt as one of Stalin’s young lieutenants who, barely fifteen years earlier, had been but a “simple worker.” As Taubman writes:
What a heady feeling it must have been to rise so high so fast, to come to know Stalin himself, to sit by the great man’s side in the Kremlin and at family dinners at his dacha, to think that the leader of the USSR and of world communism regarded him with respect and even affection…. Disappointed as he was in his own father, is it too much to say that Stalin seemed like a father figure to Khrushchev, one he insisted on idealizing despite increasingly powerful evidence of his flaws? “Stalin liked me,” Khrushchev later insisted.
It was likely only the trauma of World War II, with its direct experience of Stalin’s blundering, caprice and senseless sacrifice of millions of loyal Soviet lives (as opposed to those of suspected “traitors”), that prompted Khrushchev’s first serious, though still mostly silent, reappraisal of the godlike tyrant. And, after the flush of victory and postwar reconstruction, it was apparently only during the paranoid sickness of Stalin’s final years that the ever-ambitious Khrushchev resolved that, should he survive and emerge in the top leadership, things would change.
This is what began in earnest at the landmark Twentieth Party Congress of 1956, famous for Khrushchev’s “secret speech” denouncing Stalin. Taubman details Khrushchev’s “manic ambivalence” at this critical juncture: his mix of political and personal motives, his indignation at what the investigation of the purges revealed and his remorse over his own responsibility for the bloodletting. Khrushchev also feared the fallout of his impending parricide, yet held “a naïve faith that socialism, once purified of its Stalinist stain, would command ever more loyalty from its beneficiaries.”
A political masterstroke, de-Stalinization nevertheless failed to have the desired effect upon its beneficiaries. In the Soviet satellites of Poland and Hungary, it sparked unrest and rebellion. At home, intellectuals pushed debate beyond what the party (and an angry Khrushchev, admiring yet ever suspicious of the cultural elite) could tolerate. And the economy, after an initial surge and such triumphs as Sputnik in 1957, slumped anew. Much of the blame lies with Khrushchev’s belief that enthusiasm and reorganization–as seen in the ill-fated campaigns to plant corn widely and cultivate marginal “virgin lands”–were enough to get the country moving. Khrushchev himself, in words that would be echoed by Russian reformers, faulted a deeper, systemic inertia:
You’d think I, as first secretary, could change anything in this country. Like hell I can! No matter what changes I propose and carry out, everything stays the same. Russia’s like a tub full of dough, you put your hand in it, down to the bottom, and think you’re the master of the situation. When you pull out your hand, a little hole remains, but then, before your very eyes, the dough expands into a spongy, puffy mass. That’s what Russia is like!
Yet foreign affairs too played a major role in Khrushchev’s eventual downfall. Reading Taubman’s discussion of the view from the Kremlin, one is struck by the West’s inability to understand the magnitude of Khrushchev’s project, by the way that many US policies seemed almost designed to weaken him in his battle with Moscow hard-liners and by the wasted chances for true “peaceful coexistence.” For example, through the Eisenhower years Khrushchev struggled to improve relations with the West while fending off attacks from Soviet (and Chinese) Stalinists. His bluster, mainly over Berlin, belied desperation for some diplomatic breakthrough. Yet Washington repeatedly spurned his advances. “If, as [Secretary of State John Foster] Dulles concluded, America’s hard line had forced the Soviets to contemplate reform, now was the time to keep up the pressure. Not the least of that pressure was the first U-2 spy flight that soared over Moscow and Leningrad on July 4, 1956, the very day Khrushchev and his colleagues graced the American Embassy’s Independence Day party with their presence.”
Those incursions continued up through the 1960 May Day overflight, which was finally, after many failed attempts, downed. Washington’s subsequent lies (an off-course weather plane) and Eisenhower’s rejection of steps that would have allowed Khrushchev to save face made the scuttling of that year’s Paris summit highly likely. Relations with the Kennedy Administration began little better, with each side misunderstanding the other’s intentions and overreacting to such moves as construction of the Berlin wall and the Bay of Pigs. This, together with America’s mounting strategic superiority and growing pressure from Soviet hard-liners, is what apparently led to Khrushchev’s 1962 decision to place nuclear missiles in Cuba.
It was terribly fortunate that both leaders found the sense to step back from Armageddon and turn to serious negotiations, which produced the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty, the first major arms agreement of the nuclear age. Yet, thanks as much to American as Soviet intransigence, the treaty fell far short of what it might have achieved, which reflects the tragedy of US-Soviet relations throughout the Khrushchev era. Would a bit more flexibility over the number of onsite inspections have been too high a price for a total, not just limited, nuclear test ban? For that matter, were Kennedy’s domestic critics so much more dangerous than Khrushchev’s that publicly admitting the Cuban trade-off (removal of US missiles from Turkey), and thereby permitting Moscow to claim some advantage too, was an unacceptable alternative to Washington’s triumphant crowing? Would the slightest concession to Soviet interests in Germany have been so awful, particularly if it had strengthened Khrushchev and permitted early détente in Europe, and facilitated the deep military cuts that Khrushchev had begun, but that were soon halted after his 1964 ouster?
It would be nearly twenty years before Moscow would be ruled by another reformer, two decades of costly arms racing and Third World confrontation whose ruinous effects are felt to this day, from Angola to Afghanistan. And in the early 1980s, most Western observers ruled out the possibility of major reform, arguing, as they had in the 1950s, that the system simply wouldn’t permit it. Yet again, they were proved wrong, this time by the rise of perestroika. Khrushchev’s and Gorbachev’s reforms were not just parallel epochs; without the former, the latter would have been inconceivable. This is the first lesson of Conversations With Gorbachev, an unusually candid and revealing dialogue between the author of perestroika and Zdenek Mlynar, one of the architects of the “Prague Spring” of 1968.
Longtime friends, the two became acquainted during the early thaw years at Moscow University. The Czech exchange student and medal-winning Russian farm boy learned from each other while engaging in the once-forbidden debates that swept the Soviet capital in the early post-Stalin years. Both were “children of the 20th Congress,” believers in the promise of a more democratic and humane socialism; they stayed in touch over the next decade, until Mlynar’s 1967 visit to Gorbachev in his native Stavropol region (so unusual that it attracted KGB attention). By then a Czechoslovakian thaw was in the works, with Mlynar playing a major role, and the former classmates discussed reform possibilities in detail. Gorbachev was intrigued and supportive. Yet for his own country he espoused not a broad transformation of the Soviet system but rather a cleansing of bureaucratic irrationality by enlisting the presumed legions of party officials who shared his frustrations and aspirations for a humane socialism.
As for foreign policy, Gorbachev admits to being little moved by the crushing of the Prague Spring; under the sway of propaganda, he believed that the Soviet invasion was a necessary counter to NATO subversion (not an entirely implausible belief, given the record of Western clandestine operations in Eastern Europe, of which Taubman also reminds us). It was only a year later, when he was traveling with a delegation to Czechoslovakia, that Gorbachev saw things with “far-reaching consequences” for his outlook:
People turned their backs on us; they didn’t want to speak with us…. For me this was a shock. I suddenly understood that despite all the global, strategic, and ideological justifications, we had suppressed something that had grown up within our own society. From that time on I began to think more and more about our own situation and I came to rather unconsoling conclusions–that something wasn’t right among us.
That trip planted the seeds of Gorbachev’s “new thinking,” which was reinforced by his subsequent travel around Europe, his study of Western social democracy and reading of dissident Soviet thinkers, and, in the early 1980s, by his growing ties with reformist and “semi-dissident” Moscow economists, scientists and intellectuals. It is notable that the availability to the Soviet elite of such heretical writings–indeed, the very existence of a strong pro-reform current among Soviet academics and policy advisers–was a product of Khrushchev’s liberalization. It is also notable that none of the other contenders for party leadership in 1985 had anything approaching Gorbachev’s reformist credentials.
After taking office, Gorbachev saw his faith in the reformist commitment of the party-at-large repeatedly disappointed (something that he acknowledges not only retarded economic reforms but later led to his downfall, thanks to misplaced trust in those who would later betray him). He’d been chosen to get the country moving again, but his efforts to do so collided with entrenched interests at every turn. So he grew increasingly radical, and within a year began pushing for major foreign-policy changes abroad while unleashing glasnost to overcome resistance at home. In 1987 he outlined plans for democratization–amazingly, to include multi-candidate elections–that were also later approved at an extraordinary party conference in 1988.
These moves helped shift the locus of domestic political authority from the party and military-industrial elite to a new public sphere, a transformation carefully analyzed in George Breslauer’s Gorbachev and Yeltsin as Leaders. It was also in 1988 that Gorbachev enhanced his international authority, and silenced most Western skeptics, with the steps laid out in his December UN address: deep, unilateral arms cuts; rejection of ideology in international relations; and a call for a new world order of cooperation in solving such global problems as poverty, pollution, crime and terrorism.
Some in Washington remained unconvinced, however. The new Bush Administration, still not sure if Gorbachev was “for real” or just trying a ruse, put the brakes on progress in US-Soviet relations with a yearlong “pause” that deprived perestroika of critical economic and diplomatic support just when it was most needed. Breslauer writes that Gorbachev’s authority was partly “hostage to the behavior of the United States,” which, as if oblivious to his domestic opposition, would offer nothing more than “to sign deals that involved Soviet acceptance of maximal U.S. terms.” Perestroika benefited from the thaw’s positive legacies, not the least of which was Gorbachev’s team of reformist aides, all children of the Twentieth Congress. But Gorbachev was also haunted by the negative lesson of Khrushchev’s fate, namely the danger of being removed for pushing too fast. One of the great “what ifs” of the late cold war is how perestroika might have fared had Bush Senior–who was at least publicly committed to the USSR’s reform, not its collapse–shared some of the “vision thing” so eloquently displayed in Conversations With Gorbachev.
A notable aspect of Breslauer’s study is its revision of the author’s previous framework–his well-known authority-building model developed in an earlier book on Khrushchev and Brezhnev–in light of perestroika. And it leads him, in analyzing Gorbachev and Yeltsin, to place greater emphasis on the impact of leaders’ personalities and beliefs, rather than the constraints of the political system, in explaining their policy choices. Even more could be made of this, especially for Gorbachev’s foreign policy, where the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident–arguably the single strongest impetus toward his radical “new thinking” and the policies that soon followed–is largely overlooked. Breslauer also addresses the kind of “what ifs” noted above, counterfactuals ignored in most writings on Soviet politics. Here he stresses the centrality of Gorbachev’s principled beliefs and commitment to nonviolence in the USSR’s democratization and the cold war’s peaceful end, outcomes judged unlikely under any of his rivals for power.
This emphasis on leadership holds for post-Soviet politics as well, with Breslauer attributing to Yeltsin’s character and style decisive influence in the USSR’s collapse and Russia’s subsequent travails. Eschewing the poles of lionization and demonization, Breslauer compares Yeltsin and Khrushchev as anti-establishment populists. He also recognizes Yeltsin’s sincere reformism (at least early on) in his politically suicidal 1987 criticism of Gorbachev’s timidity; who foresaw the possibility of Yeltsin’s political rebirth just two years later via the new electoral system that Gorbachev himself would create? But Yeltsin the erstwhile anti-establishmentarian, who as president of Russia later admitted that “I do not pretend to understand the philosophy behind our economic reforms,” would respond to the failure of these reforms by discarding his populism to become a reclusive patriarch dispensing favors (and invading Chechnya) to shore up his authority in a sadly traditional fashion. Another irony is that the onetime corruption fighter would preside over an unprecedented explosion of criminality and corruption in post-Soviet Russia.
Yet this corruption was in key respects aided and abetted by the West. How different might Russia look today if the leading powers and their financial institutions had appreciated Russia’s unique problems and the unique solutions they required? How different might world politics be today if, instead of paying lip service to Gorbachev’s entreaties for joint solutions to global problems, and instead of snubbing post-Soviet Russia as a genuine partner, the United States had taken these initiatives seriously?
Of course, Washington alone is hardly to blame for the failures and missed opportunities. Soviet/Russian mistakes and misdeeds have also been many. Neither should we overlook another counterfactual–how much worse things could have been–by forgetting those points where American leaders acted with wisdom and restraint. For example, how tragically might the Cuban missile crisis have ended had Kennedy cut diplomacy short and followed his hawkish advisers’ calls for a “preventive” strike? And how hair trigger might the nuclear standoff have grown had President Nixon chosen proliferation of antimissile systems over negotiation and stable deterrence? Now that the second Bush Administration has apparently decided that such hard-learned lessons no longer apply–embracing an aggressive unilateralism while spurning serious arms control for a new generation of defensive and offensive (including nuclear) weapons–reconsideration of the conventional wisdom is all the more urgent.
Given fears about the spread of nuclear arms, such rethinking should include the US failure to ratify a comprehensive test ban. It might also revisit the forgotten drama of Reykjavík. That was the 1986 summit where only the panicked intervention of several presidential aides–some of whom advise the current US Administration–pulled Ronald Reagan back from the brink of agreement to a sweeping nuclear weapons ban. (Gorbachev, for his part, insisted on limits to antimissile systems.) How different might our world be today if, in place of their short-term preoccupation with pressing America’s advantage, those aides had shared some of Gorbachev’s long-term vision? How much safer might we all be if, instead of the rivalry that encourages proliferation, Washington and Moscow had joined forces in pressing for global nuclear reductions? Viewed myopically, American victories have been, and perhaps will continue to be, impressive. But from a wider perspective–considering both what might have been and what still could be–history’s verdict will likely be considerably harsher.