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.