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Nikita Khrushchev — a Stalin’s henchman, a reformer, a politician of personal eccentricities, a man of stature
Nikita Khrushchev, a politician who had a strong impact on the history of the twentieth century, was born a hundred years ago. Forty years ago he was ousted from premiership.
His political career was, to a great extent, connected with Ukraine. On the one hand, being a Stalin's henchman, he caused the death of dozens of thousands of Ukrainians, but on the other hand, it was thanks to him that several remarkable Ukrainian cultural figures survived the horrors of Stalinism. Nikita Khrushchev was the great catalyst of political and social change. In spite of his personal eccentricities, his vulgarity, and his bewildering shifts, he was accounted a man of stature. The twenty-first century brings with it an inevitable reassessment of this statesman.
In the life of the Ukrainians who are now about fifty, Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev was a palpable presence. His portraits in the late fifties and early sixties were ubiquitous — they made their way even into the ABC books for the elementary school. The children were exposed to the pictures representing a plump, short man, with a bald head and a ruddy face, three gold stars on his chest, mostly shown standing in a field, and urging peasants to plant corn. In the 1970s, when Khrushchev had already become one of the unmentionable, many people tried to figure out for themselves what had actually happened in the history of the country they were living in (official history books were doctored every so often to suit the current views on the past). In what was then known about Khrushchev, he appeared to have been rather an attractive political figure, a sort of maverick who, being the communist party leader, dared, nevertheless, to publicly reveal the truth — or his version of it — about the Stalinist repression and the gulag; he was the one who, in the early sixties, allowed a measure of freedom of expression in literature and in the arts (it was during this "Khrushchev's Thaw" that the generation of intellectuals arose who were later called "those of the sixties"). After the collapse of the Soviet Union, with Ukraine regaining her independence, came still another re-assessment of his role in the twentieth-century history of Ukraine — the romantic image of a Soviet at the pinnacle of power who, motivated by the loftiest reasons, tried to do away with the Stalinist legacy and humanize the Soviet regime, was shattered, and there emerged an image instead of a controversial figure who was as cruel and ruthless as most of the others among Stalin's henchmen, but still more of an odd one out, less of a Soviet zombie, more human and less programmed to toe the party line. For better or worse, Khrushchev played a significant role in the way the destiny of Ukraine was shaped in the twentieth century.
In a recently published Ukrainian reference book, Universalny slovnyk-entsyklopediya (Universal Dictionary & Encyclopaedia), there is an entry about Khrushchev: Khrushchev, Mykyta Serhiyovych, 1894–1971; Soviet [communist] party and public figure; his working life began in Ukraine, in the region of Donbas, in 1908; a member of the Russian communist party (of Bolsheviks) since 1918. In the period from 1938 to 1947 (with intervals) [Khrushchev] was the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party (of Bolsheviks) of Ukraine; from 1944 to 1947 [he] was also head of the government of the UkrSSR [the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic]; in October 1939 [he] was instrumental in getting Western Ukraine included into the UkrSSR; during the German-Soviet War [of 1941–1945] he was a member of the military councils of the Kyiv, 1st Ukrainian and other fronts [army groups]. After Stalin's death (in 1953), [he] removed all the other pretenders to supreme power: Lavrenty Beria [KGB head], Vyacheslav Malenkov, and Georgy Malenkov [party functionaries], securing the posts of the 1st Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and [at the same time] of the head of the Council of Ministers.
At the 20th Congress [of the communist party] in February 1956 launched the process of de-Stalinization, which later was referred to as "Khrushchev Thaw," and during which millions of political prisoners were released, and peasants were issued internal passports and were allowed to move freely around the country; the atmosphere of totalitarian terror was cleared somewhat, but [Khrushchev Thaw] did not change much in the foundation of the [Soviet] system. [Khrushchev] started a number of reforms, [an attempt was made at] decentralization of running the Soviet economy (creation of Radnarhospy, or National Economy Councils was part of planned reforms); in 1956, [Khrushchev] ordered the brutal suppression of the Hungarian Revolution, and later, of [Soviet] workers' strikes. In 1963, a German court in Karlsruhe ruled that he was directly responsible for the assassination of Lev Rebet [leading ideologist of Ukrainian nationalism] and Stepan Bandera in Germany [in 1957 and in 1959 respectively]; in 1964, [Khrushchev] was removed from power following a conspiracy against him, hatched among the leadership of the communist party, and organized by L. Brezhnev [next communist party leader]. [Khrushchev] lived in Ukraine for about 30 years; [he was in favour of] forced Russification [of Ukraine] and pursued the policy of harassment and persecution of Ukrainian intellectuals.
All the facts provided in this entry are correct, but some important details are missing, and these details may help us form a more balanced assessment rather than demonize him or extol him.
Curious as it may seem but if you ask people in Russia who Khrushchev was ethnically, about half would probably reply that he was Ukrainian. There may be several reasons for that. Firstly, khrushch is a Ukrainian word for the cockchafer (or May bug; incidentally, in Russia, this beetle is called maysky zhuk, that is May bug!) and thus Khrushch-ev has, for Russians, definite Ukrainian associations. Secondly, Khrushchev was born in the land of Kurshchyna, the borderland between Russia and Ukraine. Thirdly, Khrushchev liked to sport an embroidered, traditional, Ukrainian-style shirt; and last, but, of course, not the least, the years spent in Ukraine made him "Ukrainian" in the eyes of the Russians.
According to some of his biographers, particularly Western ones, when he visited farms, invariably arriving in his black ZIS limousine, he knew how to talk to Ukrainian peasants to make them feel he was one of them; after downing several vodka glasses, he would go to a barn and show what he thought was the right way to milk a cow.
At the same time, he was directly responsible for "clearing Ukraine from hostile elements." At least 80,000 people were sent to death following the orders signed by him. He was to blame for the destruction of the age-old continuity in the rural life which came about as a result of "the accelerated building of communism." Khrushchev presided over the forced Russification in the post-war years.
Repercussions were felt long afterwards — in the late nineteen-fifties about seventy percent of children in Ukraine studied in Ukrainian-language schools, and in the early nineteen-nineties, this number shrank to less than fifty percent — it was Khrushchev who had launched the process of "de-Ukrainization." But he seems to have done it not out of Russian imperial chauvinism but simply because he sincerely and naively believed that communism was around the corner, and not only Ukrainians, but the peoples of all the continents would sooner or later speak Russian.
At the same time, Khrushchev did much to expand the territory of Ukraine. Back in 1939, Khrushchev made an attempt to have Brest Oblast of Belarus joined to Ukraine. He claimed that the ethnographic studies, made long ago by the Russian Imperial Academy of Sciences, put Brest within Ukraine; Brest was within the borders of Ukrainian People's Republic established in 1918 and recognized then by Moscow. All of it pointed to the fact that Brest Oblast did belong to Ukraine rather than to Belorussia. His initiative did not find any support in Kremlin.
Several years later, in 1944, before the deportation of the Tartars from the Crimea, he made another attempt at expanding Ukraine's territory — he wanted to have the Crimea administratively joined to Ukraine. He went to Moscow to talk Stalin into it, but was rebuked severely. However, ten years later, after he himself had become the First Secretary [of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union; it was not at all a secretarial post — it put him at the very pinnacle of power in the Soviet Union — tr.], Khrushchev did get it done.
Also, in 1944, he wanted to have a new administrative Oblast, Kholmska, created in the west of Ukraine. This Oblast should include, in his opinion, the ancient lands of Ukraine which were under Poland then. Even a map of the new Oblast was made, but once again the Kremlin rejected Khrushchev's proposal.
Khrushchev also talked to Stalin about getting other lands with predominantly Ukrainian population such as Southern Bukovyna and Mramorshchyna united with Ukraine. It is not quite clear why he wanted to do all that. In all likelihood it was not "a national sentiment" but rather a trait of thriftiness in him — he was like an economical landlord who wanted to get as much into his house as he could.
In the post-war years, when Ukraine was hard hit by another famine (though not of such disastrously genocidal proportions as in 1933), Khrushchev several times addressed himself to Stalin with requests to provide humanitarian aid. But this plea for food was looked upon in Kremlin as "the evidence of spinelessness" and "of the pernicious influence of the local Ukrainian bourgeois nationalists". In order to set things right, the enraged Father of All Nations [as Stalin was often called then — and without any trace of humour in it — tr.] sent to Ukraine Lazar Kaganovich, his loyal and absolutely ruthless and vicious sidekick, to serve as the First Secretary. Kaganovich's rule in Ukraine proved to be of the kind that even Stalin had to call him back to Moscow six months later and re-instate Khrushchev (characteristically, Stalin continued to trust Kaganovich and keep him close by his side).
In the post-war years, Khrushchev coordinated the Soviet struggle against the Ukrainian Insurrection Army and national liberation underground movement in Western Ukraine. Khrushchev carried out "political and ideological campaigns" against "Ukrainian nationalism" and against "cosmopolitanism that knows no allegiance to the native land." Most of the victims of these campaigns were young intellectuals, artists, writers and musicians.
In his Memoirs, Khrushchev wrote about Ukrainian nationalism the way he saw it: "Ukrainian nationalists, these embittered, irreconcilable enemies of the Soviet state, looked forward to the war breaking out and were getting ready for it, because Goebbels [Nazi propaganda minister — tr.] befuddled them with promises that as a result of war of Germany against the Soviet Union Ukraine would regain its independence. They [nationalists] were blinded by their nationalism and could not appreciate the true grandeur of the progressive Soviet power. Later, the Ukrainian nationalists saw what it all would end in, and their hopes were shattered; Hitler began arresting them and putting them into prison, and waging a merciless war against them. When Bandera saw that the Germans were not going to fulfil their promises about the creation of independent Ukraine, he turned his army units against them, though without stopping to hate the Soviet Union. Closer to the end of the war Bandera fought both against us and against the Germans, and after the war he continued fighting against the Soviet power."
For a Soviet leader, it is rather an objective look at what "Ukrainian nationalists" were; it is very true indeed that they did not appreciate the true grandeur of the progressive Soviet power. And if members of the communist faction in Ukrainian parliament today read their comrade's authoritative statements, they would see for themselves that even the former Soviet leader admits that the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists headed by Bandera did fight against the Nazi Germans. As far as being befuddled by Nazi propaganda is concerned, not only Ukrainian nationalists were misled as to the real intentions of Nazi Germany. In his Memoirs, Khrushchev also honestly admits that it was a mistake to maintain friendly relations and sign pacts with Germany in 1939–1941.
In his Memoirs Khrushchev relates how he dealt with the problem of the secret police pressing him into sanctioning arrests of Ukrainian intellectuals: "[Once], minister of internal affairs Uspensky said that they were going to arrest and imprison Rylsky. I told him, ‘Look, Rylsky is a well-known poet who is accused of nationalism. But he is not a nationalist at all! [for the Soviets, to embrace nationalist ideas was tantamount to being "an enemy of the Soviet power" — tr.] He is just a Ukrainian and he reflects [in his poetry] Ukrainian leanings. You cannot regard every Ukrainian who speaks Ukrainian as a nationalist. It's Ukraine, you know.' But Uspensky persisted and I told him, ‘Understand this — Rylsky wrote a poem about Stalin, and the poem is now a song. And this song is sung all over Ukraine. If you arrest him, it'll not go down well with people.'
Some time later Patorzhynsky and Lytvynenko-Volhemut came to my office. I had met Patorzhynsky before, and Stalin knew him too as a good singer and as a good person. They told me that the composer who wrote music for Rylsky's poem about Stalin was in prison. The whole of Ukraine is singing this song, and the composer is in prison! He was put there for being a nationalist. I ordered Uspensky to find out what was the actual reason for the composer's arrest and imprisonment. Uspensky brought me the documents dealing with the composer's case. I read them and saw that there was absolutely no reason for keeping the man in prison. I told Uspensky that he should not have arrested the composer, and that I thought that the man should now be released. I don't remember now whether he was released directly following my order, or whether I told Stalin about this case and Stalin ordered to release him, but the composer was released. After his release I kept receiving postcards from the composer's wife and daughter with greetings on the occasion of the 1st of May and October Revolution holidays. I took it as their ‘thank you' for getting him released from prison, and for saving his life, because if he had not been released he would have been sentenced to death."
There are several things that this passage reveals — the horror of those times when you could be arrested for being a Ukrainian and speaking Ukrainian, your only crimes, and Khrushchev's attitude to culture in general, and to Ukrainian culture in particular. Culture for him was something that was just another facet in the cause of building communism, something that could be dispensed with when there would be no more need for it. However, whatever Khrushchev's attitude to culture was, he did save Rylsky's life — and lives of many other people too.
Maksym Rylsky, in spite of having been forced to write poems about Stalin and about Khrushchev ("Khrushchev Mykyta — Bolshevik adamantine.."), remained to be one of the few prominent Ukrainian intellectuals who had survived the purges and who upheld the continuity of great cultural traditions. For Khrushchev, Rylsky and the composer whose name he did not reveal, were no more than just useful tools who wrote good poems and music for songs that became popular, and being useful they were worth saving. The plight of a great many Ukrainian poets, composers and artists who had not written poems about Stalin, who had not written music to these poems and had not painted the loyal pictures, was much worse. Khrushchev himself signed the orders for their arrests and subsequent "liquidation."
In the summer of 1953, a Stalinist Nikita Khrushchev (at that time Khrushchev was still a true follower of Stalin and his doctrines) managed to overcome Lavrenty Beria in fierce struggle for power (Beria, "this cynical reformer," did not believe in "ultimate victory of communism" because he knew only too well that all the major "communist construction projects" were carried out by the convicts serving their prison terms, and all "the major achievements of Soviet science" were stolen by Soviet spies from the USA and Great Britain). Paradoxically, Khrushchev whose hands were stained in innocent blood almost as much as Beria's were, once he became the supreme ruler, changed his views somewhat and began liberalizing the Soviet regime. He exposed "Stalin's personality cult" and then began dismantling the gulag. He described this change of heart in his Memoirs: "I could go on living the way I had lived before. In general, Stalin did not mistreat me too much, nothing serious beyond calling me ‘this Polish spy Khrushchevsky.' This was his way of joking. Sometimes, he would order me to dance in his presence. Among my relatives, it was only my daughter-in-law who was put into the gulag. It's nothing compared to what he did to other members of the then leadership. But nevertheless, I did go into criticizing [Stalin] because the whole [communist] party needed it."
The Memoirs were compiled when Khrushchev was already of an advanced age, a deposed leader — and yet he continues to believe in "the party." "The whole party?" During his reforms of the late nineteen-fifties and early sixties he, acting as he always did compulsively, almost introduced a multiparty system in the Soviet Union. The first step was taken when he divided the communist party structure into the urban (industrial) and rural sections. He had an intention of introducing a new constitution which would give people many more rights than Stalin's constitution did; also, he wanted to carry out radical changes in the Soviet political elite, replacing the old cadre with new, much younger ones. It means that such political figures as Mikhail Gorbachev, Alexandr Yakovlev [Gorbachev's high-ranking supporter], Boris Yeltsin and Leonid Kravchuk [first Ukrainian president] could have come to power much earlier.
Three more telling little details in this portrait of Khrushchev to put the finishing touches: in 1964, after his return from Scandinavia, Khrushchev, according to his son, was asked by someone about the ways of further development of Soviet socialism. Khrushchev exploded, "Socialism? What kind of socialism are you talking about? What we have is shit, not socialism. It is in Sweden that they have real socialism." It was a somewhat unexpected statement coming as it was a Soviet leader.
Several months later, a conspiracy to remove Khrushchev from power was hatched in the midst of the communist party leadership, and he was deposed, stripped of all his posts. When he returned home after the plenary session of the communist party central committee, at which he had faced the music and had been forced into retirement, he hurled his briefcase into a corner and cried out, "See, my son, if we were living still in the Stalin times, I would have had them arrested and shot — or they would have had me shot. But now it took just a plenary session and a majority vote to get rid of me. As simple as that. But it means my work has not been in vain."
When already in retirement, Khrushchev invited several poets and artists whom he had subjected to scathing criticism at the time when he had been head of the communist party (in fact, it was the party's central committee that was pressing him to do so) to come to his place. They did and he had a long talk with them. During the talk he apologized, "I'm sorry, I was wrong then. My view of the intelligentsia was wrong in general. If we had been working together, we would have been able to boldly carry out reforms."
Some of those in Ukraine whom Khrushchev had released from prisons and concentration camps said that Khrushchev might have given Ukraine more freedom, had he stayed in power longer. Today such a hope looks naive but there was a reason to believe he could have actually gone further in liberalizing the regime, had he retained power for longer. Khrushchev was a person much more honest, impetuous and broad-minded than other Soviet leaders. He was involved in horrendously evil things, but he also did a lot of good. Even when he took off his shoe and began banging with it on the rostrum while addressing a UN session in New York, it was a spontaneous, honest reaction to something he could not accept — no other Soviet leader would have dared to do a thing like that.
Are there any world leaders now, I can't help wondering, who possess such open candour and spontaneity?