The earthy and charismatic son of a coal miner, Khrushchev left his indelible fingerprint on 20th century history. A pragmatist, yet dynamic risk taker, he was the first to boldly expose the heinous crimes of Josef Stalin, though many considered him tainted as one of Stalin’s inner circle. He tried to introduce economic decentralization, political and social changes, which Mikhail Gorbachev had better success at implementing 30 years later.
Khrushchev freed hundreds of thousands from the Gulag, inaugurated the Virgin Lands scheme to cultivate vast empty areas of farmland in Siberia and Central Asia. He encouraged the Soviets’ pioneering space exploration programs, and even raised hopes for peaceful coexistence with the West.
But his opponents focused more on his failures and blunders: his break with China which split the Communist world, the decline in economic growth and living standards, the Cuban missile retreat.
Deep-seated discontent rankled among Party functionaries. From petty apparatchiki to top Politburocrats, Khrushchev’s system-rocking reforms threatened the entrenched monopoly on power and privilege. The scene was set for his downfall. An urgent phone call from Kremlin ideologue Mikhail Suslov summoned the vacationing leader back to Moscow from his Black Sea villa for an emergency Politburo meeting. The red carpet was yanked from under him, toppling him into an obscure retirement until his death on September 11, 1971.
Historians view Khrushchev as a man before his time, a predecessor of Perestroika, who bravely attempted the formidable challenge of modernizing Soviet society.
I was on a prolonged visit to Moscow when Khrushchev was abruptly hustled off the Kremlin stage. (He had actually been kicked out two days earlier.) This is a memoir
of the day the Soviets released the news:
The cloudy morning filtered through the maroon drapes of my Hotel Metropole room to usher in Friday the 16th of October. I peered out the windows at the busy square below and all seemed normal. I stopped at a newsstand and saw the first proof that something extraordinary had happened; the newspapers were all sold out. I searched the face of the kiosk proprietor but his blank expression told nothing. On my way to breakfast I stopped at the office of an international airline. The manager, a Swedish acquaintance, was pale and worried. "Have you heard the news?" he whispered nervously. Spread on his desk was a copy of Pravda in a six-column headline: Announcement of the Plenum Central Committee of the Soviet Union Communist Party. Photos of L.I. Brezhnev and A.N. Kosygin dominated the front page. In three sentences Pravda explained that Comrade N.S. Khrushchev had resigned for health reasons and Brezhnev had been elected First Secretary of the Communist Party. Kosygin was now Chairman of the Council of Ministers. Nine cryptic paragraphs spelled out the technical details of the power shift.
In my favorite restaurant the waitresses smiled as usual, the service was listless as usual, and the breakfasters, sipping their stakhanchiki of tea were as uncommunicative as ever. I was fascinated by everyone’s stoicism. Churchill had said it: "Russia was an enigma, wrapped in a riddle, enveloped in a mystery."
At Sverdlov Square a modest cluster of motorcycles whirred by, escorting a black Zis limousine displaying a Cuban flag. For Cuban President Osvald Dorticos sitting inside, it was an awkward time to be making a state visit.
Outside the Bolshoi Theatre I met my friend Grisha. He was very afraid that Khrushchev’s ouster meant a retreat to the Right, a return to Stalinist doctrines. After all, he said, both Brezhnev and Kosygin had served in the Politburo under Stalin. I ventured that the tide of liberalization couldn’t be so easily reversed. But Grisha’s mood was unshakably pessimistic. "Why has he lost all three posts he held?" Maybe he went too far in alienating the Chinese?"
We were walking along Kropotinskaya Street when a familiar figure came striding toward us. Wearing a fur-collared coat and grey Astrakhan hat, eyes alert behind pince-nez glasses, he was Vyacheslav Molotov, the long-time Soviet premier and Foreign Minister, expelled from power some years before. Having been given his "walking papers" by the man who himself was sacked today, Vyacheslav Mikhailovich was a living symbol of the Russian thaw – a deposed statesman left to his memories and his morning stroll.
The eventful week in Moscow started off with a flight of three cosmonauts in one spaceship. City center loudspeakers had boomed with periodic bulletins on the cosmonauts’ progress, interspersed with patriotic songs and marches. A widely-published photograph of an elated Khrushchev on the phone with the cosmonauts graphically stressed Comrade Nikita’s personal association with the achievement. When the cosmo-troika landed near Petropavlovsk on Tuesday, preparations immediately began for a traditional spectacular welcome. Red Square was festooned with banners, red stars and huge portraits of Khrushchev, Lenin and the cosmonauts. On Manezhnaya Square, a gigantic likeness of Khrushchev was unfurled. Smiling and waving, he proclaimed Mir Narodom! – Peace to the World! Local jokers said that Nikita was waving to hail a cab, a prevalent posture in taxi-short Moscow.
On Friday it became clear what Khrushchev’s wave was all about. It was "Good-bye," and not even the traditional "Da Sveedanya" – "See you again!" Within hours the great portrait purge of the fallen idol was underway all along the projected route of the cosmonauts’ parade. The reshuffling and rearranging postponed the Space Trio’s welcome celebration not once but twice.
I lunched at the gourmet Pekin restaurant with Tamara, an intelligent young woman who worked at a government ministry. A slightly drunk Englishman stopped at our table to ask what we thought of Khrushchev’s departure. He said all the Russians he talked to reacted with a stone-faced shrug. Tamara brushed him off with a cold stare. But then she whispered her explanation to me. "It is a simple matter of power struggle inside the Politburo, surely engineered by one or two of the "real bosses."
As the day wore on I encountered people who overcame their initial hesitancy to speak more freely to me as a foreigner. Most voiced fears. "After all, Khrushchev represented the break with Stalinism." "Shall we lose this precious taste of freedom we’ve gained?" "I am afraid this means a tightening up the liberal trend is over."
In the evening Russian friends and I attended a performance of Brecht’s Three Penny Opera, playing to capacity audiences at the Stanislavsky Theatre. I eagerly awaited the Solomon Song with its well-known lines about King Solomon and Julius Caesar: "Of all the dogs, top-dog was he, but his best friends did him in, thoroughly." The moral, asks the song, "Is it worth it to be top-dog?" And the answer comes: "Guess not!"
I looked around for audience reaction. The analogy was appropriate, but the applause was simply polite, subdued. Leaving the theatre I struck up a conversation with an English journalist. She had been listening to the BBC and Voice of America. "Amazing," she said, "the whole world is buzzing, speculating what the fall of Khrushchev means, "and here – not a ripple of excitement, outwardly, anyhow "
Not far from the theatre at the Hotel Minsk the atmosphere was totally different. With one of Moscow’s best jazz orchestras the big attraction, the restaurant was jam-packed with wildly-gyrating dancers. When the orchestra began playing Moscow Nights, signaling closing time, I suggested we walk past the Central Post Office on Gorki Street to see if the familiar portrait of Khrushchev still dominated the vast interior. Gorki Street, Moscow’s "Brod-vay," was deserted at that hour. As we approached, the lighted Post Office clock showed almost midnight. At a curbside truck workmen were struggling with huge portraits being carried in and out. Going in was a likeness of Lenin, but the one behind it faced away from us. We followed the workmen inside, our footsteps resounding in the empty hall and our curiosity steering us toward the far wall where the pictures were to be hung. The familiar figure of a ruddy-faced Khrushchev in his medaled jacket was gone. On one wall the old portrait of Lenin was being replaced by the updated Lenin just brought in. But in place of Khrushchev, who? Brezhnev? Kosygin? Both, arm-in-arm? This could be the telling clue as to who now was the new Top Dog.
Slowly the workmen dusted off the frame. They hoisted the portrait and turned it around.
It was Karl Marx. Remotely resident in proletarian paradise, Comrade Karl was always in good standing. Just as Marx settled into his lofty perch, the Kremlin chimes tolled the end of the first day of the Brezhnev-Kosygin ara.
Jack Goldfarb is a freelance journalist, whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and other publications. On the Internet at: Salon, Frosina, Real Travel Adventures. Photo from Wikipedia.org