Readers Write In #112: The Russian Revolution, Chapter 7 – Half-Human and Half-Beast

Posted on November 13, 2019

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(by G Waugh)

Introduction, Preface, and Chapter 1 are here.

Chapter 2 is here.

Chapter 3 is here.

Chapter 4 is here.

Chapter 5 is here.

Chapter 6 is here.

Nikita Khrushchev was the son of a poor peasant. He was not highly educated but was well known for his organising skills. His military achievements had endeared him to Stalin and his proximity to the Dictator was envied by a lot of his colleagues namely Malenkov, Beria, etc. Khrushchev, it cannot be denied that he was party to Stalin’s ruthless crimes during the Great Purges and was instrumental in implementing many of his orders obediently. He had become Stalin’s trustworthy lieutenant after a point and had begun to exert his influence on national policy making as well. Stalin, by early 1950s was fast growing senile and Khrushchev’s radical ideas to revive Soviet agriculture interested him a lot. Khrushchev was allowed by Stalin to perform an experiment in some of Ukraine’s villages called the ‘The Agrotown Project’ which involved merging of smaller collectives into larger ones for better resource utilisation and increased productivity. The experiment failed badly and ended up handy for Khrushchev’s rivals to undermine him in the upcoming power struggle. As Stalin’s demise was becoming imminent, Malenkov with Beria were busy scouting for loyal recruits within the party who could be trusted to vote for their camp against that of Khrushchev.

Exorcising Stalin:
Khrushchev on the other hand kept pace with his rivals travelling around the country extensively delivering speeches exhorting masses to focus on agriculture. He, within just six months after Stalin’s death had managed to gather great support from all over the country. His ambitious project named Virgin Lands involved bringing thousands of acres of land in Kazakhstan under cultivation to meet growing demand for food. Even though there were plenty of errors in the implementation of the project, results were turning out to be impressive. The supply of grains had grown as expected and Khrushchev’s prestige rose within the ranks of the party.

Meanwhile, Malenkov having succeeded Stalin immediately after his death as the First Secretary of the CPSU, had different long term plans. He badly wanted the party to exit immediately from the ministries governing various branches of administration. He had plans to pull established technocrats and engineers into positions of authority so as to obliterate
red-tapism and revive the vitals of the rusted administrative machinery. However this was not an adept move considering his tenuous position within the party. The top brass of the CPSU was obviously not willing to liberate the administration from its long tentacles and hence decided to side with Khrushchev. His flashy success at Virgin Lands embarrassed Malenkov terribly and by September 1953, Khrushchev was voted to become the First Secretary of the CPSU forcing the hapless Malenkov to resign.

Malenkov, however continued to hold the position of Premier with Khrushchev remaining the Head of the State. Even though the two were bitter rivals, they both weren’t ready to repeat Stalin’s mistakes. They were unanimous in what was called Destalinisation which involved acquittal of millions of prisoners from concentration camps and rehabilitation of disgraced erstwhile party leaders. The press was considerably freed up while writers and intellectuals were allowed to voice their independent opinions. Even though its limits were strictly circumscribed, criticism of the government, it could safely be said that, was allowed for the first time in the history of the USSR only after the emergence of Khrushchev.

Officials could now indulge in discussions related to policy-making without the fear of being punished for speaking out candidly. Khrushchev by 1954, in a landmark move, had decided to decentralise powers vested in the Central Presidium allowing town councils and local authorities substantial latitude in managing administrative affairs. Independent farming was also encouraged by the State to stimulate production while procurement prices of grains were hiked considerably. Taxes were reduced and measures to mitigate shortage of consumer goods were implemented. The USSR in short, within a couple of years after Stalin’s death slowly began to breathe freely.

Khrushchev and The World:
Khrushchev within a few years had made tremendous progress within the party outwitting rivals and consolidating his position to the extent of even forcing Premier Malenkov to resign (1956). Khrushchev’s move to mobilise the satellite nations of the USSR under the Warsaw Pact as a counter offensive to America’s NATO was a politically wise move as it reinforced the continuance of a global bipolarity on the imagination of millions of colonised people who were reeling under the yoke of Western Imperialism. Khrushchev’s ambitious Housing Programme which allowed numerous citizens to gain private houses also enhanced his reputation further. On February 25 1956, at the 20th Party Congress, Khrushchev’s shocking revelation of excesses committed during Stalin’s time, was a heroic gesture which won wholehearted praise from various parts of the world. However, it would be totally wrong to assume that Khrushchev had a smooth sailing throughout during his early years at the helm.

Khrushchev’s shocking denunciation of Stalin created great unrest among the allies of the USSR as it ended up being an open repudiation of Moscow’s own supposed infallibility. It must be remembered that the unity of the Eastern Bloc was built largely on coercion and false propaganda emanating from the Kremlin and preservation of the same mandated extraordinary levels of vigilance on the part of the CPSU. It is reported that on the eve of the Party Congress, most of his colleagues were either totally unaware of Khrushchev’s plans to denounce Stalin or were openly hostile to such ideas desperately advising him all the time to drop them. It is believed that Khrushchev’s actions this time was dictated by a strong impulse of honesty surfacing out of a rankling conscience that forced him to shun political expediency in favour of an indirect confession of wrongdoing.

China was the first country to openly express dissatisfaction with Moscow’s revelation and Mao, just like many other communist leaders started labelling Khrushchev as ‘revisionist and counter-revolutionary’. Albania broke out of the Cominform the same year while dissidents in Hungary and Poland felt emboldened by Khrushchev’s act. In a few months, Hungary tried to break out of Soviet’s sphere of influence but Khrushchev sent his troops to crush the rebellion as brutally as possible. Khrushchev’s rule till 1964, as we shall see would be characterized by similarly alternating displays of benevolence and cruelty constantly reminding us of his inconcealable Stalinist roots.

A Few Good Men:
J.F.Kennedy when he assumed power in 1961 as the President of the US, was perceived to be cut from a different cloth from that of his predecessors for his strong pacifist leanings. Just like how Khrushchev had desperately wanted to break away from the past but had ended up being its reluctant captive, Kennedy couldn’t help giving in to CIA’s aggressive overtures with respect to Cuba which had very recently become Communist. Fidel Castro, a young and charismatic lawyer-turned revolutionary had managed to liberate Cuba from the clutches of US-supported Franco Batista, the country’s much despised dictator in the year of 1959. Cuba, for decades had been ravaged by America’s powerful corporations with CIA’s help but the sudden emergence of Castro at the helm had changed things overnight. He outlawed these corporations, nationalised all resources, reformed education and subsidised healthcare. When America imposed a trade embargo on Cuba forcing its allies to follow suit, the USSR came to its timely rescue. Trade between the countries flourished and Communist Cuba survived its precarious infancy.

In April 1962, the CIA with the help of Cuban counter-revolutionaries tried to invade Cuba in order to dethrone Castro. Within three days, the Cuban leader had managed to defeat the CIA-supported forces putting Kennedy to terrible shame. The famous (failed) Bay of Pigs Invasion as it is known, enhanced Castro’s prestige locally as well as internationally. Probably for the first time in history, the chinks in the mighty American armour had been unveiled and the superpower could no longer be considered invincible. Castro took the occasion to forge closer ties with Moscow to safeguard his country in the event of a future American invasion.

As the years passed, Moscow began to take Cuba for granted and started using the island as its backyard. Meanwhile, the US had made arrangements to use Turkey as a base for targeting Russia and had installed Jupiter Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) on the Soviet borders by 1961. Khrushchev, as a countermeasure, had to force Castro to accept stationing of nuclear warheads inside Cuba targeting the US. The US air force sent spy planes over Cuba and confirmed the presence of nuclear missiles to the White House. Kennedy had no other choice but to impose a naval blockade around Cuba to stop the inflow of the warheads from Russia. Tensions escalated as the Soviet Government informed the White House that a naval blockade will be treated as nothing less than an act of aggression. In a few days, border skirmishes were reported by the Soviet Union and many international leaders were expressing their fears of a full-blown nuclear war. Soon Khrushchev’s team was forced to sit down for negotiations with Kennedy’s cabinet through a hotline to stop the conflict from getting exacerbated. China’s Mao was pressuring Khrushchev to declare war on the US while Kennedy’s team was also chomping at the bit to take the USSR head-on. Newspapers all over the world were giving warning signals about the long dreaded nuclear conflict to which the world all of a sudden had come so close. Messages were passed between Khrushchev and Kennedy on a daily basis while the US military was warming up for the finale. Though it is often reported that the USSR was at a huge disadvantage in terms of nuclear strength vis-a-vis the US, Khrushchev had been giving deceptive signals to the world exaggerating Russia’s potential manifold.

On October 28, 1962, Kennedy received a letter from Khrushchev offering to withdraw the nuclear warheads from Cuba, provided the former acquiesced to remove the Jupiter missiles from Turkey and Italy. Lyndon B. Johnson, Kennedy’s deputy was not willing to take the offer up while top officials at Kremlin were disappointed at Khrushchev for having ‘blinked first’. It was so good of Khrushchev to have extended an olive branch first while it was to the great credit of Kennedy to have seized it immediately to make peace.

The tension was defused immediately with both countries taking steps to honour their respective commitments while Cuba’s sovereignty was at last recognised by the US. Even if Khrushchev was riled internally, in hindsight it appears that both the leaders of the power blocs, notwithstanding their political fortunes were clairvoyant enough to stand by peace and save the world from an unimaginably gruesome nuclear armageddon.

For Further Reading:
1.Khrushchev by Edward Crankshaw
2.Khrushchev and Khrushchev by William Taubman