Readers Write In #116: The Russian Revolution, Chapter 9 – An Unceremonious End

Posted on November 23, 2019


(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.

Chapter 7 is here.

Chapter 8 is here.

The world was stunned on October 4,1957. No country of the first world had managed to achieve this feat. A new age had been heralded by none other than the ”retrograde commies’. There was not much celebration in the CPSU organ Pravda to match the extent of shock and alarm that splashed all over the headlines of Western newspapers. When the Russians had  decimated the Nazis in 1945 to seal a glorious victory over the Axis forces, the Western world had been bludgeoned into a humble acknowledgment of the Soviet military might. Even when the Soviet Union was progressing with significant rates of economic growth during the early 1930s, especially when the rest of the world was grappling with negative rates of growth owing  to the Depression, the West wasn’t quite intrigued about the curious efficacy of the Soviet  Model. But by the end of the Second World War, for the Western Elite there was no escaping  the fact that there indeed was yet another superpower, this time from the Eastern part of the world. But within two decades of that grand achievement, the USSR had managed to strike  again, surgically at the heart of the Western pride. Sputnik 1, the first ever man-made satellite  was launched successfully into the space from Baikonur, Kazakh ASSR by the Soviet Space Agency.

The First Secretary of the CPSU, the then head of the Soviet State, Nikita Khrushchev was named ‘Man Of the Year 1957’ by TIME magazine the same year.

Goo of good intentions:
Khrushchev wanted to increase the country’s agricultural production manifold and ensure self sufficiency, by vigorously expanding his pet Virgin Lands Experiment. He wanted to divert the humongous amount of funds going into the defence budget towards agricultural and industrial expansion. To minimise defence spending, he went out of his way to warm up to the United States. He brought scientists from Iowa in the U.S to the USSR to set up corn fields and maximise corn production. He increased outlays for fertiliser and pesticide manufacturing and intensified his scrutiny on food production. He opened Party conferences and meetings to the public and ordered dissemination of the proceedings through newspapers and other media. To top it all, he split the party structure into two – one to govern agriculture and the other to control  industry.

Khrushchev by 1958, had managed to take control of the entire party by weakening the position of Stalinist leaders. He deposed Bulganin and removed anyone who stood in the way of his  well- meaning reform. He amended party laws as to replace committee members periodically at all levels of the organisation. He also worked seriously on rehabilitation of ‘disgraced’ party men and officials who fell under Stalin’s radar during the Great Terror. But, the saddest part of the story was that none of these moves ended up yielding expected results.

The Virgin Lands project, within a span of five years could no longer sustain the handsome yields that it generated initially. By early 1960s, the project was turning out to be a failure with rapidly dwindling returns. His ambitious corn project and his moves to revamp dairy industry were also not working due to bureaucratic ineptitude and improper planning. His excessive reliance on a genetic scientist Lysenko whose dubious credentials came out only later, for improving the quality of crop output turned out to be a huge mistake. Khrushchev’s public denunciation of Stalin embittered many of his own supporters in the party and unwittingly engendered the formation of powerful rival factions. Most importantly, the bifurcation of the party organisation created completely unforeseen problems. Most of the party cadre working under Khrushchev were not the kind of committed idealists who formed the bedrock of the party during Lenin’s time. Ever since Stalin’s purges, the composition of the party had been greatly altered with careerists, opportunists and manipulators replacing those selfless partymen and erstwhile revolutionaries who had hitherto occupied higher positions. Khrushchev’s plans to periodically replace one-third of the cadre had dented the prospects of them reaching the higher rungs of the organisation while his drastic move to split the party into two was resented deeply almost at all levels. Administratively too, the bifurcation was a great debacle due to an unavoidable overlapping of duties between the agriculture and industry verticals which in turn led to a lot of duplication of functions and tasks.

Finally, Khrushchev’s move to reconcile with Kennedy during the Missile Crisis of 1962 was also not appreciated by many of the party’s hardliners and his erstwhile supporters. He was soon  isolated internally by his estranged colleagues who were waiting for an opportunity to remove him from power.

‘I won’t put up a fight’

Nikita Khrushchev’s approach to other nations was completely contrary to that of his predecessor. He re-established relations with Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia even though the latter was quite reluctant to reconcile. Khrushchev’s valuable help to China to build its own nuclear technology was also not sufficiently reciprocated by Mao. China had long before jettisoned the Soviet approach to Socialism and tried to evolve its own model christening it ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’. In the Indochina crisis involving the United States, Khrushchev wanted to go soft and slow in order to avoid large scale military clashes while Mao remained cold and unyielding. China’s aggressive attitude worried Khrushchev terribly and he was pushed to the point of abruptly withdrawing all technical assistance and equipment for the completion of the ambitious Chinese nuclear mission. This was because, Khrushchev believed that an untrammeled Mao, especially at the height of the Indochina crisis would definitely pull the entire world into a nuclear war and hence he did everything in his power to mitigate the situation. He didn’t mind drawing criticism from his colleagues and East European counterparts when he visited the United States in 1959 to become the first Soviet leader to do so. He also met J.F. Kennedy at Vienna in 1961 to resolve both the Indochina and Berlin issues amicably.

In spite of his best efforts to cut down military expenditure through negotiations and compromises with the U.S, the situation in Vietnam and Laos worsened during his years taking a heavy toll on the overall Soviet financial health. As his endeavours at expanding agriculture through massive state investments were failing without generating commensurate returns, the USSR had to rely on other countries for food to resolve frequent shortages and famines that were being increasingly reported across the country. His decision to hike the prices of food articles on account of shortages in 1962 led to protests everywhere which had  to be put down forcibly.

On October 14, 1964, Leonid Brezhnev leading a powerful team of top leaders bolstered by assured support from all levels of the party, orchestrated a coup quite successfully, by arresting Khrushchev immediately upon his return from vacation, within the Moscow airport premises. When Khrushchev was confronted by KGB officials, he quickly understood the situation and co-operated with them without raising cries of protest.

Inspite of so many failings and mistakes, the man who was primarily responsible for the De-Stalinisation of the country amid brewing political opposition, the benevolent dictator who managed to improve the living standards of his citizens with his tremendously successful housing scheme, the first leader of the USSR who believed in peaceful coexistence with neighbours and rivals, the enigmatic Nikita Khrushchev, exited the scene after serving as the  Head of the State for eleven years. It has been reported that Khrushchev called his ally Anastas Mikoyan during the very night after his ouster and spoke the following words:

“I’m old and tired. Let them cope by themselves. I’ve done the main thing. Could anyone have dreamed of telling Stalin that he didn’t suit us anymore and suggesting he retire? Not even a wet spot would have remained where we had been standing. Now everything is different. The fear is gone, and we can talk as equals. That’s my contribution. I won’t put up a fight.”