Khrushchev: Courageous Or A Failure

As Soviet General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev told his advisor, Anastas Mikoyan, on the 13th of October, 1964 (the day before a Communist Party-lead coup ousted him from power): “Now everything is different. The fear’s gone. That’s my contribution.” These words from the man himself show just how wide-ranging and deep his reforms of the 1950s and 1960s were – but many historians have insisted that Khrushchev should be remembered as a “courageous failure” – i.e. someone with good intentions but who ultimately failed to deliver – and upon examining the evidence of his regime it is apparent that Khrushchev, while altruistic and indeed successful in some aspects of his reform, was often too arrogant, too enthusiastic and too haphazard.

Firstly, we must consider perhaps what Khrushchev would call his field of expertise – agricultural reform. He was a true “man of the people”; the son of two peasants, who had worked in Ukraine under the Tsar as a metal-fitter before being promoted into the Party under Lenin’s New Economic Policy. Almost immediately upon Stalin’s death in 1953, under the ‘collective leadership’ phase, he took responsibility for agriculture and attempted to draw power to himself through agrarian reform. The first step in this was the creation of Machine Tractor Stations, established in the mid-1950s as a means of drawing power away from government ministries. Agricultural machinery such as tractors and harvesters were built in large numbers and distributed by regional Party councils (sovnarkhozy), thereby removing power away from the government ministries and giving more power to Khrushchev who was renowned as a “Party man”. While this reform was successful in the first place, and did indeed ensure that the Party had full control over most agriculture, by 1960 there was shortage of machinery and the scheme collapsed. They were finally abolished by Brezhnev in 1972.

This reform shows that Khrushchev was neither well-intentioned (he instituted the reform for personal gain rather than anything else) or successful, except in drawing power to himself. Drawing a similar conclusion is the Virgin Lands Campaign, launched in 1954 and encouraging people to create new farmland in northern Kazakhstan. Many members of the Komsomol (the Young Communists’ League) upped sticks and went off with little farming experience. While this policy was successful initially (grain output tripled from 1953-1957), by the final years of the decade lack of crop rotation and soil degradation due to over-reliance on wheat led to food shortages by 1962, and the USSR was forced to import grain from Canada and the United States – despite the fact that Khrushchev had vowed to equal the west in meat and grain production by 1960.

This reform supports my view that Khrushchev had the best interests of the USSR at heart but his policy of sending off agriculturally-ignorant but over-enthusiastic young Communists was simply not thought through and should have been consulted more within the Party. His policy of growing maize in areas which simply were not suitable for its cultivation also shows a general lack of lateral thinking and lead to his nickname – kukuruznik, meaning “maize” in Russian.

In summary, agriculture – despite being his perceived forte – shows that Khrushchev was indeed a courageous failure.

A second point which shows Khrushchev’s propensity as a courageous failure is his foreign relations. To describe Khrushchev’s grasp of international politics as disastrous would be an understatement. Firstly, we must consider his relations with the nations in Eastern Europe known as the Eastern Bloc or the Warsaw Pact. In 1954, the Polish Central Committee under Wladyslaw Gomulka insisted on more freedom from Russian domination and their own form of ‘national Communism’, similar to Titoist principles in Yugoslavia. Whereas Stalin would have sent in the tanks, Khrushchev, after a meeting with the Polish high command, backed down. He allowed Poland more freedom.

While some would argue that this was a step forward, its consequences were used by the conspirators of both the 1957 and 1964 coups to oust him – most notably its most poignant consequence; the Hungarian rebellion of 1956. Anti-Soviet demonstrators led an armed revolt which seized control of Budapest until the Red Army was sent in five days later and restored Communist rule. This showed the USSR’s failure to control its republics and satellite states and was a large victory for the United States whose CIA agents had played a large role in inciting and funding the rebellion. He also managed to insult Bulgaria by telling the General Secretary of the People‘s Republic of Bulgaria, Todor Zhivkov, that all Bulgarians were “parasites”. This tactlessness shows that despite his good intentions – more freedom and less repression – he was forced to send in the tanks to Hungary. This backs up the fact that he had the intention for change but the lack of wherewithal to push it through consistently. Secondly, we must consider relations with the United States. Along with promising to exceed their grain production, then being forced to import from them, he failed to capitalise on a series of key opportunities which Stalin would have used as a propaganda coup.

In 1960, an American U-2 spyplane crashed while photographing Soviet industrial complexes. The pilot, Gary Powers, failed to kill himself before he was apprehended, and he was swapped for a KGB double agent being held in Berlin. Khrushchev could have taken the moral upper ground, but he did not. Instead, he went to the United Nations, banged his shoe on the table and shouted “We will bury you!”. This did little but make him look like a fool. This tactlessness (he called Mao, the greatest murderer of all time, “an old galosh”) combined with general failure in foreign affairs shows the degree of Khrushchev’s courageous but failing attempts to rule.

However, not Khrushchev’s entire rule was a failure. Under his leadership, the Soviet Union put the first object, lifeform, man and woman into space (1957, 1957, 1961 and 1963 respectively), and production of consumer goods increased massively (although their quality is a matter of contention). Industry improved in quality and his shift from heavy to light industries was successful. This does not, however, construe that Khrushchev was not a courageous failure.

His most well-intentioned but in the end painful reform was that of the domestic sphere. The USSR in 1953 was a million miles away from the same country in 1964. Despite the fact that these reforms allowed a better standard of life for Soviet people, that was not what Khrushchev needed to retain power. Amazingly, he managed to annoy the Party despite his long history in it. His legal reform, which eliminated the crime of being an “enemy of the people”, took away power from the KGB. His cutbacks in the military and dismissal of Marshal Zhukov annoyed the military. His educational reform which allowed more Russians than ever to go to university annoyed the intellectuals of the nation who saw it as not élite enough. His urban housing programme was even criticised for the people for its low quality. To conclude, domestic reform gave his enemies the ammunition to remove him despite the fact that he was trying to improve life in the USSR.

In summing up, it is impossible not to see how Khrushchev was a courageous failure. Almost all of his actions, while well-intentioned, were not thought out. By 1964, life was better in the USSR – but the Party and the military were annoyed by his domestic reform which has shifted power away from the Party or the government and towards the people in complete contradiction of how the Soviet Union had been run for nearly half a century. Gaining and retaining power in the Soviet Union meant not ruling the people but ruling the Party. It cannot be observed in a different manner that if Khrushchev had used some kind of repression he would have held onto power for longer (although some would argue that after 11 years of arduous rule he was ready to retire). But we must consider – does his lack of repression make him, in fact, a better leader? Now that the proletariat had tasted freedom and reform, they wouldn’t stop wanting it until it all came crashing down in 1991.

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