Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971) is best remembered as the leader of the Soviet Union from 1956-1964. His leadership was at times highly successfully, and at other moments significantly cruel. Most Soviet historians look back at Khrushchev as a precursor to leaders like Mikhail Gorbachev who would ultimately end the Cold War through his actions. A balanced view of Khrushchev shows he made some important strides for the Soviet Union and some near disastrous mistakes.
Khrushchev was Ukrainian by birth and joined the Communist party in 1918. Though he had little formal education, he soon became one of Stalin’s friends, and he certainly did carry out Stalin’s wishes when he was First Secretary of the Ukrainian Communist party in 1938. He fully participated in Stalin’s purging of Communist party members who were not completely dedicated to the cause of Communism. His ruthless execution of many people during the purges exercised by Stalin earned Khrushchev the name, “The Butcher of the Ukraine.”
It was thus interesting that after World War II and especially after Stalin’s death in 1953, Khrushchev was openly critical of Stalin’s policies, including the purges. Instead, he sought to provide a government less oppressive to its people and more open to peace with Western Europe and the United States. His program of destalinization that began when he became the leader of the Soviet Union in 1956 accomplished, at least temporarily, several things:
- Easier, more peaceful relationship with the West
- Cutback on the Secret Police's power
- Release of thousands of political prisoners
- Encouragement of the arts, especially literature
- Improvement of the economy and most people’s standard of living
At the same time that Khrushchev advanced these goals, and achieved them, he also easily retained his nickname, “the Butcher.” When Hungary revolted at USSR control in 1956, he sent 500,000 troops to suppress the revolution. Huge numbers of Hungarian citizens, especially young teenage men were jailed, and thousands of people were executed for rebellion.
Khrushchev, while attempting a peaceful relationship with especially the United States and even touring the US in 1959 with President Eisenhower, continued to advance the cause of communism by addressing third world countries which Stalin had mostly ignored during his rule. Khrushchev’s at first fairly amicable relationship with the US took a downturn when in 1960, a US spy plane was shot down while it was flying over the Soviet Union.
Tension with the US escalated, and culminated in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 when Khrushchev attempted to outfit Cuba with several nuclear missiles. This act very nearly caused a nuclear World War III that many feared at the time was inevitable. Partly due to what the Soviets considered Khrushchev’s failure in the Cuban Missile Crisis, and also because of his advancing age, he was removed from power in 1964.
Khrushchev spent the last years of his life under guard, and after his death was treated as a “non-person,” by the Soviet government. His ideas for peace with the West and for a looser Communist regime were discarded in favor of hard-line policies. Until Gorbachev became premier in 1985, Khrushchev’s more liberal approach to Communism was not discussed. However, dissidents in the Communist Party were apt to look with nostalgia on Khrushchev’s improvements, which would be dismantled by subsequent leadership.
Gorbachev saw Khrushchev as an important leader, and his approach, particularly toward loosening restrictions on citizens and easing tension with Western governments as vastly important. Through Gorbachev, the communist regime would end in the Soviet Union. Khrushchev, had his early ideas been followed, might have brought the regime to an end sooner, but leaders who followed him reinstated many of the policies of Stalin.
Khrushchev’s leadership can be erratic, interesting, inspired, and cruel. While he made important changes in the Soviet, and especially in Soviet foreign affairs, he ultimately caused increased tension between the US and the USSR through his participation in the Cuban Missile Crisis.