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Khrushchev: The Man and His Era. By William Taubman, Bertrand Snell Professor of Political Science. New York: W.W. Norton, 2003. 768 pp. $35 hardcover.

In his characteristically blunt and earthy style, Nikita Khrushchev explained to a colleague his strategy for sneaking missiles into Cuba with the following anecdote: a poor Russian peasant took his smelly goat into his hut to shelter for the winter, but soon the peasant grew accustomed to the odor and took no further notice of it. The American president Kennedy, too, in Khrushchev’s words, would “learn to accept the smell of the missiles.” The tale of how Khrushchev’s miscalculations brought the United States and Russia to the brink of war over Cuba in 1962 is just one of the fascinating episodes in William Taubman’s magisterial biography of the former Soviet leader. A distinguished professor of political science at Amherst and author of several books on Russian politics, Taubman has written an intriguing account of a fascinating individual while also telling the story of his era.

Americans perhaps recall Khrushchev best for his famous outburst at the United Nations, in which he banged his shoe on the table. In his relations with the West, as well as at home, Khrushchev often presented an image both menacing and ludicrous. Once in power, he tended to bully those around him, as he had once been bullied by Stalin. Khrushchev’s tirades displayed his rank but also frequently revealed his shallow knowledge of science, culture, foreign affairs and so forth. An object of scorn and dislike for many, Khrushchev nonetheless impressed his opponents with his sharp instincts, prodigious memory and dramatic abilities. This seemingly common, even crude, man had after all not only survived but advanced under Stalin and had outmaneuvered other contenders for the Soviet throne.

To explain Khrushchev’s self-destructive tendencies and “manic” states, William Taubman uses psychological analysis and historical methods. He traces the roots of the Soviet dictator’s twinned ambition and self-doubt to his youth, spent under his mother’s adoring eye in a family that was mired in rural poverty. Taubman then reveals that Khrushchev’s garrulous nature and domineering style in later years masked the leader’s genuine insecurities and even remorse over some of the costs of his advancement.

In chronicling Khrushchev’s tumultuous career, Taubman paints a richly detailed portrait of the leader’s many lives: peasant boy, upwardly mobile metalworker, political activist, erstwhile student, energetic administrator, Stalinist satrap, supreme leader and ultimately morose but defiant pensioner and memoirist. Taubman explores Khrushchev’s motivations and survival strategies through each phase of his life. Especially fascinating are the accounts of how Khrushchev managed to stay in favor with Stalin over many decades of close association and dared to denounce him in 1956.

Readers of Khrushchev: A Man and His Era will, as the title promises, find not only a biography of an important statesman but also a history of the formative years of the Soviet superpower. As Taubman explains, “Taken in its entirety, his life holds a mirror to the Soviet age as a whole.” Indeed, the years of Khrushchev’s maturity span revolution, civil war, industrialization, Stalin’s purges, the German invasion and Soviet victory in World War II, as well as the reconstruction of the Soviet economy and the most tense years of the Cold War that followed. His book thereby educates us on two levels.

As an Amherst student in the late 1980s, I had the pleasure of participating in a special seminar on Khrushchev taught by Professor Taubman. Each student had the task of tackling one area of Khrushchev’s activity, ranging from his policy toward Germany to his relations with Soviet artists and writers. At the time it seemed impossible that any one person could ever become an expert on the full spectrum of Khrushchev’s affairs. But I’m happy to report that Bill Taubman has done so in admirable fashion, keeping up with an increasing deluge of new revelations from Soviet archives and possibilities for further travel and research. His book has been especially enriched by long interviews with Khrushchev’s family members and associates.

William Taubman’s decades of scholarship have allowed him to create a work that is rich in detail but also full of larger themes. Those interested in Russian and American history alike will find this a compelling book that ultimately makes a powerful and convincing case for understanding Nikita Khrushchev as a flawed but very human hero of his times.

— Kathleen E. Smith ’87
Adjunct Professor of Government, Georgetown University

Next: A Sum of Destructions: Picasso's Cultures and The Creation of Cubism >>

 
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