Reviews | Amherst College
Books | What They Are Reading
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
A Sum of Destructions: Picasso's Cultures and The
Creation of Cubism >>