Khrushchev, a 'jester' within Stalin's court

by Elise Dunphe | 4/23/03 5:00am

Did Nikita Khrushchev really bang his shoe on a table at the United Nations?

Eyewitnesses each have their own recollections of the event, including accounts that the Soviet Premier did indeed exhibit a moment of unbridled temper, that he only brandished the shoe and that although he was holding his footwear, it was his fist that hit the table.

"I'm here to tell you that history is complex and even eyewitnesses disagree. It's amazing we're able to write any history at all," said William Taubman, professor of political science at Amherst College, yesterday.

Taubman did not have any personal encounters with Khrushchev, but after conducting research on him for 20 years, he might as well have. He recently published a biography entitled, "Khrushchev: The Man and His Era," for which he interviewed his subject's family members, childhood neighbors and political associates.

The leadership abilities of the man, according to Taubman, rested largely in the uniqueness of his actions. He thought that Khrushchev was such an important figure in the 20th Century because he did what no one else would have done given similar circumstances: he sent missiles to Cuba and made his secret speech denouncing Stalin and the years of terror that had ripped through the Soviet Union.

Taubman argued that neither Malenkov or Molotov would have made such accusations against Stalin, but that Khrushchev wanted to "distance himself from the blood," and release the guilt and anger that he felt about the past.

He recounted his interview with the daughter of a childhood friend of Khrushchev's, who remembered when the politician had offered her father a good position within the party. Her father had refused, expressing his distaste for what had happened to Soviet communism.

Instead of becoming angry with his longtime friend, Khrushchev replied, "Don't blame me for all that ... When I can, I'll settle with [Stalin] for all of that." Taubman said that this encounter was similar to a few others, and that it is evidence that Khrushchev felt guilty for his involvement in the terror and was angry at what Stalin had done to the party.

Taubman opened his lecture on Khrushchev with clips from documentaries in order to show "a glimpse of his initial decency." A few moments of footage from the funeral of an unnamed person juxtaposed the somberness of Khrushchev with Joseph Stalin, also in attendance, whose dark, strong eyes constantly darted about nervously.

"I found him just as complicated, just as contradictory as that headstone suggests," Taubman said, reflecting on the two slabs of stone marking Khrushchev's grave -- one black and one white -- signifying the combination of the good and bad actions that occurred in his regime.

Khrushchev was born into a very poor family that lacked not only a horse, but also a house, Taubman said, and he only attended school for a few years. His ambition came from the praise of his teachers and the adoration of his strong-willed mother. Khrushchev returned to school twice as an adult, but became distracted by politics in both instances.

The man who would go on to design his gravestone described the premier as "the most uncultured man I've met,'" said Taubman. Khrushchev, in turn, described the artist's work as something that could have been seen with a man looking up from the inside of a toilet. Khrushchev didn't have the best of relationships with his intelligentsia.

Despite his lack of formal education or artistic refinement, Khrushchev was shrewd enough to "trade on his simplicity," said Taubman, "both to survive Stalin and to succeed Stalin.

"He was a kind of court jester in Stalin's court," he said. "He proved to be the kind of man who even a paranoid like Stalin could trust."