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The Rise of Khrushchev

 

The domestic pressures, stoked in the period 1945–53, rose to the surface soon after Stalin’s death. The dictator’s departure compelled the Soviet leadership to weigh arguments in favor of some liberalization. Certain steps in that direction were taken in 1953–56, but the more public examination of Stalin’s legacy would begin only in 1956, after Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971) emerged as the country’s undisputed leader and Stalin’s successor.  

Khrushchev had made his career under Stalin as a party secretary and one of his most devoted lieutenants, utterly dazed by the charismatic leader. After Stalin’s death he rose to become the Soviet leader who sponsored substantial liberalization of Soviet society, put an end to mass terror, and attempted to discredit his former idol. Khrushchev’s elevation was in large measure due to chance. Stalin himself had involuntary facilitated the rise to power of his future denunciator, by promoting Khrushchev from one rung of the career ladder to the next.

Ironically, the overly suspicious dictator had failed to discern in his protégé the political tendency that he had so ruthlessly crushed during his own rise to absolute power. It had been associated with leaders such as Bukharin and others who had favored continuation of the NEP and democratization, and strongly objected to the use of coercive methods in running the economy. Despite brutal repressions, that moderate political trend and its representatives had never been completely eradicated. In this sense, the rise of Khrushchev was not accidental, but represented a revival and a vindication of an alternative to Stalin’s tyranny.

Of all Soviet leaders, Nikita Khrushchev had perhaps the most colorful personality. Lacking formal education, he was able to achieve a meteoric career rise from a village shepherd to the leader of a world superpower. Like thousands of other young Russian peasants he had left the countryside hoping to find a better life in the city. In tsarist Russia on the eve of the revolution, workers in the first generation, coming from a peasant background, were the fastest growing sector of the working class. Many of them enthusiastically accepted the Bolsheviks’ simple black-and-white vision of society. Based on class hatred, it divided the world into “us,” the workers, and “them,” the bourgeoisie and landowners. By taking power from the exploiters and crushing their resistance, the workers would somehow manage to build a shining paradise on earth.

Having embraced this rigid class struggle approach in the period of his revolutionary youth, Khrushchev would never be able to discard it. The world to him remained divided by the barricades, with capitalists to one side and Communists to the other. The struggle between the socialist and capitalist camps was uncompromising and ineluctable, waged on the principle “either we bury them, or they bury us.”  

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