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Khrushchev's Mistakes

"Gorbachev Factor"

From the late 1950s onward, Khrushchev suffered a series of obvious and embarrassing failures at home and abroad. At home, the economy failed to reach the goals he had set, notably for food production. His dramatic declarations that the Soviet Union would soon surpass the United States in production of milk and meat were never realized. His earlier successes in ploughing up the virgin lands turned out to be of little value over the long run. The newly opened lands suffered soil erosion and could not be farmed regularly. The clearest sign of agricultural crisis came in 1963, when, following a poor harvest, the Soviet government was compelled to buy huge quantities of grain from foreign countries, including the United States. 

 

Khrushchev and Castro

Khrushchev’s relations with the party and government bureaucracies also came under increasing strain. Khrushchev’s populism and egalitarianism were not readily appreciated by many of his colleagues who had grown accustomed to privilege and had a vested interest in maintaining their position and authority. He deeply offended party functionaries by requiring that personnel in important party committees be rotated regularly. He also called for dividing the party into two structures: one would direct agriculture, the other, industry. He contemplated equally radical plans for restructuring the government. His reckless reorganizations encountered increasing opposition, as they threatened the privileges and stability of the ruling nomeklatura.

Within the larger Communist world Khrushchev’s attempts to build “socialism with a human face” were not universally appreciated. The Chinese leader Mao Zedong, in particular, openly disapproved of his attacks on Stalin and increasingly challenged the Soviet leadership of the world Communist movement. In Europe the “iron curtain” was breached in Berlin, with thousands of East German refugees fleeing to the western part of the city. The massive drain on skilled labor that was created by this exodus was crippling East Germany’s economy. The crisis came to a head in 1961, when the East German authorities, on Khrushchev’s instructions, erected a monumental wall to separate the city’s eastern part from West Berlin. The wall was a poor advertisement for communism, but it helped to avert the economic collapse of East Germany.

In relations with the capitalist West Krushchev’s policy of “peaceful coexistence” had failed to prevent diplomatic conflicts and military standoffs. The most serious clash between the world’s two superpowers came in 1962 over tiny Cuba. The Cuban leader, Fidel Castro, who came to power in 1959, openly proclaimed his ties to Marxism and Leninism. To protect his new ally and to assert the Soviet military presence at the United States’ doorstep, Khrushchev placed in Cuba offensive missiles capable of launching nuclear weapons. President John Kennedy’s administration responded by establishing a naval blockade of the island. A full-scale American invasion of Cuba seemed to be in the offing. In the face of American demands, Khrushchev reversed his plans and removed the missiles. In return, the American government promised not to invade Cuba. Khrushchev would never admit his failure in the Cuban crisis, but this apparent debacle undercut his prestige among the topmost leaders of the party.

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