His story is something like a fairy tale. A humble young peasant boy, born to a world of famine and poverty with 100 million peasants just like him, works and fights his way up the political ladder of Russia to one day become its most powerful force, simultaneously holding the offices of Premier of the U.S.S.R. and First Secretary of the Communist Party. It seems incredible, but it should be remembered that Nikita Khrushchev did not accomplish this feat without much sacrifice and hard work on his part. Coming from virtually nothing, he struggled for many years to rise among the ranks in Revolutionary Russia before he achieved the position of a widely-loved ruler and powerful, determining force in international affairs. And although, in the end, he was cast down from this climactic position, it was not before this loquacious and personable man had employed his keen and incisive mind toward making many gains for and improvements in twentieth-century Russia.
To truly understand how humble and common his beginnings were, one must understand the situation in Russia toward the end of the nineteenth century. Serfdom had only recently been abolished, and, as a result, there was a severe shortage of land and widespread poverty and illiteracy. Only the strongest and cleverest were able to make a living from their new-found freedom; most just struggled to survive. It was among this majority, on April 17, 1894, that Nikita Sergeievich Khrushchev was born. As a boy, he lived in Kalinovka, a poor villiage in the Ukraine, in an izba, a mud hut with a thatched roof, with his grandfather, a large family, and the family's animals. His father, it is said, lived his life with the ambition to buy a horse, but he never saved enough money to do so. In the end, the family was forced to give up their home and move to Yuzovka in another part of the Ukraine.
Throughout his childhood, Nikita was forced to work to survive. His education amounted to only two or three years in the village school, for he was forced to go to work herding cows when he was nine. Following that, he was em- ployed as many things, including a farm hand, a factory worker, and finally a miner in the coal pits. It was at this time that his determination to better himself was first made apparent, for, rather than letting himself be destined forever to work in the pits, he offered his services in all areas of the job, including the development of pit-heads, elevators for the mines. This was also the time in which the young Khrushchev's rebellious nature began to surface, but rather than to striking or union-organizing, it was applied toward politics. It all began with a visit to the mines in 1917 by a man called Kaganovich, who was sent to recruit miners for the Revolution. Nikita, who was 23 and viewed this man as both a romantic figure and an opportunity to break from his social boundaries, joined his Bolshevik group and, by doing so, took his first of many steps in his forthcoming rise to political power.
Soonafter, Khrushchev, a loyal but not very active Bolshevik member, became involved with the Communist party as well. Prior to this point, he had been exempt from military service due to his indispensibility in the local coal industry. Also, he had been responsible for a family, as he had married his wife, Galina, during his years in the coal mines, and now had two children (Leonid and Julia), which made him want to remain near Yuzovka. However, in 1919, that rebellious, power-seeking inner sense of Nikita's got the best of him, and he went off to join the Red Army. When the war ended, Khrushchev, whose main objective had been to emerge as a politician until he found how difficult it was to compete with the "higher-born," at least had succeeded in proving himself to be a loyal and useful figure. Soonafter, he returned home with the task of organizing a local Communist party.
When he arrived back in Yuzovka, however, he found the area, along with much of the Ukraine, suffering due to a great famine. Peasants were forced to eat bark, grass, leather and one another to survive, and many died, including Khrushchev's wife. It was a very sad and difficult time for Nikita, but he retaliated against his depression by devoting himself wholeheartedly toward the reorganization of Russia. At once he set about to restore local factories and increase coal production, steps he considered vital in order to get the economy going. It took much toughness and courage to get men to work under such conditions, but Khrushchev, gifted with a talent for organizing and motivating people, was able to succeed. In 1921, he sent his children to live with his parents and enrolled in a mining technology school, where he further developed himself in engineering and politics and learned how to read. A quick learner, Khrushchev finished school in four years, literate and with a comprehensive knowledge of Leninist views. He married again, this time to a schoolteacher named Nina Petrovna, and, at the age 31, encountered the first of a series of very rapid steps to the supreme position he would one day hold as Premier of the U.S.S.R.
In 1925, Khrushchev was appointed to his first full-time and very important Party position, Party Secretary of Petrovsko, a district of about 400 square miles in the Ukraine. For the two years that he held that office, Nikita encouraged peasants to work and reopened factories, unemployment dropped and bands of mutinous peasants which roamed the countryside were wiped out. In addition, bands of wild Russian children, called besprisorni, were rounded up and either put to work or shot. By the end of his term there, he had grown enough in importance to be a non-voting member of the All Union Party Congress-in other words, in just seven years, Krushchev had earned his way into the top 1300 of over one million Party members.
His next step was to go to Moscow, where he studied engineering and worked actively in the Party cell of the Moscow Industrial Academy. Working closely with important political figures, even including Stalin's wife, Khrushchev continued to rise in importance and popularity. By 1932, he had reached a point where he was second in command of the Party for all of Moscow. With this power, he attempted to more or less renovate Moscow. Its living conditions were deplorable and dreary. There was a severe shortage of food, families lived huddled two or three to a room, buildings were falling apart. As Peter the Great had done many years before, Nikita attempted to "drag Russia into the twentieth century." He made many reforms, including the construction of the Moscow Metro, and as a result was soon appointed to the Central Committees of the All-Union Communist Party and the Supreme Soviet.
It should be noted that, having always concentrated on technical rather than political accomplishment, Khrushchev was able to escape the Great Purge, a period in the thirties in which those considered "enemies of the people" according to Stalin were to be arrested, deported or even executed. Rather, he was even rewarded for his service to the country. In 1938, Khrushchev returned to the Ukraine as first secretary of he Ukrainian Communist Party and focused his attention primarily on agriculture, in which he gained a reputation as an expert. When he gained full membership in the Politburo in March of 1939, Khrushchev became one of the most powerful men in the U.S.S.R.
With World War II came more accomplishments and recognition for Khrushchev. He supervised the annexation of Polish territory, helped supervise the evacuation of Ukranian industry when Germany attacked, and eventually helped to expel the Germans from the Soviet Union. After the war, he was brought again to Moscow, where he served in the Secretariat and the Politburo and was again head of the Moscow regional committee. It was those positions, and his reputation as an agricultural expert, that soon propelled him to power.
Upon Stalin's death, Khrushchev kept a place in power as "collective leadership" came into being, which consisted primarily of him, Beria, Bulganin, Malenkov, Kaganovich and Molotov. There were many problems with this concept at first, and leadership changed hands frequently. Finally, in 1957, Khrushchev himself was nominated for the top position as Premier, despite the others' attempts to gain the position for themselves. When problems arose due to this appointment, Khrushchev, who had previously kept a low profile and not involved himself much in the power struggle, suddenly, at the 20th Party Congress that year, gave his famous six-hour "secret speech" denouncing the "crimes of the Stalin era." By doing so, many old-time Party leaders felt that he had gone too far; there were two attempts on his life later that year. However, Khrushchev remained strong and exposed a plot by Malenkov, Molotov and Kaganovich to oust him from leadership; in doing so, he solidified his power, becoming both Premier and Party Secretary in 1958.
It should be noted now that Khrushchev, although acting as supreme ruler of the Soviet Union, possessed certain personal characteristics that made him lesser in the eyes of the world. He was a stout, "bullet-headed" man who liked to joke and talk, and, though his important positions had trained him to carry himself as a supreme ruler would, he was still rough and a countryman at heart. He often dressed in simple peasant smocks or plain shirts, clothing he considered to be representative of what Communist stood for, and he didn't see any harm in getting drunk in public. By many he was nicknamed "the peasant ruler of backward Russia," and laughed at. An example of this was Khrushchev's first trip outside the boundaries of Russia, a visit to Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia in the late 50's that had been to make peace after the damage Stalin had vainly sought to inflict. The Premier, believing that he was making such a grand jesture of reconciliation-having great Russia bow down to insignificant Yugoslavia, was instead greeted by an arrogant ruler who intended to mock, ridicule and disgrace him. Tito began by walking out during a speech in which Khrushchev was apologizing for the actions of Stalin. He then proceeded to parade the Russian ruler, who was used to bullet-proof cars, around in a convertible. Finally, at what was to be an informal dinner, Tito had all his officials wear full evening dress when he knew that the Russians would arrive wearing their simple summer suitings, as an attempt to embarrass them and make them look foolish. Khrushchev, though, surprised everyone by overcoming this childishness and concentrating on the business at hand, much to Tito's dismay. Events like this helped to gain this grandfather-like ruler both popularity and great respect.
Although for several years Khrushchev's popularity existed in Russia also, several crucial incidents caused it to deteriorate just as quickly. One such event was the "U-2 Incident" in 1960, when an American spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union. President Eisenhower, who was considered by Khrushchev to be a trusted friend, took responsibility for the affair and, by doing so, greatly embarrassed the Soviet Premier. Then, just a few years later, when the Soviet Union was caught positioning missiles in Cuba, Khrushchev was forced to remove them and leave Cuba. Incidents like this began to mount, and many Party members sought to remove him. Finally, in October 1964, he was forced out of office. His remaining years were spent in "quiet retirement" in the outskirts of Russia. He died on September 11, 1971.
Although those who Khrushchev had once struggled to and succeeded in overcoming were able to remove him from power in the end, the vast changes this peasant-turned-Premier had unleashed in the U.S.S.R. could not be undone, and his years in power have had a lasting effect on the Soviet Union ever since.