Khrushchev: The Man and His Era (review)
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Reviewed by
William Taubman, Khrushchev: The Man and His Era. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2003. xx + 876 pp. $35.00.

More than a half-century has passed since Nikita Sergeevich Khrushchev became First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) after Josif Stalin's death. It has been forty years since Khrushchev was removed from office and more than thirty since his death. He has been the subject of countless books, including his own voluminous memoirs and those of his family and colleagues, works of history and political science, and shorter biographies, but never until now has he been the focus of a full-length scholarly biography that tackles its subject comprehensively and with authority. Considering that Khrushchev was one of the most important statesmen of the twentieth century, this is somewhat surprising, to say the least. It is even more extraordinary in view of Khrushchev's exceptionally complex and colorful personality. For [End Page 172] William Taubman's readers, though, Nikita Sergeevich's long wait has been well worth it. More than twenty years in the making, Khrushchev: The Man and His Era is a masterpiece of the biographer's art.

It is not difficult to see why. Taubman has done his homework. The range of memoirs, archival materials, and secondary sources on which he draws almost beggars belief. The list of interviews is no less impressive, ranging from Khrushchev's family members and former colleagues to the writers and artists he hounded in the early 1960s to foreigners who dealt with him. Taubman even tracked down the elderly Zakhar Glukhov, a minor party official who had succeeded Khrushchev as secretary of the Petrovo-Marinskii District Party Committee in 1925. So painstaking is the research that one strongly suspects that Taubman, sacrificing himself for the sake of scholarship, actually did read through the eight fat volumes of Khrushchev's interminable "agricultural speeches," as well as the full transcripts of the Soviet leader's lively but often rambling and disjointed memoirs.

Yet the book itself carries the weight of this enormous research lightly indeed. Khrushchev is as readable as it is erudite. Taubman writes well, and, in tracing the story of the half-educated peasant boy from Kalinovka who rose to become Stalin's loyal lieutenant and then his rather less loyal successor, Taubman has a fascinating story to tell. He also has the benefit of a lifetime spent studying the Soviet Union. As subtitles go, "the man and his era" may be neither original nor exciting, but in this case it is entirely appropriate: One of the strengths of the book is Taubman's ability to set Khrushchev in context and to tell his story in conjunction with the story of his times. Khrushchev's life was, as Taubman observes, "a mirror of the Soviet age as a whole" (p.xiii).

Taubman's readiness to follow every lead and his patience in pursuing his quarry over nearly two decades have made for a rich feast of new information and insights, especially about Khrushchev's private life. The wealth of detail he provides in describing Khrushchev's personal and family life merely underscores how little we knew previously, including the revelation of a hitherto unknown marriage. Long believed to be the Soviet leader's second wife, Nina Petrovna Kukharchuk, who became an overnight celebrity when she accompanied her husband to America in 1959, was in fact his third. She was also an extraordinary character in her own right, emerging from Taubman's exploration of Khrushchev's private life as a much more complex and formidable character than the smiling grandmother who so charmed her hosts in America. Taubman also provides detailed and convincing accounts of other private matters about which we previously knew little, such as the escapades of Khrushchev's wayward older son, Leonid.

However, it is not only the private Khrushchev whom Taubman's research brings to life. He also provides riveting accounts of almost every important episode in Khrushchev's long political career, including such well known and thoroughly documented events as the Secret Speech of 1956, the removal of Marshal Georgii Zhukov in 1957, and the Cuban missile crisis...