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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 5.2 (2004) 437-444



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William Taubman, Khrushchev: The Man and His Era. New York: W. W. Norton, 2003. 876 pp. ISBN 0-393-05144-7. $35.00.
L. B. Brusilovskaia, Kul´tura povsednevnosti v epokhu "ottepeli": Metamorfozy stilia [The Culture of Everyday Life during the "Thaw": Stylistic Metamorphoses]. Moscow: URAO, 2001. 188 pp. ISBN 5-204-00276-6.
O. V. Edel´man, ed., with the participation of E. Iu. Zavadskaia and O. V. Lavinskaia, 5810: Nadzornye proizvodstva Prokuratury SSSR po delam ob antisovetskoi agitatsii i propagande. Annotirovannyi katalog, mart 1953-1991 [5810 : Prosecutorial Oversight of Anti-Soviet Agitation and Propaganda. An Annotated Catalogue, March 1953-1991]. Moscow: Mezhdunarodnyi fond "Demokratiia," 1999. 944 pp. ISBN 5-85646-41-3. Under the general editorship of V. A. Kozlov and S. V. Mironenko.

Bombastic public speeches, lengthy sessions with foreign diplomats, volumes of memoirs—all these sources contribute to the impression of Nikita Khrushchev as a compulsively open personality. Khrushchev's garrulous nature and earthy language immediately distinguished him from his predecessor. Compared to the remote and secretive Stalin, Khrushchev was a font of opinions, especially in the later years of his rule when he combined a dangerous overconfidence with a weakness for alcohol. Although Khrushchev's behavior showed that he was hardly lacking in guile, his verbal outpourings made him seem remarkably knowable to Western observers. Outsiders' sense that they could understand Khrushchev's motivations and probe his psyche (as the CIA's psychoanalysts did) is also true more generally of Western attitudes toward Soviet society in the post-Stalin period. The relative openness of borders during Khrushchev's reign and the increasing candor of Soviet intellectuals naturally increased the perception of mutual comprehension between East and West.

William Taubman's magisterial study Khrushchev: The Man and His Era, however, reveals hidden depths to Nikita Khrushchev. Moreover, Taubman's depiction of the huge number of issues troubling Khrushchev during his decade in power reminds us of how many areas regarding even the relatively open period of the thaw would benefit today from renewed or extended scrutiny. This review considers the extent to which Khrushchev's life story reflects his times [End Page 437] and suggests other new sources that can refine our understanding of the complex and consequential years of his rule.

Taubman begins his biography by noting that, although Khrushchev's rise to the absolute top of the political hierarchy was unusual, the future general secretary was in many ways a typical Soviet man. Indeed, part of the merit of a biography of Khrushchev, Taubman argues, is that, "in its entirety, [Khrushchev's] life holds a mirror to the Soviet age as a whole" (xiii). With fascinating detail, Taubman follows up on this premise as he takes readers through Khrushchev's transition from poor peasant to industrial worker, from ambitious self-striver to ambitious but sincere public servant in the 1920s. Participation in the great processes of urbanization and industrialization, in the currents of labor activism, revolution, and battle, do in truth make Khrushchev's early life an invaluable microcosm of social transformation and political upheaval in Russia.

The young Khrushchev's dream of becoming a well-educated engineer made him typical of a generation that saw industrial training as a means to escape stultifying rural life and great poverty. We see, too, the roots of his fierce rejection of peasant ways, an attitude that shaped his thinking for years to come. Indeed, though dubbed a populist by some scholars, Khrushchev detested many aspects of common culture. In a telling anecdote, Taubman recounts how Khrushchev upbraided an Egyptian journalist who had written respectfully of Khrushchev's peasant status. When the surprised journalist pointed to Khrushchev's own statements of pride in his humble origins, the leader objected: "But you wrote I was like a peasant from a story by Dostoevsky&#x02014...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-5000
Print ISSN
1531-023x
Pages
pp. 437-444
Launched on MUSE
2004-07-07
Open Access
No
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