In this extraordinary work of scholarship, William Taubman sets out to explore two of the great mysteries of twentieth-century history. First, how did a barely educated peasant from the obscure village of Kalinovka rise to become Stalin’s successor and ruler of the entire Soviet Union? Second, how did Khrushchev survive the great terror in the first place, when so many better candidates perished?
The latter question is easier to answer. The Soviet leadership looked on Khrushchev as a sort of pet, an amiable buffoon who would liven up the debauched drinking parties at Stalin’s dacha. The politburo also needed him. In a band of middle-class intellectuals, Khrushchev was a genuine member of the proletariat. It was something he never forgot: some of the language he used was shockingly obscene, even when he was in extremely elevated circles.
In documenting his rise to power, Taubman delves deep into Khrushchev’s protean personality. To his credit, Taubman eschews the route of pop psychology or any similar attempt to wrap up such a complicated individual in a simplistic character profile. Instead, Taubman presents all the evidence available to him, to let the reader watch the changing face of the Soviet leader during his astonishing rise, and sudden fall from power.
Focusing on Khrushchev allows Taubman to illuminate the reality of life for Stalin’s lieutenants as they prosecuted the reign of terror. Fervent and genuine Marxist that he was, Khrushchev was devastated by the oppression that he enacted on Stalin’s orders. This grief and despair at his own terrible deeds drove Khrushchev eventually to achieve his revenge on his former patron. Shocking the party faithful, he famously denounced the previous regime in his secret speech to the Soviet communist party conference of 1959.
There are few well-written accessible accounts in English of the post-Stalin period in the USSR, with the exception of histories of the Cuban Missile Crisis or the Space Race. Taubman’s biography goes a long way to bridging this gap, despite its focus on one improbable and very powerful figure. A Pulitzer Prize winner, this is one of the best non-fiction books written in the twentieth-first century so far.