Nikita Khrushchev

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Nikita Khrushchev
Name of Office (1): First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union
Term of Office: 1953-1964
Predecessor: Georgy Malenkov
Successor: Leonid Brezhnev
Name of Office (2): Chairman of the Council of Ministers
Term of Office: 1958-1964
Predecessor: Nikolai Bulganin
Successor: Alexey Kosygin
Date of Birth: April 17, 1894
Place of Birth: Kalinovka, Dmitriyev uezd, Kursk Guberniya of the Russian Empire
Date of Death: September 11, 1971
Place of Death: Moscow, Russia
Profession: Politician
Political party: Communist Party of the Soviet Union

Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchof (Khrushchev) (Russian: Ники́та Серге́евич Хрущёв /nʲiˈki.ta sʲerˈge.jeˌviʧ ˈxru.ʃʧʲof/ , April 17, 1894 – September 11, 1971) was the leader of the Soviet Union after the death of Joseph Stalin. He was First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1953 to 1964 and Chairman of the Council of Ministers from 1958 to 1964.


Early days

Nikita Khrushchev was born in the village of Kalinovka, Dmitriyev uezd, Kursk Guberniya of the Russian Empire (now Kursk Oblast of the Russian Federation). In 1908, his family moved to Yuzovka, Ukraine. Although he was apparently highly intelligent, he only received approximately two years of education as a child and probably only became fully literate in his late twenties or early thirties. He was trained for and worked as a joiner in various factories and mines. During World War I, Khrushchev became involved in trade union activities, and after the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 he fought in the Red Army. He became a Party member in 1918 and worked at various management and Party positions in Donbass and Kiev.

In 1931 Khrushchev was transferred to Moscow and in 1935 he became 1st Secretary of the Moscow City Committee (Moscow Gorkom) of VKP(b). In 1938 he became the 1st Secretary of the Central Committee of the Ukrainian Communist Party.

Beginning in 1934 Khrushchev was a member of the Central Committee of the VKP(b)/CPSU, and he was a member of Politburo from 1939.

Great Patriotic War

Nikita Khrushchev in his military uniform
Nikita Khrushchev in his military uniform

During World War II, Khrushchev served as a political officer with the equivalent rank of Lieutenant General.

In the months following the German invasion in 1941, Khrushchev, as a local party leader, was coordinating the defense of Ukraine, but was dismissed and recalled to Moscow after surrendering Kiev. Later, he was a political commissar at the Battle of Stalingrad and was the senior political officer in the south of the Soviet Union throughout the war time period—at Kursk, entering Kiev on liberation, and in the suppression of the Bandera nationalists of the UNO (who had earlier allied with the Nazis before fighting them in the Western Ukraine).

Rise to power

After Stalin's death in March 1953, there was a power struggle between different factions within the party. Khrushchev prevailed, becoming party leader on September 7 of that year, and his main rival, NKVD chief Lavrenty Beria, was executed in December. Khrushchev's leadership marked a crucial transition for the Soviet Union. He pursued a course of reform and shocked delegates to the 20th Party Congress on February 23, 1956 by making his famous Secret Speech denouncing the "cult of personality" that surrounded Stalin, and accusing Stalin of the crimes committed during the Great Purges. This effectively alienated Khrushchev from the more conservative elements of the Party, but he managed to defeat what he termed the Anti-Party Group after they failed in a bid to oust him from the party leadership in 1957.

In 1958, Khrushchev replaced Georgy Malenkov as prime minister and established himself as the undisputed leader of both state and party. He became Premier of the Soviet Union on March 27, 1958. Khruschev promoted reform of the Soviet system and began to place an emphasis on the production of consumer goods rather than on heavy industry.

In 1959 during Richard Nixon's journey to the Soviet Union, he took part in what was later known as the Kitchen Debate. Khrushchev's new attitude towards the West as a rival instead of as an evil entity alienated Mao Zedong's China. The Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China, too, would later be involved in a similar "cold war" triggered by the Sino-Soviet Split in 1960.

Khrushchev's personality

Khrushchev was regarded by his political enemies in the Soviet Union as a boorish, uncivilized peasant, with a reputation for interrupting speakers to insult them. The Politburo accused him once of 'hare-brained scheming' - referring to his erratic policy. Partly this was the result of his limited formal education. Although intelligent (as his political enemies also admitted after he had defeated them) and certainly cunning, he lacked knowledge and understanding of the world outside of his direct experience and so would often prove easy to manipulate for scientific hucksters that knew how to appeal to his vanity and prejudices. For example, he was a supporter of Trofim Lysenko even after the Stalin years and became convinced that the Soviet Union's agricultural crises could be solved through the planting of maize on the same scale as the United States, failing to realize that the differences in climate and soil made this inadvisable.

He repeatedly disrupted a United Nations conference in September-October 1960 by pounding his fists on the table and shouting in Russian during speeches. On September 29, 1960, Khrushchev twice interrupted a speech by British prime minister Harold Macmillan by shouting out and pounding his desk. The unflappable Macmillan famously commented: "I should like that to be translated if he wants to say anything."

At the UN two weeks later, Lorenzo Sumulong, the Filipino delegate, asked Khrushchev how he could protest Western capitalist imperialism while the Soviet Union was at the same time rapidly assimilating Eastern Europe. Khrushchev became enraged and informed Sumulong that he was "kholuj i stavlennik imperializma," which was translated as "a jerk, a stooge and a lackey of imperialism," then removed one of his shoes and made a move as to bang it on the table.

Nikita Khrushchev at the Simferopol Space Control Center
Nikita Khrushchev at the Simferopol Space Control Center

At another occasion, Khrushchev said in reference to capitalism, "We will bury you." This phrase, ambiguous both in English and in Russian, was interpreted in several ways. He is famous for boasting to the U.S. President: "We will bury you. Our rockets could hit a fly over the United States."

Forced retirement

Khrushchev's rivals in the party deposed him at a Central Committee meeting on October 14, 1964. The removal was largely due to his capricious behaviour and personal mannerisms, which were regarded by the Party as tremendous embarrassments on the international stage. The Communist Party subsequently accused Khrushschev of making political mistakes, such as provoking the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and disorganizing the Soviet economy, especially in the agricultural sector.

Following his removal from power, Khrushchev spent seven years under house arrest. He died at his home in Moscow on September 11, 1971 and is interred in the Novodevichy Cemetery, Moscow, Russia.

Key political actions

Khrushchev embracing Cuban President Fidel Castro
Khrushchev embracing Cuban President Fidel Castro

Key economic actions

  • Second wave of the reclamation of virgin and abandoned lands (Virgin Lands Campaign)
  • Introduction of sovnarkhozes, (Councils of People's Economy), regional organizations, in an attempt to combat the centralization and departmentalism of the ministries
  • Reorganization of agriculture, with preference given to sovkhozes (state farms), including conversion of kolkhozes into sovkhozes, introduction of maize (earning him the sobriquet kukuruznik, "the maize enthusiast").
  • Coping with housing crisis by quickly building millions of apartments according to simplified floor plans, dubbed khrushchovkas.
  • Created a minimum wage in 1956.
  • Devaluation of the rouble 10:1 in 1961.


He has one of the highest posthumous reputations of any leader of the Soviet era, both in Russia and overseas.

On the positive side, he was admired for his efficiency and for maintaning an economy which, during the 1950s and '60s, had growth rates higher than most Western countries, contrasted with the stagnation beginning with his successors. He is also renowned for his liberal policies, whose results began with the widespread re-habilitations of political prisoners from the Gulag, as well as overturning convictions of millions of victims.

During the Stalin era, when one person was declared guilty, he and his entire family were evicted and vanished from their homes, schools and jobs. With Khrushchev's amnesty programme, the ex-prisoners and their surviving relatives could now live a normal life without the infamous "wolf ticket".

His policies also increased the importance of the consumer, since Khrushchev himself placed more resources in the production of consumer goods and housing instead of heavy industry, precipitating a rapid rise in living standards.

The arts also benefited from this environment of liberalisation, where works like Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich created an attitude of dissent that would escalate during the subsequent Brezhnev-Kosygin era.

He also allowed Eastern Europe to have a greater freedom of action in their domestic and external affairs, without the intervention of the Soviet Union.

His De-Stalinsation caused a huge impact on young Communists of the day. Khrushchev encouraged more liberal communist leaders to replace hard-line Stalinists throughout the Eastern bloc. Alexander Dubček, who became the leader of Czechoslovakia in January 1968, accelerated the process of liberalisation in his own country with his Prague Spring programme. Mikhail Gorbachev, who became the Soviet Union's leader in 1985, was inspired by it and it become evident with his policies of glasnost and perestroika.

On the negative side, he was criticised for his ruthless crackdown of the revolution in Hungary, and also for encouraging the East German authorities to set up the notorious Berlin Wall in August 1961. He also had very poor diplomatic skills, giving the reputation of being a rude, uncivilised peasant in the West and as an irresponsible clown in his own country.

His methods of administration, although efficient, were also known to be erratic since they threatened to disband a large number of Stalinist-era agencies. He made a dangerous gamble in 1962 over Cuba, which almost made a Third World War inevitable. Agriculture barely kept up with population growth as bad harvests mixed with good ones, culminating with a disastrous one in 1963 that was triggered by bad weather. All this damaged his prestige after 1962 and was enough for the Central Commitee, Khrushchev's critical base for support, to take action against him. They used his right-hand man Leonid Brezhnev to lead the bloodless ouster.

Due to the results of his policies, as well as the increasingly regressive attitude of his successors, he became more popular after he gave up power, which led many dissidents to view his era with nostalgia as his successors began discrediting or slowing down his reforms.


Since he spent much time working in Ukraine, Khrushchev produced an impression of being a Ukrainian man. He supported this image, e.g., by wearing Ukrainian national shirts.

Khrushchev's eldest son Leonid died in 1943 during the Great Patriotic War. His younger son Sergei emigrated to the United States and is now an American citizen and a Professor at Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies. He often speaks to American audiences to share his memories of the "other" side of the Cold War.


  • William Taubman: Khrushchev: the man and his era - London, Free Press, 2004
  • Khrushchev remembers: the glasnost tapes - translated and edited by Jerrold L. Schecter, Boston, Little Brown, 1990
  • Khrushchev remembers - edited by Strobe Talbott, 1970

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Preceded by:
Georgy Malenkov
General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party
Succeeded by:
Leonid Brezhnev
Preceded by:
Nikolai Bulganin
Premier of the Soviet Union
Succeeded by:
Alexey Kosygin
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