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a Don Quixote, the Ego, and a Sancho Panza, the Self."
W.H. Auden's aphorism forms an appropriate framework for reviewing The Memoirs of Nikita Khrushchev: Volume I. Although the Memoirs have more Don Quixote than Sancho Panza they are compelling, informative, and insightful.
Volume I consists of two sections: Khrushchev's Memoirs from the early days of the Russian Revolution through the end of the Second World War and Sergei Khrushchev's (Nikita's son) essay on the creation of the memoirs and the decades long struggle to see it published in the USSR.
Khrushchev's memoirs are fascinating for a number of reasons. As set out in Sergei's essay, these Memoirs were dictated and not written. As a result, the Memoirs have a very conversational tone whcih, for me, brought the Memoirs to life. Khrushchev had a prodigious memory and his Memoirs bear this out. Each chapter of Khrushchev's life is rich with the type of detail that one doesn't expect in a memoir written decades later. The bulk of Volume I is devoted to World War II. Khrushchev served as a member of the Military Council and as Commissar in the Ukraine (a political hierarchy that paralleled the military chain of command). Khrushchev played a critical role in the Ukraine during the war, lived and worked through the horrendous battle of Stalingrad, the enormous victory at Kursk, and the liberation of Kiev. Khrushchev is at his narrative best when describing these events. At the same time, Khrushchev does not shy away from discussing the chaos and confusion that reigned at the beginning of the war. Stalin (rightfully I think) bears the brunt of this criticism but Khrushchev did not shy away from brutal assessments of soldiers and political leaders who displayed cowardice or put their own interests above those of the state. Interestingly, Khrushchev does stint in his praise for Marshall Zhukov, despite the fact that Khrushchev had Zhukov removed from a top party post in the 1950s when he became a threat to Khrushchev's power base.
The Memoirs are fascinating not only for what is said but also what is left unsaid. George Orwell once wrote that "[a]utobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful." There is nothing to distrust in these Memoirs as they relate to Khrushchev's external life, most of which can easily be confirmed by the available records. However, missing from the Memoirs (at least in this Volume) is a detailed examination of Khrushchev's inner life. We know he survived the purges and we know he began to question Stalin's actions. Khrushchev writes convincingly of Stalin's mistakes but we never quite find out what he knew and when. Khrushchev was (seemingly) at the time a devoted servant to Stalin. He participated in party purges and in these Memoirs he ruefully acknowledges his then belief that many of his colleagues were enemies of the state. Yet this was the same Khrushchev who took a tremendous leap of faith in revealing Stalin's `crimes' at the famous Party Congress in 1956. What is missing is some indication of the inner reflections (the Sancho Panza-like reflections if you will) on the survival mechanisms that led an intelligent and clearly decent person to suspend disbelief for such a long period of time. However, Sergei Khrushchev's fascinating essay on the fight to publish these Memoirs leads to some valuable insights.
Sergei's essay is an intriguing story in its own right. The Kremlin put pressure on the family to get Nikita to stop writing. They were followed and interrogated by the KGB. Khrushchev seethed at these attempts to suppress his memoirs. Khrushchev defended his rights as a Soviet citizen and fulminated against these affronts to his dignity and self respect. There is no small amount of irony in reading about Khrushchev's struggle with the Politburo. Despite the fact that he was primarily responsible for "the thaw", Khrushchev also managed to crack down on artists and writers who he thought "went too far". The illicit export of a copy of the manuscript placed him in the same company as such writers as Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn, Voinovich, and Grossman.
More importantly, however, the essay portrays Khrushchev's struggle as one compelled in part by his sense of dignity and self-respect. The historical record and the Memoirs are filled with references to Khrushchev and other leaders abasing themselves before Stalin. I think Sergei's essay goes a long way toward fleshing out (at least implicitly) Important parts of Khrushchev's internal life that are missing from the Memoirs. Khrushchev was a figure of great substance and no small amount of talent (despite some glaring failures during his premiership). He was a man who with only four years of formal education but he had enough talent and ambition to lead a nation. But along the way he had to endure almost daily humiliations at the hands of his `master'. These humiliations, along with his participation in the development of the cult of Stalin all constitute part of what may be called `the sin of survival'. Although not uncommon in Gulag memoirs they strike a jarring note in the memoirs of the leader of a nation. Khrushchev's actions at the 20th-Party Congress and his fight during his last days to preserve his right to publish seem, to me at least, to be an attempt to reclaim some part of that dignity that was voluntarily (if by necessity) forfeited years ago.
Nikita's Memoirs, together with Sergei's essay, provide a profoundly interesting and informative examination of one of the 20th-Cenntury's most complex and misunderstood leaders. The Memoirs of Nikita Khrushchev Volume I should be required reading for anyone with an interest in the history of the USSR and its place in world history.