Interview with William Taubman, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning biography "Khrushchev: The Man and His Era" (2003) and Bertrand Snell Professor of Political Science at Amherst College
From Khruschev to Putin - The Challenge of Reforming Russia
In your book, “Khrushchev: The Man and His Era,” you develop a compassionate portrait of Khrushchev as a man who is almost charmingly sincere in his commitment to the cause. How do you reconcile this image of a rather sincere man with all of the brutal crimes of the Soviet regime?
Well, to some extent I don’t reconcile them. I think that one of the striking features of Khrushchev as a personality and as a politician is that his life and career contained and combined – but never reconciled – opposite characteristics. He was a minimally educated man who managed to survive and succeed Stalin. He was an originally decent man – he did not smoke or drink or chase women, all of which is very unusual under Russian conditions – who became an accomplice in mass murder on an unprecedented scale. Having been Stalin’s accomplice, he turned against him after his death and denounced him and thus began the unraveling of the Soviet Union. He tried to ease the Cold War and ended up provoking two of its most dangerous crises. The list goes on.
In fact, there are things in the book that are so starkly at odds that one might even question whether I got the story right. There are these occasions, as early as 1940, where I was told about conversation in which Khrushchev in effect says, “I can’t stand what Stalin is doing and I will settle with him one day,” and calls him “Mudakshvilli,” which is in effect saying, “I will settle with that prick some day.” And yet he serves him loyally.
If I speculate psychologically about how this could be possible, I would talk about how important Stalin was to him as a man how was a kind of father figure, or even grandfather figure who raised him up and gave him the world and yet about whom he had these grave doubts. I think its possible for people to feel opposite ways about people to whom they are very close and to whom they are very indebted.
The short answer is that I don’t reconcile it. I report the two sides of the man, I puzzle over it, I try to explain it, but I don’t really reconcile it in the end.
Do you think that Khrushchev himself ever found a justification for doing the things that he had to do, for being involved in the sorts of brutalities that occurred?
Yes, because he believed in socialism. I think that he did not believe in what he regarded to be Stalin’s excesses. But, I think that he probably told himself that he was working within the limits of the possible to circumscribe the worst of Stalinism. He probably told himself that he was trying to help people at least in his own activities under Stalin. He may even have sworn to himself that some day, if he ever got the chance that he would try to cleanse socialism of its Stalinist stain. I think he also convinced himself that although Stalin was in some ways misguided, he himself wanted to do good and it just wasn’t working out. I think he was impressed with Stalin as a mind, which he admired; a very clear and logical thinker and a leader. That probably kept him in line, as did fear for his own life.
I think that was one of the challenges of the book and one of the things that is most interesting about it: my effort to convey this complexity in Khrushchev’s relationship to the evil in which he was involved.
In your view, have the public revelations and knowledge that we now have about the purges and other atrocities that happened under Stalinism significantly effected the evaluation of the Soviet Union and Russia? Have they changed specifically either the way Russians think about their own country and, obviously, how the world thinks about them?
Of course the revelations in the outside world have come out in fits and starts and bursts in various times over many years. After the war, a lot of people who remained outside the borders of the Soviet Union talked about what life had been like. In 1956, Khrushchev’s own revelations about Stalin shocked many on the left and led many communists to turn their backs on the movement. Then, of course, there was Solzhenitsen with his “Gulag Archipelago”.
In the outside world, what came out after glasnost, Gorbachev and then the collapse of communism was confirmation of what they had thought they had learned – more specifics and actual numbers on how many people had perished. I don’t think there were too many people left in the West to be disillusioned after information began coming out in the 1990s.
In the former Soviet Union I think the shock was felt in the late 80s under glasnost when all sorts of things about the past began to be published. I have the feeling – and people in Latvia may know more about this – that life has been so hard since the collapse of the Soviet Union that most Russians aren’t paying much attention anymore to the past. There are probably relatively few who are hanging on every continuing revelation. Most of them are trying to survive.
What do you make of current attempts in Russia to salvage some honor and value out of their Soviet legacy in spite of this intense historical baggage?
You mean things like resurrecting the Soviet national anthem and the like? I think this is very shrewd, but perhaps misguided maneuvering by somebody, like Putin. I think he is smart enough to realize that there are a lot of Russians who are nostalgic for the symbols of past Soviet power and past Soviet successes.
The democrats, who have tried to turn their backs wholesale on this communist past, have not done very well, as we can see from their election returns. So Putin, who has his own connections to the past and institutions like the KGB, is playing on that while also trying to reach out to the West and to people in Russia who want to see a more market-oriented economy. He is offering something different to different people and building up a huge majority in the process.
If you look back and compare what you thought, or what people in the West thought about Khrushchev before the fall of the Soviet Union with what you learned working with all of this incredible material you had access to, how accurate would you say the understanding of the Soviet Union and Khrushchev was at the time?
Well, I’ve had a lot of people who lived through the Khrushchev era in the West - many of whom were active in the government and their job was to try and understand what was going on in the Soviet Union – tell me that they learned a lot from the book. Exactly what they learned I don’t always know. I know what I learned and the way I summarize this is by saying that I came to see a man about whom I had a kind of stereotypical and oversimplified image turn into a living breathing complicated human being with all kind of foibles and virtues and vices.
In this connection, it might be interesting to know that when the English publisher was preparing to bring out this book, they asked me to prepare a list of the ten most salacious revelations in the book. I resisted because I didn’t want to reduce the book to revelations. I wanted the news to be the whole picture. But, they insisted, so I wrote down things like that Khruschev had a dalliance with the Trotskyites in 1923 and Yusevka, for which of course he could have later been exterminated but Stalin told him not to worry about it. Also, that he had three wives and not one. We all remember the last one. That on the eve of the second invasion into Hungary in 1956 to crush the Hungarian revolution he and his presidium colleagues decided not to. When we read the notes of that meeting, it’s as if they are a bunch of liberals sitting around telling each other what a tragic mistake it would be to invade. Then they change their minds and go in the next day.
There are lots of things like that. But, I still believe that the whole picture, the whole life and the way in which I at least try to come to an understanding of his character and to show how his personality had a decisive impact on events and his policies. I think that Khrushchev is a classic case of someone who doesn’t do what others would do in his position. You can’t say that he is simply reacting to his situation.
Were you surprised by the power and influence of personality over politics?
I wasn’t surprised because that is something that has been an interest of mine for a long time. When I first started working on Khrushchev, I didn’t know what kind of personality I would find so one of the great excitements of the research was to come to understand him as a personality and to see how that personality took shape and then to see how it affected events…
One of the things I argue is that the two most important things he did – the speech denouncing Stalin and the placing of missiles in Cuba – would probably not have been done by anyone else in the leadership. If that is true, then you have grounds for talking about why he did it. Of course, it could be simply convictions or calculations, but I try to show how it is emotions and psychological attributes and patterns.
Talking about the denunciation of Stalin, that is one of the things that Khrushchev is most widely known for. It is perhaps his crowning achievement. What does this episode say about the Soviet Union and, specifically, the ability of the Soviet Union to undergo reform?
The whole episode and the significance of Khrushchev’s reform speaks to the need for change and the understanding on the part of some people that change was necessary, but also to the tremendous resistance by most others. Not only did that resistance come from Stalinists in the police and party and elsewhere, but apparently from the population.
Gorbachev talks about this in his memoirs. He was down in Stavropol and was assigned by the young communist league to go out to the provinces and explain the secret speech to the people. He encountered resistance from people who would say, “Why did this have to be done? Why did he have to talk this way, shouldn’t this have been kept secret? Shouldn’t we have dealt with this without making it public?”
One of the interesting things you can do, which I do only a tiny bit of in the end of the book, is to compare the Gorbachev and Khrushchev eras. In the Gorbachev era, of course, thirty years had gone by, the flaws of the system had become far more obvious to more people, so there was a bigger constituency for change. On the other hand, the system had run down and, in the Soviet cliché, it had fewer “rezervi” or reserves.
In Khrushchev’s time, the system had more power, strength and hold on its people. The economy had more room to improve. On the other hand, there were fewer people who were convinced then, than there were later, that radical change was necessary. As a result of this and all the mistakes that he made and enemies he made, he was ousted and his reforms were largely reversed.
Do you sense a certain amount of continuity in Russian politics if you extend your perspective all the way from, say, Peter the Great or even Ivan Grozny all the way through to Vladimir Putin. This struggle that you just described between one man, Khrushchev perhaps, and the system, is often referred to as the hallmark of contemporary Russian politics in the form of Putin and his reforms versus the establishment?
There is one place in the book where I quote Khrushchev as reportedly talking to Castro on a visit to the Soviet Union. I spoke to Khrushchev’s translator who told me this story. Khrushchev was telling Castro how difficult it is to reform Russia and he compares Russia to a tub full of dough. He says that you reach in and you think you are in control of the situation and then you remove your hand and what you have done disappears. That is, the dough just moves back in to fill the space.
There certainly is a theme in Russia of attempted reform of all kinds. You could say that Peter the Great was a reformer in a way. He was certainly trying to change Russia. The reforms of the early 1860s with the abolition of serfdom. Even Count Vita in the 1890s and Stolypin in the early 20th Century. Even the Bolsheviks were trying to change Russia. The question is whether Russia keeps reverting back to itself after all of these attempts.
I think that one of the secrets to Putin’s success is that he has presented himself to enough people as somebody who is not trying to change Russia. Thus, he gets their support even as he gets the support of some, while not all, of the champions of reform.
One of the neat features of your book that make it such an enjoyable read is your psychological analysis of Khrushchev, you really try to delve into who he was as both a person and a personality and what the images that dominated his thinking may have been. If you were to apply this technique to Putin, what sort of leitmotif do you think you might find dominating his thinking right now?
The truth is that I don’t know. I have studied Putin a little bit, but nothing like to the extent that I have studied Khrushchev. The one place I thought I could see some clues was in the book “First Person”. You read him talking about his childhood and you get the sense of somebody who is very shrewd. Even his interest in martial arts I think may be revealing. Rather than tackling problems head on, his notion is to – I’m sure there is language for this in martial arts, but getting a position and then flipping somebody, using a point of leverage against someone who is bigger.
I also noticed a kind of suppressed anger in that about people who betray him, which makes me worry now as the evidence mounts up that there is a kind of authoritarianism redeveloping in Russia. He portrays himself as a modest man with no desire for personal power, but of course we have seen that before from people who turned out to be anything but modest.
The other thing I would refer you to is an article by Sam Charap.
You mentioned it just now, but what would be your overall evaluation of contemporary Russia? Many critics claim that it is slipping back into authoritarianism.
I just happened this morning to be reading an article by Andre Schleffer and Danial Treichman in Foreign Affairs called “Russia as a Normal Country.” They say that economically and politically all of Russia’s, or almost all of Russia’s, troubles are just like those of countries like Brazil, Mexico, Nigeria and a whole series of middle powers and that the implication of this is that if they are right, and I am not sure that they always are because I think they put the best possible gloss on everything they talk about, but even if this were true that would only testify to their view of it.
If you look at Russians’ own views of themselves, I don’t think they would be much reassured by the fact that they are simply a normal middle power because they have been, at least in their own eyes, a super power and they want to be a great power. To be told, “Relax, you are just a middle power,” is of no comfort.
I think that for many in the West, too, some of the impact that the Russians’ troubles have had on us – I mean the troubles are real and I would probably emphasize them more than these authors – comes from our expectation too that Russia was once a super power, a developed country. Yet, in many ways, it was never a true super power, expect in military ways, in a nuclear fashion. It never was a fully developed country. In a sense, we expect too much of it and when we don’t get it we think, “Oh my God, it is going to hell in a hand basket.” So both we and the Russians are influenced in our reaction to their serious troubled by our excessive expectations.
Back in the good old days, in Khrushchev’s day, he could stand up and jingle his rockets around a little bit and base his foreign policy around truly aggressive tactics in the World. What does Russia today have, what does Putin have to influence world politics or is Russia now more acted upon than active?
I think Russia is more acted upon than active. But it is not without some influence and potential for more. First of all – and this is not in the order of importance – it has oil and gas, landmass, a position astride (while astride implies they are dominant and they are not) Asia and Europe, it reached from the Pacific to the Baltic, barely. It has a lot of potential in these places to make trouble should it wish or to be constructive should it wish.
Another weapon of the moment is Putin’s own shrewdness. He seems like a very shrewd manipulator. Witness the all too good impression that our own President got of him. Something tells me that when George Bush looked into Putin’s eyes and saw a good man with a good soul, this was a better snow job on Putin’s part than it was an accurate perception on Bush’s.
What do you think Putin really aspires to do? What will he deploy his shrewdness to achieve, does he want Russia to be a democratic country?
I think he wants Russia to be a great power, or at least to seem a great power. I think he wants stability and order. I think he wants economic growth and he understands that economic reform and participation in the WTO and more trade with the West is in his and Russia’s interests. I think he is out to get terrorists wherever he can, be that in Chechnya or elsewhere. Many people become terrorists as a result of the way they are treated by the Russians.
I feel fairly confident saying those things, but I would say something about which I feel less confident because it is more of a characterization than an observation. I wonder, but it sometimes strikes me as if Putin is adopting the Chinese model fifteen or twenty years after Gorbachev and Yeltsin rejected it. The Chinese model as I understand it is one in which you concentrate on economic reform while trying to keep the lid on politics. Of course, Gorbachev did not do that. After attempting economic changes, he decided that he had to open the political system in order to get the economic reforms to work and he got trapped when he did do that. Ultimately, this system collapsed.
But, you almost get the impression that that is the way Putin is going. He will limit press freedom, arrest a few oligarchs, win a big majority and restrict demonstrations (although he has retreated from that new law). I am not at all sure that he has this analogy in mind, but I do.
Is Russia still a threat to the democratic world?
I don’t think it is a threat in the old way to the world. It does have weapons capable of blowing up the world but I think it is pretty determined not to use them and certainly not for the old reasons, that is to conduct a conflict with the capitalist world. I think the greatest danger that Russia poses to the world now is not in its strength, which is weakened, but in its weakness, which has strengthened. It is the danger of loose nukes and radioactive materials escaping. It is not, for the moment, the danger of Russia falling apart. But even when Russia remains whole there is all too much material there that people can steal or buy, export or import and use. Now that we live in a world in which non-state actors like Al Qaeda are hell-bent on getting this kind of stuff this weakness becomes really scary.
I am just thinking of the scene in your book where Khrushchev walks in to inspect the Soviet Union’s nuclear missile program and is completely blown away by what Russia had achieved in such a short amount of time.
He said something like, “I and my colleagues felt like sheep discovering a fence,” or something like that.
Was that a singular moment in time for the Soviet Union and, by extension, Russia as it achieved the pinnacle of world power? Could it do it again?
Someday in the distant future, if they can get their act together and make use of their vast natural resources and the talents of an educated population and the sophistication visible in the culture.
In retrospect, they did it on the cheap. They did it with a lot of bluff and bluster. Certainly in Khrushchev’s time they did. Later they had more weapons.
So, I think the answer is no. No time soon.
What impact would you hope your book might have? We talked a little about how well it has been received in Latvia, what sort of reaction do you hope for in Russia?
I’d really like to know what the reaction to my book has been, what people have learned, if anything.
The book will be published in Russia next year. It’s interesting to imagine the reaction. I think there may be some skepticism. Some Russians have already told me that my picture of Khrushchev is too complicated, that things were much simpler than I depict them. They say that he was a peasant who thought he knew everything and that’s it. Whereas I try to talk about his doubts about himself and not only those about his primitiveness, which certainly had their effect, but the psychological impact of feeling that he didn’t know enough to govern a country. Some Russians I talk to think that makes him too complicated.
Beyond that, I don’t know how they will take my approach. Much of Russian history is much more polemical than I am. The tradition is, certainly in less than academic publications, as in journals and newspapers, that everybody is looking for conspiracies and sometimes they do not provide enough documentation for the claims they are making. I don’t know how they are going to take to a book that presents itself as being as objective as you can get and to an author who says to them, “You decide whether the good that Khrushchev did outweighs the evil,” rather than telling you so you will know; an author who claims to be objective and to document everything. My hope is that it will come as a pleasant surprise from abroad and that in so far as what I have to say is different and the way that I say it is different and my approach to documentation is different that they will find that instructive.
You just won the Pulitzer Prize for this biography. How does that feel?
Great! I’ve sometimes said that I am fortunate and people say, “No, this is a good book, you worked hard.” But, as I’ve said, lots of people work hard, lots of people work for a long time, lots of people do very good work and lots of people don’t get this kind of startling recognition. So, when that happens you are fortunate as well as, perhaps, good at what you’ve done.