By: Ross Ufberg
In the spring of 1970, at his dacha outside Moscow, Nikita Khrushchev posed for a series of seemingly silly photographs. Seated on a bench, Khrushchev alternated between two wide-brimmed hats atop his plump head while son Sergei snapped the shots. In the background, his wife Nina Khrushcheva scolded her 74-year-old husband for the childish prank: “Surely you don’t intend to wear them,” she said. “They’re too bright.” Khrushcheva was right. The man who once went toe to toe with John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis didn’t intend to wear them, but a group of American editors needed the photographs as a sign to proceed with what would come to be seen as an explosive and grand act of Cold War subterfuge: the publication of Nikita Khrushchev’s memoirs, against the wishes of the Soviet leadership. The Americans called it the Jones Project.
Sergei Khrushchev comes to the door in a nearly transparent short-sleeved, white button-down shirt. He’s still buttoning as he greets me. He has lived in the U.S. since 1991, and I met him once before, perhaps 15 years ago, when he gave a lecture in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He was about 65 at the time, and the resemblance to his father was striking. Today he is older than Khrushchev the elder was when he died at 77; looking at him is like staring at an alternative version of the past. I visit him at his home in a small middle-class suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, where he was a senior fellow at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs.
There are few formalities. We don’t drink tea; he doesn’t ask me about my train ride. Instead we immediately sit at the table and begin talking. Sergei has written many books about his father — whom he calls simply Khrushchev — and it is clear that he defends his father’s legacy with ardor and views him as the inheritor of a noble if thinly populated tradition. Three times during our conversation he compared his father either to reforming tsars or to Leon Trotsky. He reminds me of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin: accent thick (as though his tongue is a herring trapped in cream sauce), bald pate, icy blue eyes.
“He wanted to tell the truth,” Sergei said — in particular, that “I lived through Stalin’s time. I changed my opinion about Stalin.” Khrushchev was under no illusions his memoirs could be published in the USSR. “Historically it was not in the Russian political culture when you lose power to write a memoir,” Sergei told me. Two powerful people had attempted it. One was Sergei Witte, a prominent minister under the last two Russian tsars; his memoirs were written in secret, held in France during World War I for safekeeping, and published only posthumously in the West. Sergei went on, “The second was unfortunately Leon Trotsky,” who was killed while in exile in Mexico on Stalin’s orders after writing several books critical of Stalin’s regime. He “paid dearly for it … And then it was Khrushchev.”
Nikita Khrushchev, who led the Soviet Union from 1953 until 1964 as first secretary of the Communist Party — and, from 1958 to 1964, as premier — is remembered in the West for his contradictions. The Ukraine-born former metalworker was known for a crass outburst at the UN, when he banged his shoe on the lectern; he and JFK nearly irradiated the world during their Cuban confrontation; he angered the intellectual class with his outbursts against “deviant” art, including at one Moscow exhibition where he called some of the abstract pieces “dog shit” and “art for donkeys,” asking the artists if they were “pederasts,” not painters.
And yet Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev is also remembered for the so-called Secret Speech before the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in 1956. The speech began shortly after midnight. In front of the Politburo, Khrushchev carried on for four hours, listing some of Joseph Stalin’s crimes, “a whole series of exceedingly serious and grave perversions of party principles, of party democracy, of revolutionary legality,” as he called them. It was reported that some people in the hall were so sickened by what they heard they had to be carried out of the room. By the time he finished, it was clear that Khrushchev was taking control of the reins of power while changing the trajectory of the country.
Khrushchev reigned as a solitary figure of power for the next eight years, carrying out partial reforms. His government granted posthumous rehabilitation to scores of people who had been executed or died in imprisoned ignominy; commuted the sentences of thousands of souls who had been sent to the gulag; and initiated the thaw that would liberalize, if at times haltingly, a superpower that had gone horribly wrong. The Soviet Union — one-sixth of the world — had terrorized its own citizens, uprooting and massacring tens of millions, cannibalizing its own economy, and becoming increasingly paranoid.
As one might expect, Khrushchev’s program of de-Stalinization had its opponents. By 1963 the Soviet economy was wobbling. Leonid Brezhnev, a high-ranking party member, masterminded a power grab, and Khrushchev was soon out of a job, lucky to escape with his life. In a made-for-television twist, Nina Khrushcheva and Viktoria Brezhneva were vacationing together in Czechoslovakia when the machinations were effected. William Taubman, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Khrushchev, wrote that someone called Brezhnev’s wife at the resort to report the successful capture of power but didn’t realize that it was Khrushchev’s wife who picked up the phone. As he related the details, he caught on that he had the wrong listener only when the woman on the other end remained silent.
Two years later, Khrushchev was living a remarkably ordinary life, puttering around his garden like the average Moscow pensioner, albeit one in a deep depression. When a schoolmaster asked his grandson what the former premier was up to, the boy replied, “Grandfather cries.”
His family convinced him to begin recording his memories — it would be useful to history, to the country, to the party, to have the thoughts and reflections of a former leader, they told him, and it would give him a purpose, a reason to get up in the morning. It would also allow Khrushchev to tell his side of the story. With his name essentially forbidden from being uttered on the radio or in newspapers, Khrushchev was, politically speaking, a nonperson. He could also show how the current leadership was undoing some of his most hard-won accomplishments. (Even politically erased, he still could get under Brezhnev’s skin: He liked to report that Brezhnev’s visceral hatred of him ran so deep that once, as the leader was passing a Crimean village called Nikita, he ordered its name changed.)
Khrushchev began recording his memories on a German-made Uher recorder in 1966, doing so not in any organized fashion but piece by piece, event by event, at his dacha in Petrovo-Dalneye. He recorded more than 250 hours of tape, putting in three to five hours of work per day. At first he would dictate only while taking walks, often with friends, where he could escape the bugs the KGB had planted inside his home — lugging the nearly 10-pound machine with him as he went. Soon, though, he gave up the ruse and became comfortable recording in his living room; it wouldn’t be the first time he’d delivered a speech before an unsympathetic audience. Khrushchev was a naturally gregarious man, and with an interlocutor the ebb and flow of conversation brought back memories more easily to him. Eventually, Sergei hired a typist to transcribe the tapes and arranged the typescript into a chronological and cohesive narrative. The complete manuscript ran to some 1,500 pages.
As Sergei writes in an afterword to the first volume of his father’s memoirs, when Brezhnev got wind of the project — which the Khrushchevs weren’t keeping secret anyway — he was terrified about what it might reveal about himself and summoned Khrushchev to the Central Committee headquarters. Because of his intense hatred of the man who had preceded him in power, or perhaps out of cowardice, Brezhnev wouldn’t confront his predecessor. He instead commissioned his deputies to convince Khrushchev to give up the project. Khrushchev refused, insisting that as a private citizen he had a right to write his memoirs, and that they would benefit the entire country, party and public alike.
His position was consistent with steps he took as premier. It was under Khrushchev in the late 1950s that former prisoners in Stalin’s camps, now rehabilitated by the state, were encouraged to write memoirs and provide their own view of that era. Their documentation of the gross injustices — torture, ethnic groups deported from ancestral homelands and imprisoned en masse — was a direct rebuttal to the cult of Stalin.
Of course, Khrushchev’s argument for his rights as a private citizen didn’t persuade the powers at hand. With what would come to be seen as an explosive and grand act of Cold War subterfuge, Nikita Khrushchev’s memoirs were smuggled out of the USSR against the wishes of Soviet leadership. The Americans called it the Jones Project.
This post is republished with permission. Read the rest of the article from Lapham’s Quarterly.
Ross Ufberg is a writer and translator. Ufberg is also the co-founder of New Vessel Press.