domestic pressures, stoked in the period 1945–53, rose to the
surface soon after Stalin’s death. The dictator’s departure
compelled the Soviet leadership to weigh arguments in favor of some
liberalization. Certain steps in that direction were taken in
1953–56, but the more public examination of Stalin’s legacy would
begin only in 1956, after Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971) emerged as
the country’s undisputed leader and Stalin’s successor.
Khrushchev had made his career under Stalin as a party secretary and
one of his most devoted lieutenants, utterly dazed by the
charismatic leader. After Stalin’s death he rose to become the
Soviet leader who sponsored substantial liberalization of Soviet
society, put an end to mass terror, and attempted to discredit his
former idol. Khrushchev’s elevation was in large measure due to
chance. Stalin himself had involuntary facilitated the rise to power
of his future denunciator, by promoting Khrushchev from one rung of
the career ladder to the next.
Ironically, the overly suspicious dictator had failed to discern in
his protégé the political tendency that he had so ruthlessly crushed
during his own rise to absolute power. It had been associated with
leaders such as Bukharin and others who had favored continuation of
the NEP and democratization, and strongly objected to the use of
coercive methods in running the economy. Despite brutal repressions,
that moderate political trend and its representatives had never been
completely eradicated. In this sense, the rise of Khrushchev was not
accidental, but represented a revival and a vindication of an
alternative to Stalin’s tyranny.
all Soviet leaders, Nikita Khrushchev had perhaps the most colorful
personality. Lacking formal education, he was able to achieve a
meteoric career rise from a village shepherd to the leader of a
world superpower. Like thousands of other young Russian peasants he
had left the countryside hoping to find a better life in the city.
In tsarist Russia on the eve of the revolution, workers in the first
generation, coming from a peasant background, were the fastest
growing sector of the working class. Many of them enthusiastically
accepted the Bolsheviks’ simple black-and-white vision of society.
Based on class hatred, it divided the world into “us,” the workers,
and “them,” the bourgeoisie and landowners. By taking power from the
exploiters and crushing their resistance, the workers would somehow
manage to build a shining paradise on earth.
Having embraced this rigid class struggle approach in the period of
his revolutionary youth, Khrushchev would never be able to discard
it. The world to him remained divided by the barricades, with
capitalists to one side and Communists to the other. The struggle
between the socialist and capitalist camps was uncompromising and
ineluctable, waged on the principle “either we bury them, or they