ho was first
secretary of the Soviet Communist party from 1953 to 1964 and premier of the Union of Soviet
Socialist Republics (USSR) from 1958 to 1964.
Born in Kalinovka, the son of a miner, Khrushchev worked in his early years as a shepherd and
locksmith. After serving in the czarist army in World War I (1914-1918) and participating in the
Russian Revolution, he joined the Communist party and the Red Army in 1918 and fought in
the civil war. He attended a Communist party high school in 1921 and was active as a party
organizer until 1929. For the next two years he attended the Industrial Academy in Moscow.
Khrushchev advanced rapidly in the party, becoming a member of the Central Committee in
1934. From 1935 to 1937, as first secretary of the Moscow Regional Committee, he directed
the industrialization program of the second five-year plan. In 1938 he was transferred to the
Ukraine as first secretary of the Ukrainian party organization and made a provisional member
of the party Politburo; he became a full member in 1939 and was also appointed to the
Presidium of the Supreme Soviet.
During World War II (1939-1945) Khrushchev headed the political department of the Red Army
on the southern front. In 1944, after the Germans were driven from the Ukraine, he was
entrusted with restoring agricultural production, establishing order, and punishing traitors.
Returning to Moscow in 1949, he was appointed a member of the Secretariat of the party’s
Central Committee. Subsequently he emerged as the foremost Soviet agricultural expert.
After the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, Khrushchev became first secretary of the Central
Committee, in effect the head of the Communist party of the USSR. A struggle for power
ensued between Khrushchev; Georgy Malenkov, head of the government; and Lavrenty Beria,
head of the secret police (known as the KGB). Malenkov and Khrushchev, along with many
members of the government, wanted to reduce the power of the KGB, which had operated with
virtually no constraints throughout the Stalin era. Beria, in contrast, wanted to increase the
KGB’s political power. The party supported Malenkov and Khrushchev, and Beria was arrested
and executed in 1953. Khrushchev was able to outmaneuver Malenkov because Khruschev
controlled the party apparatus; he had appointed many of its members, and they were loyal to
him. In 1955 Malenkov resigned.
In 1956, during the 20th Party Congress, Khrushchev took an unprecedented step and
denounced Stalin and his methods. Khrushchev accused Stalin of being responsible for mass
murders and deportations, the German invasion during World War II, and the USSR’s break
with Yugoslavia. Khrushchev’s motivations for this de-Stalinization were complex. He wanted
to bring the rule of law back to the government, but he also wanted to eliminate competition
within the party. Although Khrushchev had himself been involved in Stalin’s purges and
terrorism, he was able to implicate many of Stalin’s top men who bore even more responsibility
for these crimes. Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization efforts, however, dealt only with false trials and
forced confessions of Communist party members. They did not address the millions of average
citizens who were murdered or imprisoned by Stalin. Consequently, de-Stalinization lifted only
slightly the fear and sense of oppression instilled over three decades.
Domestically, Khrushchev’s biggest challenge was agriculture. The government’s grain
forecasts were not very realistic; they were based on years with high production, and actual
production frequently fell short of the predictions. Khrushchev opened up large sections of
virgin land in Siberia, the Ural Mountains, and Kazakstan to farming, but production was
hampered by problems with climate, choice of crop, and lack of equipment and labor.
Khrushchev worked to improve living standards in the USSR, creating a minimum wage in
1956 and building large housing complexes.
In foreign affairs, Khrushchev advocated peaceful coexistence with the West, while continuing
the USSR’s strong control over Eastern Europe. Civil unrest in Poland in 1956 was resolved
without military conflict; in contrast, Soviet troops invaded Hungary the same year to crush an
uprising and place a Communist, pro-Soviet government in control. Relations with the United
States were tense because Khrushchev favored nuclear weapons over conventional armies.
These tensions culminated during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, when the United States
demanded that the USSR remove nuclear missiles that it had placed in Cuba. After several
very strained days, the USSR agreed.
Khrushchev lost support from the KGB and the conservative members of the Communist party
when he denounced Stalin, and he alienated the military by advocating defense