Premature Evaluation: Khrushchev by William Taubman

Wish an 876-page biography could be longer? Not often, but definitely with this one. I don’t know the literature well enough to say for sure, but it sure feels like a definitive take on an important figure of 20th century history.

William Taubman combines the virtues of journalist and scholar in his biography of Nikita Khrushchev. The journalist has tracked down relatives, surviving contemporaries, former comrades and many other people with first-hand knowledge important to understanding Khrushchev’s life. He talked with them, a few only by phone, but many in person and repeatedly. For contentious questions, he’s tried to get all sides. He sifts the evidence judiciously and lets readers know his views. The end-notes are filled with citations that begin “Author’s interview with…” That Taubman did this mostly in 1991 and 1993, as the Soviet Union was collapsing with Russian and Ukrainian society both in upheaval, makes the achievement even more impressive.

The scholar was no less relentless. He’s used archival sources, diaries, letters, unpublished documents and other primary materials, along with a broad range of analysis and background in English and Russian. This is a study in getting things right.

But Taubman does more than that. He uncovers aspects of Khrushchev’s life only known previously to a small circle: Nina Petrovna was actually his third wife, and not his second, as was generally thought; Khrushchev’s son’s wife had a son from a previous relationship, and after Khrushchev’s son died in WWII and his wife’s arrest by the security organs, this boy became literally a street child in Moscow and Kiev. Taubman does not dwell on these potentially salacious stories, but he brings them out and describes what he thinks they show about Khrushchev’s character. The story of the second wife occupies just a page or two, one reason I wish the bok were longer.

Taubman also gives a sense of the environment Khrushchev operated in:

The full extent of Soviet unpreparedness became clear only after [the German invasion of] June 22 [1941]. The purges had demolished the officer corps, not just leading marshals and generals, but all military district commanders, 90 percent of district chiefs of staff and deputies, 80 percent of corps and divisional commanders, and 90 percent of staff officers and chiefs of staff.

Shortly after the war, Khrushchev sends a list of about 100 Komsomol leaders to the NKVD to find out how many of them had survived purges and war. None had.

I’m about a third of the way through, but as near as I can tell, Taubman’s book has everything one could want in a biography. It’s vivid, it’s exhaustively researched, it’s well paced. Still to come, Khrushchev’s final ascension after Stalin’s death, the Cuban missile crisis, his fall from power and his final years as a non-person in the USSR. Premature evaluation: terrific.

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