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Nikita Khrushchev

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Updated: 03.12.2003

Nikita Khrushchev (1894 - 1971), Soviet political leader, First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (1953 - 1964), Premier of the Soviet Union (1958 - 1964).

Born in Kalinovka, the son of a miner, Khrushchev worked in his early years as a shepherd and locksmith. After serving in the tsarist 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 industrialisation program of the second Five-Year Plan.

In 1938 he was transferred to the Ukraine as first secretary of the Ukrainian party organisation 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 Iosiph 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 outmanoeuvre 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-Stalinisation 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-Stalinisation 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-Stalinisation 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 Kazakhstan to farming, but production was hampered by problems with climate, choice of crop, and lack of equipment and labour. 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.

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 defence based on nuclear weapons. He was deposed as premier and party head in October 1964. He was then accused of political "errors," including fomenting the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, establishing a "cult of personality," and disorganising the economy.

By the end of the year he held no government office. In 1966 he was dropped from the party's Central Committee.

In 1970 Khrushchev Remembers was published in English; Khrushchev denied, however, that he had authorized the book.

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