Isaac Deutscher 1957

Khrushchev at Home

Source: Isaac Deutscher, Ironies of History: Essays on Contemporary Communism (Oxford University Press, London, 1966). Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.


And so the peripatetic Soviet Prime Minister is back home, for a short stay before the Summit meeting. On his return, he once again shook hands with the elders who came to greet him at Vnukovo Airport and once against he reported on his journey to crowds of Muscovites who had packed the Lenin Stadium to overflow. His latest series of cavalcades took him to countries as far apart as France and Indonesia; and the tour included two visits to India and a few joy-rides to Burma, Kashmir and Afghanistan. He must have traversed at least two-thirds of the world in the last few years; and it will be surprising if he does not try to cover the last third too.

What sends him on all these tours and expeditions? The hope to win some political prizes? The belief in personal diplomacy? The confidence that he can through personal contacts with heads of foreign governments influence their attitude towards the Soviet Union and the state of world affairs? Or the ambition to act as propagandist in partibus infidelium? [1]

No doubt all these motives play their part, but they are hardly decisive. For anyone brought up in the Marxist school of thought, as, after all, Khrushchev has been, it is the height of naïveté to believe that with smiles, handshakes, tirades and tête à tête talks it is possible to effect any significant change in relations between great powers and power blocs, relations which are determined by class and group interests, imperialist ambitions, national rivalries, etc. We know, of course, that Nikita Khrushchev is a pragmatist and likes to ‘see things for himself’. But even if one does not take too high a view of his intellectual stature one need not belittle it so much as to suppose that he seriously believes that it is necessary for the leader of the Soviet Union to see for himself the bazaars of Kabul, the temples of Kashmir, the dancers of Bali, or even the housing estates of Rouen and the film studios of Hollywood. The prizes with which he usually returns home, such as the ‘Geneva spirit’ or the ‘Camp David spirit’, are either very elusive or altogether illusory. There is nothing that he gains on his trips that he could not get by action through ordinary diplomatic channels: and often it amounts to far less. What remains are his supposed propagandist successes. Even about these I have my doubts, of which I will not unburden myself at the moment. But is it not strange that the head of so big a concern as the USSR should spend nearly half of his working time abroad as his own itinerant publicity agent?

Evidently the question lends itself little to the routine analysis of the diplomatic commentator. It is a psychological question, on the face of it almost non-political, yet politically important. I suggest that what sends the Soviet Prime Minister on his curious treks is the Wanderlust of a lifelong prisoner who has at last found himself at large. He is seized by a restless curiosity for the world, a huge appetite for unfamiliar horizons and crowds, an obsessive craving for open spaces. This seems to be Nikita Sergeyevich’s personal reaction to a lifetime spent in the strictest isolation from the outside world and in utter estrangement from all things foreign. Even as one of Stalin’s highest dignitaries he was in fact his master’s prisoner. The prison was inordinately spacious – it covered one-sixth of the globe – but prison it still was.

Anyone who knew the old-type, politically-minded Russian worker – and much of that type is still alive in Khrushchev – knows that curiosity for the world was one of his strongest passions. When he overthrew the Tsar and made the October Revolution, one of his high hopes was that the revolution would bring him nearer to the world and the world nearer to him. Stalin knew that; and this is why he treated curiosity for the world as a mortal sin and punished it mercilessly. He watched even his Soratniks and Viceroys to see whether any of them was affected by the vice. They had constantly to prove to him that they were not. They had to show him that they lived with their eyes and ears piously averted from, or shut to, all things foreign, that they were immune to all the attractions of the Orient and the Occident and safely submersed in his ‘Single Country Socialism’. One may well imagine how much curiosity for the world became pent up in many a Soviet breast. Whoever cannot imagine it needs only to look at Khrushchev – in him the pent-up emotion has burst.

The thousands of Muscovites who at the Lenin Stadium listen to him as he reports on his journeys feel as if every one of them had been abroad with Nikita Sergeyevich. The whole of Russia, the whole of the Soviet Union, is vicariously going on these journeys.

At heart the Russians are perhaps the least self-sufficient of nations. Long ago ‘Westernising’ dreamers and Marxist agitators had kindled in them a flame of internationalism which, although it was smothered and almost put out so many times, is still flickering and may yet blaze forth. At the moment that internationalism has taken on the most elementary form: it shows itself in the eagerness of the people to acquaint or re-acquaint themselves with the world in the simplest terms. In his travelogues Khrushchev speaks to them not only about his talks with Eisenhower, Nehru or de Gaulle; he talks at length and with gusto about the landscapes he has seen, the climate and the vegetation of remote lands, the kind of people he has met, the edifices, the traffic problems, and the eating and drinking habits of foreigners. His audiences listen somewhat tensely to what he says about Summit meetings and disarmament and matters of war and peace that matter; but by now they know what to expect from him and become bored when they hear the same speech over and over again. But they awaken to him, and he himself seems to awaken, when the gadabout comes out on top of the summit-man, and shares with them his impressions of outlandish parts, when, for instance, he describes rapturously the marvels of the Indonesian landscape and says that if the authors of the Bible had known them, they would have located Paradise in Indonesia, and not anywhere else; or when he compares the fields of central France to the steppes of the Ukraine. Then the multitudes hang on his lips and really enjoy him – he is their walkie-talkie Baedeker in their imaginary peregrinations across the world. He expresses a national emotion, Russia’s claustrophobic yearning to get out of her national shell.

However, for the time being, only very few and privileged Soviet citizens are allowed (or can afford) to go on the tours which their Prime Minister describes so glowingly. But how long will the Soviet people be contented with travelling by proxy? The more Khrushchev advertises the joys of globe-trotting, the more does he whet their appetite for it. As the appetite grows, and the means to satisfy it become available, it will sweep away all obstacles; and then the mass of Russians will flood into foreign countries in waves and tides such as have not been seen since the migration of peoples. They will then dispense with the Baedeker – Khrushchev. Let the tourist industries of all continents prepare for that day well in advance, for if they do not they will be hopelessly swamped. Let them not forget that there lives a Khrushchev in every Russian.

In his zest for talking Khrushchev is also profoundly representative of Russia today. For a nation which has suffered thirty years under the most taciturn of tyrants it is a positive relief to be ruled by a chatterbox for a change. Stalin was not only himself secretive and silent; he turned the most emotional and communicative of peoples into the most self-controlled and mute. He sealed two hundred million lips. If it had been given to him to rule Russia for another twenty years, taciturnity and reserve would have so much become the Russian’s second nature that by comparison the most reserved Englishman would have looked like an exhibitionist. In Khrushchev, Russia’s suppressed garrulity now celebrates its triumphant comeback. He symbolises the great national unbuttoning that has been going on since 1953. His speech may be repetitive, rambling or even incoherent; his views may be crude or flippant; he may speak as the Artful Dodger or as the clown. All this does not matter. The very flow of his words is balsam to Russian hearts. His magic lies in the profusion and the pell-mell of his speechifying, for as he wags his tongue two hundred million tongues lose their numbness.

With his speechifying, however, it is as with his travelling. Through him multitudes speak by proxy, but they have not yet spoken up themselves. True, Russia is no longer quite mute. There is much more free speech over there than foreigners think; and at all levels of society many more audacious ideas are expressed than the Sovietologists can imagine. But the ideas are expressed in low voices or whispers. They are not making themselves heard from the public platform, which Khrushchev has monopolised for himself. His stump oratory drowns all the off-noises and whispers. He perorates breathlessly and endlessly as if he feared that if he paused for a moment other voices might become audible.

Can this state of affairs last? Khrushchev’s talkativeness only intensifies Russia’s yearning for self-expression. He is both the mouthpiece of that yearning and its sworn enemy; and this double role involves him in no end of contradictions. In a way Stalin was more sophisticated: he knew that to keep the whole nation mute, he himself had to give it an example. Khrushchev imagines that the Russians will agree to be a silent nation led by a chatterbox.


As one listens to Khrushchev or watches him, one senses the samouchka, the self-taught man in him. Strictly speaking, he is not self-taught, for although he started out as a shepherd and miner and owed his first successes to self-education, he eventually sat at the feet of professors and scientists at Moscow’s Industrial Academy. Yet, he is still full of the samouchka’s self-consciousness. More knowledgeable than most Western statesmen, he has not yet learned, and will never learn, to take his education for granted. He seems to be full of wonder at his own intellectual attainments, as if he were saying to himself: ‘It is me, Nikita, the shepherd and the miner, who has read all these books and has learned all these difficult things'; and he must have been saying this to himself for thirty or thirty-five years now!

He loves to display erudition; and whenever an opportunity offers itself, he throws at you his clusters of facts and data, as if he were reciting, without a hitch, a freshly-learned textbook lesson. Apart from this foible, he also has a valuable quality which is sometimes found in the self-educated: the conviction that education is a never-ending labour. At the age of sixty-seven he is still trying to absorb new facts and data and is busy collecting crumbs of novel knowledge. From his journeys he brings back bagfuls of such crumbs and unpacks them with a flourish before his audiences.

In this, too, he is up to a point typical, for Russia today is still the eager samouchka, both sublime and ridiculous in her craving for education, her serious concern with self-improvement, her thrill and crude pride in achievement, her inability to take herself for granted, her need to draw self-assurance from self-display and self-advertisement, and her touchiness and emotional vulnerability.

Scratch many a Sputnik-conscious Russian and you will find the old muzhik. This is not surprising. Only a short time ago the barefoot, bearded and illiterate peasant represented the true image of Russia; it was him that Stalin had pressed into the industrial Marathon race that was to usher us into interplanetary space. Now the engineer and the student are the representative national types. But it is precisely because the transformation has been accomplished at such breath-taking speed that the old national character is so strong in the new.

Russia remains a complex combination of backwardness and progress, although the proportion of these elements has vastly changed. Of this, too, Khrushchev is to some extent representative. You need not even scratch him to get at the muzhik. He has the peasant’s sturdiness, stubbornness and calculating and distrustful mind, but also the peasant’s folklore and wit and bonhomie. He comes from that stock of Russo – Ukrainian workers who never strayed far away from their native rural parish pump, and wherever he is, in Kiev or Moscow, in Philadelphia or Versailles, the smell of his Kalinovka pump is with him.

Watch him on any of his trips abroad, when he is invited to inspect a shiningly modern industrial plant. More often than not his face gets tired and bored; his eyes have an uncomprehending look; and his talk with managers and engineers is perfunctory or impatient. He will say frankly that amid the complexities of modern technology he (the graduate of Moscow’s Industrial Academy!) is out of his depth; and he will relate that when he was shown the first Sputnik, he could not make head nor tail of what his scientific advisers were telling him about it. But follow him when he is taken out to a farm and inspects cornfields and cowsheds. Then he regains his verve, and his eyes light up as he samples lumps of soil, corn-ears and milky udders; he praises or finds fault with the way his host does the planting and the threshing; he drinks, he jests, and he pats the farmer’s big belly. He is back in his element.

It is the same with him in Russia. On those infrequent occasions when he speaks on industrial affairs, he boringly reads his speech from a paper prepared for him by an industrial brains trust. It is when he finds himself on the fields of a kolkhoz that he has his field day. He likes to be thought of as the Soviet Union’s Agronomist-in-Chief, though one suspects, of course, that his agricultural expertise is that of the shrewd peasant, not of the agronomist. As he never stops urging farmers to grow maize, the popular wit has given him the untranslatably comic nickname Kukuruznik (the maize boy). Maize is probably very important for Russia, for feeding her cattle, increasing her meat supplies, and improving nutritional standards. Still, his maize-mania is too much even for the most patient and the most mule-like of his compatriots...

I have said that one can see in Khrushchev the interplay of Russian backwardness and progress. Therein lies a great part of his strength, but also his weakness. Despite all his dynamic and reformist activity, he represents more the backwardness than the progress; and the balance between the two is changing rapidly all the time. The majority of the Soviet population consists already of urban workers and intelligentsia; and the proportion of the town dwellers is constantly rising. So is the proportion of the educated people: already now there are about fourteen million graduates of universities and colleges, and nearly forty-five million graduates of secondary schools. More and more people are growing up with a thoroughly modern outlook. You may scratch them as much as you like, and you will not find the muzhik any longer. To these people Khrushchev is already a clumsy anachronism. They would like to see at the head of the party and state a man, or rather men, far more expressive than he is of the needs and desires of an industrial society living under a planned economy.

Recently Pravda – or was it Izvestia? – admitted that only a couple of years ago the intelligentsia were ‘prejudiced’ against Khrushchev; but now, the paper assured us, the prejudice has been dispelled. Has it really? The intelligentsia have not been allowed to have their say about this. Probably some of Khrushchev’s domestic reforms and moves in foreign policy have softened the ‘prejudice’. But the intelligentsia would still prefer the national leadership to be more ‘liberal’, more up to date, and more intelligent than it is.

Nor is the great mass of the skilled and advanced workers over-impressed with the Kukuruznik. They are just a bit too mature for his artful dodging and clowning; and they dislike his pro-muzhik bias. It was no matter of chance that at the last session of the Central Committee (in December 1959) Khrushchev’s policy was criticised on the grounds that it offered the farmers benefits denied to workers and state employees, and Khrushchev had to promise solemnly that he would not allow this to go on. By the same token he is certainly the hero of the kolkhozniki and of the unskilled and semi-skilled workers (whose earnings he has been raising systematically), and of all those, even among the intelligentsia, whose ties with rural Russia are close and strong. This is quite enough to give him wide support at present and probably also in the next few years.

But with Khrushchev nearing the close of the biblical span of life, Russians are already beginning to think of the new problem of succession. No one can foresee who exactly his successor or successors will be. They may come from outside the present official hierarchy, or from those teams of relatively unknown men who make policy and take important decisions during the many weeks and months of Khrushchev’s journeys abroad. (It is, in fact, these men who even now rule the country in a way they could not do under Stalin, for Stalin never left Russia lest anyone should take any decision or ‘plot’ against him behind his back.)

Whoever comes after Khrushchev will belong to a generation different from his and will be of quite a different outlook. The new crisis of succession will therefore pose as many problems as Stalin’s death posed; and it will lead to no fewer, and to even more startling, changes. If today the Russians think of Stalin with a shudder of revulsion and awe, in ten years’ time they will probably think of Khrushchev with a condescending smile as of the last muzhik who spoke on behalf of Russia to the world.


1. In partibus infidelium – In the land of the infidel – MIA.