Sunday, September 23, 2007

JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW: WILLIAM TAUBMAN'S KHRUSCHEV

BOOK REVIEW OF WILLIAM TAUBMAN'S KHRUSCHEV BY JOHN CHUCKMAN, February 26, 2007


It's about time we had a decent biography of Nikita Khruschev.

Khruschev is a more important historical figure than seems generally appreciated today. He was something of a refreshing presence on the dreary world scene of the late 1950s and early 1960s. I remember his American tour, and you couldn't help but find a kind of pleasant and infectious quality in some of his observations and activities. I believe he sincerely wanted to slow or halt the Cold War the same way he diminished the horrors of Stalinism, an historic achievement.

Taubman doesn't capture the more idealistic sense of Khruschev, which I believe was genuine, because I was a young man through his time and took an interest in events.

Taubman's Khruschev is a bright (Khruschev had considerable analytical ability and a remarkable memory) peasant risen to the top, an extremely crude man, always regretful about his lack of formal education, who never ceases to behave as something of a Father Karamazov. I have no doubt there is truth here, but it provides an incomplete picture.

Was Khruschev any cruder than what we now know of the private life of John Kennedy, who had prostitutes swimming in the White House pool while Jackie was away, or of the public Lyndon Johnson, who used to conduct interviews and bark orders while relieving himself? I ask this because Taubman repeats the word crude or offers anecdotes about crude behavior many, many times.

Even as a young man I thought many of Khruschev's crudities were not so great as they were treated by America's press. The banging of his shoe at the U.N. is a favorite example. Crude? Yes. But significant beyond style? I think not much.

I enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone interested in biography, the period, world affairs, or Soviet history, but I do have reservations about it, and it should be read with some caution.

Taubman weaves into the text too great a sense of the correctness of America's position and policies of the time, giving a sense of Khruschev largely representing an irritating and sometimes dangerous opponent to them. America often behaved in provocative and dangerous ways through the Cold War. Taubman mentions some matters, as Eisenhower's saying that if the Soviets over-flew the United States the way the United States regularly invaded Soviet airspace there would be war, but the week-to-week reality of this is not stressed enough here to appreciate the intensity of the Soviet point of view. There were many such matters, including American submarines actually colliding with Soviet boats.

Taubman gives a lot of attention to Khruschev's well-known habit of rattling his rockets in speeches, but we are not given enough background for why he might do this. The Pentagon actually had plans in the mid-1950s for an atomic pre-emptive attack on the Soviets. Generals like Curtis LeMay, the man who bombed Japan to the point of gratuitous horror, openly advocated nuclear hostilities. And, of course, America had used the atomic bomb, twice.

Taubman's treatment of matters like the Cuban Missile Crisis suffers from this. The U.S. had a huge, generously-finaced terrorist operation going against Cuba at the time, including along more than one track, and that is an important part of the background that Taubman treats with what I believe is neglect. Taubman's words on the ghastly Bay of Pigs does reveal hints of American jingo attitudes. They are not offered loudly, but they are there, and I think they should not be if we want to understand what motivated Khruschev.

One of the great missing chapters in the book is any detail around the Kennedy assassination. The assassination is there but not treated adequately. It was, after all, an epic event which had great consequences on both the Soviets and America. Of course, to treat the assassination adequately involves going into issues that remain murky and controversial.

Despite my reservations, the book is an interesting and worthwhile read, however, I certainly do not agree with the New York Times review which said "Succeeds in every sense...unlikely to be surpassed any time soon...."

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