Born on April 15, 1894 in Kalinovka, Russia, Nikita Khrushchev became Premier of the Soviet Union after Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953.
In a 1956 “secret speech,” he discussed Stalin’s crimes for the first time, starting a process called “de-Stalinization” and visited the West to present his brand of “Reform Communism”.
Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev was born in 1894 into a poor family near Kursk in south-western Russia. He received very little formal education. He joined the Bolshevik Party in 1918 and served in the Red Army during the Russian Civil War.
In 1929, Khrushchev moved to Moscow to attend the Stalin Industrial Academy. In 1931, he began to work full-time for the Communist Party, rising through its ranks to become first secretary of the Moscow City Party Committee in 1938. The following year he became a member of the Politburo, the highest decision-making body of the Communist Party. During World War Two, Khrushchev worked as a political commissar in the army.
Stalin died in March 1953. Khrushchev became leader of the party shortly afterwards, but it took him several years to consolidate his position. In February 1956, he made a secret speech to the 20th Party Congress, denouncing Stalin. It caused a sensation in the Communist Party and in the West, although Khrushchev failed to mention his own role in the Stalinist terror.
The speech initiated a campaign of ‘de-Stalinisation’. Khrushchev also attempted to improve Soviet living standards and allow greater freedom in cultural and intellectual life. In the mid-1950s, he launched his ‘Virgin Lands’ campaign to encourage farming on previously uncultivated land in the Kazakh Republic (Kazakhstan). He invested in the Soviet space programme, resulting in the 1957 flight of Sputnik I, the first spacecraft to orbit the earth.
In relations with the West, Khrushchev’s period in office was marked by a series of crises – the shooting down of an American U2 spy-plane over the Soviet Union in 1960, the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 and, most significantly, the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, which brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. Despite this, Khrushchev also attempted to pursue a policy of co-existence with the West. This change in doctrine, together with Khrushchev’s rejection of Stalinism, led to a split with Communist China in 1960.
Significantly, Khrushchev was not prepared to loosen the grip of the Soviet Union on its satellite states in Eastern Europe and, in 1956, an uprising in Hungary against Communist rule was brutally suppressed.
Khrushchev’s fortunes in the Soviet Union eventually took a downward turn. Some of his ambitious economic projects failed and his handling of foreign affairs resulted in a number of setbacks. The de-Stalinization produced unrest in the Communist ranks of other countries. These developments caused concern among party leaders in the Soviet Union, many of them already fearful that Khrushchev might be planning to extend his power. In October 1964, Khrushchev was forced into retirement by other party opponents led by Leonid Brezhnev.
Khrushchev died on 11 September 1971 in Moscow.