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Few political leaders have been less honored for the good they achieved than Nikita Khrushchev, who led the Soviet Union out of the terror-ridden wasteland of Stalinism. Overthrown by the political elite twenty years ago this month, on October 14, 1964, his entire career was excised from official histories. No Soviet obituary marked his death, at the age of 77, seven years later. And today, Khrushchev is the only former supreme leader about whom nothing favorable can be published in the Soviet Union. Nor has his reputation fared well in the West, where he is remembered mainly as a blustering adversary who once tried to turn Cuba into a Soviet missile base.

But Khrushchev's enduring legacy, which may one day restore him to a place of official honor, is the bold decadelong reformation of the Soviet system that was carried out under his leadership after Stalin's death. What he achieved is often forgotten. Many official crimes of the Stalinist past were publicly condemned, and twenty-five years of mass terror ended. Millions of people were freed from prison camps and exile, while millions who had perished were exonerated so their families could regain full citizenship. Political life became more open and accessible. Censorship was relaxed, official ideology was made less dogmatic and intellectual and cultural activity grew freer. After decades of neglect, needs of ordinary people--consumer goods, housing and welfare benefits--were given higher priority.

Ultimately, all those changes were limited. They transformed the Soviet political system but never threatened its dictatorial nature. Nonetheless, by 1964 they had cost Khrushchev the support of virtually every power elite. The result was his ouster and defamation, and the onset of eighteen years of conservative rule under Leonid Brezhnev. Legions of neo-Stalinists, in particular, never forgave Khrushchev, seeing in every unwelcome development, from the Prague Spring of 1967-68 to the advent of open dissent inside the Soviet Union itself, the "poison of Khrushchevism.'

Many of Khrushchev's reforms were stopped or reversed by his successors, but every official and citizen still benefits from his lasting achievement: the considerable de-Stalinization of the Soviet Union. Indeed, in these times of growing Soviet problems and diminishing Soviet leadership, Khrushchev's precedent of bold reform from above may be increasingly relevant. It challenges all those Soviet conservatives who insist that the existing system should not or dare not change, as well as those Western cold warriors who maintain that it cannot.

Western observers often argue, for example, that no reform-minded leader can rise to the top of the Soviet system, that only a ruthless despot could impose meaningfull changes on the conservative majority of officials and that the official ideology is too rigid and sterile to inspire such policies. Khrushchev's career raises serious doubts about these fatalistic assumptions, which omit, among other things, the unpredictable role of personality.

Few observers, in the West or in the Sovit Union, anticipated Khrushchev's victory over his formidable rivals in the post-Stalin succession struggle of the 1950s. Even fewer imagined that this uneducated, rustic apparatchik, who had risen from coal miner to Politburo member as a result of Stalin's terrorist politics, would become, as Russians say, a velikii reformator, a "great reformer.' But despite his complex motives and contradictory policies, he became just that, partly in order to use de-Stalinization against opponents more deeply implicated in Stalin's crimes, partly in penitence for his own misdeeds, but mainly because he wanted history to remember him as Nikita the Good, a benevolent ruler who left his country a far better place than he found it.

Moreover, Khrushchev was never a despot or the sole official proponent of reform. Even after 1958, when he added the premiership to his position as party leader, he lacked Stalin's absolute power. His major policies always encountered powerful opposition, even in the Politburo.

He fought back by reviving long-dormant socialist commitments in Soviet ideology: equality, abundance, efficiency and justice. Coupled with anti-Stalinism, those values brought forth eager reformers in every area of Soviet policy. Some gained Khrushchev's ear and overcame his reluctance to go further, as when he decided to liberate the prison camps and to allow publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's novella about life there. Although only a minority, thousands of such officials fought alongside Khrushchev, achieving far more change in the system than most Western experts had ever thought possible.

Is Khrushchev's example a valid alternative in Soviet politics today, or was it an aberration produced by special circumstances of the 1950s? Certainly, a new reformist leader would face different obstacles at home and abroad. No longer terrorized, officials throughout the system have grown more conservative and more able to thwart change from above. Nor did Khrushchev have to cope with all the superpower burdens taken on by his successors. Internal reform requires, as he understood, a substantial detente with the United States. But no Soviet leader today can be confident that an American President would meet him halfway, as Dwight Eisenhower did Khrushchev.

And yet, evidence persists of a growing reformist mood in official Soviet circles, just below the top leadership, in response to the country's worsening economic and social problems. Since Yuri Andropov's death and the rise of Konstantin Chernenko, the hopes of reformers have centered on the political fortunes of younger Politburo members, especially 53-year-old Mikhail Gorbachev, who began their careers under Khrushchev (not Stalin) and played no role in his overthrow.

Not surprisingly, there are even fleeting signs of a behind-the-scenes struggle, launched by reformers, to rehabilitate Khrushchev's reputation. If those signs continue, we will know that a contender for power stands behind them, and that he is preparing to risk his chances on another program of bold reform from above.
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Title Annotation:accomplishments of Nikita Khrushchev
Author:Cohen, Stephen F.
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:column
Date:Oct 20, 1984
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