Former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, one of the most significant figures of the Cold War and certainly one of the most colorful, dies on September 11, 1971. During the height of his power in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Khrushchev was involved in some of the most important events of the Cold War.
Khrushchev was born in Kalinovka, Russia, near the Ukrainian border, in 1894. He was an early adherent to the communist cause in Russia, but his rise to power really began in the 1930s. His loyalty to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin served him well during that tumultuous decade, as many other communist party leaders fell to Stalin’s wrath and suspicions. Khrushchev worked his way up the party hierarchy, and his organizational skills in the areas of Russian industry and agriculture brought him praise during World War II. After the war, Stalin brought Khrushchev into the highest echelons of both the party and government.
When Stalin died in 1953, many observers outside of Russia thought it unlikely that the brusque and seemingly uneducated Khrushchev could survive without his mentor. Khrushchev fooled them all, however, and through a series of alliances with others in the party and the military, succeeded in removing any opposition to his power by 1955. After that year, Khrushchev was thoroughly in charge in Russia. He surprised many of his colleagues and Western observers when he began to talk about the idea of “peaceful coexistence” with the United States. He also moved to decentralize some of the rigid state economic controls that he believed were stifling Soviet economic development. In a 1956 speech before the Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, he denounced Stalin and his police state tactics.
In terms of international relations, Khrushchev cut an interesting figure. Many people dismissed him as a boorish, ignorant peasant. However, the Russian leader was an adept and clever negotiator, who often used those negative perceptions to his advantage. During the late 1950s, he tried to work for closer relations with the United States, and in 1959 became the first Soviet leader to visit America. Relations quickly soured, however, when the Soviets shot down an American U-2 spy plane over Russia in 1960. A planned U.S.-Soviet summit was canceled. During that same year, Khrushchev achieved instant celebrity status when, during a debate at the United Nations, he took off his shoe and pounded the table to get attention.
In 1962, the Soviet Union and the United States nearly went to war when the Russians attempted to install nuclear missiles in Cuba and U.S. naval forces quarantined the island. Tense negotiations with President John F. Kennedy followed, the Russian missiles were withdrawn, and the United States promised not to invade Cuba in an attempt to overthrow communist leader Fidel Castro. While war was averted, the incident cost Khrushchev dearly in terms of support at home. Many communist party officials and a growing number of military men had grown anxious about Khrushchev’s idea of “peaceful coexistence” with America, and his calls for a reduced military budget convinced some that he would reduce Russia to a second-class power. The 1962 Cuban missile crisis was viewed as a terrible embarrassment for the Soviet Union. In 1964, Khrushchev’s opponents organized a political coup against him and he was forced into retirement. The remainder of his life was rather solitary—he was reviled by many in Russia.