In Defence of N Khrushchev, Author

<strong>Taken from the <em>New Statesman</em> archive, 9 April 1971.</strong>

J K Galbraith, wh

At lunch in Iowa about 15 years ago Roswell Garst, the great corn breeder, told me of a meeting that he had just had with Nikita Khrushchev. Having saturated the United States market with Pioneer Hybrid Corn, Garst had been looking around for new customers and the Soviet Union had come strongly into his thoughts. The Garsts relate thought very closely to action. He had gone to Moscow several months earlier, made a sales call on the Kremlin and left samples, but had not been successful – a highly atyupical result. But then a few weeks before the Soviet embassy in Washington had asked him urgently to come back. He went to see Khrushchev, whose interest in corn had greatly deepened in the interval. The huge ear encased in clear plastic which Garst had left on his earlier visit was prominent on his desk. For a long afternoon he questioned Garst about US methods of corn culture – techniques of hybridisation, land preparation, cultivation, fertilisation, harvesting, storage and more. The telephone did not ring; there were no interruptions; Garst said he began to wonder who was running the country. Finally, he begged to ask a question himself:

"I assume, Mr Chairman, that you have methods of getting information from the United States – that if we have some new atomic secret you get it in a couple of weeks."

Khrushchev interrupted, angrily shaking his finger at Garst. "No! No, we insist! One week only!"

"One week or two weeks, it doesn't matter," said Garst. "I still must ask why you question me about matters which are in our experiment station bulletins, which our extension services pound into the heads of our farmers, which are completely available and in Iowa hard to avoid?"

"It's the Russian character," Khrushchev replied. "When the aristocracy first learned that potatoes were the cheapest way of feeding the peasants the peasants wouldn't eat them. But whatever you can say for our aristocrats, they knew their Russians. They put high fences around the potato patches, the peasants immediately started stealing the potatoes. In no time at all they had developed a taste for them. You should have kept your corn a secret."

This story was on my mind last autumn when I began to read the Khrushchev memoirs, as they are commonly called, in the London papers. I imagined that they owed their interest to the murky process by which they were acquired and that, for literary and narrative power, Khrushchev probably ranked somewhere between Kwame Nkrumah and John J. Rooney of New York. I was wrong. After reading the book and a fair number of the American and English reviews, I've concluded that a word should be said for a fellow-author. I think, with exceptions, he's had a bum rap from the critics.

There was first the question of authenticity – a greater question with English than American critics, quite a few of whom have attributed it to the CIA. The CIA can be excluded on very simple grounds. No one with that kind of imagination could be had for government pay. As a novelist with Hollywood possibilities he would be worth up to 10 times as much. Lyndon Johnson could have doubled his pay as a ghost and come out ahead. It may be that the KGB, which also gets possible credit, has less competition and thus can hire this kind of talent, but even those who think it responsible agree that it must have worked very closely with original Khrushchev material.

The critics have also complained that there isn't much that is new, but this is also true of the memoirs of Dwight D. Eisenhower and Harold Macmillan, and unlike these worthy books the Khrushchev production is full of perfectly fascinating stories. Unlike most other writers of memoirs he has readers other than himself in mind, which is not a bad thing. And however jaded the experts may be I was delighted to read about high-level infighting as it is conducted in the Kremlin, how Britain, Claridge's and George Brown looked to a visiting Russian and what a terrible indignity it is to arrive at an international conference in a little weeny two-motor airplane, which was what happened to the Soviets in Geneva in 1955. (All the others had four-motor jobs.)

Clayton Fritchey believes the best thing is the account of his exchange with President Eisenhower at the latter's "dacha" at Camp David. Each tells how he is pressed by his generals for new and expensive weapons how bravely he resists, how he explains that money is short, how the generals persist, how eventually he gives in. I though the accounts of home life with J. Stalin even better. No person is so little to be envied as the man who must keep company with the panjandrums of state. He has a good address but terrible working conditions and there is something in the juxtaposition to power that destroys the mind, if such exists. Even brief association can be bad. Once a few weeks ago I awoke in a cold sweat. I had been dreaming that I was a court reporter required to transcribe conversations with Howard K. Smith. But within the last year we have had eyewitness evidence that the dictatorships, unbelievably, were even worse. Albert Speer has told of Hitler's endless monologues lasting all night and relieved only by bad movies. Now Khrushchev tells of the equally endless gatherings at the Kremlin, relieved by the same movies but also by the fact that, in contrast with Hitler's court, everyone was encouraged, and on occasion required, to get stinking drunk.

But it seems to me that the reviewers can be faulted in a much more important respect. Following Edward Crankshow, who contributed the commentary, most have been greatly concerned to advise the reader that Khrushchev is a very wicked man who is also selective in truth and an accomplished liar, and that many of his protestations of discontent with Stalin, love for his fellow man, hopes for peace and claims to incipient liberalism are absurdly inconsistent with his own past. All of this, it seems to me, anyone old enough to read this book would already know or guess from the book itself, As a legacy of the cold war we have a priestly convocation of Russian scholars who are deeply concerned lest any less percipient citizen be hornswaggled by anything being said by the Soviets. Without wanting to put anyone out of a job, I think they can now safely stand down.

The astonishing thing about Khrushchev is not that he was an acolyte of Stalin or that he is generally deficient, even by modern Washington standards, in his approach to the truth, or that he lacks general moral tone. It is how a man with such a record – who was so much one of the gang and so remarkably survived – could have done some much to change the course of history when he came to power. For he did set out to improve relations with the West. He did make these hilarious but generally reassuring journeys which must have been against all advice from the Soviet Foggy bottom. He did more than any American politician to propagate the belief that war was obsolete in the nuclear age. Our people were much more bound by the cold-war party line. He did, with whatever help from Mikoyan and others, make that speech at the 20th party congress and let the light in on Stalin. He did bring people back from the labour camps and he evidently approved the publication of Solzhenitsin. All of this, like much of what he espouses in this book, was inconsistent with his past. It is a cause not of criticism but rejoicing. Those who accept the will and instruction of bureaucracy are likely to be consistent, for bureaucracy resists change, Had Khrushchev been a bureaucrat nothing would have been changed.

These are hard days for heads of state. And, curiously, it is not the big questions but the little ones that get them heaved out. LBJ was excellent on the big questions of race, poverty and domestic social tension. He couldn't resist advice to blow it all on a country of no conceivable importance to the United States and of which, it is a fair guess, he had never uttered the name until he was 40 years of age. Nixon, disentangling slowly from Vietnam, seems unable to resist furthering an even more mystifying interest in Cambodia. And he seems even more determined to be a martyr to the belief of his economists that it is unsound to fix prices and wages that are already fixed. Khrushchev, according to informed Russians with whom I have talked in recent years and who seemed not to be making any particular point, survived his enormous and risky effort to reverse the Stalinist domestic and foreign policy. He then was canned because of his inability to keep his hands off technical matters on which he was uninformed, including among other things hybrid corn. (This book is itself a testament to Khrushchev's tendency to mess into anything and everything with a fine disregard for knowledge.)

Public office being as perilous as it is these days, the least we can do is to give the occupants a fair break as authors, which is what they so soon become.

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Is this the end?