The case of Khrushchev's shoe

All her life, she had been asked about her grandfather's famous display of anger at the UN. Nina Khr

New York: "Khrushchev? The one who banged a shoe?" Not again, I thought, as I was asked for the thousandth time whether I had seen pictures of the UN shoe incident.

I hadn't, in fact, and didn't want to. For all these years, I have been slightly embarrassed by my grandfather's uncivilised behaviour exposed the world over. Indeed, my whole family was, so we never talked about it.

For the thousandth time, I make an apologetic smile and try to switch to another topic. The person insists, however. "Why haven't you?"

Indeed, why? After he was dismissed as premier in 1964, Khrushchev's name was not officially mentioned for 20 years. As far as the authorities were concerned, the incident had never happened, and neither had Khrushchev.

"I really should look up those pictures," I squeeze out an uneasy smile.

It has been 40 years now, and the books on international and Soviet politics can afford inconsistency, giving a variety of reasons for Khrushchev's anger and even different times for the incident: Harold Macmillan's address on 23 September 1960; arguments about Red China's admission to the United Nations on 29 September; Russia's invasion of Hungary in 1956 on 4 October; the location of the United Nations . . .

All this made me suspicious: Why are the versions so different? And there are no pictures! What if it had never happened? A supposed 40 years anniversary since the scandalous UN shoe banging could be a great chance to commemorate an event that never happened. In my zeal to uncover the truth, I felt very much like Sherlock Holmes.

Magazines from October 1960 covered Khrushchev's visit to the United States better than books. They reported on everything, but still there was no shoe . . . My heart was pounding. For so many years, I had been ashamed in vain. What if the whole incident was just an anecdote based on the general mode of Khrushchev's behaviour? He was known for strong language, interrupting speakers, banging his fists on the table in protest, pounding his feet, even whistling. None of this, however, was enough to be transformed into a physical symbol of the cold war.

The shoe, on the other hand, as trivial and ridiculous as it is, fits right in: its low place (close to the ground) had been boldly moved up to the table (revolutionaries are tough - communism and manners don't go together) in order to "stamp its foot", signifying the oppressive character of socialism. After Khrushchev's sincere pronouncement made at the Soviet Mission on Park Avenue, "We will bury you", such convenient behaviour by a communist leader seemed too perfect to be true for those wishing to generate fears of Soviet anti-westernism. A shoe, pounding the table, was the distinctive sound of "cold" war, as much as the report of a gun was the sound of "hot" war.

Not as tragic as a real shooting, shoe banging, in a world divided into two military pacts, was none the less more than purely comic. I considered the possibility that the incident had been an attempt by the west to convey the ideological message: "Our enemy is ridiculous and uncivilised, but since he is so ridiculous and uncivilised, he is capable of everything. Therefore we have to be prepared for anything."

The shoe banging, it seemed likely, was an anecdote created by public demand, consistent with the political needs of the socialist-capitalist division. In short, I was almost sure it had never happened. My grandfather was innocent, and I had no reason to be ashamed.

Taking newspapers to be the best reflectors of those events, I searched the contemporary press for the fullest coverage of the famous assembly . . . And still there was no shoe . . .

Studying the papers, I felt as if I was there, in New York City in 1960. It had been 15 years since the end of the Second World War; wounds were healed, and humanity had survived - ready to go on in hope of life becoming better, better and better. The acceptance of 15 more independent African states to the UN; suggestions for disarmament; the formation of a third block - the neutrals - countries that decided to set themselves apart from capitalism or socialism; "peaceful coexistence" between east and west; all that was promising for the future. The 1960 session was an astounding collection of leaders from both big and small states: the American president, Dwight D Eisenhower; the British prime minister, Harold Macmillan; the Soviet Union's premier, Nikita Khrushchev; Fidel Castro from Cuba; India's Jawaharlal Nehru; Yugoslavia's President Tito; Egypt's Gamal Nasser, and many more.

Each came with his own contribution to international unity. Nevertheless, despite intentions, this particular assembly turned out to be the most scandalous in the UN's history. East and west were busy proving each other wrong; the neutrals disagreed among themselves on almost everything. African states, supported by the Soviet Union, didn't back the Soviet leader on certain issues. Castro was making a big stir. "Hurricane Nikita" used every opportunity to reinforce the most critical situations. President Eisenhower made no effort to ease the tension. The rest were disappointed with both the US and the Soviet Union.

September ended, October began. Khrushchev's flamboyance and excitement were wearing thin. He quietened down. Everyone was tired, and many of the state leaders had already left. Reasons cited in the history books for Khrushchev's anger had also been exhausted.

By the time I reached the papers of 10 October 1960, I was convinced that the shoe had never left Khrushchev's foot. Like every New Yorker 40 years earlier, I, too, wanted him to go home. As in a perfect detective novel, I was now afraid that my hero would get caught by some stupid mistake, just before the case closed in his favour.

That day, Khrushchev announced he would be leaving the United States on Thursday 13 October. The UN and New York took a deep breath. I also sighed with relief. On Tuesday 11 October, the Soviet leader addressed the UN one last time. The argument was heated as usual, but no shoe was indicated. I prayed: "You've done what you could. Please, go home. We are all tired." On Wednesday 12 October 1960, there it was, on the front pages of all national papers: Nikita Sergeyevich and his famous shoe. My heart fell. I was in a state of shock, probably no less than those in the UN hall 40 years earlier. Swallowing tears of disappointment, I stared at the page for minutes, then the words started to turn into sentences.

The head of the Philippine delegation, Senator Lorenzo Sumulong, expressed his surprise at the Soviet Union's concerns over western imperialism, while it, in turn, swallowed the whole of eastern Europe. Khrushchev's rage was beyond anything he had ever shown before. He called the poor Filipino "a jerk, a stooge and a lackey of imperialism", then he put his shoe on the desk and banged it.

The Soviet premier left America on the Thursday as promised. As far as he was concerned, he was done. I was done, too, with my search for the event that "had never happened". But my research was not in vain. It freed me from the feeling of shame. I may have been unsuccessful in trying to rehabilitate my grandfather in the world's eyes, but I rehabilitated him in my own by understanding his behaviour.

According to Khrushchev, there was abundant evidence that western powers had mistreated and mistrusted the Soviet Union: a U-2 spy airplane over Russian territory, which President Eisenhower plainly denied; the Monroe doctrine and the US embargo on Cuba, Khrushchev's favoured protege; and the rejection of the Soviet Union disarmament plan, which offered the first official attempt at peaceful coexistence. Dismissing him as a worthy opponent, capitalists thought of Khrushchev as a vaudeville character. Very well then, he would become one. He needed the UN stage to make an important statement: it is better to take the socialist world seriously. He wanted to be heard. But next to the noble Macmillan, smart Eisenhower, refined De Gaulle and wise Nehru, the short Nikita Khrushchev couldn't help looking a wag.

Instead of trying to act and speak according to traditional diplomacy, he broke the ritual and created his own manner. The manner, which suited his goal, was to be different from the hypocrites of the west, with their appropriate words but calculated deeds. He would do it the other way - say more than he meant. A tragi-comic act of shoe banging was intended to separate two superpowers not only in terms of their politics, but also in their diplomatic methods.

As a good performer, Khrushchev needed a strong, convincing exit, true to the role he chose, and that is what happened: in the excitement of fist banging, his watch fell off. Meanwhile, his shoes, made of durable Soviet leather in a special shoe atelier for the Soviet nomenclature, were too new and too tight, and he removed them. He bent down to pick up the watch and saw his empty shoes. How lucky!

I learnt these facts from my family, as the spell of embarrassment was broken and we were finally ready to talk about the incident. I still think that, if the banging had not happened, it would have been invented. The best anecdote is always the one that reflects the morality and character of certain times. The shoe incident became a potent symbol of the cold war, probably the only war in which fear and humour peacefully coexisted.

Now it is all old hat - or shoe - and who cares, really? The world has new leaders and new wars and fears.

But, personally, I find it comforting to know that history sometimes gives us the chance to replace horrifying reality with a funny anecdote. When bombing or peacekeeping do not work, we might want to try humour again. It's good for us - makes life longer.