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Khrushchev's son says U.S. too hot in Cold War

Thursday, January 28, 1999

By Bill Steigerwald, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Nikita Khrushchev, whose son Sergei gives a public lecture at Carnegie Mellon University tomorrow, was not merely the Communist strongman who ran the Soviet Union during the hottest days of the Cold War.

Nikita Khrushchev's son, Sergei, who will speak tomorrow at CMU, came to Pittsburgh in 1959 with his father. Mayor Thomas Gallagher, left, bid Nikita Khrushchev farewell at the airport. 

For millions of Baby Boomers growing up in pre-Beatles America with air-raid drills and the Cuban Missile Crisis by day and thermonuclear nightmares by night, the very name Khrushchev instilled terror. Yet even when he was banging a table with his shoe or threatening to bury us, Khrushchev looked like somebody's rolly-polly grandfather in a bad suit.

In fact, Premier Khrushchev, who ruled the old U.S.S.R. by himself or with others from 1953 to 1964, was the father of six, including Sergei, who was born July 2, 1935. That's about the time Sergei's father was, as the Encyclopaedia Britannica puts it tenderly without going into the bloody details, a "zealous supporter of Stalin" who "participated in the purges of [the Communist] party leadership."

Sergei Khrushchev, who had a unique ringside seat during some of the world's scariest moments, grew up to become an engineer who worked on the guidance systems of Soviet ballistic missiles. Now 63, he is a permanent resident of the United States and a senior visiting fellow at Brown University's Thomas J. Watson Institute for International Studies, where he teaches and writes about Russian history and Russian political and economic development.

Q: How does it feel to know your father's name was frightening to millions of American children at the height of the Cold War?

A: First of all, we never knew this. When you look at the Cold War and the behavior of both sides, both sides would do things which were aggressive. We had no intention to begin any strike against anybody.

We never thought that Americans would have any fear about us. For a long time we couldn't even physically strike you. And for the rest of the Cold War, the United States was much stronger. It's one of the paradoxes, because we really never had any intention, especially during my father's time.

He said there is no reason to sacrifice our lives freeing Americans from capitalism or trying to fight them because that side will win which will give better life to their people. He was sure it would be the Soviet system and sooner or later Americans will realize we live better. Then they will decide that they will join us.

Q: When you were growing up, what was it like?

A: When I grew up, it was the same, for example, if you grew up in the White House. It was very different from other people. At the time there was a shortage of food and many other things. But of course there was enough food at the official residence of the Prime Minister, like an American president living in the White House. Only here, they are living there only for two terms and in Soviet Union you are living there maybe for your life - or until somebody will kick you out.

Q: Did you meet Stalin?

A: No. I was too young.

Q: Did you meet Mao or Castro?

A: Yes, I met Castro. I met Nehru, Sukarno. All Eastern European leaders very often, because they spent their vacations in Crimea and they visited my father.

Q: How did your father survive what we would call here Stalin's madness - the purges, the killings?

A: First of all, there's no answer to this question, because it is a matter of luck. ... Maybe because during the first wave of the purges in 1937, he was too young. Stalin eliminated the Old Guard. My father was just the person who replaced them. Then there was the war, when there were no purges and Stalin was busy with other things. And after the war, he was far from Stalin - in the Ukraine.

Q: Were you a true-believing Communist yourself?

A: You know, from my American experience, you have no understanding of what are you asking. Communism has two basic ideas: First, it is the believing of the equal rights for the people, especially the distribution of all the economic supplies, which is utopian. But this has existed from the very birth of Christ. I never really seriously thought about this, whether it is possible or not. ... I was told it will be somewhere way in the future of communism.

And so that is one part. Did we believe that the centralized economy can be more successful than the market? Yes, we believed in this and I believed in this maybe until the mid '70s. I think many people in this country, even in the highest offices in the White House, also had fear that maybe it would happen.

And the third part is all these cruelties. I did not know about these until the 20th Party Congress [in 1956, when his father made a secret speech attacking Stalin's "intolerance, his brutality, his abuse of power"].

Q: What is it that you are most proud of your father for?

A: I am most proud that my father turned our country from a very cruel totalitarian state under Stalin to a democracy. There was no democracy during my father's time, but it was first step in that direction.

Q: So your father was the beginning of what eventually led to glasnost, perestroika, Gorbachev and the ultimate end of the Soviet Union?

A: Of course, because when my father was in power there was much more freedom for everybody. It was possible to say and write much more. The special generation there from the '60s was a driving force during the Gorbachev time. ...

He freed the peasants during the Stalin time. During the Stalin time, peasants had no passports and they couldn't leave the place where they lived without permission of the officials. And, of course, he exposed Stalin's crimes, which many hard-line Communists still can not forgive him. Even democratic Communists can't forgive him.

Q: Is the general impression of your father as a tough Communist leader of the day accurate or fair?

A: I don't think that the general impression is that he was a tough Communist leader. I think the general impression, especially inside Russia, is that he was too human. In Russia, leaders have to be staying somewhere and the people are far from them. He talked too much. He'd be in the presence of the people too much. He'd make an occasion about everything. He was more like an American leader, which is not very good to do in Russia.

Q: What was the worst thing you know that your father did?

A: Oh, I don't want to answer this question because you're pushing me in the direction which is difficult to answer because I am his son. But there were two things in which we disagreed with him and argued with him: When he destroyed his relations with the intelligentsia in 1962 and 1964 . . . it was very ugly. And the second thing was when he supported T.D. Lysenko. I think it's an unknown name for you?

Q: The agriculture guy who ruined Soviet argiculture?

A: Yes, the agriculture guy who really controlled it in the Stalin time.

Q: He's really famous. He . . .

A: No, no. He was real famous, but he was famous from the bad side. He destroyed all the biological science in Russia and it was his fault that many of these people were executed and purged. Then he gained the full support of my father and it was one of the topics of debate between me and my father.

Q: Everyone my age remembers the Cuban Missile Crisis as a very scary time. How close did the U.S. and the Soviet Union come to war?

A: They were not so close as Americans thought at that time and even now, because the situation was under full control from both sides. And Kennedy and my father never wanted to begin the war. If American public opinion and the military had pressed the president to begin the invasion, nothing would have happened. ...

Why the crisis was so dangerous was because it was one of my father's biggest mistakes. When he decided to send missiles to Cuba, he understood it would be a crisis, but he did not understand the level of the crisis. He thought the American reaction would be the same as the Soviet reaction for the American missiles in Europe. It's unpleasant. It's bad. But you understand as a politician that it is not a war.

Q: So, as you lived through the Cold War, did you ever think the world was going to blow up?

A: In reality, it was not so big a fear. During these crises, I was close to my father and when I asked him this question he told me, I hope that never war will begin until we control the situation.

After his first meeting with President Eisenhower in Geneva, he believed that the Americans don't want to begin the war. But he said we must be strong enough not to provoke them into war. His fear, and maybe my fear was, that if Americans will know how weak we are, then they could decide to begin the war before we become strong.

We knew that General [Curtis] Lemay and other people from Strategic Air Command sent these messages to political leaders many times. But they were not accepted. I'm not blaming them, they're military, not diplomats. So I'm not trying to say that Americans really wanted to begin the war. And after my father's time, I don't think there was a real threat of war.

Q: What will your lecture be about at Carnegie Mellon? Is it for historians or the general public?

A: Really, after your interview, I became little bit worried that I have no understanding what they want it to be. My understanding was that it will be some seminar for the people who are working on the history of the military industrial complex. They asked me to talk about my father's military industrial policy, but if it is for the general public, it must be very different. When I arrive there we will discuss. I have been teaching for 30 years. It is not so difficult to change it.

Khrushchev's lecture, which is free, open to the public and sponsored by CMU's history department's Cold War Science and Technologies Studies Group, is at 3:30 p.m. tomorrow in the Singleton Room in Roberts Hall.

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