A Breath of Fresh Air in the Kremlin

Nikita Khrushchev
President John F. Kennedy meets with Nikita Khrushchev in 1961. Evelyn Lincoln/The White House/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library/Reuters

Nina Khrushcheva’s grandfather, Nikita Khrushchev, was the leader of the Soviet Union who wrestled with President John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis, bringing the world to the edge of nuclear war.

[First Part: Khrushchev: Hero or Villain?]

In this extract from her new memoir, she recalls the sudden rise of Mikhail Gorbachev and her joy when he began to rehabilitate her grandfather’s memory.

For almost 20 years, Roy Medvedev, the author of the monumental exposé of Stalinism Let History Judge (1972), delivered those self- or foreign-published tomes—samizdat—to our home, and his frequent visits always reminded me of something out of a Cold War spy thriller.

A middle-aged tall man with gray hair and a distinguished professorial look, Medvedev wandered endlessly around Moscow in order to lose his KGB tail and never turned up on the same day or at the same time so he could avoid any extra attention from the boys from Lubyanka, the infamous KGB headquarters just a few blocks from the Kremlin.

Upon arrival, Medvedev would always settle in the armchair that sat in my father’s former study, which became my bedroom after his death. My father Lev Petrov died when I was little and I subsequently adopted my mother's name Khrushcheva. It was left just the way Father had it: walls covered with books, a dark-blue divan and a glass bar in which I kept my childhood mementos, diaries, scrapbooks, and an occasional box of chewing gum—the most coveted capitalist luxury.

During Medvedev’s visits, my mother would sit on the blue divan, and I would sit at a desk. Sipping strong black tea with honey, the historian would stay for hours discussing the future of Russia, the dissident movement, human rights, and Stalinism. These conversations were fascinating—even the uncomfortable wooden chair couldn’t break my attention.

At times, I wanted to ask him about Molotov, about the KGB versiya and the fate of Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet leader who succeeded my grandfather, but my mother’s presence stood in the way of my curiosity. I didn’t want to upset her or alter the dynamic of these meetings; they were about serious Soviet politics, not some minor family story, as I then understood it.

For my mother, these sessions with Medvedev represented a form of protest but never a drastic change. Instead, she saw her efforts as a way of reforming the system. I always admired her bravery, yet for me, talking to Medvedev was something else entirely: a formative education, which sparked my growing conviction that the Soviet system was fundamentally rotten.

Steeped on its horrors, I never believed in the USSR. I never experienced the hope and enthusiasm of Grandfather’s reforms, and, unlike my mother, I wasn’t afraid to openly mock our country, which is perhaps why I remained determined to keep the Khrushchev name alive.

It was only after 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, that I considered dropping my adopted surname and going back to my birth one. At the time, Moscow was abuzz with speculation. Unlike his predecessors, Gorbachev was young, only 54, the Thaw generation age, and with a law degree from Moscow University. Yet the new communist party secretary’s allegiances weren’t immediately clear.

During one of his secret trips to our home, Medvedev insisted that with the KGB watching his every move, Gorbachev simply couldn’t rule as a liberal right away. “Like Nikita Sergeevich [Khrushchev],” Medvedev explained. “With such powerful figures as [Vyacheslav] Molotov or secret police chief Lavrenty Beria at Stalin’s side, Khrushchev was the most improbable Kremlin successor and certainly was the least likely to denounce Stalin. Gorbachev is just that type.”

Yet Mother thought it was too good to be true; after 20  years, the thought that Khrushchev might take his proper place in the history books seemed an unattainable dream.

I was optimistic. The night after Medvedev left, I had a dream. I saw the whole family gathered in our dining room around an antique mahogany table. In my dream, my grandmother Nina, who had passed away a year earlier, sat on our recently restored pre-Bolshevik walnut wood sofa, holding Grandfather’s head in her lap, the rest of his body lay stretched out beside her.

I remember wondering why his corpse was lying on our “aristocratic couch,” as he would have disdainfully called it. Then he sat up abruptly, looked around, and sneezed. That sneeze woke me up.

Our live-in nanny, Maria “Masha” Vertikova, like most women from the Russian provinces, was an expert in deciphering dreams, an indispensable skill in a country that is often cruel and irrational. When I told Masha about my dream, her response was encouraging: “Sneezing is a good sign. Nikita Sergeevich is back.”

In a despotic society, everyone is always looking for glimmers of hope so that every morning my typically rational mother began excitedly calling around Moscow, announcing that the system was about to change for the better.

A few months later, the unimaginable happened. In a September 1985 interview with Time magazine, Gorbachev broke the 21-year silence surrounding my grandfather’s name.

“I recall still further back in 1961 the meeting between Khrushchev and President Kennedy in Vienna,” he said. “There was the Caribbean Crisis [Cuban Missile Crisis], yet in 1963 we saw the partial test-ban treaty. Even though that was again a time of crisis, the two sides and their leaders had enough wisdom and the boldness to take some very important decisions.”

Gorbachev’s reference to the “wisdom” of my grandfather caused many to reconsider his legacy and see it in a more positive light. And though two major Soviet papers, Pravda and Izvestiya, first reprinted this interview with Khrushchev’s name cut out of the text because of KGB pressure, Gorbachev’s outlook proved influential—he clearly considered himself the former premier’s disciple.

Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost (open speech) and perestroika (restructuring) marked the first honest debate about government performance and economic reform—all of it unscripted and broadcast on television. Suddenly, my grandfather no longer needed defending. His place in our nation’s history had been restored, and continuing as Nina Khrushcheva became more of a luxury than a necessity. (My original decision to take my mother's and grandfather's last name was driven by a small act of rebellion--to show that even if written out of history Nikita Khrushchev still mattered).

But at that time, I was too busy thinking about what to do with my newly acquired freedoms than which surname I should sign under my travel documents—it became suddenly possible when the government permitted international travel. With ideas of seeing the larger world, I left the Soviet Union and moved to the United States in August of 1991 to get my PhD in literature from Princeton University, even though my conversation with Molotov still haunted me a little.

It was from America that I watched the hardliners try and fail to take power away from Gorbachev; that I watched the people pour into the streets as Boris Yeltsin, then president of the Russian Republic, led the way; that I watched the Soviet Union fall and Russians welcome a free market economy; that I watched the dream that Yeltsin inspired curdle to anarchy as this former Soviet apparatchik came to see himself as an infallible czar.

And it was from the United States that I watched the rise of the oligarchs, well-connected individuals who received sweetheart deals on the country’s newly privatized natural resources, while my family and others saw their life-savings disappear.

[First Part: Khrushchev: Hero or Villain?]

Extracted from The Lost Khrushchev: A Journey Into the Gulag of the Russian Mind by Nina L. Khrushcheva, which is published this week by Tate.

Tomorrows extract: Once a KGB Agent, Always a KGB Agent

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