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Book Review July 10, 2003
 
No Respect, No Respect at All
By John Dolan Browse author Email
 
Page 2 of 3
 
For some reason, it was livestock that honed Khrushchev's comic talents -- and those of a far wider field of provincial comedians. Khrushchev's contribution to Soviet meat production was corn. He believed in corn the way Seventh-Day Adventists believe in Saturday. Corn would solve all the USSR's food problems, since it was a far more efficient livestock feed than other grains. In classic Soviet style, Khrushchev made one Larionov, a regional boss in Ryazan near Moscow, a "Hero of Socialist Labor" for "fulfilling and even overfulfilling" meat quotas. Soon a Gogolian story which, as Taubman points out, could be called "Dead Cows" on the model of "Dead Souls," was unfolding. Larionov's flunkies slaughtered all their own livestock to keep their meat-pyramid scheme going, then "...fanned out to other provinces, buying up cattle as far away as the Urals. Since those provinces too had meat targets to fulfill, they set up police roadblocks, which [Larionov's] operatives circumvented by smuggling cattle at night along little-used roads. The desperate Larionov levied taxes payable in meat, not just on farms and farmers but on schools and other institutions. In response, people bought meat at state stores and delivered it to collection stations, which in turn sold it back to the state."

Ladies and Gentlemen, the word "Gogolian" is used far too freely, but here we have a story which truly deserves that honorific. And there are dozens of stories as hilarious as this in Taubman's biography. But a Khrushchev biography has to deal with some very serious questions as well. Above all: how in God's name did this clown survive twenty years in Stalin's court, then go on to defeat a monster like Beria in the struggle after Stalin's death? Taubman's theory is that Khrushchev survived when other loyal Stalinists died in large part because he was a buffoon. Again, Voinovich's "Koba and His Friends" is confirmed as historical truth: Stalin killed anyone of distinction near him, and the best way to survive in his vicinity was to humiliate yourself anew every day. When, just before the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Stalin mentioned to Khrushchev that von Ribbentrop was coming to Moscow, Khrushchev said, "What? Is he defecting to us?" Stalin, reassured by his underling's ingenuous idiocy, told Khrushchev to go hunting, have a nice time, not worry his little head. When Khrushchev committed an ideological blunder, Stalin knocked his pipe on Khrushchev's bald head, saying, "See? It's hollow!" Never one to waste a good joke, Stalin also emptied his pipe's ashes on Khrushchev's head. Khrushchev laughed, and laughed -- and in a private conversation with one of his few trusted friends, swore that sooner or later he would get even with "Mudakshvili."

And he did. In one of the most bizarre and momentous surprises of the century, this buffoon defeated Beria, and after him Malenkov and Molotov, for the leadership of the USSR and used his power to destroy the memory of Stalin.

Once again, it was the clownish persona which saved Khrushchev. Taubman's account of the coup that brought Khrushchev to power is worth quoting at length, as a sample of his clear, exciting and subtle narration: "The real puzzle is not how Khrushchev did it but why his colleagues allowed him to. The answer is that they still underestimated him. Even before 1953 Khrushchev had been no slouch at dissembling. Yet until then he had largely hidden his skill. Between 1953 and 1955, for the first time, Khrushchev's Machiavellian side was almost fully visible -- not only in circumstantial evidence but in his memoirs, in which he proudly guided us step by step through his betrayal of Beria. Having revealed so much, he could hardly deny that he had practiced the same skills before then and afterwards -- but he did. Only Beria was evil enough in Khrushchev's rendition to justify conspiring against him. It was quite another thing to betray Malenkov and Molotov, particularly since one of Khrushchev's greatest charges was that they betrayed him. The story of their rout must therefore be pieced together on the basis of incomplete evidence. So too must the plot against Beria. For despite his unprecedented candor, Khrushchev didn't tell the whole story of that intrigue either, concealing his initial partnership with Beria after Stalin's death, just as he hid his alliance with Beria and Malenkov in the last years of the dictator's life."


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