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Book Review July 10, 2003
No Respect, No Respect at All
By John Dolan Browse author Email
"Khrushchev, the Man and His Era" - by William Taubman, New York 2003

"Khrushchev, the Man and His Era" - by William Taubman, New York 2003

Martin Amis recently claimed that it was possible to laugh at Stalin but not at Hitler. Amis was wrong; Hitler was actually a very funny guy. But as William Taubman's brilliant biography of Khrushchev demonstrates, there's no doubt that the Stalinists were the funniest fascists of the twentieth century, and Khrushchev was the funniest of them.

Khrushchev would have made a fine silent-film comic. Though clothed by the finest tailors of Moscow, he still managed to look like he'd stolen his wardrobe from a sleeping bum. His hats are so ridiculous that they seem to have been worn sideways. In Podrostok Savenko, Limonov recalls being shocked at Khrushchev's appearance on television: "Was there really no one better looking in the whole country than this fat Ukrainian pig?" Like the dwarfish circus geek of Iggy Pop's song, Khrushchev was only five-foot-one, and at least that wide. He seems made to play the part of the roguish servant in European comedy.

And when he opened his mouth, the punchlines poured out -- some of them with a little too much punch, perhaps, but still hilarious, as when Khrushchev, doing Stalin's bidding, berates NKVD generals on a tour of Lvov: "You call this work? You haven't carried out a single execution!"

In Taubman's retelling, Stalin's whole circle seems eerily comic, very much like the group portrait of canine retainers and dull-witted baron in Voinovich's story "Koba and His Friends." Khrushchev, a fine storyteller, describes how, after a hard day of signing death warrants, the Boss and his cronies would watch a movie: "'Stalin...liked [American] cowboy movies especially,' Khrushchev said... 'He liked to curse them and give them a proper ideological instruction and then immediately order new ones.'" Note the fine comic timing on that last phrase, "...and then immediately order new ones." Khrushchev was a man who knew a rim-shot line when he made it. He goes on to describe how Beria would try to provide the dim-witted audience with subtitles describing what was happening onscreen: "'Beria would then chime in [with]some help: 'Look! He's started running! Now he's running!'"

Khrushchev's talent for one-liners shows up again and again -- though it must be admitted that his various straight men served up some fantastic foils. For instance, when Soviet Air Force generals explained that after bombing the US, the crew of their new bomber would have to bail out over Mexico because the plane couldn't carry enough fuel for a round trip, Khrushchev said, "What do you think Mexico is, our mother-in-law? You think we can go calling any time we want?" Ba-bam-ching!

Khrushchev's comedy was often daring, conceptual stuff. With a born straight man like Eisenhower, Khrushchev was inspired to invent some of his wildest bits: "In response to Eisenhower's denial that NATO was 'an aggressive bloc,' Khrushchev demanded to know why the USSR hadn't been invited to join it. 'Have you applied?' Eisenhower asked, surprised. 'Several months ago,' Khrushchev replied. Eisenhower was obviously at a loss."

Khrushchev clearly got a big thrill out of making the lives of Eisenhower's dull, workaday staff more interesting by inventing this sort of thing: "Before dinner on another occasion, Mr. Khrushchev waxed eloquent on the unusual success [the USSR] had in crossing zebras with cows. He said the stripes were still apparent, but that the animal had the complete appearance of a cow, including horns."

I like to imagine the dozens of CIA analysts who were no doubt assigned to get the dirt on this Soviet Zeb-cow, poring over Soviet agricultural newspapers full of dull lies, searching for a clue on this far more interesting fantasy of Khrushchev. Maybe American agents were parachuted into Soviet farming regions with special Zebra-detecting devices -- and immediately arrested, tortured and shot like all the other agents the CIA sent into Russia. Ah well, you can't make bovine comedy without breaking a few eggs.

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