Russia past and present, from a historian in Cambridge
Someone once told me about the day that Nikita Khrushchev visited his Moscow neighbourhood. It was 1962 or 1963. Khrushchev’s car pulled up unannounced, and the great man walked about, shaking hands, cracking jokes. My interlocutor was sure that the visit was spontaneous. He had been a small boy at the time. It was a remarkable day, one of his first memories. He admired Khrushchev ever after.
I loved the story. But was this a false memory, true in the person’s mind but actually a slow-cooking conflation of newsreels and urban legends?
No: it rings true. My friend’s tales of the Soviet past always seemed right to me, and if the memory was imperfect — how could it not be? — one assumes that the embellishments derived from energetic reminiscence rather than wholesale invention. So there surely was a day when Khrushchev, en route to somewhere more important, told his driver to stop in one of the capital’s strikingly similar new housing districts so that he could take a walk. Who knows how often he did it.
It seems a typical Khrushchevian gesture. Khrushchev was a populist. Far more than Mikhail Gorbachev, who loved foreign crowds, Khrushchev was in tune with ordinary Soviet people and understood how to communicate with them. Yet he inspired as much dislike as appreciation. Elites hated him when he threatened their privileges; farm workers felt despair when he sought to change their long-standing ways of doing things, on little more than whims and hunches; the blood pressure of technical professionals rose when he trespassed on their expertise, micromanaging the implementation of complex policies; and the intelligentsia hated his dirty jokes. On a visit to Britain in 1956, Khrushchev found himself in front of the Albert Memorial. He was told that the Prince Consort did not discharge official duties beyond those of husband to the Queen. ‘And what did he do during the day?’ was Khrushchev’s immediate response to the grand gentlemen showing him round. Fortunately for the nerves of the hereditary intelligentsia of Leningrad and Moscow, the exchange was not reported in the Soviet press.
Other people looked beyond Khrushchev’s faults. They appreciated his achievements and his apparent lack of side, though how many natural supporters he had is impossible to estimate. Discontent always leaves a deeper mark in the historical record than quiet approbation. But even if Khrushchev could dive straight into a group of locals in a Moscow neighbourhood, he certainly could not play a crowd like Bill Clinton. People say that Clinton listens to you as if you are, for those five minutes, the only person in the world. No Soviet leader had that gift. Dictatorship robbed Soviet leaders of the capacity to listen. Khrushchev did not converse so much as talk at people. He was curious; he could ask questions. But he liked, above all, to hear himself providing the answers.