In 1919 Khrushchev became a political commissar in the Red Army, accompanying troops fighting both the Poles and Lithuanians. In 1922 he returned to school and completed his education. In 1925 he became Communist Party secretary of the Petrovosko-Mariinsk District. Early recognizing the importance of Communist Party Secretary Josef Stalin, Khrushchev nurtured a friendship with Stalin's associate and party secretary in Ukraine, Lars Kaganovich, who helped him secure a full-time party post in the Moscow city party apparatus in 1931.
By 1935 Khrushchev was secretary-general of the Moscow Communist Party, in effect mayor of the capital. In 1938 he became a candidate (nonvoting member) of the Politburo, and in 1939 he was a full member. He was one of few senior party officials to survive Stalin's Great Purges. After the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Khrushchev was made a lieutenant general and placed in charge of resistance in Ukraine and relocating heavy industry eastward.
With the Red Army's liberation of Ukraine, Khrushchev took charge of that region. This led to his first clash with Stalin. With Ukraine suffering major food shortages in 1946, Khrushchev concentrated on efforts to increase agricultural production, while Stalin wanted emphasis to be on heavy industry. As a consequence, Stalin demoted Khrushchev. By 1949, however, Khrushchev was back in favor in his previous post as head of the Communist Party machinery in Moscow. In 1952, at the 19th Party Congress, Khrushchev received the assignment of drawing up a new party structure, which led to the replacement of the old Politburo by the Presidium of the Central Committee. Khrushchev benefited from this change as one of the powerful committee secretaries. Following Stalin's death on 5 March 1953, a brief power struggle ensued, with no one person on the ten-member Presidium dominating. Khrushchev did not appear to be a likely choice for supreme power, but on 14 March, when Georgy Malenkov suddenly resigned as secretary of the Central Committee, Khrushchev succeeded him. Malenkov, however, retained his post as head of the party. Shortly thereafter, another Khrushchev rival, Lavrenty Beria, was removed from authority and executed. Over the next four years, Malenkov and Khrushchev struggled over who would dominate the Soviet state. Khrushchev had taken responsibility for Soviet agriculture, and by 1953 he registered considerable successes in that vital sector of the economy. His Virgin Lands program the next year opened new agricultural lands in Kazakhstan and western Siberia. Early successes in that region assisted his rise to power, although they were only temporary. Unpredictable climatic conditions and overuse of chemical fertilizers undermined the program after he was in power.
Meanwhile, Malenkov advocated increases in consumer goods to benefit the Soviet people. Hard-liners in the party leadership and military opposed this and sought continued concentration in heavy industry and increases in defense spending. Khrushchev took the tactical decision to side with the hard-liners, and in February 1955 Malenkov was defeated in a party plenum called on this issue and resigned as party chairman. On Khrushchev's recommendation, Nikolai Bulganin succeeded Malenkov. For a time it appeared as if both Bulganin and Khrushchev were running the Soviet state, although Khrushchev wielded actual power through his control of the party machinery.
Malenkov remained a member of the Presidium, where he continued to intrigue against Khrushchev. In June 1957 Khrushchev took full authority when an attempt by Malenkov, Kaganovich, and Vyacheslav Molotov to unseat Khrushchev miscarried and they themselves were purged. It speaks volumes about the change in the Soviet state under Khrushchev, however, that the three men were not executed.
Indeed, Khrushchev's greatest—and perhaps most risky—achievement as leader of the Soviet Union was the unmasking of Stalin's legacy and his attempt to de-Stalinize Soviet society. The most powerful blow to the Stalinists came during his famous speech at a closed session of the 20th Party Congress on 25 February 1956 in which Khrushchev documented just some of the crimes and purges of the Stalinist period. In fact, the Soviet Union became gradually more liberal under Khrushchev, and it never did return to the kind of oppressive barbarism for which Stalin was known.
Nevertheless, the overall thrust of Khrushchev's policies tended to be ambivalent and was overshadowed by surprising shifts, inconsistencies, and poorly conceptualized initiatives. Success during the 1950s in economic policy, industrial production, and the space program, in which he took special interest, compelled Khrushchev to proclaim that by 1970, the Soviet Union would surpass the United States in per capita production. In 1980, he predicted, America would embrace communism.
In reality, severe economic problems persisted in the Soviet Union, particularly with respect to consumption and agriculture, where the early initiative to develop the Virgin Lands ended poorly. During Khrushchev's reign, the ideological and political atmosphere often changed. To some extent, his orientation in this regard depended upon his standing within the Soviet leadership and the international communist movement. In 1957 he forbade the publication of Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago, whereas in 1962 he allowed the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's (much more critical) novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
In foreign policy, Khrushchev generally attempted to ease tensions with the West, particularly with the United States. He rejected Stalin's thesis that wars between capitalist and socialist countries were inevitable and instead sought peaceful coexistence. On the whole, up until 1960, Soviet-American relations improved. Khrushchev's 1959 visit to the United States was a remarkable success. His talks with President Dwight D. Eisenhower produced, at least for a brief time, what came to be called the Spirit of Camp David. Another highlight of improved East-West relations was the 25 July 1963 signing of a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
But Khrushchev engaged in some rather dubious and dangerous foreign policy initiatives as well. He initiated the 1958 Berlin Crisis, authorized the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, and used the U-2 Crisis in 1960 to provoke a showdown with Eisenhower and torpedo the May 1960 Paris Conference.
Most disturbing of all, in 1962 Khrushchev decided to install intermediate-range ballistic missiles in communist Cuba. After a brief but extremely tense confrontation with President John F. Kennedy's administration in October 1962, during which the superpowers were poised on the abyss of thermonuclear war, Khrushchev decided to remove the weapons. The Cuban Missile Crisis was by far Khrushchev's worst foreign policy mistake. Although he did exact a few concessions from the Americans in return for the missiles' removal, the crisis was clearly a humiliating loss of face for the Soviets and for the Soviet leader personally. Ultimately, it became an important factor in his fall from power less than two years later.
Khrushchev's policy toward other socialist states was equally ambivalent. He restored Soviet relations with Yugoslavia in 1955, after the Tito-Stalin break of 1948. He promoted de-Stalinization programs in Eastern bloc states and allowed a certain extent of limited autonomy for communist parties abroad. However, Khrushchev was not above cracking down on dissent when it was in his best interest. When his secret 1956 speech on Stalin and the ensuing de-Stalinization campaign led to revolts in Poland and Hungary, he intervened in both cases. In fact, he ordered the 1956 Hungarian Revolution crushed by brute force. He was unable to head off crises in Soviet-Albanian and Sino-Soviet relations when Albanian and Chinese officials criticized his de-Stalinization policies and rapprochement with the West. Both crises became quite serious by the early 1960s and led to permanent schisms. Particularly noteworthy was the Sino-Soviet split, for which Khrushchev was largely blamed.
Because of the failure of Khrushchev's agricultural policies, the Sino-Soviet split, the debacle of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the leader's increasingly unpredictable and unstable leadership, he was ousted by the party's Central Committee on 14 October 1964 and relieved of all his positions. He then wrote his memoirs, which were published in the West beginning in 1970. Khrushchev died in Moscow on 11 September 1971 following a massive heart attack.
Khrushchev, Nikita S. Khrushchev Remembers. Introduction and commentary by Edward Crankshaw. Translated by Strobe Talbott. Boston: Little, Brown 1970.; Khrushchev, Nikita S. Khrushchev Remembers: The Glasnost Tapes. Translated and edited by Jerrold L. Schecter with Vyacheslav V. Luchkov. Boston: Little, Brown, 1990.; Khrushchev, Nikita S. Khrushchev Remembers: The Last Testament. Translated and edited by Strobe Talbott. Boston: Little, Brown, 1974.; Khrushchev, Nikita S. Memoirs of Nikita Khrushchev. Edited by Sergei Khrushchev and translated by George Shriver. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004.; Linden, Carl. Khrushchev and the Soviet Leadership, 1957–1964. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1966.; Medvedev, Roi A. Khrushchev. Translated by Brian Pearce. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1982.; Taubman, William. Khrushchev: The Man and His Era. New York: Norton, 2003.