Monday, April 30, 2007

Khrushchev and Ukraine

Nikita Khrushchev, a bulky man with a provincial face and a wart on his cheek, led Ukraine's Central Committee of the Communist Party for eight years, including the period of the Great Patriotic War. When he was a Kremlin official, his actions affected Ukraine as well. Of all the Soviet leaders, Khrushchev was the most unpredictable and impetuous "helmsman of the party."

Unlike the more reserved Stalin, he impulsively and resolutely demonstrated the country's military might, plunging the world into the Cuban missile crisis. However, Khrushchev, unlike his reclusive predecessor, traveled abroad widely and often welcomed "imperialistic" leaders to Moscow for talks.

It was Khrushchev who energetically resolved the housing problem by building primitive but much needed five-story apartment blocks, the so-called khrushchovkas.

Khrushchev rudely forced writers and artists to fit the procrustean bed of communist ideology, instructing them on how to write books and paint pictures.

It was during his rule that peasants shook off the yoke of serfdom and were given passports. Hundreds of thousands of energetic Ukrainians born in rural areas headed for cities and towns. They soon renounced their rural Ukrainian and began speaking the urban Russian language.

There were lots of mystical and strangely odd episodes in Khrushchev's career.

For example, clay pits above the district of Kurenivka in Kyiv had accumulated loess, a loamy deposit formed by wind, for years. The Kremlin was going to use this dirt to flood Baby Yar, the site where more than 100,000 Kyiv residents, mostly Jews, had been exterminated by Nazi-directed but mostly Ukrainian death squads.

The Soviet leaders hoped this would help the nation forget the Zionist idea of erecting a monument to the victims of the mass killings. In the spring of 1961, thousands of tons of that watery clay broke through a dam and flowed down, covering a nearby village, not Baby Yar. The tragedy left 1,500 people dead.

A few days after the disaster, the planet's first cosmonaut, Yuriy Gagarin, flew into the space. Khrushchev kissed this immaculately honest guy many times upon his arrival from the orbit. He must have been asking humanity to forgive his blasphemous intention to blanket Baby Yar in clay waste. A memorial to the Baby Yar tragedy was unveiled in 1976 after Moscow had been stubbornly reluctant to honor the Jewish Holocaust for years.

It was under Khrushchev that farmers chopped down their fruit orchards to protest against fruit tree taxes. It was Khrushchev who ordered a demonstration of starving workers in the provincial town of Novocherkassk dispersed with rifles.

Khrushchev's attempts at ideological futurology resulted in a shattering fiasco. His slogans, "We will outrun America in the per capita production of milk and meat," and "This generation of the Soviet people will live under Communism," proved impractical, idealistic and unachievable.
Khrushchev was not a typical Soviet leader; he was mobile and public. Working as a regional reporter in the southeast of Ukraine, I rarely saw the Kremlin ruler but popularized his economic innovations in my articles.

Nevertheless, I had first seen Khrushchev before the war broke out.

Meeting the people in an old raincoat

It was May 1, 1941. I was 11 years old. I remember standing on a sunlit Khreshchatyk, holding a little red flag. People gathered downtown to watch the Labor Day military parade. After it, industrial workers marched in columns.

Soviet newsreels made me unusually politicized for my age. I immediately recognized Khrushchev on a government platform. He was gesticulating merrily, wearing a peaked cap, a so-called stalinka. The demonstrators left Khreshchatyk, taking away the sounds of brass bands. Khrushchev went down from the platform immediately. He will now walk into the crowd, someone said, both with approval and blame.

When I grew up, I appreciated Khrushchev's bravery. When Lazar Kaganovich, Stalin's closest ally, was flying to Bandera's Ukraine one day, he was accompanied by a squadron of fighter planes. When Khrushchev, a member of the Military Council of the First Ukrainian Front, visited the liberated capital of Ukraine on November 7, 1943, he rode along the ruined and smoldering Khreshchatyk in an open-topped convertible limousine.

Khrushchev's "crowd walking" on May 1 resulted in a startling discovery made by my aunt, who was hosting my mother and me that day. My aunt, whose husband was one of the big bosses in Kyiv, was standing near Khrushchev that day, and saw that he was wearing "an indecently shabby raincoat." She even advised her husband to dress more modestly, so as to avoid contrasting with Khrushchev's shabby dress. However, he did not heed her advice. The war started a month later, and both Khrushchev and my uncle were sent to different fronts.

Stalin's personal case

In 1956, I was a member of the Soviet Union's only party. My skepticism prevented me from becoming a devout communist. I did not appreciate the bureaucratic falsity of public party meetings. A notice about a closed gathering contained at least some intrigue. We often considered personal cases of some communists during such meetings. Usually we were discussing those who had committed adultery, or reprimanded poets for "wrong and inappropriate" poems or journalists for "distorting the Soviet reality."

At one of such meetings we were considering Joseph Stalin's case. The debate was very nervous.

Everything started in February 1956, when Khrushchev delivered his historic Secret Speech to the 20th Communist Party Congress. He read the Report on the Personality Cult and Its Consequences quickly and anxiously. Then all the secretaries of local party organizations throughout the country were made to read it to their "congregants…"
Our retired communists were unanimous: "You can criticize him [Stalin], but there should be some limit." The young demonstrated their awareness and presented sensational details. Here is one of them.

…Once Khrushchev came to Stalin's office late and sat quietly at the corner of the table. Stalin looked at him gloomily and asked him rudely why he was hiding.
"Don't be afraid. I will not execute you," he promised sinisterly…

Delegates of the 20th Congress demanded Khrushchev remove this episode from his report but it still became known.

Khrushchev hated Stalin. Embarrassment reinforced his hatred: this apparently decent man had been compelled to carry out Stalin's atrocious orders. Many of Stalin's allies were also afraid and therefore hated him. But they could not dare to be morally vindictive. Khrushchev did.

…In 1946, the country celebrated the 20th anniversary of Stalin's constitution. On that day, Khrushchev unveiled a monument to Lenin in Kyiv without asking Stalin's permission. Stalin, who had wanted to have his own statue erected in Kyiv for years, remembered this surprise for the rest of his life.

The Lenin monument was built opposite the Bessarabsky market, on the spot where a gallows, used to execute Ukrainian foes of the German Reich during the war, once stood. The stone Lenin still stands there today.
"The nation will not be able to feed another party"

In the May of 1959, I came to Kyiv to attend a meeting of regional journalists, while Khrushchev, then the leader of the country, came to Kyiv to present the Ukrainian capital with the second Order of Lenin.

He was loyal to his habit and rode along Khreshchatyk in an open-topped limousine. However, it was a new Khrushchev: there was no peaked cap but an elegant hat, no old shabby raincoat but a fashionable jacket. He was waving his hat to salute thousands of Kyiv residents. These people were brought to Kyiv's central street by their directors and stood in the scorching sun, waiting for their leader. I felt as uncomfortable as those people when returning from Kyiv to propagandize Khrushchev's innovation in the provincial press. It infuriated party functionaries at all levels.

Maryinka was an administrative center of a rural district in Donbass. It had a tile plant, a furniture factory, a dairy, and a granary, and 45 collective farms in the area. A district party committee of 30 members controlled blacksmiths, carpenters, farmers, schoolteachers and polyclinic doctors.

When Khrushchev ordered the disintegration of the monolithic party structure, he must have wanted to make national and regional leaders control one another. But this innovation was a caricature in poor districts.

So there were two party committees in Maryinka. The number of party functionaries had doubled. They all worked in the same building and sat there like hens in a hencoop, and oversaw the same processes and projects.

They were so ashamed to hear laughs of wise local workers and farmers that they made up an anti-Soviet anecdote, which was not spoken openly but whispered.

… A communist asks a communist, "Do you think we should have one more party in the country?" "No, the nation will not be able to feed another party…"

The substance of this joke is that the Communist Party by itself absorbed almost the entire national budget.

Crimea: A slap for arrogance

In the summer of 1972, the steppe Crimea saw the first artificial rain, sparkling and multicolored. The trimmed fields absorbed it greedily. The irrigation system was built on an artificial river. I was writing an article about the Dnipro River for a regional newspaper, sitting by that canal, which saved the Crimean peninsula.
My interlocutor was Petro Marchuk. He headed a collective farm growing tons of rice, wheat, grape, and watermelons.
Khrushchev's dream came true in Crimea: it had the sun and other climatic characteristics to grow his favorite maize.

Marchuk was among those who started building this canal from the Kakhovka reservoir on the Dnipro. The construction began in 1956, soon after Khrushchev had officially given Crimea to Ukraine. Geodesist Marchuk was in charge of a team of bulldozer drivers. He was crying when his native village with the graves of his relatives was being flooded, as well as dozens of other Ukrainian villages.

However, like the Soviet government, he understood that it was vital to give water to the arid Crimea. When he had built half of the canal, he started growing wheat. He had a degree in agriculture and generalized his irrigation experience in a Ph. D. dissertation.

Crimean residents no longer remembered and spoke the Tatar language in the 1970s. Marchuk was almost illegally collecting information about Crimea's indigenous population, deported in 1944 by Stalin to Siberia and Middle Asia.

Settlers from Russia occupied the territory. Their reaction to the Crimean climate was panicky, even though water was practically beneath their feet, Marchuk explained. The banished Tatars had gathered morning dew in special pots.
He showed me a copy of a report to the Ukrainian government compiled by a special commission in 1954: it said only three collective Crimean farms of three hundred were functioning properly.

The experienced agrarian Khrushchev must have understood that only Ukraine could save Crimea by helping it build a canal for irrigation. The 400-kilometer-long North-Crimean Canal took 20 years to build. It took so long because the country's new leader, Leonid Brezhnev, made Ukraine finance the project after Khrushchev's forced resignation in 1964.

Russians, both in Ukraine and Russia, as well as in Crimea, forgave Stalin for his atrocities, including the deportation of Tatars. But they still insist Khrushchev cannot be forgiven. They say Russia conquered Crimea with blood and iron but Ukraine received it as a gift, thanks to Khrushchev's generosity.

Khrushchev has been criticized for his unmotivated innovations and injustice, caused by disinformation and deliberate silence. The Izvestiya newspaper contributed to Khrushchev's oblivion. On October 14, 1971, this official media outlet published a short obituary "on the demise of the personal pensioner Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev." No condolences from the Kremlin were presented to his family in that article. Why? Khrushchev must have been right to give away Crimea to Ukraine but his gesture has been seen as a slap in the face by the arrogant Russians since then.