By the time Josef Stalin died and Nikita Khrushchev took over as the Soviet Union’s premier, the exhausted country had suffered through both the deprivations of World War II and Stalin’s murderous political purges. Though Khrushchev would repudiate Stalinism, dismantle the cult of personality around “Uncle Joe”, and eventually see to it that his body was removed from Lenin’s tomb, all the idealistic aspirations of authentic Marxism also remained expunged from the nation’s official ideology, replaced with the farce of developing “socialism in one country.”
In practice, that meant dictatorship at home and the maintenance of puppet states in the bordering buffer zones to stave off the insidious freedoms thought to be engendered by capitalism and a market economy. But de-Stalinization also meant that the Soviet Union needed a new national purpose to replace what was being discarded. To some degree, it found this in the Cold War competition with the US, an ongoing contest of nuclear brinksmanship of which Khrushchev was clearly the unchallenged Russian maestro.
However, the Soviet Union also remained elaborately committed to flaunting its idealistic pretenses — universal suffrage, gender equality, freedom from exploitation, the abolition of social classes and institutionalized preferential treatment — so it required after Stalin a larger-than-life showman as leader to keep up that masquerade at home and abroad. Khrushchev, as he emerges in Peter Carlson’s account of his various moments in the American media limelight in the late 1950s and early 1960s, seems perfectly tailored to that role, an earthly and highly quotable cossack clown well-suited to be covered tabloid-style in substance-free, punchy prose.
Carlson, a former staff writer for People magazine, attempts to recapture some of the giddy excitement Khrushchev generated as the world’s buffoonish spokesman for anticapitalism, mining newspaper accounts of his antics for colorful descriptions and piquant quotes from the premier, who relished teasing Westerners about their shallow materialism and whose favorite jokes seemed to involve threatening Armageddon with the Soviet missile arsenal.
What part such taunts played in Khrushchev’s confrontational approach to Cold War diplomacy is still an open question, but Carlson seems ill-equipped and unconcerned with such matters. He is more interested in Khrushchev as pure media spectacle, though he offers no particular interpretation of what that spectacle meant or why it coalesced at that particular moment. Was Khrushchev an innovator in media manipulation and propaganda design? Was he a product of the burgeoning news cycle of the era, brought on by the advent of television? Was he out to represent himself as the face of a kinder, gentler Stalinism, while preserving the totalitarian tactics behind the curtain?
Carlson’s ultimately unsatisfying view seems to be that Khrushchev was a unique personality and nothing more. Though he has done admirable yeoman’s work in compiling all the accounts of Khrushchev’s trip to America, Carlson seems uninterested in analysis or deep political commentary; he’s aiming to reach a lay audience who is presumed to want nothing more than a chuckle, even if it comes from an unlikely and highly ironic source such as a dictator responsible for thousands if not millions of deaths.
It is a shame that Carlson doesn’t trust his audience enough not to spoon-feed them, or trust his material enough not to continually gloss it with unnecessary rhetorical exclamation points. His authorial voice often works like a laugh track, repeatedly telling us what we should be feeling about what he describes, as though we couldn’t be bothered with the emotional work of having a reaction of our own. This has the contradictory effect of making the book more difficult to read; it’s tiresome when someone won’t let you make up your own mind about things.
Nonetheless, Khrushchev’s unfathomable odyssey across the US in 1959, the central event in Carlson’s book, is undeniably fascinating and remains resonant, even though Carlson’s bite-size chapters leave little room for the sort of interpretation that could have teased out some of the significance. Instead he prefers bald editorializing and diction that tends toward the telepathic — he is never afraid to tells us that advisers were “livid” or Khrushchev was “gleeful” or “furious”, as if he could possibly know precisely what these historical figures were feeling from press reports.
A characteristic example of Carlson’s frequent one-sentence editorializing jabs: Upon Khrushchev’s arrival in the US and meeting with the president and vice president, we are told that “Eisenhower must have felt like a kindergarten teacher trapped with a couple of bickering brats.”
But despite Carlson’s gossip-magazine instincts, the narrative remains compelling, if only for the weird nostalgia it generates for a time when speculative Kremlinology could still make the front pages and the Marxist theory of history could receive serious discussion on network television. The clash of ideologies sharpened the sense of American identity, allowed it for a few decades to transcend myopic nationalism and jingoism and represent instead burgeoning consumerism as the apotheosis of freedom.
From this period emerged the idea that prosperity was a matter of a wide selection at well-stocked markets and not a matter of a broader swathe of the population becoming better off. Carlson’s account of Khrushchev’s visit suggests how instrumental it was in the development of that motif, highlighting the premier’s perpetual befuddlement at shopping for its own sake, and detailing how the American media went to great lengths to trumpet the visiting Soviet entourage’s ignorance of fashion as an emblem of their national tragedy.
Carlson never quite succeeds in reducing Khrushchev to merely a peculiar sort of antiquated celebrity; instead he emerges from the pages as an uncontainable force, as he is often allowed to speak for himself in his own inimitable words. Khrushchev is impossible to regard now as he was regarded then, as the avowed enemy of the “free world”, the Osama bin Laden of his era.
This makes it even harder to appreciate how bizarre it must have seemed when he revealed himself as an apparently inexhaustible repository of proverbs, quips, and puns, a charismatic raconteur whose personality proved larger than the historical context, than which American politics required it to be. Carlson effectively conjures that lost time, and in the process gives an unlikely testament to, of all things, the courage of a man who once promised to bury us all.