Nikita Khrushchev, the grandson of a serf and the son of a coal miner, was born in Kalinovka, Ukraine on 5th April, 1894. After a brief formal education Khrushchev found work as a pipe fitter in Yuzovka.
During the First World War Khrushchev became involved in trade union activities and after the October Revolution joined the Bolsheviks. In January, 1919, Khrushchev joined the Red Army and fought against the Whites in the Ukraine during the Civil War. After leaving the army he returned to Yuzovka where he returned to school to finish his education.
Khrushchev remained active in the Communist Party and in 1925 was employed as party secretary of the Petrovsko-Mariinsk. Lazar Kaganovich, the general-secretary of the Ukrainian Communist Party, was impressed with Khrushchev and invited him to accompany him to the 14th Party Congress in Moscow. With the support of Kaganovich, Khrushchev made steady progress in the party hierarchy. In 1938 Khrushchev became secretary of the Ukrainian Communist Party and was employed by Joseph Stalin to carry out the Great Purge in the Ukraine. The following year he became a full member of the Politburo.
Khrushchev was aware that he had to be very careful in his dealings with Stalin: "Even though I agreed with Stalin completely, I knew I had to watch my step in answering him. One of Stalin's favourite tricks was to provoke you into making a statement - or even agreeing with a statement - which showed your true feelings about someone else. It was perfectly clear to me that Stalin and Beria were very close. To what extent this friendship was sincere, I couldn't say, but I knew it was no accident that Beria had been Stalin's choice for Yezhov's replacement."
Khrushchev also worked closely with Lavrenti Beria. "Beria and I started to see each other frequently at Stalin's. At first I liked him. We had friendly chats and even joked together quite a lot, but gradually his political complexion came clearly into focus. I was shocked by his sinister, two-faced, scheming hypocrisy."
After the invasion of Poland in 1940 Khrushchev was given the responsibility of suppressing the Polish and Ukrainian nationalists. When the German Army invaded the Soviet Union in June, 1941, Khrushchev arranged the evacuation of much of the region's industry. During the Second World War Khrushchev granted the rank lieutenant general, and was given the task of organizing guerrilla warfare in the Ukraine against the Germans.
When the German Army retreated in 1944 Khrushchev was once again placed in control of the Ukraine and the rebuilding of the region. Khrushchev job was made more difficult by the famine of 1946. This brought him into conflict with Joseph Stalin who accused Khrushchev of concentrating too much on feeding the people living of the Ukraine rather than exporting food to the rest of the Soviet Union.
Khrushchev was demoted in 1951 and replaced as the minister responsible for agriculture. On the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, Gregory Malenkov became both prime minister and head of the Communist Party. He appeared to be a reformer and called for a higher priority to be given to consumer goods. He later argued that he was not fully aware of the crimes committed by Stalin: "I still mourned Stalin as an extraordinary powerful leader. I knew that his power had been exerted arbitrarily and not always in the proper direction, but in the main Stalin's strength, I believed, had still been applied to the reinforcement of Socialism and to the consolidation of the gains of the October Revolution. Stalin may have used methods which were, from my standpoint, improper or even barbaric, but I hadn't yet begun to challenge the very basis of Stalin's claim to a special honour in history. However, questions were beginning to arise for which I had no ready answer. Like others, I was beginning to doubt whether all the arrests and convictions had been justified from the standpoint of judicial norms. But then Stalin had been Stalin. Even in death he commanded almost unassailable authority, and it still hadn't occurred to me that he had been capable of abusing his power."
In September, 1953, Khrushchev became first secretary of the Communist Party. He arranged for the execution of Lavrenti Beria, head of the Secret Police and gradually he gained control of the party machinery. In 1955 he joined with Nikolai Bulganin to oust Gregory Malenkov from power. He also decided to condemn Stalin's period of rule in the Soviet Union.
During the 20th Party Congress in February, 1956, Khrushchev launched an attack on the rule of Joseph Stalin. He argued: " Stalin acted not through persuasion, explanation and patient co-operation with people, but by imposing his concepts and demanding absolute submission to his opinion. Whoever opposed this concept or tried to prove his viewpoint, and the correctness of his position, was doomed to removal from the leading collective and to subsequent moral and physical annihilation. This was especially true during the period following the 17th Party Congress, when many prominent Party leaders and rank-and-file Party workers, honest and dedicated to the cause of communism, fell victim to Stalin's despotism." He condemned the Great Purge and accused Stalin of abusing his power. He announced a change in policy and gave orders for the Soviet Union's political prisoners to be released.
In the summer of 1956 Gregory Malenkov, Nikolai Bulganin, Vyacheslav Molotov and Lazar Kaganovich attempted to oust Khrushchev This was unsuccessful and Khrushchev now purged his opponents in the Communist Party. Mikhail Gorbachev was one of those who supported Khrushchev's actions: "Khrushchev's secret speech at the XXth Party Congress caused a political and psychological shock throughout the country. At the Party krai committee I had the opportunity to read the Central Committee information bulletin, which was practically a verbatim report of Khrushchev's words. I fully supported Khrushchev's courageous step. I did not conceal my views and defended them publicly. But I noticed that the reaction of the apparatus to the report was mixed; some people even seemed confused."
Khrushchev's de-Stalinzation policy encouraged people living in Eastern Europe to believe that he was willing to give them more independence from the Soviet Union. In Hungary the prime minister Imre Nagy removed state control of the mass media and encouraged public discussion on political and economic reform. Nagy also released anti-communists from prison and talked about holding free elections and withdrawing Hungary from the Warsaw Pact.
Khrushchev became increasingly concerned about these developments and on 4th November 1956 he sent the Red Army into Hungary. During the Hungarian Uprisingan estimated 20,000 people were killed. Nagy was arrested and replaced by the Soviet loyalist, Janos Kadar. Imre Nagy was imprisoned and executed in 1958.
In 1958 Khrushchev replaced Gregory Malenkov as prime minister and was now the undisputed leader of both state and party. In the Soviet Union he promoted reform of the Soviet system and began to place an emphasis on the production of consumer goods rather than on heavy industry.
Khrushchev eased censorship in the Soviet Union and allowed One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn to be published. Some pointed out that this was part of his de-Stalinization policy and did not reflect a genuine increase in freedom. His critics pointed out that books such as Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak were still banned.
In 1959 Khrushchev announced a change in foreign policy. In 1959 visited the United States and offered "the capitalist countries peaceful competition". Khrushchev was due to attend the Paris Summit Conference in 1960 when a reconnaissance plane was shot down over the Soviet Union. He cancelled the meeting and later that year at the Union Nations he attacked Western influence in the Congo.
When John F. Kennedy replaced Dwight Eisenhower as president of the United States he was told about the CIA plan to invade Cuba. Kennedy had doubts about the venture but he was afraid he would be seen as soft on communism if he refused permission for it to go ahead. Kennedy's advisers convinced him that Castro was an unpopular leader and that once the invasion started the Cuban people would support the ClA-trained forces.
On April 14, 1961, B-26 planes began bombing Cuba's airfields. After the raids Cuba was left with only eight planes and seven pilots. Two days later five merchant ships carrying 1,400 Cuban exiles arrived at the Bay of Pigs. The attack was a total failure. Two of the ships were sunk, including the ship that was carrying most of the supplies. Two of the planes that were attempting to give air-cover were also shot down. Within seventy-two hours all the invading troops had been killed, wounded or had surrendered.
At the beginning of September 1962, U-2 spy planes discovered that the Soviet Union was building surface-to-air missile (SAM) launch sites. There was also an increase in the number of Soviet ships arriving in Cuba which the United States government feared were carrying new supplies of weapons. President Kennedy complained to the Soviet Union about these developments and warned them that the United States would not accept offensive weapons (SAMs were considered to be defensive) in Cuba.
On September 27, a CIA agent in Cuba overheard Castro's personal pilot tell another man in a bar that Cuba now had nuclear weapons. U-2 spy-plane photographs also showed that unusual activity was taking place at San Cristobal. However, it was not until October 15 that photographs were taken that revealed that the Soviet Union was placing long range missiles in Cuba.
President Kennedy's first reaction to the information about the missiles in Cuba was to call a meeting to discuss what should be done. Fourteen men attended the meeting and included military leaders, experts on Latin America, representatives of the CIA, cabinet ministers and personal friends whose advice Kennedy valued. This group became known as the Executive Committee of the National Security Council. Over the next few days they were to meet several times.
At the first meeting of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council, the CIA and other military advisers explained the situation. After hearing what they had to say, the general feeling of the meeting was for an air-attack on the missile sites. Remembering the poor advice the CIA had provided before the Bay of Pigs invasion, John F. Kennedy decided to wait and instead called for another meeting to take place that evening. By this time several of the men were having doubts about the wisdom of a bombing raid, fearing that it would lead to a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. The committee was now so divided that a firm decision could not be made.
The Executive Committee of the National Security Council argued amongst themselves for the next two days. The CIA and the military were still in favour of a bombing raid and/or an invasion. However, the majority of the committee gradually began to favour a naval blockade of Cuba. Kennedy accepted their decision and instructed Theodore Sorensen, a member of the committee, to write a speech in which Kennedy would explain to the world why it was necessary to impose a naval blockade of Cuba.
As well as imposing a naval blockade, Kennedy also told the air-force to prepare for attacks on Cuba and the Soviet Union. The army positioned 125,000 men in Florida and was told to wait for orders to invade Cuba. If the Soviet ships carrying weapons for Cuba did not turn back or refused to be searched, a war was likely to begin. Kennedy also promised his military advisers that if one of the U-2 spy planes were fired upon he would give orders for an attack on the Cuban SAM missile sites.
The world waited anxiously. A public opinion poll in the United States revealed that three out of five people expected fighting to break out between the two sides. There were angry demonstrations outside the American Embassy in London as people protested about the possibility of nuclear war. Demonstrations also took place in other cities in Europe. However, in the United States, polls suggested that the vast majority supported Kennedy's action.
On October 24, President John F. Kennedy was informed that Soviet ships had stopped just before they reached the United States ships blockading Cuba. That evening Khrushchev sent an angry note to Kennedy accusing him of creating a crisis to help the Democratic Party win the forthcoming election.
On October 26, Khrushchev sent Kennedy another letter. In this he proposed that the Soviet Union would be willing to remove the missiles in Cuba in exchange for a promise by the United States that they would not invade Cuba. The next day a second letter from Khrushchev arrived demanding that the United States remove their nuclear bases in Turkey.
While the president and his advisers were analyzing Khrushchev's two letters, news came through that a U-2 plane had been shot down over Cuba. The leaders of the military, reminding Kennedy of the promise he had made, argued that he should now give orders for the bombing of Cuba. Kennedy refused and instead sent a letter to Khrushchev accepting the terms of his first letter.
Khrushchev agreed and gave orders for the missiles to be dismantled. Eight days later the elections for Congress took place. The Democrats increased their majority and it was estimated that Kennedy would now have an extra twelve supporters in Congress for his policies.
The Cuban Missile Crisis was the first and only nuclear confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. The event appeared to frighten both sides and it marked a change in the development of the Cold War.
The Military and the leaders of the Communist Party felt humiliated by Khrushchev climbdown over Cuba. His agricultural policy was also a failure and the country was forced to import increasing amounts of wheat from Canada and the United States.
On 14th October, 1964, the Central Committee forced Khrushchev to resign. He lived in retirement in Moscow where he wrote his memoirs, Khrushchev Remembers (1971). Nikita Khrushchev died on 11th September, 1971.