Khrushchev Remembered:
A Characteristic Entrance

Harper's 1971


LIKE EVERY JOURNALIST I have personal memories of Nikita Khrushchev because I served to swell his progress here and there around the world. Mainly this consisted of standing at airports and outside foreign ministries in places like Vienna and Geneva knowing no more of what was going on inside than anyone would know next day who read his paper carefully. But my private gallery of publicly collected Khrushchev images owes most to a few soft and sunny spring days in Yugoslavia in 1955. The thumps and groans behind the locked c!oset doors of the Kremlin that for two years had followed Joseph Stalin's death had just lately come to an end. The closet door opened an inch or two and out came Khrushchev.

The arrival scene at the Belgrade airport was pure opéra bouffe. Red carpets crisscrossed the tarmac, crossed Yugoslav and Russian flags fluttered from every available eminence, Marshal Tito and his honor guard were smartly turned out in matching powder blue uniforms that somehow managed to suggest the Chocolate Soldier. Amidst these showy surroundings a team of wizened old peasant women wielding bunches of twigs kept sweeping down the carpets.

The plane was late. When it finally arrived, Khrushchev rushed - or rather seemed to roll - down the ramp, his short legs churning beneath him like a character in a comic strip, and gripped Tito's hand. Behind him Bulganin and Mikoyan began pairing off with Tito's people: Rankovic, who was, and looked like, Minister of the Interior (one part gangster, two parts cop); Kardelj, who suggested nothing so much as a troubled country doctor in a Chekhov play; Foreign Minister Koca Popovic, small-boned, briefly moustached, dapper, the very model of a diplomatic major domo.

The Soviet Hymn froze everyone in place and thundered on majestically for what seemed a half hour.  Then Khrushchev, with broad-bottomed trousers flapping about his round-toed shoes, solemnly inspected the powder-blue guardsman.  Bulganin, I noticed, had nervously bulging, red-veined eyes, but his suit was better cut than Khrushchev's.  Were these things significant?  American journalists were already beginning to whisper jokes about K's baggy pants.  (It was still the pre-Sputnik era when we could think that a culture incapable of launching a Hart, Schaffner and Marx suit would never get a rocket off the ground.

Speeches.  In Serbo-Croat, hardly anybody's second language.  And in Russian.  As Khrushchev talked, members of the local press corps began to stir unbelievingly.  "What is it?" we outlanders hissed to our neighbors. "What's he saying?"  "They're taking it all back," was the reply - as if that explained everything.  But soon we were all whispering.  Khrushchev, it appeared, was taking back all the horrible abuse that the Cominform had heaped on Tito in 1948 when he was excommunicated for being strong enough to want to run his own Communist country in his own Communist way.  Now, astoundingly, Khrushchev was proposing forgiveness, peace, trade, and cooperation.

At the Hotel Moskva in Belgrade I remember that the waiters were hailed in German as "Herr Ober."  The Schlag on the strawberries was rich.  The slivovitz drove strange icy spikes of feeling into one's head.

Most of the cable that went off to New York and Washington that day consisted of our foolish howls and chortles at Soviet discomfiture.  "They had to back down," was on everybody's lips.  Couldn't even do without Tito!  Much horseplay comparing Mikoyan to a rug merchant, making sport of Khrushchev's suit.  The mountain had come to Mohammed!  Ha, ha!  The Kremlin was eating crow, ho, ho!  And so on.

We had seen the moment all right, but missed the point.  For in the musical-comedy moment of his arrival, this clownish Ukrainian had launched a policy of détente that would transform occupied Austria into a free, neutral, and soon to be prosperous country.  It led to the 1955 Geneva summit talks and resulted in stirrings toward unusual freedom in Warsaw and Budapest.  If we had known that the old Cold War, at least on the simple hot terms we had known till then, had changed forever, would we have been more impressed with Nikita Sergeyevich as we watch him ramble through the Yugoslav countryside?

He was drunk on the last night at a party in the White Palace.  We all made much of the fact, without considering how disarming a role a clown could play  - or play at playing - especially in contrast to the iron face and fist of Stalin that we had grown accustomed to.

We couldn't resist the image of the new Soviet premier apparently roaring drunk, bumbling against his hosts and various journalists, and finally being bundled off to his quarters, seemingly helpless.  Nowadays, sixteen years later, we are still viewing with a mixture of Schadenfreude and liberal hope the embarrassment of Khrushchev's successors evidently obliged to cater to national Communist party men all over the world.  They were obliged, shortly after putting Nikita Khrushchev on the shelf, to account to the Communist world for his fall from power, on occasion even displaying him at the voting polls as proof that he was alive and full of solidarity.  But whose scenario is being played out?  NATO is now an expensive wraith.  Revisionists are busily telling us that there never really was a Communist conspiracy or  Cold War - or if such a thing existed, we invented it.  At the White Palace, just before being carted off, Khrushchev was busily folding Koca Popovic in a fond embrace and saying, "My father's socialist house has many mansions, Koca.  We can wait, Koca, we can wait."

The good-bye at the airport was the arrival all over again, only with the film in backwards.  Speeches, a quick trot past the blue ranks of guardsmen, martial music, handshakes.  Did it happen or do I only remember it that way - that B and K went backwards up the ramp to their plane?  They were, at any rate, the last to enter it, first spinning toward the crowd, then, one after the other, lifting their hats and seeming to shuffle into the dark plane door like a couple of song-and-dance men shuffling off stage.  Our world had changed but who would have thought it?  In any case, those little old women were still sweeping the carpets with twigs.