A conversation with Nina Khrushchev about Grandfather Nikita, Putin, Stalin, Pussy Riot, Cheney and Obama

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It’s a given that those of us who were alive remember where we were the instant we learned of the JFK assassination, much as those around in 2001 remember where they were when they learned of 9/11.

Almost a year after JFK, I distinctly remember another chill when I learned of the removal, on October 14, 1964, of Nikita Khrushchev from his position as head of the Soviet Union.

I would have been 12 then. I don’t remember exactly where I was, or what I thought of him. But I well knew the gravity of the suddenly uncertain leadership situation of America’s sole nuclear rival.

Back then, and maybe again as now, we were taught to fear the Russians, if not hate them outright. But we were soon to have our own problems, what with Civil Rights and Vietnam and Watergate, not to mention the mind-expanding influence of The Beatles and the British Invasion, Muhammad Ali and psychedelia.

By the time I got out of high school I was rightly radicalized, and in the mid-‘80s, when I was writing for Billboard in New York, I jumped at the chance to meet and befriend Russian correspondents at the New York bureau of the official TASS (now ITAR-TASS) news agency—eventually attracting the suspicion of the FBI, which put me under surveillance.

I have kept my ITAR-TASS friendships to this day. In 2007, I attended the annual ITAR-TASS Christmas party and met Nina Khrushcheva, Nikita’s great-granddaughter, now a professor of International Affairs at New School University in New York and author of Imagining Nabokov: Russia Between Art and Politics. As remarkable as it was to be at an ITAR-TASS Christmas party—many of them over the years, in fact—here I was meeting the great-granddaughter of Nikita Khrushchev, whose sister, coincidentally, was now married to my friend and former New York TASS bureau chief Igor Makurin.

Nina has now published another book, The Lost Khrushchev: A Journey into the Gulag of the Russian Mind, in which she tells the story of her grandfather Leonid Khrushchev, oldest son of Nikita. It begins 30 years ago, with a chance conversation with Vyacheslav Molotov, Joseph Stalin’s ruthless foreign minister, from which the term Molotov cocktail comes. Molotov informed her that her grandfather, a World War II fighter pilot, was in fact not shot down in 1943 at age 25, but was executed by Stalin for desertion and service to the Nazis.

Molotov’s allegation had been used to discredit Nikita, himself a former Stalinist who tried to loosen Stalinist tyranny after succeeding him, following his ouster and replacement by the repressive Leonid Brezhnev. Nina, whose late father Lev Sergeevich Petrov was a journalist (like most alumni of the Military Institute of Foreign Languages, he had “unofficial” Soviet espionage credentials), took the female form of Nikita’s surname (Khrushcheva) in order to counter the official discrediting of her great-grandfather, whom she always calls “Grandfather” in the book.

In The Lost Khrushchev, then, Nina, who was seven when Nikita died, provides an extraordinary window into the mostly hidden, often dark soul of today’s Russia, from the point-of-view of an unusually worldly woman who grew up among the Soviet Union’s most powerful figures. As much an account of her personal self-discovery, the book also features her thoughts on the likes of Putin, Gorbachev, Obama and Cheney. She spoke about it on the phone a few hours after returning from Moscow and shortly before a trip to Brazil.

Right from the first page, your book is gripping. You relate meeting Molotov, when you were 16, in what seemed like a rather bland housing project for someone who was once so powerful.

He was retired, and retirement communities are never the same as residences for those in power. Grandfather lived there, too, after he was ousted, and Grandmother. So it was not the first tier of retirement housing. Brezhnev died in office, but if he had retired he would have had his own mansion. Khrushchev had ousted Molotov, so they were all persona non grata, and it was second or third tier. They weren’t top leaders.

You were 16-years-old, and your cousin introduced you to Molotov.

It was a shock. For me he was a figure in the history of Stalin. I knew he was alive, but the fact that he was alive and visible was shocking—and that my cousin was friendly with him was shocking. I remember that meeting as shock upon shock upon shock, and I think that’s why it stayed with me so long. So in writing the book I started with that story. It was the beginning of my questioning of that story of my grandfather [Leonid], and indeed, there were many more shocks.

You mention at one point how when people hear your name, they expect someone like your grandfather Nikita. I’m sure I was guilty of that when I first met you.

It brings a certain interest—meeting a Russian whose name you know. Some people become friends and they don’t care anymore, and some become friends and make fun of me. They already know how I feel about it—when someone hears your name and is only interested in you because of your name. But it’s part of my identity.

Do people generally identify you with your grandfather?

Americans either don’t remember Khrushchev or know who he is, unless they’re very savvy or knowledgeable about Russia. And since my name is Khrushcheva instead of Khrushchev, my students often don’t know the connection until I bring it up during the course. Now it sounds a bit strange because I wrote the book, but my greatest achievement in America has been anonymity.

What about when you’re in Russia?

I haven’t lived there in almost 25 years, so they have no idea who I am now, and cannot imagine that I’m related. They don’t travel, and people from the Kremlin don’t run around the streets of Moscow. I don’t know how it would have been if I said, “Hi. My name is Nina Khrushcheva,” but people don’t make the connection.

Do you ever think about changing your name back to your given surname?

I do think about that, but by writing this book, I kind of explain it to myself that I’ll never do it, and I  don’t think I’ll be thinking of it further. For various reasons, [Nikita] Khrushchev still needs me to say he matters, and also Khrushcheva is my identity now–that’s what I am. That’s how I write. I was talking to an editor at he L.A. Times and was thinking about either using a pen name or going back to my father’s name, and he said, “No way! Readers already know you this way,” and it’s quite interesting, because it’s not about Khrushchev anymore, but that I’d written enough as Khrushcheva at this point.

I grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s afraid of Khrushchev. What was he like?

He came to the U.S. in 1959 with the idea of bringing communism with a human face—and that describes him perfectly. He was a diehard communist to his last breath, but unlike Molotov–who was ideological throughout, though not without honor, as I find out in writing the book. But Khrushchev was a communist with a human face–it describes everything he did, and his time after he was ousted. Then he was like any pensioner, which is what he said–planting tomatoes and collecting strawberries.

What was it like growing up around him?

It was fun, but always much, much larger than that. I tell the story of jumping on the couch and he came in and told my mother not to scold us, because he would be doing the same thing. But my mother’s reaction was so negative to this, because he was the head of state–but so kind. There was always a connect and disconnect between personal and public and personal and political. He was human, but also a communist.

You portray him in words and pictures as a nice old man–a grandfather.

Yes! He was. That’s why I thought it was also important–nobody knows that about him, how fun he was. Remembering those stories compared to his political behavior–which could be scary. [His famous statement, wrongly taken literally] ‘We will bury you’—which was misused for propaganda, was a spontaneous and soundbite thing that made you scared as a little child, but it was no different from his way of behaving at home as well. He was always human, and in public, quick on his feet with a good line–and that was rare in the Soviet Union because there was always the façade of the ‘leader.’ I can’t say politician because we didn’t have politicians, but leader. Whatever they were like at home nobody knows, but in Khrushchev’s case, he translated his political behavior to his home behavior and vice versa.

He died in 1971, a year after the existence his famous memoir became known.

Grandmother and Mother and my aunt felt that the stress from the memoir made him sicker than he was and his heart gave in. My story is different than the official story–that he gave his blessing to the publication of his memoir [in the West]. In my story he gave no such blessing. Anything I really know about him, and from the conversations with Mother and Grandmother, he could not have given it. That would be betraying his communist beliefs. He was writing for the Soviet people. He would not have blessed the publication in the West. Dr. Zhivago was his scandal: He was the leader of the U.S.S.R. when it was published in the West, and he would not have followed in Pasternak’s footsteps.

“The Lost Khrushchev” is subtitled, “Journey into the Gulag of the Russian Mind.”

It’s kind of a slightly complex formula, but it’s also quite simple: The idea is that Russians are so oppressed because of oppressive government, fearful of consequences of opposition and protest–and dissidents are in the gulags. We’re afraid to lose freedom, suffer and, die and I argue that all this is true, but it’s also the gulag of the mind: The reason we’re so fearful and oppressed and have despots rather than democratic leaders is that we create a gulag in our mind—so there’s no need for barbed wire. The state is more important than the small man, and it’s exacerbated by the large size of Russia—or the Soviet Union. It continues to be very big, which makes for a strange mind set. Also, democracy is a choice. You decide you want to be free. You wake up every morning and think about your freedom to read, freedom to make choices and mistakes and serve the state or not serve the state. Russians either don’t have it or don’t want it, and I argue that they don’t have it because ultimately they don’t’ want it.

But there have been instances of post-Soviet protests.

People took to the streets in 1991 when there was the coup against Gorbachev, and the next time they were in the streets was 2011 when Putin said he would be president. Russians felt, “Wait a minute! You can’t tell us you will be president. Why don’t you at least pretend you care about our opionion?” The nation remembers freedom only once in 20 years? Something is wrong with this nation! The gulag of  the Russian mind. I essentially predicted Putin’s behavior, and he did exactly that–but also, we are the gulag people in our minds because we did go into the streets in 2011, and look at us now: We love Putin more than life itself!

You mention in the book that because you have been so outspoken in your writing, you once had passport issues in Russia.

I haven’t had any problems since then, but we always have to be aware of these things. But it’s also ridiculous. A puny little article [of criticism] and even that they can’t take. That’s another thing: How weak! Despite the popularity of Putin, how weak this president is if he’s afraid of people having debates about how they want to live, or articles written about this. He’s on clay feet. Why be afraid of a small little piece or article?

They’re very well-written, and you carry the Khrushchev name…

But I am not the competition, and that’s what makes him a very small man. That’s what freedom is: I have the right to say what I think, and he should convince me otherwise–and I’m happy to be wrong! I was writing this book about the gulag of the Russian mind way before Ukraine, Crimea, the end of protesting, and here we are. I don’t want to be right about Russia, but I am.

How often do you go back?

Four times a year. To see my family, but I need to touch the pulse and see if I’m right about Russia—and find what I should write about, what makes them tick? Otherwise I only watch Russian TV on the Internet and other specific things, so I do need to see what’s going on. But it’s getting firmer every year. More monolithic at the Kremlin. ‘Everyone’s an enemy. We are the greatest.’ So I watch specific programs, Russian state programs, Russian news. It’s very interesting, but essentially research.”

Are you ever hassled?

I have no problem. Nobody ever stopped me except that one time. I had to register at various places in Moscow including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Mother is always afraid something will happen, and there’s a new law now that if you have a Russian passport you need to register with Russian authorities. But I live in the U.S. so I don’t have to register with anybody. My mother is afraid of various situations and problems, and I’m very grateful for whatever forces comprise my character, because it keeps me reasonably objective. And I’ve noticed that those who think something will happen–and nothing happens–become undue heroes. But some people are struggling with Putin and the regime and do have problems. With all the things I’ve written—not that I think they’re important—they’ve been critical. But I haven’t had problems. The state decides who is the enemy, and Putin is the state.

Is Putin a return to Stalin?

He’s not Stalin. His formula of behavior is Stalinesque—which does not make him Stalin. With Stalin, we lost millions in the gulags–not just the Russian mind, but Russian people. I’m not defending Putin in any way, but it’s a modern time, and he’s a modern despot. He doesn’t need to arrest everybody, but one person–and I’ll give an example: Pussy Riot. That also doesn’t work for him too well because they’re now celebrities–which I don’t think they should have become, but it’s their choice. It’s different between show trials today. People continue to speak out, so it’s not the same.

He’s “Stalinesque”?

His model is Stalineque. He’s a strong-handed leader who believes he’s the savior of Russia, similar not just to Stalin but Peter the Great or Ivan the Terrible. So in some way he is a part of the succession of Russian autocrats–but not just one.

What does he believe?

He believes in a strong Russia, that the West is out to get us, and decadent. And every time Russia follows the West’s example, we end up being humiliated and duped and what-not, so his Russia is that kind of Russia–hurt, vindictive, wants to prove it’s greatness at any cost, and greatness comes with what we own, like oil and gas. In some ways it’s a war behavior, with Crimea and Ukraine. What I saw in Moscow was war propaganda. It’s not at war, but Russia is at war–all the time. Even the Olympics was presented in very militant form. The whole conversation about the Olympics was war-oriented: All athletes were soldiers, their coaches were soldiers, we’re against the West and we’re not going to lose. That works for him, so Russia is almost standing against anybody else who wants to hurt it. Even if it’s not World War II, the whole world is presented in World War II formula, even today. Putin and Russia want to be recognized as great, and if we have to hurt someone, we have to do that.

I hate to say it, but it sounds very much like the U.S.

Both Russia and America are frontier cultures with that mentality: “If we don’t do it, somebody will come and get us.” And they’re both imitation cultures—they both imitate Europe. America was a colony and built by the French, Dutch, British and others. Russia is on the outskirts of Europe and the last line of defense between Europe and Asia. Russia formulates its existence on European formulas but it doesn’t want to compete because then you have to decide that every day you’re going to get better, which is difficult. So it decided it’s going to present itself as what the West is not—which doesn’t make it not imitation.

Other thoughts on the U.S. and Russia?

America and Russia are very similar. They’re big and both messianic–both think they save humanity. Russia is saving it in terms of its spiritual existence–that Russian soul–America through offering unparalleled comfort. It’s not a big choice today: People want comfort, but the reason I think that Putin is popular among certain people, is that there is the idea that people lose morality with the money that America puts forward. They do look for some spiritual values, and Putin, as Russia always had before, offers conservative values, not decadence. But of course it’s all fake. How can a man who divorced his wife preach conservative values?

It still sounds similar to the U.S.!

There is similarity, but also not similarity because America, as imperfect as America is—and who’s perfect?–still offers the world a better option for life, although of course it screws up a lot of countries in the meantime! The 1917 Russian revolution offered salvation, then Stalin and then Khrushchev, and now offers a solution for the future or betterment of human life–and what it did was through force and oppression and lack of freedom. Some countries managed to have social democracy, a combination of American and Russian [models] in a much more tame European way.

Where do the two countries stand today?

I think America remains a world power and Russia is really not, but is trying to become one through menace–which doesn’t make it a gerat power, doesn’t provide a solution.

What are your thoughts on President Obama?

Obama, regrettably, didn’t rectify the Dick Cheney problem. But he came in with an understanding of what needed to be done. Unlike you I’m very disappointed in Obama. He talks too much, and I don’t understand who advises him in foreign policy. I’d advise him to first think and then speak about it. He doesn’t sound too convincing when he talks about a “red line in Syria” and then goes to Putin with it. Putin thought he was saving Obama, and now he’s talking about sanctions against Russia. So why is he saying anything? So I’m disappointed in Obama. Cheney was a dictatorial leader, but spying on [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel was worse than Cheney. It upsets me. He should know better, and he does know better, in fact, and yet his advisors do not.

But you still support him.

I’m a disappointed supporter of Barack Obama. There’s, no reason for this sort of thing. It is so not good. I teach propaganda and commnications. Can’t they at least hire me—like The Washington Post suggested? I was the first to say Putin will take Crimea. The Pentagon is now studying his body language—why are they wasting the money? I could have told you all that for free! I’m really hoping the White House calls me! They’re bad on messaging: I’m totally happy with the affordable health care act, but first figure out what it will be instead of celebrating it and then screwing it up. And [U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.] Samantha Power should not be tweeting! And he picks lobbyists for a cause to positions of ambassadorial importance, which is wrong.

And the Republicans?

They just prove the whole dictatorial formula.

After all your research, are you satisfied that you know the truth about “the lost Khrushchev,” your grandfather—and Nikita’s son—Leonid Khrushchev?

Yes. I am. He died. I’m fascinated by him. His story is tragic, not only because he died, but he tried to prove to his father who was a communist that he was a human, and in that particular case, Khrushchev, who was a communist with a human face, did not want him to be a human, but just communist. So the things Leonid was doing–chasing women, crashing cars, being very brave–somehow became in Khrushchev’s mind sins that he couldn’t overcome in relation to his son. He was very upset that he was not a communist, and that I find very tragic. And it’s also very tragic that in dying under regular war circumstances he became someone whose fate in the 20th Century events rests on Khrushchev’s shoulders because of that rumor that [Leonid] was a traitor and helped the Nazis and Stalin punished him for that—and that’s the only reason [they give] that Khrushchev denounced Stalin in congress. So the importance of Khrushchev repenting to make the country better is now gone, only because [they say] he was avenging his son who Stalin allegedly killed. So part of 20th Century history rests on this very young man who died at age 25.

How do you feel about Leonid?

I love him tremendously. I find him fascinating, and wish I could be a friend of his. There are tidbits of his life that nobody even thought of investigating, that he and Stalin’s younger son were in love with the same woman, and she was in love with Leonid and when he died married Stalin. People knew, but no one thought of talking about it–but the Khrushchev-Stalin comparisons/disagreements are always political, and at the same time there are so many connections between the Stalins and the Khrushchevs: The younger Stalin son and Leonid shared love with the same woman. The older Stalin son had the fate of being captured and put in a concentration camp–though Leonid never was, but the story was that he was–and Stalin’s older son actually was and died as a hero.

And what of Leonid’s mother?

That’s very interesting, also. I found the remarkable story of my birth grandmother—who just died in March when the book was coming out, at 101—Lyuba. I’m sorry to say she’s dead–God rest her soul–but she was a horrible person and I never knew how horrible she was. I researched and discovered and for me it became the epitome of Soviet hypocrisy–communism with humanity. Formerly it had so little humanity that people would behave as absolutely perfect communists in public settings and go to the kitchen or wherever and not be perfect at all–and she was a great example of that: really quite scheming and deceitful and immoral in regular life, and hiding it from everyone until her last breath.

Anything else to say about the book?

It was a very interesting book to write. I learned things about my family that I didn’t know, but also thought about my family a lot, like Khrushchev’s wife Nina–my grandmother—and how she fit. I found out that unlike Nikita, she was an orthodox communist, like Molotov, her neighbor in her later years. They believed that communism and the Kremlin were never wrong. Nikita was much more democratic than she was, and yet she was very forgiving of family, since she thought family was most important. Another title of this book would have been The Contradictions of Communism.

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For more from Nina Khruscheva, I highly recommend her website and blog.