Painful Truth: Khruschev a shoe-banging mystery

How did a Stalinist undermine Stalin's legacy?

This Oct. 12 is the anniversary of one of those odd moments of history that remains in dispute despite hundreds of witnesses.

In 1961, full of anger at a delegate from the Philippines, Soviet premier Nikita Khruschev railed against the west while (allegedly) banging his shoe on his desk during a United Nations debate.

Khruschev remains one of those figures in history that is extremely hard to pin down.

An ill-educated peasant and metal worker, he was an early convert to revolutionary socialism, and eventually began climbing the ranks of the new Soviet power structure. But Joseph Stalin was ahead of him, and climbing faster.

By the time Stalin, paranoid and cruel, began his purges and mass executions, Khruschev was a senior party official. He sent friends and colleagues to their deaths. He was a loyal workhorse for Stalin throughout the Second World War and beyond.

He seemed no more than another tame monster.

Then Stalin died, felled by a stroke.

Khruschev, the crude peasant, outmaneuvered everyone else and managed to dispose of Lavrenty Beria, ruthless head of the Soviet secret police.

And then… Kruschev ushered in the thaw.

For a few years in the late 1950s and early 1960s, artists had more freedom, people could speak up – a little – and reforms that made things easier for the common Soviet man and woman were introduced.

Khruschev never became a saint, nor did he ever relinquish total control. But the man who had without outward qualm condemned thousands to death dismantled the cult of Stalin.

After he was deposed in 1964, he noted that anyone who had tried to “retire” Stalin wouldn’t have survived. His survival was his own legacy, in a way.

The question about Khruschev is how did a sliver of humanity survive within him? He had done terrible things. He had made himself into a monster.

But without Khruschev’s turn from Stalinism, history might have turned out much worse.