Nina Khrushcheva on what her grandfather would think of Putin

From 2014: The granddaughter of the former leader of the Soviet Union on why this will all end in disaster

Photographs by Stephanie Noritz

Photographs by Stephanie Noritz

Nina Khrushcheva is the granddaughter of the former leader of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev. An associate professor of international affairs at the New School in New York City, and a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute, she is a prolific writer and a shrewd observer of Russia. She is author of The Lost Khrushchev: A Journey into the Gulag of the Russian Mind.

Q: Your grandfather famously transferred the Crimean peninsula to Ukraine in 1954. Sixty years later, many look back on that move with puzzlement. Why did he do it?

A: It’s a bit of an unfair question. In 1954, this was one territory. Divisions between the republics were ethnic and national, but politically there was one system. So Khrushchev was moving checker pieces within one political system. Also, I think Khrushchev was making attempts at decentralization—with the idea that not everything would be controlled from the Kremlin. These attempts began after Joseph Stalin died.

Q: What would Khrushchev have thought of Putin’s recent manoeuverings in Crimea?

A: The Khrushchev who was in the Kremlin until 1964 may have thought it was the right thing to do. He would probably have seen divisions between east and west Ukraine as threatening to the Communist world movement. But, you know, Khrushchev was a Communist autocrat. What’s Putin’s excuse?

On the other hand, Khrushchev post-1964 [when he was ousted] might have thought that what happened in Kyiv was a great thing. He may even have been proud. Ukraine is not a “small Russia” anymore! Another part of Khrushchev’s great disagreement with Vladimir Putin—as I imagine it 60 years later—is that this is a KGB-type job. Instead of solving a disagreement on political or diplomatic terms, we just send in the tanks. Well, I know that Khrushchev really regretted sending tanks into Budapest in 1956.

Q: What was your grandfather’s relationship to Ukraine?

A: Khrushchev was from a poor peasant family in Russia. When he was 16, he moved to Ukraine, where industry was booming, and was a coal miner there for a number of years. Then, during the Bolshevik revolution, he became a Russian revolutionary—and later a political commissar. Eventually, in 1938, he was chosen to be first secretary of the Communist party of Ukraine by Joseph Stalin. So he spent most of his career in Ukraine.

Also, Khrushchev’s wife, Nina, was western Ukrainian. I remember my grandmother saying that Khrushchev spoke Ukrainian all the time and that it was so embarrassing because it wasn’t the real thing! That said, Khrushchev was a Russian. It’s erroneous to say that he was Ukrainian—as Henry Kissinger just did, in a recent article. He did not transfer Crimea to Ukraine because he was Ukrainian. He was a Russian.

Q: You often play on Karl Marx’s famous dictum to argue that Russian history repeats itself “as tragedy and farce all at once.” What do you mean by that?

A: Putin is a favourite pastime for a lot of Western publications. They write about his megalomaniac displays of power: kissing tigers or saving dolphins or whatever . . . a kind of James Bond of contemporary Russia. It’s a very farcical way of showing him. But it is also tragic because in Russia people mock him and go to prison for that.

Q: Do you think the cult of Putin is as strong as the cults of personality that existed around old Soviet leaders?

A: To a degree. Putin’s cult of personality is still far inferior to Stalin’s; there’s no question about that. Because in Stalin’s time, there was him and nobody else. In Putin’s case, it’s much softer.

You kind of love him because he is a great leader who is uniting the great Russian state that was squandered away after 1991, when Gorbachev allowed the country to collapse. In this sense, Putin’s cult is not as strong or absolute as Stalin’s; but it is infinitely more insidious because it gives the impression that it comes with soft power.

Putin’s approval rating was below 50 per cent at some point. For a Russian leader, that’s very low, because our lives are centred on the state. But then Sochi happened, and suddenly there was a great surge of popularity. Then Crimea happened, and there is an even greater surge. It’s very emotional. We showed them what we can do and don’t mess with the Russians and so on.

Q: Some observers attribute the cult of Putin to a kind of chronic political apathy across Russia.

A: We are apathetic. People attribute this to fear, and I do think fear comes into it. In Russia, the state is all-seeing and it can harm you anytime it wants to. But there is more. Russia is very big and very difficult to control. Because of that, it has an ideal of statehood that other modern countries left in their feudal pasts. In Russia, ideas of central power, the great nation, the large state, are still more important than individual happiness or achievement.

First, we had Russian Orthodoxy. Then we had Communism. Both times it was the same formula: In Russia, we are creating paradise on Earth for everybody. Now, Putin is using this formula. And we Russians haven’t reformed our way of thinking. Russians are terrified of change. The belief is that change is never good. You want change, you need change, and you have a revolution—and then it turns out like 1917, so much worse than it was before.

Q: Some analysts think that Putin’s invasion of Crimea will backfire: that it will lead Russians to rebel against the Kremlin’s authority. That seems optimistic.

A: Maybe. But ultimately, when countries behave this way, it ends up in a disaster. That’s what happened to the Soviet Union. Autocratic leaders should be afraid when things seem to be going well—precisely because that’s when people start asking questions. [On the day of the Crimean referendum,] some Russians were happy, but there were also humongous protests in Moscow that really warmed my heart. Russians are very much in love with this idea of statehood. But if Putin becomes an international pariah and heavy sanctions are imposed and visas are banned? Well, what kind of great country is that? If the money goes away, then Putin’s popularity goes away. You cannot put everybody in the gulag.

Q: How close were you with your grandfather?

A: Well, I was very little. So I just remember him as a grandfather. I was close to him because my sister and I were the only girls in the family and we were spoiled. We visited every Sunday and he played with us.

Q: In the early ’80s, you gave up your father’s surname and adopted the name Khrushcheva, which was your mother’s. Why did you do that?

A: In high school, we learned a lot about the history of the Communist party, the “World Socialist Movement,” how great the Soviet Union was, you know—it was basically ideology studies. But my history books never talked about the leaders [who came after Stalin]. I knew that one of them had been my grandfather. This made me very uncomfortable. Some teachers would mention Khrushchev—but almost in a whisper and never in a good way. It was always, “Khrushchev tried to collapse the Soviet Union!” by which they meant that he denounced Stalin. I was a rebellious child. So I thought: I’ll do this little thing. It was also very much a tribute to my mother. I grew up reading dissident literature. I was brought up to think critically, even of Khrushchev’s period in the Kremlin.

Q: You are currently writing a book about former U.S. vice-president Dick Cheney. Why Dick Cheney?

A: When I saw him for the first time in 2000, he struck my fancy. I watched him and the way he dealt with reporters. They would ask uncomfortable questions and he would just shoot them down, saying, “I’m not going to answer that.” And the journalists kind of accepted his refusal to talk. I thought: Oh my God, I know this! I know this surrender to power. But you know, in the autocratic cultures that I know, Cheney would have stayed in power forever. In America: that’s it and he’s gone. In my part of the world, there would be Cheneygrad, Cheneystan, Cheney golden statue mausoleum. For me, Cheney is an oxymoron of democracy.