Chapter One: The October Surprise
Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev bubbled with confidence that morning. He knew the date, October 12, 1964, would be historic. The Soviet Union had just launched the first spacecraft carrying an entire crew. Three Russian cosmonauts orbited the earth in a huge, new-generation satellite called Voskhod ("Sunrise"). Their flight dramatized their country's lead over the United States in the race to land the first man on the moon. For months, perhaps even years, smaller American satellites would still be able to launch only one astronaut at a time.
Communism was beating capitalism to the frontiers of outer space. The Communist system was showing the whole world its technological superiority. Khrushchev could hardly contain his excitement. This was the sort of moment he lived for. As usual, he alone expected to congratulate Russia's latest space heroes. It was his right as the undisputed leader of the Soviet Communist Party and government. Then, suddenly, strange things began to happen.
Impatiently, Nikita Sergeyevich ordered a radiotelephone link established from his luxurious vacation dacha on the Black Sea to the orbiting spacecraft. Soviet journalists crowded into his ground-floor study to record the scene. When Khrushchev finally got the connection, he greeted the cosmonauts with characteristic gusto, promising them "a welcome stronger than the force of gravity" when they returned to earth. The bald, rotund Soviet leader smiled and joked nonstop for the cameras. Then, apparently still playing the clown, Khrushchev told the cosmonauts: "I am handing the telephone to Anastas Ivanovich Mikoyan. He is literally tearing the receiver out of my hand, and I cannot deny him."
To millions of Soviets listening to the radio or watching television, it seemed to be just another bit of exuberant Khrushchev horseplay, one more emotion-charged exaggeration at a triumphant moment. They should have known better. After all, who ever dared grab a telephone from Josef Stalin?
Only one small group of men in the Kremlin knew exactly what the gesture meant when Mikoyan took control of that phone. Nikita Khrushchev had just spoken his last words in public.
Anastas Mikoyan was president of the Soviet Union. It was a ceremonial post. His real power came as one of the eleven members of the Soviet Communist Party's ruling Politburo, the most important men in the country, including Khrushchev himself. The Politburo made all the key decisions, without any of the inconveniences facing democratic governments, like a parliamentary opposition or an investigative press. The Soviet Politburo was a law unto itself. It ran the Communist Party and the Soviet government, the army and the KGB secret police, the parliament, the press, the courts, and everything else in the U.S.S.R., down through a chain of command of privileged officials known as the nomenklatura. The unswerving loyalty of all such subordinates was assured by rewards -- access to special stores, hospitals, and dachas -- if they did what they were told, and the threat of prison or worse if they stepped out of line.
No Soviets said no to the Politburo. Whatever the Politburo majority wanted, it got, including the power to say which of its members would be the top leader, the first secretary of the Party. That job was now held by Nikita Sergeyevich, who thought he would keep it for life. There was no legal restriction on his term of office. He had long ago outfoxed his enemies and replaced them in the leadership with his own loyal supporters. Only the Politburo could challenge Khrushchev, and no one there was strong enough for that, he thought. His closest colleagues were about to prove him wrong.
They had sent Mikoyan down to the Black Sea with Khrushchev to keep an eye on him. Some of the Kremlin's most ambitious rising power brokers needed their boss on vacation and out of the way for two weeks, while they stayed in Moscow and put the finishing touches on a secret plot to get rid of him.
Mikoyan was the ideal choice to accompany the leader, for one simple reason: Nikita Sergeyevich trusted Mikoyan. They had been close political colleagues for many years and were also intimate personal friends. They lived next to each other in government mansions on Moscow's Lenin Hills. Even their sons were good friends.
More important, Mikoyan was also the ultimate survivor. It took consummate skill at political maneuvering to last through Stalin's bloodiest purges, as he did, and serve a record thirty years in the Politburo. Admirers said he could walk between the raindrops and not get wet. Critics thought that only a ruthless set of priorities had kept him in the top leadership for so long. Anastas Ivanovich knew better than most when friendship had to be cast aside in the interest of political survival. Mikoyan had always known how and when to adjust his personal position to accommodate coming political change. October 1964 was no different. He knew Khrushchev had to go. So he would help the plotters keep Nikita Khrushchev in the dark until they were ready, then escort his old friend back to Moscow to the closed-door Kremlin meeting that would end the Khrushchev era. That was what the Politburo wanted. And Anastas Mikoyan was too good an old Bolshevik to disappoint the Politburo.
I was a young journalist in Moscow at the time, having arrived only three weeks before. Since then, I had managed to see Khrushchev up close twice, once at a diplomatic reception when he sought out a group of Western correspondents to announce that the Soviet Union had a powerful new missile "which can hit a fly in the sky," and a second time at an airport ceremony for departing President Sukarno of Indonesia at the end of an official visit. Like virtually everyone else on the planet, I had often seen Nikita Sergeyevich on television. Now at least I had seen a bit more than that. His boundless energy and robust health for a man of seventy, his sharp tongue, and his supreme confidence were even more impressive in the flesh. I had no idea at the time that my first two glimpses of Khrushchev in power would turn out to be my last.
On Monday, October 12, I wasn't even thinking about him. Like my older, more experienced colleagues, I was chasing the wrong story. All of us were scrambling for clues to what the space mission meant. Tass, the official Soviet government news agency, announced only that it would be "a long flight." But how long? What would the cosmonauts try to accomplish? Would one of them exit from the orbiting satellite by umbilical cord and become the first man to walk in space? How far ahead of the Americans were they? When would the Soviets try to land a man on the moon?
As usual, no responsible official would answer. The Soviet space program was so secret in 1964 that rocket liftoffs were never shown on television, no foreigner had ever visited the launch center at Baikonur, and its top scientist was known only as "the chief designer"; his name was officially classified as a state secret. Any Soviet citizen leaking unauthorized information on the space program risked a death sentence on treason charges. So, not surprisingly, security held. All foreign correspondents in Moscow that October 12 spent a frustrating day digging fruitlessly for additional scraps of information on the latest space success. No one had time to think about Khrushchev. Indeed, there seemed to be no earthly reason to worry about him.
As he relaxed at his magnificent villa on the Black Sea near Pitsunda, fifteen hundred miles southeast of Moscow, the vacationing Khrushchev could be forgiven for feeling confident. Over the years he had outmaneuvered his great political rivals--Georgi Malenkov, Vyacheslav Molotov, Lavrenty Beria, Nikolai Bulganin, and all the other heirs of Stalin who at one time or another became pretenders to the throne. Nikita Sergeyevich had long ago mastered the art of keeping various factions at each other's throats and himself on top, all without spilling more blood. Once secure in the leadership, he had ended Stalin's terror, the purges that had killed more than twenty mil lion Soviet citizens, and already assured himself a place in history. But then was still much more to do.
At Pitsunda, Khrushchev enjoyed the finest estate in the Soviet Union. I was one of the few foreign journalists ever allowed to see it. Pine forests and a ten-foot-high concrete wall sealed off the huge seafront property from prying eyes. Hidden behind the walls were several guesthouses, each too far away to be seen through the trees from its neighbors. The main house, a two-story mansion, contained priceless oriental rugs, a Japanese garden on the roof and an elevator running up an outside wall. Nearby was a glass-enclosed swimming pool where, in good weather, the roof slid away at the touch of a button to permit bathing in the open air. Telephones were fixed to trees along the garden paths where Nikita Sergeyevich liked to walk. Great care was taken to please his every whim. Pitsunda gave him time to think, and it was there that he dreamed up some of his more ambitious ideas for further reform.
Surely, Khrushchev thought, he would have the time he needed. For one thing, his mastery of foreign policy strengthened his grip on the levers of power at home. The onetime uneducated peasant boy now traveled the globe as a leading statesman of the post-World War II era, meeting and often outsmarting men like Tito and Mao, Adenauer and de Gaulle, Eisenhower and Kennedy, Churchill and Eden, Nehru and Nasser.
The toadies and the flatterers around Nikita Sergeyevich easily convinced him he was irreplaceable. No one else in the Kremlin carried the weight he did abroad in keeping the capitalist, Communist, and Third World troublemakers from getting out of hand. To a large extent, the security of the Soviet state depended on Khrushchev, or so they told him. It was a familiar pattern of ambitious younger men ingratiating themselves with a powerful older leader. Earlier, Nikita Sergeyevich himself had been one of the toadies, calling Stalin the indispensable man. Yet despite that experience, Khrushchev did not see through the flattery when he was on the receiving end.
Moscow's foreign community certainly believed Khrushchev to be solidly in charge. Embassy experts reported him in excellent health, and politically strong enough to get out in front of his Politburo and drag it toward meaningful economic reform. Henry Shapiro of United Press, the dean of foreign correspondents in Moscow with some thirty years of experience covering the Kremlin, had written earlier in the fall of 1964: "Seldom before has the mantle of supreme Soviet power rested more firmly and securely on the holders of one man than it does today on the former coal miner Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev. Confident of the loyalty of his subordinates . . ."
Such was the conventional wisdom of the day. And it was deliberately orchestrated by Kremlin disinformation specialists. How better to lull the leader to sleep and prepare for a Kremlin palace coup?
On the morning of October 12, 1964, when powerful gas rockets lifted the seven-ton Voskhod spacecraft into orbit, everything seemed normal. As always, Khrushchev's name and face were all over the state-controlled Soviet press. A huge color portrait of Nikita Sergeyevich, more than three stories high, stood on an upper balcony of the Moskva Hotel, looking down over the Kremlin and Red Square nearby. Khrushchev's image was literally dominating the center of Soviet power. No one could doubt he was still in charge. But was he?
The next day, Tuesday, October 13, was so bizarre that some people began to wonder. Suddenly, without explanation, the spacecraft returned to earth. The officially announced "long flight" had lasted only one day.
A new communique said the flight had gone according to plan. Nobody believed that. Even the cosmonauts themselves were surprised by the order to return to earth so soon. Izvestia, the Soviet government newspaper, proved that in a most extraordinary passage. The newspaper carried the text of the conversation between the cosmonaut pilot, Vladimir Komarov, and the anonymous "chief designer" running the ground control station at Baikonur. Komarov vigorously protested the decision to bring the Voskhod back, repeatedly seeking permission to continue the flight. Finally, the chief designer told him, paraphrasing Hamlet, "There are more things between heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. Come down!"
Foreign correspondents chewed on that one, over and over again. Did it mean there was something technically wrong with the spacecraft? Had experts on the ground monitoring the cosmonauts' health found one of them ill? Or could it mean something involving Khrushchev himself? Izvestia, after all, was run by his son-in-law, Aleksei Adzhubei. Was the paper giving out a subliminal hint of a power struggle in the Kremlin? Indeed, if no one was in charge at the moment, that would be ample reason to bring the spacecraft back early. That sort of speculation was much too far-fetched to report -- yet. But other curious developments were just beginning to make it seem plausible.
Among them was the strange experience of Gaston Palewski, France's minister for atomic energy. Palewski had been invited by Khrushchev to the dacha at Pitsunda at 11:00 A.M. on October 13, for talks, to be followed by lunch. They had plenty to discuss. Palewski was paving the way for a visit to the Soviet Union by President Charles de Gaulle, which the Kremlin saw as an opportunity to woo France away from NATO. Yet, despite the importance of the meeting, Khrushchev cut it back to the bare minimum, risking rude insult to the oversensitive French.
The Russians belatedly informed Palewski that his meeting with Khrushchev had been moved up to 9:00 A.M. Lunch was out, they explained, because Nikita Sergeyevich had to rush back to Moscow to greet the resuming cosmonauts. The talks themselves were restricted to half an hour, an appalling discourtesy to an important foreign visitor. With translation, there was hardly time to get started. Furthermore, even within that short time, the Soviet leader left the room on more than one occasion to confer privately with his aides, offering apologies and the excuse that the Voskhod was about to land any minute. That was nonsense. In fact, the spacecraft did not return to earth until 10:57 A.M., nearly ninety minutes after the Palewski visit ended. Khrushchev had felt compelled to leave the room to discuss some other priority.
Still, despite the unusual behavior, Palewski received no direct hint that Khrushchev's leadership was in danger. Told that de Gaulle was in good health, Nikita Sergeyevich had replied to the French minister, "Yes, only death can wrest a statesman from his work." Clearly, Khrushchev expected to continue in power as long as he lived. Outwardly, he was still supremely confident with Palewski, his last foreign visitor. In fact, later that same day, Khrushchev would fly back to Moscow to fight for his political life.
The next day, Wednesday, October 14, foreign correspondents in Moscow at last began to grasp the truth. We noticed long lines of official limousines arriving at the gray headquarters building of the Communist Party Central Committee near the Kremlin on Moscow's Staraya (Old) Square. Ominously, no Central Committee meeting had been announced, or even rumored, in the preceding week. A secret session there meant only one thing -- a political crisis.
Incredibly, in 1964, Soviet leaders still acted like conspirators. After nearly half a century of Communist power, they remained so insecure that they continued to hide from their own people. Secrecy was an obsession. They raced around Moscow in special central traffic lanes, at twice the speed limit, in the backseats of black limousines, with white curtains drawn across rear windows so that no one could see who was in which car.
So afraid were they of assassination -- and with reason -- that their only public appearances came before select audiences rigorously screened by KGB security checks. They knew that in a country with no meaningful elections, the only real threats to their power and privilege were an assassin's bullet and the maneuvers of their colleagues. And of the two, Communist intrigues were by far the more threatening. As a result, the men who drew curtains even to conceal their routine trips around town grew increasingly careful as the risks rose. By definition, the greater the secrecy, the higher the political stakes. Any hurried, unannounced meeting of the Central Committee was a sure sign of an imminent political showdown.
In those days the Central Committee convened only twice a year or so and only to discuss the most significant issues. The 169 voting members who assembled on October 14 included all the key Party, government, military police, and regional leaders from all over the country. Their sessions, known as plenums, were always called to ratify important policy decisions taken earlier by the Party's highest authority, the eleven-member Politburo. Plenums met behind closed doors. No photographers were admitted; none of the debates were publicly released. Usually there would be a terse official announcement, giving only the date of the plenum, the main topic (for example, agriculture), and the keynote speaker, most likely Khrushchev.
This time even the plenum itself went unannounced. Almost certainly that meant it had been called to discuss changes in the top Kremlin leadership in the strictest secrecy. Either Khrushchev would remove the foot draggers in the Politburo who were slowing his latest reforms, or they would get him first. The initial signs were unmistakable. Khrushchev himself would be the loser.
Kremlinology is far from an exact science, but sometimes it provides clues that can have only one credible explanation. The next day, Thursday, October 15, was one of those times. That morning's official Soviet newspapers carried no photographs of Khrushchev, no quotation of his words, no mention of his name. One day after a secret Central Committee meeting probably called to discuss leadership changes, there was no mention of the most important man in the country in the state-controlled press.
Nor was that all. The president of Cuba, Osvaldo Dorticos, was in Moscow that day. He clearly expected to see Khrushchev. On arrival at the airport, Dorticos said he was looking forward to an exchange of views "with our dear friend Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev." Instead, the Cuban got a lunch in the Kremlin with all the members of the Politburo -- or almost all. An official announcement listed every single member as having attended the lunch except Khrushchev and the ailing Frol Kozlov. No explanation was given for the top leader's absence.
Other signs, even more persuasive, pointed in the same direction. Messages of congratulations on the space triumph from the Communist Party leaders of Eastern Europe appeared in the Soviet press that Thursday. They were addressed "to the Central Committee" collectively, rather than to Khrushchev personally, as in the past. In fact, a check of the East European press, which carried the texts of the original messages, showed they had indeed been addressed to Khrushchev personally, as before. Russian censors had changed them in Moscow. There was no explanation. But by now, little explanation was needed.
Still, correspondents had to tread carefully. There had been no official confirmation of Khrushchev's removal, only Kremlinological tea leaves pointing in one unmistakable direction. Careful writing was essential. Only six months before, a correspondent for the West German news agency DPA had been expelled from Russia for reporting that Khrushchev was dead. Errors in stories about the Soviet leadership could be costly. That Thursday morning I wrote a low-key seven-paragraph story for the Associated Press, pointing out Khrushchev's mysterious absence from the Dorticos lunch and other indications that it was time to think the unthinkable.
That piece was quickly overtaken. Within hours, Victor Louis, a Soviet journalist with strong KGB connections, broke the real story to the world. Citing only anonymous Soviet sources, Louis reported in the London Evening News that Khrushchev had been replaced by Brezhnev as Party leader and by Aleksei Kosygin as prime minister. Later that same day, East European embassies in Moscow, briefed by Soviet officials, told their correspondents the same thing. By nightfall, every foreign journalist in Moscow was reporting the leadership change. Still, there was no official Soviet announcement.
Moscow was misty that night. But a few minutes after 10:00 P.M., workmen were seen high up the front wall of the Moskva Hotel, opposite the Kremlin, removing the huge portrait of Nikita Sergeyevich. No further official confirmation was needed. The Khrushchev era was over.
Countless times throughout the night, the same operation was repeated. Portraits of Khrushchev came down from the walls of every Party or government office, court of law, factory, farm, school, hospital, army base, police station, and other public building in the world's largest state, a nation so vast that when the sun is setting on its West European border, a new day is already dawning on its East Asian border, eleven time zones and six thousand miles away. In that one night alone, tens of thousands of Khrushchev portraits came down and tens of thousands of Brezhnev and Kosygin portraits went up, in a tribute to the manpower and efficiency of the Soviet secret police, the KGB.
On Friday morning, October 16, two days after the event and one day after the rest of the world had been informed, the Kremlin finally announced the change to its own people. A brief communique in Pravda, the voice of the Communist Party, said that at a plenum of the Central Committee on October 14, Khrushchev had resigned his posts as Party leader and premier because of "advancing age and deteriorating health." It added that Brezhnev and Kosygin had been elected in his place. Photographs of the two new leaders, retouched to make them look younger, appeared on Pravda's front page. All other Soviet newspapers carried identical coverage. There was nothing else.
There was not one word of thanks to the man who had ended Stalin's terror and led the country for more than a decade, and no word from the man himself or his successors. There was simply nothing. It was also the last time Khrushchev's name would appear in the Soviet press until his death. Henceforth, his ouster would be mentioned only obliquely as "the October plenum."
For months thereafter, Nikita Sergeyevich seemed to have disappeared from the face of the earth. Then it was learned he had been given a small dacha near Usovo, outside Moscow, a pension of $513 a month or roughly four times the average industrial wage of the day, two bodyguards, and a medium-sized official car, a Volga. Finally, on March 14, 1965, exactly five months to the day after his fall from power, Khrushchev appeared in the capital again for the first time as a private citizen. He came to vote in a parliamentary election, and he caused a minor sensation.
Nina Petrovna, Khrushchev's wife, had already been seen in Moscow several times. She had taken a fifth-floor apartment on Starokonyushenny (Old Stable) Lane, next to the Canadian embassy, for shopping trips to Moscow. A source in the building tipped me that she had again come in to spend the night of March 13. There seemed to be a chance that Nikita Sergeyevich himself would appear the next day to vote. I got to the building at 6:00 A.M., just in case, and was not disappointed.
Khrushchev showed up at 9:50 in a chauffeur-driven black Volga, with a bodyguard next to him in the backseat. The former leader smiled and waved as he entered the building. Word soon spread that Nikita Sergeyevich was back. And by the time he reappeared from the building a half hour later with his wife, in order to go vote, a crowd of some seventy ordinary citizens had gathered outside. As soon as they saw him, the crowd broke into applause. It was the only spontaneous demonstration I ever saw in my first six years in the Soviet Union. All others were organized by Communist authorities.
Nikita Sergeyevich had tears in his eyes from the warm reception. I had time to shout out only one question-how did he feel? "Like a pensioner, okay," Khrushchev replied. Then he got back into the car and drove off to vote. His emotional ordeal was far from over. The car took him to 39 Herzen Street, two blocks from the Kremlin, where he had often voted as premier. This time, the only candidate on the ballot was the man who had succeeded him in that office, Kosygin.
Khrushchev climbed the stairs to the second floor and approached a low-ranking woman official seated at a desk. It was her job to check the identification papers of each voter before handing over the ballot.
She looked up at him -- him -- still the most famous face in the nation by far -- and asked: "Name?"
"What's the matter?" Khrushchev replied. "Don't you trust me?"
"You know the rules," she snapped back, without a trace of a smile. The tone she used would have been more appropriate for addressing a village drunk.
Here was the man whose picture had appeared in almost every Soviet newspaper almost every day for eleven years. Here was the man who had made every major decision in the nation. Here was the man who used to fix elections just like this one by personally approving the one candidate allowed to run unopposed for each office. No matter. Like everyone else, even Nikita Khrushchev had to produce his identification papers on the demand of a bottom-level clerk. In the Soviet Union, the public humiliation of former leaders has no limits.
Khrushchev had no choice. He had to identify himself in order to vote for one of the men who had ousted him from power. Then he had to return to the countryside, to his enforced retirement, to live out his days under the watchful eyes of the KGB, with no chance to engage in any further political activity, to speak out in public, or even to answer his critics directly. They accused him of harebrained scheming and weakening the world Communist movement, but he could never reply with his side of the story, not in the U.S.S.R.
The former Soviet leader had already lost weight. His shirt collar, now two sizes too large, sagged around his neck. The old bounce was gone. Instead, he walked slowly, with a new stoop. Less than half a year into retirement, Nikita Sergeyevich's appearance had actually begun to suggest "advancing age and deteriorating health," the fabricated reasons for getting rid of him.
Khrushchev took his enforced retirement badly. At first he sat motionless in a chair for hours on end, unable to hold back the tears. "Grandpa is crying all the time," his young grandson told schoolmates. Later, however, he recovered some of his old vigor, defending his record in memoirs smuggled to the West. In the end, Nikita Sergeyevich knew he had made a great difference. "They were able to get rid of me simply by voting," he said with pride. "Stalin would have had them all arrested."
There was ample justification for such pride. As a direct result of Khrushchev's efforts, the losers in Kremlin power struggles no longer got arrested and shot. Instead they retired on pensions generous in Soviet terms. Nikita Sergeyevich's own peaceful retirement confirmed that he had indeed ended the Stalinist terror, not only for his own era, but for his successors as well. Never again would the Soviet Union suffer another blood purge. Khrushchev's twilight years on pension thus became a living symbol of the historic sea change he had brought to Russia. In that sense, they were his crowning achievement.
Back to the top