An Inside Account of The Man and His Era

By Sergei Khrushchev

Edited and Translated From the Russian by William Taubman

Little, Brown. 423 pp.$24.95

THE KREMLIN coup which toppled Nikita Khrushchev in October 1964 was a bureaucratic affair, a prolonged meeting of the Presidium which went on for two days. At the end of the first day, Khrushchev returned to his dacha, and telephoned Anastas Mikoyan, his closest friend in the leadership.

"Relations among us, the style of leadership, have changed drastically. Could anyone have dreamed of telling Stalin that he didn't suit us anymore and suggesting that he retire. Not even a wet spot would have remained where we had been standing. Now everything is different. The fear's gone and we can talk as equals. That's my contribution. I won't put up a fight," Khrushchev said.

This fascinating but frustrating book by Khrushchev's son, Sergei, is about the way the fear had not altogether gone, and how quickly the Brezhnev regime was able to revive it. These memoirs, which we are told spent 15 years in a brown suitcase tucked behind a radiator, recount at great length two of the incidents which illustrate the era of soft repression which reigned between Stalin's fall and Gorbachev's Perestroika.

The first, the events surrounding Khrushchev's fall, brings together most of the recent memoirs and recollections which have filled the Soviet press in the last three years. This includes the tale of Vasily Galyukov, the KGB man who tipped off Sergei Khrushchev that the coup was coming, but to whom old Khrushchev himself would not listen.

"At no time in our presence did he ever touch on high-level personnel questions. The subject of relations within the leadership was absolutely taboo," his son tells us. In spite of the subtitle "An Inside Account of the Man and His Era," this book's value is limited. Glasnost has not yet brought us the Kremlin's version of the kiss-and-tell political memoir.

Like Khrushchev himself, most Western commentators have seen deep symbolic significance in his bloodless fall, evidence for the stabilization and sophistication of the political culture after Stalin. But this was a close run thing, young Khrushchev suggests. Brezhnev, whom Khrushchev nicknamed the Ballerina because "anybody could spin him around," originally wanted Khrushchev poisoned. Then there was some vague talk of arranging an accident on a return flight from an official visit to Cairo, which could be blamed on foreign intelligence, or a car crash in Yugoslavia. These schemes were scrapped, but plans to engineer food shortages went ahead, so that conditions could "improve" with the new regime. (This is not the only section in the book which might give Mikhail Gorbachev some pause for thought.)

The second incident, by far the longest chapter in the book, relates in exhaustive detail the writing of Khrushchev's memoirs, their protection from the bloodhounds of the KGB, and the machinations involved in getting the memoirs published in the West. Even now, the precise names and methods involved are kept secret. But there is an enchanting tale of two wide-brimmed hats, one bright scarlet and the other black, which Khrushchev had to be seen wearing in a photograph to reassure the American publishers that the memoirs were genuine.

Compared with the horrors of Soviet psychiatric hospitals, or the fate of dissidents like Bukovsky, the Khrushchev family did not suffer. But the sense of constant bullying, and the moral courage the aged Khrushchev had to show against a system that was frightened of his autobiography is a reminder not just of the nastiness of the Brezhnev years, but of the vulnerability even of the Soviet elite. Most learned to police themselves, like the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who suddenly backed off from an invitation to speak at Khrushchev's funeral, muttering feebly that silence would be more impressive. IT IS both easy and tempting to idealize Khrushchev. The most striking peacetime achievements of the modern Soviet Union, the Sputnik of 1957 and Yuri Gagarin's first space flight in 1961, took place on Khrushchev's watch. Above all, he was the great liberator, the man who opened the gates of the Gulag after Stalin died, and forced the Party to confront the fact of Stalin's repression with the secret speech of 1956. The figures are still being amassed, but under Khrushchev something like 5 million people were set free, among them Alexander Solzhenitsyn. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, his novel of life in the Gulag, was published after Khrushchev's personal intervention, the high point of the cultural thaw which Khrushchev encouraged.

Certainly, Khrushchev was perestroika's precursor. Under his leadership, a new generation of Soviet officials was groomed for a different, less authoritarian kind of political power. But even this account by a dutiful son is full of reminders that he was also Lenin's disciple and Stalin's lieutenant, who left enough of the machinery of repression intact for Brezhnev's bureaucracy to exploit.

Martin Walker was the Guardian's correspondent in Moscow for four years before becoming the British newspaper's Washington bureau chief.