KHRUSHCHEV REMEMBERS The Glasnost Tapes Translated from the Russian And edited by Jerrold L. Schecter With Vyacheslav V. Luchkov Little, Brown. 219 pp. $19.95
PUBLICATION of this book, the long-withheld third volume of the extraordinary memoirs of Nikita S. Khrushchev, who served as both the Soviet premier and first party secretary, completes a personal and political saga without parallel in our time.
The trilogy's underlying plot is the stuff of a rip-roaring novel: Ousted from power by conspirators he had once befriended, a headstrong Soviet reformer organizes a final conspiracy of his own -- to keep from being "erased" by his successors and secure an estimable place in history for himself. Tape-recorded and smuggled abroad, two volumes of his warts-and-almost-all revelations from the realm's veiled inner sanctum receive wide acclaim. The pensioner dies knowing he has escaped history's dustbin.
In rough outline, so it was -- a satisfyingly dramatic finale to a tempestuous, historic life. But there was more: Rumors persisted of even deeper secrets still to be revealed.
Now, 19 years after his death, the rumors turn out to be true. Throwing caution to the winds of glasnost, Khrushchev's family has released the remaining taped recollections of the man who ruled the Soviet Union from 1953 to 1964. The tapes had been withheld by the deposed leader and his family on grounds of national security and to avoid possible political reprisal from Leonid Brezhnev, the despised successor.
Translated and edited by former Time magazine Moscow bureau chief Jerrold L. Schecter and Soviet expatriate scholar Vyacheslav V. Luchkov, and with an informative forward by Strobe Talbott, Time's editor at large, The Glasnost Tapes offers fresh information about the life and views of this clever, conniving, blunt-spoken man who 34 years ago began the dismemberment of Stalinist tyranny for which Mikhail Gorbachev has just received the Nobel Peace Prize.
Barely 200 pages in length, the memoir sketches matters dealt with in greater detail in the previous volumes: the early years; Stalin's purges, which survivor Khrushchev calls "the meat grinder"; the Great Patriotic War (World War II); the failures of Soviet-style communism; and troubles with allies and adversaries around the globe. The voice is as earthy, shrewd, funny and chilling as in the earlier books. The special meaning of this volume comes from a spate of new revelations as well as a series of intriguing insights that help explain Khrushchev's own dangerously conflicted character. Among the assertions that have drawn worldwide headlines:
Fidel Castro during the Cuban missile crisis urged a Soviet nuclear attack on the United States. When Khrushchev later upbraided him for this rashness, Castro the "hothead" denied everything -- until Khrushchev showed him a transcript of their conversation.
Stalin in the disastrous first years of World War II "made a very secret approach" to Hitler, offering to cede vast areas of the Ukraine, Byelorussia and Russia itself in return for peace.
Stalin's wife, Nadezhda (mother of Svetlana Alliluyeva Stalin), took her own life after learning Stalin had been unfaithful. Khrushchev discounts the lingering rumors that Stalin had her killed.
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the Americans executed as Soviet spies in 1953, "provided very significant help in accelerating" the Soviet atomic bomb project, according to Stalin and his foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov.
And there are glimpses of the unnerving flaws at Khrushchev's core: Although he had renounced Stalin's murderous methods and freed himself from much of the dictator's hatred and suspicion of foreigners, Khrushchev continued to view the West with an ingrained suspicion bordering on paranoia and remained addicted to terror -- real or threatened -- as a means of coercing other countries.
Sometimes his addiction reached almost comical crudeness, as in a 1955 dispute with the upstart Yugoslavs, when he had a Soviet diplomatic pouch delivered to Belgrade -- by Tu-16 bomber. "We did this for the propaganda effect," Khrushchev says smugly, "and later our agents informed us that it was all properly understood by the Yugoslavs."
But a year later, when the Hungarians rose up, Khrushchev sent in the tanks, despite protests from longtime friend Anastas Mikoyan, who "said that armed intervention was not right and that it would undermine the reputation of our government and party." The rebellion was crushed and its leader, Imre Nagy, was seized by the Soviets, who betrayed a promise of safe passage. Nagy was later tried in secret and hanged. "He paid for the casualties that resulted from his putsch," Khrushchev recalls -- a chillingly Stalinist formula that neglects to say directly what happened to Nagy. THE MOST famous incident covered in the new book is, of course, the Cuban missile crisis. Khrushchev says he was "haunted" by a certainty the Unite States would attack Cuba. To prevent this, he dispatched to Cuba 42 missiles, each with a 1 megaton (equal to 1 million tons of TNT) warhead. "We picked targets to inflict the maximum damage. We saw that our weapons could inspire terror." Khrushchev's scheme to coerce with terror miscarried, and the subsequent humiliation of the Soviet Union became one of the contributing factors in his 1964 ouster.
The fiasco had other consequences. The Brezhnev regime later devoted immense resources to upgrading the Soviet nuclear arsenal, a costly effort that created new weapons of terror but speeded the disintegration of the country's Stalinist-style command economy. To stem that collapse, the Politburo in 1985 turned to Gorbachev, perhaps the only member of the leadership cadre with the energy and self-confidence to assert a vision of reform. A number of ideas similar to Gorbachev's perestroika (restructuring) of the Soviet economy can be found in The Glasnost Tapes. Not surprisingly, Gorbachev has undertaken a rehabilitation of Khrushchev.
Gorbachev's reforms have opened the way to political freedom for hundreds of millions of people in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, a momentous unfolding whose full meaning will not be known for years. It is more than likely that Khrushchev, his peasant realism sturdily intact as he neared his life's end, comprehended the shape of things to come. In the final pages of this fascinating memoir, the pensive former leader muses on the shortcomings he can see in every direction, and pronounces a prescient epitaph:
"You cannot only promise, you have to deliver. The Soviet socialist system is the most progressive, but even after fifty years, nowhere is the communist party yet able to win in a parliamentary election. This is something to think about. People refuse to follow us."
Kevin Klose is a deputy national editor and a former Moscow correspondent of The Washington Post.