The Man and His Era

By William Taubman

Norton. 876 pp. $35

It is too easy to forget how crazy the Soviet Union was -- not the madness of Joseph Stalin, who killed millions between 1924 and 1953, but the everyday craziness of a cockamamie system. Consider the tragicomic case of Alexei Larionov, who in 1958 was the Communist Party boss of Ryazan oblast, or district, southeast of Moscow.

Larionov was the faithful toady of Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin's successor as near-absolute dictator of the Soviet Union. When Khrushchev was trying desperately to increase agricultural output in 1958, Larionov pledged to triple Ryazan's production of meat in a single year. Aides warned Khrushchev that this intemperate promise would be "impossible" to keep. Newspaper editors in Moscow tried to avoid publishing stories about Larionov's folly, but Khrushchev ordered them to report and praise it.

As the deadline approached, Larionov struggled desperately. He ordered the slaughter of virtually every animal in his oblast, including dairy herds, breeding stock and the cows and pigs owned by peasants. He sent agents into other parts of the country to buy meat wherever they could. He exacted taxes from the citizens of Ryazan in kilos of meat. None of this was enough. "In the end, Ryazan Province delivered 30,000 tons of meat to the state," Taubman writes, "a mere one-sixth of the 180,000 it had promised." For a time, Larionov hid this result under a blizzard of deceptive propaganda, but a team of officials from Moscow eventually discovered the truth. Then he shot himself to death.

This is one of scores of engaging, revealing anecdotes in William Taubman's masterful and monumental biography of Khrushchev. One can quibble with aspects of this big book -- in a moment I will -- but first one should salute its author for a wonderful achievement. Starting with a juicy subject for a biography -- Khrushchev was endlessly colorful and often cockamamie, too -- Taubman, a professor of political science at Amherst College and the author of several other books on the Soviet Union, has drawn on a huge body of material, much of it from newly available Soviet sources, but also a vast quantity of published material from Russia and the West. He spent nearly 20 years on the book. The result is fun to read, full of insight and more than a little terrifying.

It's not a revelation that Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, the Soviet leader from 1954 to 1964, was a mercurial character. Americans who remember Khrushchev probably recall him banging his shoe on a podium at the United Nations, or his intemperate wisecrack, "we will bury you," or his rash decision to install ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads in Cuba, whence they would be able to reach most of the United States. That decision provoked the Cuban Missile Crisis, the scariest week of the Cold War.

Taubman makes clear that those episodes were all manifestations of Khrushchev's standard operating procedures. Though shrewd, energetic and determined, this rotund little man from the village of Kalinovka in southern Russia could never escape his demons -- personal insecurities and resentments that never let him out of their grip. He constantly looked for shortcuts to success -- for ways to triple meat production in a single year. The mostly faceless party hacks who finally pushed him out of office in October 1964 accused him of "harebrained schemes," and no lawyer could have won him acquittal on that charge. He was emotional, unpredictable, stubborn and, tragically, ignorant about history, economics, the outside world and the workings of his own country.

With Khrushchev in charge, the Soviet Union was in the hands of a genuinely dangerous man. He actually believed in the propaganda he had grown up on, so he saw the Western countries as wicked "imperialists" determined to do communists in because they defended the cause of the working class. He had no qualms about killing people for political purposes, collaborated with Stalin's Great Terror and ordered the brutal crushing of the Hungarian revolution in 1956 without an evident blink.

He rarely listened to his aides or comrades but made decisions on instinct or whim. Repeatedly, Taubman recounts episodes in which Khrushchev launched some initiative (sending missiles to Cuba, for example) without carefully considering where his impulsive decision might lead. He loved risk. "The situation is highly dangerous, and I think the people with the strongest nerves will be the winners," he told Egypt's President Gamel Abdul Nasser during one Mideast crisis. Dealing with such a crisis "is like playing chess in the dark," he exulted.

Khrushchev was reckless, but mercifully he was not a fool. His peasant's intuition served him reasonably well at critical moments. Most important, he understood that nuclear weapons, though wonderful toys that might bring significant political gains, could never be used.

It was this appraisal that saved the day during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Taubman's account of the crisis is fascinating but also frustrating, because he doesn't try to resolve the question of why Khrushchev took the huge gamble of sending the missiles to Cuba. Taubman credits Khrushchev's own explanation, given in his memoirs: "The installation of our missiles in Cuba would, I thought, restrain the United States" from attacking Cuba, which he claimed to believe was an imminent possibility. Taubman also acknowledges support for the theory that Khrushchev wanted to use the missiles to win a resolution of Berlin's status on his terms. But he gives short shrift to evidence reported by other scholars (notably Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow) that Berlin was really the main reason, and Cuba's defense a cover story. Ultimately, Taubman suggests that it was Khrushchev's recklessness, and his confidence that Kennedy would not start a nuclear war over Soviet missiles in Cuba, that explain what happened.

Most important, Taubman writes, was Khrushchev's belief that "the missiles were meant to frighten, not to be used." When Kennedy reacted much more aggressively to the missiles than Khrushchev had expected, setting up a naval blockade around Cuba and implicitly threatening nuclear war if they weren't removed, Khrushchev quickly folded his cards. On the third day of the crisis, Oct. 25, 1962, he told his comrades that "we must dismantle the missiles to make Cuba into a zone of peace." He was humiliated, but nuclear war was averted.

Taubman is especially good when describing Khrushchev's endlessly complex relationship with Stalin, who made Khrushchev's career and tormented him even from the grave. Arguably his greatest achievement was his "secret speech" to the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party revealing and denouncing Stalin's crimes in 1956, yet he could never abandon the idea that Stalin was a great man. Khrushchev's daughter Rada explained why: "On many things he thought Stalin was right because he himself thought like Stalin." Exactly so.

That Taubman could get such an insight from Khrushchev's own daughter suggests one of the great strengths of this book. Taubman has given us a post-Soviet biography of a Soviet leader, one based on interviews and documents that should be the basis of any good biography, but which were unavailable for Soviet leaders until recent times. It is exciting to think how rich a portrait of Soviet history will now be possible if more books as good as Taubman's are written using the new sources.

And now a quick quibble: For a professor of political science, Taubman is a fine writer. His prose is clean, free of cliche{acute} and fast-paced. But he is not a literary writer, and his book does not evoke many pictures in the mind's eye. He doesn't always establish a scene or a context effectively, so readers unfamiliar with Soviet history may feel left out at some junctures.

He misses opportunities for more vivid writing -- for example, in his flat description of Khrushchev's dramatic funeral in 1971, when KGB agents kept all but a few people, but luckily not this correspondent, out of Moscow's Novodyevichy Cemetery, for fear there might be a manifestation of public support for the departed leader.

But this is a fine book. And it suggests that the great Soviet riddle that so fascinated and alarmed outsiders -- "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma," in Churchill's oft-cited phrase -- can now be finally solved by hard-working and clear-thinking scholars like William Taubman. *

Robert G. Kaiser, associate editor of The Post, is the author of "Russia, The People and the Power" and "Why Gorbachev Happened."