Last month, Sergei Khrushchev died at 84 in his home in Rhode Island. When Sergei and his wife, Valentina, became U.S. citizens in 1999, it was a big story. The son of Nikita Khrushchev, who led the Soviet Union from 1953 to 1964, Sergei Khrushchev truly became an American by choice.
In 1959, Nikita Khrushchev had his famous Kitchen Debate with then Vice President Richard Nixon in Moscow. Khrushchev stuck his finger into Nixon's chest and boasted that one day his grandchildren would be living under communism. Nixon retorted that Khrushchev's grandchildren would live in freedom.
In 1992, Nixon recalled that "[a]t the time, I was sure he was wrong, but I must admit I wasn't sure I was right." Events later proved him right, and Sergei Khrushchev moved to the United States.
Although his specialization and Ph.D. were in engineering, Sergei wrote several books about his father and would lecture about the Soviet Union and the Cold War. He provided unique insights on how to deal with communist dictatorships that are still relevant to this day.
For example, in 1995 Sergei gave a talk at the Eisenhower Presidential Library that not only described the Soviet Union of 1953, but North Korea today. He told the audience that when Eisenhower came to office, there was hysteria among the Soviet leadership that a war with the United States was inevitable.
The Soviet leaders lived in a closed society and they thought that the election of this famous general meant that America was prepared and eager for war. Nikita Khrushchev told his son that he wished to meet with the new American leadership and "wanted to see their eyes," hoping that the meeting could prevent a war. Khrushchev was a staunch Communist, but he certainly did not want a nuclear war.
Khrushchev had first met Eisenhower in Moscow in 1945. He would not see Eisenhower again until their summit at Geneva in June 1955. Along with Eisenhower and Khrushchev, participants in the summit included Soviet Premier Nikolai Bulganin, British Prime Minister Anthony Eden and French Prime Minister Edgar Faure. Although very little was accomplished in terms of substance, the Geneva Summit itself enabled the great powers to meet, with both men becoming convinced that neither side wanted a nuclear war.
One of the main risks of North Korea being led by Kim Jung Un is the potential for disastrous miscalculation. The children of communist leaders offer a unique window into the distorted worldviews that isolation and dictatorial capriciousness can foster.
As I was listening to Sergei's lecture about his father, it reminded me of the memoirs of Joseph Stalin's daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva. Much like Khrushchev in the 1950s and Kim Jong Un today, Stalin lived in a bubble where people were too afraid to tell the truth. In such an environment, it's easy to miscalculate.
Stalin himself lived an extremely isolated life at his dacha in Kuntsevo for the last 20 years of his life. After the war, he rarely saw his family. To Svetlana's dismay, he did not even make much time for his grandchildren. He interacted mostly with servants at his house, as well as a handpicked inner circle, including Khrushchev. None of them could afford to challenge Stalin's sense of the truth. His last 20 years (1934-1953) at Kuntsevo were very different than Svetlana's early years.
From 1919 to his wife's death in 1932, Stalin primarily lived with his family. He was surrounded by his wife's large family and some genuine friends who could be largely truthful with him. He was always a tyrant, but Stalin was more aware of the world around him. But after he imprisoned some of his in-laws and summarily killed many of his closest allies, people were understandably afraid of him.
One of the more revealing moments in the book was when Stalin was planning to lend his daughter some money for living expenses. After 30 years in power, Stalin had no idea what things cost, and therefore wasn't sure how much money to give her. His daughter had lived a sheltered life, too, and therefore also had no idea how much to ask for.
Unlike Stalin, Kim Jong Un never experienced the poverty that plagues his nation, nor has he ever had to develop the political skills to fight his way to power. We really don't know if Kim is a rational actor.
Sergei's greatest lectures reveal how wisdom cannot exist without self-awareness. Khrushchev and other Soviet leaders lived in a modern version of Plato's Cave.
Even a very smart person who never leaves his cave will quickly become a fool. Which is an especially scary thought when such a fool has access to nuclear weapons.
Sergei Khrushchev got to leave his cave, and the insight that brought led him to eventually choosing to make his life in the United States under our system of freedom. His life offers several lessons, including about the importance of American presidents directly engaging with nuclear-armed dictatorships. But most of all, his life is a reminder that Americans deserve much credit for the good we did on the world stage in the 20th century, and the good we seek to do in the face of today's foreign policy challenges.
Robert Zapesochny is a researcher and writer whose work focuses on foreign affairs, national security and presidential history. His work has appeared in a range of publications, including The American Spectator, the Washington Times, and The American Conservative. For several years Robert worked closely with Peter Hannaford, a senior aide to Ronald Reagan, as the primary researcher on four books and numerous columns. Robert has also worked on multiple presidential, national and statewide campaigns, including as a field office staffer for the Bush-Cheney campaign. Due to his own Russian-Jewish heritage, Robert has a keen interest in the history of U.S.-Soviet relations. In 2017 he was the co-organizer of an effort that erected commemorative statue of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow. Robert graduated with a major in Political Science from the University at Buffalo, and received his Master's in Public Administration, with a focus in healthcare, from the State University of New York College at Brockport. When he's not writing, Robert works for a medical research company in Rochester, New York. Read Robert Zapeochny's Reports — More Here.
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