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Nikita Khrushchev

Nikita Khrushchev

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Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev publicized Stalin's crimes, was a major player in the Cuban Missile Crisis and established a more open form of Communism in the USSR.

Who Was Nikita Khrushchev?

Nikita Khrushchev became Premier of the Soviet Union after Joseph Stalin's death in 1953. In a 1956 "secret speech," he discussed Stalin's crimes for the first time, starting a process called "de-Stalinization." He also visited the West, putting a smiling face on his brand of "Reform Communism," though also known to have an abrasive persona. Khrushchev was one of the primary players in the Cuban Missile Crisis and oversaw the building of the Berlin Wall. After being pushed from power and retiring, he died several years later on September 11, 1971 in Moscow.

Early Years 

Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev was born on April 15, 1894, in Kalinovka, Russia, near the Ukrainian border. After a few years at the village school, Khrushchev found work in a factory at age fifteen. In 1918, he joined the Communist Party and fought in the Red Army during the Russian Revolution. After the war, he received a technical education and became a true believer of communism.

Khrushchev rose quickly through the party ranks, becoming a member of the Central Committee in 1934 and winning election to the Politburo a few years later. During World War II, Khrushchev worked with the military to further Soviet control over Poland and Ukraine. 

Rise to Power and De-Stalinization

After Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953, Khrushchev deftly used his political skills to transfer or isolate political enemies who threatened his rise to party leadership. On February 24, 1956, he denounced the excesses of the Stalin era for several hours, stunning delegates attending the 20th Communist Party Congress. His de-Stalinization policy prompted movements against Soviet control in Poland and Hungary. To avoid being deposed, Khrushchev nonetheless used some Stalin-like methods to divide and outmaneuver opponents.

Domestically, Khrushchev became known for his dramatic ideas, with some perceived as more humanistic and others ill-conceived. He attempted to humanize the Soviet system by relaxing restrictions on free expression and releasing waves of political prisoners from the infamous Gulag forced labor camps. This led to a slow birth of a dissident movement. Yet Khrushchev also launched bold but unattainable agricultural goals by increasing production in areas not suitable for crops. He relaxed production on military goods and increased production of consumer goods only to impose cutbacks during the arms race. 

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Complex Personality

During much of the Cold War, Khrushchev could be charming, playfully combative or belligerent, depending on his audience. Publicly, he called for a peaceful coexistence with the West and then warned “We will bury you!” And in what became known as the “kitchen debate,” in July 1959 Khrushchev verbally sparred with U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon over Soviet versus American innovation in home appliances, among other major disagreements.

Cold War and Missile Crisis

Relations between the Soviet Union and the United States cooled considerably after the downing of an American U-2 spy plane in 1960. The following year, the failed U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and the start of construction on the Berlin Wall in Germany further worsened relations. 

In early 1962, Khrushchev had devised a plan to place nuclear missiles in Cuba. In October, the United States detected the missiles being installed and placed a naval blockade around the island nation. After 13 days of intense negotiations, the crisis ended with Russia agreeing to remove the missiles. The United States agreed to remove its Jupiter missiles from Turkey and Italy and not invade Cuba.

Final Years and Death

Though the agreement avoided a nuclear showdown, much to the relief of most of the world, senior Communist Party officials saw it as a loss of prestige for the Soviet Union. This, along with two years of poor economic growth and strained relations with China, among other issues, gave Khrushchev’s political enemies in the Kremlin enough momentum to oust him from power. 

On October 14, 1964, the Central Committee accepted Khrushchev’s request to retire due to his “advanced age and poor health.” He was replaced by Leonid Brezhnev and spent his remaining years at his estate. Khrushchev died of natural causes on September 11, 1971.

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