Why you should care
Because what a twist ending this is to the Cold War.
Dr. Sergei Nikitich Khrushchev’s voice takes me back to a childhood spent watching Cold War-era spy films. It is raspy, Slavic, heavily accented and somehow — here I betray my own prejudices — sinister. Sergei was 18 when his father, Nikita, succeeded Josef Stalin to become first secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. By Sergei’s 20th birthday, Nikita was the leader of the USSR. An armistice in Korea was still two months away, Elizabeth II had just been crowned and television was still in black and white.
Today, the 79-year-old and his wife, Valentina, live, improbably, in Rhode Island, far from his father’s legacy. But the silver-haired former rocket scientist is often asked to lecture about Soviet-Western relations, particularly now Russia has intervened in Ukraine, where the senior Khrushchev was governor for 12 years.
He became an American citizen who would soon vote for Barack Obama.
Sergei arrived in the United States in 1991, a fateful year for European Communism. So indelible was Soviet paranoia that for 27 years after his father was ousted, the Kremlin refused Sergei permission to travel abroad. But change came with Mikhail Gorbachev’s leadership. The Russian words glasnost and perestroika became familiar to Western news audiences, and travel restrictions were relaxed. Sergei visited the U.S., where he spoke at a dinner for the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. In the audience was Thomas J. Watson Jr., founder of the institute and former president of IBM; Watson invited Sergei to join the institute as a senior fellow, and he accepted. “By then it was clear the Soviet Union was heading for disaster,” he recalls. Sure enough, three months after he left, the Soviet Union collapsed, taking with it his job at Moscow’s Control Computer Institute. At 56, Sergei was unemployed and his country was in turmoil. He fled — to Brown, and eight years later, along with his wife, he became an American citizen who would soon vote for Barack Obama. “It’s a change,” he admits, “but no bigger than when I changed my career from rocket scientist to computer scientist.”
Sergei is an oddity. Very few former Soviet citizens — let alone children of some of the most important leaders in the country — made their way to the United States, says Margaret Peacock, a professor of European history at the University of Alabama and the author of a book on American and Soviet childhoods during the Cold War. Most immigration, she said, went from the USSR to the United Kingdom or Eastern Europe. Sergei’s rarity makes him “an important person in world history himself,” she said, a bridge builder. “Most Russians view Sergei as important to the late Soviet period of transition — and see Nikita as the crazy guy who opened the Pandora’s box.”
Nikita, in Sergei’s telling, was a rough-hewn factory worker, barely educated. In history’s unfavorable telling, he’s a man who took part in Russia’s civil war, during which the intelligentsia were rounded up and killed, a man who confiscated crops and witnessed his population starve. Sergei, by contrast, is a quiet intellectual, soft spoken and contemplative. As a boy he says he enjoyed no special privileges, traveling by bus and train, mixing with normal kids from workers’ families. “I had no bodyguards, no limos,” he tells me. “My father always said to me, ‘Never forget that I am Khrushchev and you are just a citizen.’ ” But the family was by no means down to earth, says Peacock. “On the surface it was humble, but the Khrushchev family, along with all the other elites, were provided with a standard of living the standard Russian had no access to.” Sergei speaks fondly of his schooldays — schools Peacock reminds us were privileges in themselves — of studying Shakespeare, Jack London and Mark Twain. He did well there, at university too, and went on to work on the space program, serving Mother Russia well. To hear Sergei remember a humility to his childhood is to witness one of the central contradictions of the communist story of history.
Yet this is a soft, almost nostalgic Sergei. There is another version of him — a scholar, who went from writing his father’s memoirs in the late 1960s to penning his own works on everything from computer science to history. Says William Taubman, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning biographer of Nikita Khrushchev and a political scientist professor at Amherst College: “He is a lovely, sweet man dedicated to telling his father’s story — but far from blind to his father’s flaws and sins.”
Nikita Khrushchev, 1894–1971
- After Stalin’s death, Khrushchev becomes leader of the Soviet Union in 1955.
- A year after taking office, Khrushchev denounces Stalin in the “Secret Speech,” which many see as the beginning of the end of the USSR.
- The boisterous leader initiates the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, a 13-day confrontation that brings the United States and Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war.
- In 1964, Khrushchev resigns under political pressure after showing erratic behavior and a series of policy failures.
After rocket science, Sergei made his way into a less sexy field: computing. “It was absolutely not secret work,” he swears. He collected energy usage data in Ukraine, contributed to earthquake prediction models and frequently worked with Americans “even in the worst time of the Cold War.” But he was never wholly satisfied. While helping his father write his memoirs, Sergei began to think deeply about his fellow countrymen. It bothered him that the Soviet Union was so far behind the U.S. in terms of living standards, and he wanted to know why. But a career in public service was out of the question. “It was against the culture. After the revolution it was no longer possible to inherit your father’s position,” he says, referring to the abolition of Russia’s royalty in 1917, followed by the installation of a communist government. The message, he recalls, was clear: Politics would be a “bad choice” because a political dynasty would “remind them of the monarchy.” Sergei had to be, as he puts it, a “self-made man.” He has not entirely succeeded in that latter. He will, in part by choice, always live in his father’s shadow.
Now, Russia is not a superpower.
– Dr. Sergei Nikitich Khrushchev
But that shadow casts Sergei as uniquely placed to comment on recent events, on Vladimir Putin’s expansionism and the hand-wringing it has provoked in the West. I ask about the fate of Ukraine, where he lived until he was 14. The removal of President Viktor Yanukovych was, he says, “like the tea party storming the White House and saying, ‘We will put our own president in power, and we will ban the Democratic Party because they are bad people.’ ” He sighs. “Removing Yanukovych meant destroying a political system that’s been put in place over the past 20 years. I think it is craziness.” This is unsurprising from a man who regards Putin as a “reformer.” On Crimea he says, “The people voted to join Russia, and we have to respect this.” On Western sanctions he is uncompromising: “Mr Putin is the leader of Russia, and Russia would never surrender!” Still, Sergei disagrees with Gorbachev’s assertion, made at a recent event marking 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, that “the world is on the brink of a new Cold War.” For Sergei, it’s simple, and he doesn’t need to be a politician, just a quiet, retired scientist living far away from his homeland, to see: “Now, Russia is not a superpower.”
As we end our chat, the old man sounds enviably content, sitting in his comfortable suburban house, speaking in warm, almost avuncular tones: “Right now I am sitting here looking into my backyard and the sun is high.”
Meghan Walsh contributed reporting.