Friday, February 22, 2008

"Khrushchev? Isn't he a Russian novelist?"

I won't embarrass him by telling you which of my twenty-something friends guessed that Nikita Khrushchev was a Russian novelist. I'm just glad that things are so changed that he could make that mistake.

When I was young, Khrushchev was a terrifying figure, the man who thumped the table at the UN with his shoe and cried, "We will bury you!" He meant that economically the USSR would leave the West in the lurch, apparently, but it sure didn't feel like that at the time. So when I heard that his son, Professor Sergei N. Khrushchev, was giving a lecture at Rowan University's Glassboro campus on the Cold War, off I went.

I'm writing a novel set in Russia, after all.

The lecture was a benign history of his father and Detente, with an emphasis on the Cold War as a natural thing, countries competing for influence the way plants compete for sunlight. (One man, of about my age, in the audience, called his take "a fairy tale.") For those who lived through it, there were a number of familiar stories -- Brezhnev's Cadillac, and Kosygin discovering that the hot line was not a telephone but a teletype, for two -- and the sort of overview most of use to students unsure as to whether Kosygin was a novelist or a brand of vodka. But there were a couple of interesting tidbits to be gleaned from it:

Khrushchev (who was at Stalingrad, remember) could not stand to watch war movies. They gave him nightmares. He told his son that the movies lied -- that wars were dirtier, bloodier, more brutal, and more dangerous than that.

A young woman asked Sergei Nikitovich if he'd ever met Stalin, and he said that once when he was university student, he was in Red Square for a ceremony, and Stalin was on the reviewing stand atop Lenin's Tomb. He and his friends jumped up and down, shouting, "Comrade Stalin! Comrade Stalin!" and Stalin looked down and waved, saying, "Hello, there." Then the professor smiled down from the stage and said, "So you met me, I met him."

And I got to ask a question I've been wondering about for most of my life: Whether there was anybody in the upper levels of the Soviet Union lobbying for a preemptive first strike against the US, the way that Curtis LeMay and Edward Teller did here for one against the USSR. No, he said, because the United States had a numerical superiority in nuclear weapons of 9.5 to 1. Against those odds, even the hawks weren't willing to risk it.

Afterwards, I bought one of the professor's books and shook his hand. So I am now only two degrees of Kevin Bacon from Stalin.

And you, if you've met me, are at the very most three.


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