Nikita Khrushchev: Life, Achievements & Policies

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  • 0:03 Nikita Krushchev
  • 0:41 Early Career
  • 2:22 Destalinization
  • 3:35 Foreign Relations
  • 5:24 End of Power
  • 5:57 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the life and career of Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. The country's leader after the death of Joseph Stalin, Khrushchev implemented several domestic reforms while also standing toe-to-toe with the West.

Nikita Khrushchev

Everyone knows one or two American success stories. They invariably involve one person or a group of people with a new invention or an innovative way of doing business. Through shrewd business skills and a good work ethic, they often develop that thing into an exciting phenomenon, making the person or people wildly successful from their usually humble beginnings. Despite its open hostility to the United States for nearly a half-century, the Soviet Union had more than its fair share of similar rags-to-riches stories, and perhaps none better than the working class laborer-turned-leader of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev.

Early Career

The grandson of a serf and the son of a coal miner, Nikita Khrushchev was born in 1894 in Ukraine. Khrushchev's early career remains a bit of a mystery - some claim he was a coal miner, like his father, while others say he apprenticed as a pipefitter or metalworker. In reality, he likely bounced between jobs before becoming involved in trade unions and joining the Bolsheviks in 1918 and serving in the Red Army in the Russian Civil War.

The triumph of the Bolsheviks and the rise of communism in Russia gave him the opportunity to pursue an education, and he remained active in the Communist Party. Rising through the ranks, Khrushchev was named Party Secretary of Ukrainian District in the city of Yuzovka, which is now known as Donetsk.

In 1929, Khrushchev moved to Moscow, continuing to shine as a Communist Party official. This is perhaps most evident in his sheer survival in the 1930s; throughout the 1930s Soviet leader Joseph Stalin routinely purged the Communist Party, sending many officials to prison camps in the far reaches of the Soviet Union. Indeed, in 1938, Khrushchev was placed in charge of initiating Stalin's government purge in Ukraine.

In part because of these party purges, Khrushchev's rise picked up speed, and he was appointed to the Central Committee in Moscow in 1934 and to the highest ring of Soviet government, the Politburo, in 1939. After the devastation World War II wreaked on the western part of the Soviet Union, Khrushchev was placed in charge of rebuilding Ukraine. He continued to distinguish himself in the highest Soviet circles and managed to avoid exposing himself to Stalin's increasingly paranoid purges until Stalin's death in 1953.


After a series of closed door political meetings, including one which removed Stalin's preferred successor Lavrenti Beria from the inner Soviet circle and led to Beria's execution, Khrushchev emerged as the new leader of the post-Stalin Soviet Union. Khrushchev set the tone for his rule as Soviet premier early in his rule at the 20th General Congress of the Communist Party in 1956. There he gave an impassioned six-hour speech decrying the rule of Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union.

He condemned the late leader for the massive purges of the 1930s and further called for the gradual release of the numerous political prisoners imprisoned in Gulag work camps around the country. Khrushchev's speech so rattled the Soviet elite that a secret coup attempt was conducted later that summer, though Khrushchev outmaneuvered these conservatives and removed them from power instead.

The policies Khrushchev subsequently pursued have become known as the 'Khrushchev Thaw.' In addition to releasing some political prisoners, Khrushchev also relaxed controls on press censorship. He famously insisted on the publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's work One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which gave the Soviet audience a startlingly realistic view of life in the country's Gulag prison camps.

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