Nina Khrushcheva: In Russia, the attitude toward the authorities is obsequious – it’s "people for the government". In Ukraine, it’s more about "government for the people"
Nikita Khrushchev's great-granddaughter Nina Khrushcheva, who is Professor of International Affairs at The New School in New York, has told UNIAN of what she had gained from having family ties with the former first secretary of the Communist Party Central Committee, as well as of the way modern Russia is following the path of the Soviet government, and explained why she considers the Trump family "a malignant growth on American democracy."
I read that when asked about your nationality, you answer that you are a citizen of the world and a New York resident. Are you distancing yourself from Russia this way?
A citizen of the world can be Russian, too. No, I’m not distancing myself from Russia but since I haven’t lived there half of my life, I believe my citizenship is more than just Russian.
From my perspective, citizenship is not only a matter of a passport but also a worldview. This is what they called “off-world cosmopolitan” in the Soviet Union, and I proudly belong to this kind. And after Vladimir Putin announced that people with “Western” interests can be considered the "fifth column", I also proudly belong to the "fifth column". I really feel for Russia but in the modern global world, I think that people should also be global in their worldview.
Are you a holder of a Russian passport?
Yes, I have my Russian passport, which I respect greatly. I have just traveled throughout my entire native country, all the way from Kaliningrad to Kamchatka. I also used my Russian passport when I traveled to Kyiv, too, since it is the Mother of all Russian cities. But, as I said, the world is wider, while nationalism is a bad thing.
What was such a large-scale trip about?
Now in Europe, and especially in the U.S., the Russian issue has become very interesting. At the same time, it has long been known that "You will not grasp Russia with your mind or cover it with a common label," and in general, I believe one can somehow describe and see Russia through its scale, eleven time zones. My colleague, a wonderful American writer Jeffrey Tayler, and I are writing a book, a portrait of Putin's Russia through its size. We stopped in the cities of each time zone (Kaliningrad, Yakutsk, Magadan, Samara, and so on), and everywhere we had a story.
How long did your journey last?
Somewhere about a month and a half, maybe two.
What do you remember about your great-grandfather, First Secretary of the Soviet Union Communist Party Central Committee Nikita Khrushchev?
You know, I wrote a whole book about Khrushchev and our family (laughs - UNIAN). I remember him as a very good grandfather ... Everyone treated him like a defeated Secretary of the Communist Party Central Committee but for us, he was just a wonderful grandfather.
I remember this one time my sister and I were jumping on the couch at his dacha in Petrovo-Dalniy. And then my mother comes in and freaks out. Really, how could we just jump around on the couch at such an important office of Nikita Khrushchev?! We were very frightened, but then, as he came right in, he went: "Come on, look at those nice springs coming out of that old couch, I would have jumped on it myself, but I’m afraid the couch would have broken."
Did being Khrushchev’s great-granddaughter help you in any way back in your childhood?
Firstly, when I was a child, I wasn’t his great-granddaughter... As you probably know, after my mom’s father died (Leonid Khrushchev, Nikita Khrushchev's son - UNIAN) and her mother left her, the Khrushchev family adopted her. So she was Nikita Khrushchev’s foster daughter, and that's why I was, in fact, his granddaughter. So, did being his granddaughter help me? No, it didn’t. When I was in school, up to my university years, Khrushchev's name was not to be pronounced, that was the historical reality. At the party plenum in 1964, they dismissed him and threw him out of all history textbooks, while trying to bring Stalin back into the country’s history. Leonid Brezhnev really wanted to return Stalin to the pedestal and describe positively the success stories of Stalinism. But, as always, the country’s cultural figures opposed the move and this never happened.
But Khrushchev’s name was back-shelved until 1986-1988. The first mention of Khrushchev in 22 years was in some American publication when [Mikhail] Gorbachev said that Kennedy and Khrushchev were great leaders because they stopped the war. And then in 1988, Khrushchev was finally mentioned in the Soviet media. That is, he just didn’t exist in the Soviet public consciousness for some 24 years.
You know, I had this very strange feeling when we read at school the history of the Soviet Union, the history of the Communist Party, it appeared that from 1953 to 1964 the country was without a leader. And I knew that this leader was my grandfather, but I knew I couldn’t talk about it except with my family and friends.
Well, if these ties didn’t help, were they a nuisance at times?
When I was at the university, there was this wonderful story with a professor who taught history of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Once she told me that I would never in my life pass exams because I can’t recite Stalin's victory speech. At the same time, during my university years, as I said, Stalin’s name was never mentioned publicly just as Khrushchev's.
And one day when she reported sick, my Dean for academic affairs called me and said: "A graduate student is an examiner today, so you better run there." So, at the exam, this young grad student asked me what had happened at the October 1964 plenum? I said that Nikita Khrushchev was dismissed, and then I asked if there would be any more questions. He replied, "No, thank you, you’ve had your share of trouble." And he just let me go with a highest score. He was obviously a liberal-minded young man, although he taught such an ideological discipline.
In general, my Khrushchev ties make my life more interesting. I can’t say if they help me or are a nuisance. It’s probably both.
Have you ever heard any reproaches over the fact that you have left Russia despite being Khrushchev’s descendant?
I did not emigrate, I just left because Gorbachev said: it's a free country, do what you want. If you want to be cosmopolitan, Godspeed and off you go.
Then many people were leaving, and many were condemned, but I don’t think I was condemned any more than anybody else.
However, later, there probably was some kind of talk on the issue. See, when a new history textbook came out, I was mentioned in it. For some reason, I became so important that they even had a question about me in a quiz on whether I betrayed my Homeland, and whether I did it right when I left for the United States...
In fact, many descendants of Soviet leaders preferred to live abroad. And from time to time, Russian media publish pieces on them (on you, included) branding them "anything but patriotic" and things like that. Does it bother you?
You know, to be honest, I am not aware of such publications. But once again, this is about cosmopolitanism.
If someone leaves England or Italy for the United States, no one calls them a traitor to England or a non-patriot of Italy. In Russia, for some reason, it’s either everything or nothing. You are either absolutely exposed to that system, or, if you criticize it even slightly, this means that you are already becoming the "fifth column". But, as the great writer Chaadayev once said: I can’t love my country with my eyes shut.
Khrushchev's famous address at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party "On the Cult of Stalin's Personality and Its Consequences" is still perceived in different ways. Some opine that this was one of the key speeches in the history of the last century, while some say that it was the moment when the ideas of Marxism were first undermined. Also, there is an opinion that the report was a sort of a "leap" for Khrushchev, since it helped shape his image of the denouncer of dictatorship. What do you think about all this?
I agree that this is one of the most important speeches of the 20th century. It was this report that first said that tsars can be murderers, and this is not good, and this needs to be voiced.
Indeed, undoubtedly, this was when Marxism began to be undermined. This is also true. That’s because when someone claims that the king is naked or the king is a murderer, questions arise immediately. And this was the beginning of the end of socialism, although Khrushchev absolutely did not mean it - on the contrary, he tried to make Marxism transparent, to explain that one must be aware of their mistakes. That is, Khrushchev himself was somewhere between a reactionary and a reformer. It's not for nothing that Ernest Neizvestny made a remarkable gravestone to Khrushchev (the monument consists of two figured stone marble slabs, dark and light - UNIAN).
Speaking about the address being a springboard for him to push forward... I'm not sure it was. After all, this was an unpopular and shocking step for top leaders who, being terrified by Stalin, were still pro-Stalin.
In general, I think that in this way Khrushchev and Anastas Mikoyan (a member of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Communist Pary) tried to really break down the Communist monolith, not to let Communism get bogged down. It was especially so for Mikoyan, who was familiar with global commerce.
Do today's American youths have any interest in Marxism?
There is an interest in social justice. Hardly anyone knows that this is actually about Marx.
I teach a course called Hollywood and the Cold War. So, there is movie released in 1939 called "Ninochka". According to the plot, a Russian Communist lady comes to Paris where she naturally becomes pro-Western, falls in love, and so on.
And I ask my students if they could believe that some things that you are now talking about in America with great enthusiasm (that women have equal rights with men, can become engineers or whatever) were an absolutely normal thing, a daily reality in the Soviet Union. However, we tend to forget about this because we only remember the horrors of the Soviet regime.
In general, there is not much interest in either history or philosophy; no one is interested in anything other than reality TV - that's why we have President Donald Trump.
We will get back to Trump. Now I want to ask you about the movies: there was this big scandal in Russia recently around the movie called "Matilda", absurd allegations were voiced that the film threatened national security... Is the fact that such scandals are actually a thing just another evidence to question sanity of Russian officials?
Of course, this is a diagnosis to Russian officials, but it was not the officials who were the film’s most vocal critics. It was mostly the mindless adepts of Russian Orthodoxy was shouting. I am all good with the [Christian] Orthodox Church, but this orthodoxy and backwardness in the 21st century is simply shocking. That's why I say that I am a cosmopolitan...
The fact that Nicholas II was horribly killed by the Bolsheviks does not at all say he was not a human being. He was once a Prince, he fell in love ... and this is all historical facts. But they want to make of him what the Soviet government wanted to make from Stalin or Lenin. This is what Khrushchev said at the 20th Congress - the tsar can also be a real man who makes mistakes.
In modern Russia, over the past 10 years, we have been returning (or have already returned) to the idea that everything human is just alien to the Kremlin and anyone who has ever presided there (even if this Kremlin was in St.Petersburg). All it is something on stilts, made of marble and gold and with a crown on top.
Of course, this is the problem of today's Russia. On the one hand, it says, “Behold, we are a big and important country”... But at the same time, it behaves like some country from unreformed Middle Ages.
Another Russian movie among the latest ones is "Crimea", and this is simply a fierce propaganda of the occupation of the peninsula...
I didn’t watch it, so I can’t say anything.
The plot revolves around the period when the annexation was beginning. Naturally, it’s the Russian version of the events that is shown...
Then everything is perfectly clear - they need to remind everyone how "amazing" it was. Now we seem to have forgotten… Sanctions are an unpleasant thing, while eastern Ukraine, despite Donetsk and Luhansk, doesn’t rush to embrace "Novorossia". From the propaganda perspective, three years is just the right time frame. Now this movie was shot, and then there will be more.
Your uncle Sergei Khrushchev's position on Crimea is totally different from yours. He repeatedly said that he assessed the latest developments positively citing "the will of the peoples of Crimea."
Even if we don’t agree with him on Crimea, I don’t discuss it publicly.
Let's go back to Trump. In your recent tweet, you wrote that the whole family of Donald Trump is a “disgusting malignant growth on American democracy." Why are you so categorical?
Because Trump is not the president of real life, he’s the president of reality television. His Twitter, his speeches, his absolute narcissism ... Take his recent visit to Puerto Rico, where he first threw paper towels and then explained that “there was a crowd of a lot of people. And they were screaming and they were loving everything. I was having fun, they were having fun…" They could not be having fun. They just lost everything!
Melania Trump, of whom I also wrote, is quite an interesting character. In the sense that she looks pretty good on the cover, but not so good in real life.
Once again, I was upset and angered by Ivana Trump, who said she refused to become U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic because she wants to rest. That’s some absolutely unprofessional reality TV and idiocy, which they now call politics. That's why I wrote it.
You once said that it’s the mass media who had created Trump. Are these media now able to get him off his throne?
Not anymore because the only thing they do is talk about him. We live in a world where any kind of media attention is good attention, and how can they not cover the U.S. president? He makes high ratings and they will write about him. They created him themselves and now it’s only up to his own Party to bring him down.
You once characterized the U.S. democracy, referring to the "Brave New World" by Aldous Huxley: “What we love will ruin us”. Talking about Russia, you said that the country lived in the paradigm of Orwell’s "1984": you are ruined by what puts endless pressure on you. What about Ukraine? Can you compare us to some kind of anti-utopia?
You know, I can’t. Just now I am writing a chapter about Kyiv for my book. You know, I have a real hard time with it because Ukraine is right on the border – it’s neither West nor Russia. It already has certain features of the West but at the same time, it’s totally Russian. And this makes Ukraine an insanely interesting place today.
In Russia, the attitude toward the authorities is obsequious – it’s “people for the government”. In Ukraine, it’s more about “government for the people”. Yes, government officials are far from perfect, they are terrible, and you deserve better leaders, but, nevertheless, there is a feeling that the authorities are hired to serve and make the country a better place.
And I think that, at the end of the day, Ukraine's struggle for improving the country will be crowned with success. There was the year of 2004, then 2013 - it is still going toward success. Russia has much longer periods of stagnation much longer, while the explosions are much smaller.