Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971) led the Soviet Union for part of the Cold War, after succeeding Joseph Stalin. He can be credited with initiating the campaign of “de-Stalinisation”, and attempting to improve living standards in the Soviet Union. Perhaps his greatest contribution to the Soviet Union, however, was conceiving the idea for the Berlin Wall in 1961.
Before we get to that though, let’s back up to what was arguably the defining moment in Khrushchev’s career; shortly after Stalin’s death, the newly-selected Soviet leader delivered a so-called Secret Speech. Khrushchev’s February 1956 speech in congress scandalously denounced Stalin, causing a sensation in both the Communist Party and across the world. It was particularly significant because it resulted in continued de-Stalinisation, whilst raising hopes for political reform throughout the satellite states – before brutally crushing them.
While not as abhorrent as Joseph Stalin in his leadership style, Khrushchev was still a dictator drunk on power. In June 1956, his government faced a crisis in Poland prompted by the desire for freedom ignited by his Secret Speech. It began with riots in Poznan, where factory workers were protesting against increased work targets. The crisis prompted Soviet fears then-Polish leader Władysław Gomułka would try to restore Polish independence, and so a high-powered delegation and Red Army units were sent to Poland. You know, as you do.
In October the same year, Khrushchev was forced to prove his tight grip on the Soviet satellite states for a second time (despite his promise of national ways to socialism). Khrushchev demonstrated his military power again by marching 30,000 troops into Hungary to suppress protesters demanding reform in Budapest. It’s worth adding the troops were backed by tanks and artillery; Khrushchev was serious. Despite desperate street-fighting in Budapest the demands for reform were suppressed; a new government led by Imre Nagy was formed and the troops were withdrawn from the country. So basically, Khrushchev got what he wanted.
Khrushchev went to such great lengths to prove his power over the satellite states in the mid-50s because of the 1956 Suez Crisis (which was a disastrous invasion of Egypt) and issues of power and prestige. Although it was then-US President Dwight D. Eisenhower who was able to take most of the credit for defusing the Suez Crisis, Khrushchev was able to take much of it by exploiting the split in the Western alliance and threatening nuclear missile attacks on Britain, France and Israel if they did not stop fighting in Egypt. This, coupled with his decisive reaction to the Polish and Hungarian Crises, greatly strengthened Khrushchev’s position both within the Soviet Union and internationally.
The next major thing Khrushchev did was order the Berlin Wall as a solution to the problem of refugees escaping from his Soviet satellite in East Germany to the West through divided Berlin. The Wall was erected during 12-13 August in 1961 as a show of strength, to demonstrate support for the East German government, and most importantly to prevent the flow of skilled East German workers to better lives in the West.
As you might imagine, the Berlin Wall went on to become something of a symbol of a divided Europe and of the divisions between the US and USSR. Its existence was solid proof neither US President John F. Kennedy nor Khrushchev had achieved their aims, and this contributed directly to the Cuban Missiles Crisis of the following year that brought the two sides to the brink of a nuclear war – but more on that later.