Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, born into an illiterate peasant family in Kalinovka, Russia, rose through the Communist Party ranks to become the third leader of the Soviet Union. An activist from his teenage years, and a political commissar with the Bolshevik forces during the Russian Civil War, Khrushchev joined the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1918. After studying at Kharkov University, he undertook a series of political assignments, which gained the attention of top party leaders in the Ukraine (see Smith 1992). In 1931 Khrushchev moved to Moscow, where he served as secretary of the Bauman district party organization. He became first secretary of the Moscow party organization in 1935.
By 1938 Khrushchev had become a member of the Politburo and went on to serve as first secretary in the Ukraine, where he oversaw the Ukrainian party organization’s purges. He fought in World War II (1939–1945) and afterward became chairman of the Ukrainian Council of Ministers. Other notable positions held by Khrushchev include first secretary of the Moscow City Party Committee (1949), member of the Central Committee Secretariat responsible for supervising party affairs in the various republics, and full member of the Presidium, which well situated him for ascension to the Communist Party’s top leadership after the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953. Khrushchev almost immediately espoused a plan for reforming the economy and stimulating agricultural output. For example, the Virgin Lands program called for plowing up virgin prairie lands in the Caucasus regions, Siberia, and the Volga Basin, and planting corn to use as feed to expand beef production. The plan, a dismal failure, coupled with other failures and leadership challenges, had an impact on Khrushchev’s popularity.
In 1956 Khrushchev launched a de-Stalinization campaign as a means to shore up his popularity, but it also enhanced the rule of law in Soviet society. The de-Stalinization campaign called attention to a series of Stalinist abuses and breaches of power that included establishing a personality cult, orchestrating purges that terrorized innocent people, and violating the Leninist principle of collective leadership. Khrushchev’s campaign and reforms also yielded unintended results, as exemplified by the burst of artistic creativity, strikes, demonstrations, and political reform efforts in Eastern Europe. This aside, he also sought to reduce the Soviet Union’s isolation in the world.
Khrushchev was the first Soviet leader to advocate “peaceful coexistence” with the West, and the first Soviet leader to visit the United States. In 1959 he met with President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969) at Camp David, traveled to Iowa to learn about hybrid corn, and toured IBM and Disneyland. The path to improved relations was, however, short-circuited by the 1960 U-2 affair, the 1961 U.S.’ sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion, and the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Interestingly, Khrushchev’s public persona, as exemplified by heated exchanges with Richard Nixon (1913–1994) during the so-called kitchen debate in 1959, his shoe-banging demonstration at the United Nations in 1960, and communications with John F. Kennedy (1917–1963) during the Cuban missile crisis, most likely contributed to his downfall and banishment from Soviet politics.
Taken from: "Khrushchev, Nikita." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, edited by William A. Darity, Jr., 2nd ed., vol. 4, Macmillan Reference USA, 2008, pp. 264-265.