I am very proud of my name. It is my grandfather’s — Nikita Khrushchev. Here I am with my grandfather in 1971, in his retirement home in Petrovo Dalnee, 30 miles west of Moscow. There is just one problem with having this last name: Often people don’t talk to me, they talk to Khrushchev, the late Soviet premier. At times I become only a prop for their ideological idiosyncrasies or historical memories, like those cardboard figures — Nixon, Clinton or Schwarzenegger — that you take pictures with at an amusement park.
Of course, I don’t object to being a professional Khrushchev once in a while. Responsibility comes with the name, and I am lucky to have it. Yet, also once in a while, anonymity is a welcome quality. At times, I think it would have been liberating to have your name not known, not recognized, not mangled. It would be great to have a name less terrifyingly foreign (or communist) to the American ear. Ann (N) Kay (K) is a pseudonym I’d like to have. Unparalleled in its basic simplicity, it is great name to have on the cover of a best-selling silly love novel, sold in every supermarket. I want to write it, but I never will — my Russian upbringing was too intellectual for that. I may never use this pseudonym at all. But here Ann Kay may get a chance to test my alternative personality.
Not that my personality isn’t alternative as it is. When I explain our multilayered family relations, people often get lost in its complexity. And I am, too, lost in trying to explain it clearly and succinctly. Russia after all is an enigma wrapped in mystery, and my family is no exception. Khrushchev, the Premier, is actually my biological great grandfather. But when his eldest son, Leonid perished in a World War II air battle over central Russia, Nikita adopted Leonid’s two-year old daughter, my mother Julia, as his own. Julia, his granddaughter by birth, became his daughter by relations. Consequently, by relations Nikita Khrushchev is my grandfather, and I always refer to him as such.
Photo Left: My grandfather and mother inspect arts and crafts during Soviet state visit to Indonesia in 1959.
Photo Right: Leonid Khrushchev (1917-43) in Moscow during World War II, 1942.
For his anti-Stalin reform policies the premier became persona-non-grata in the 1960s USSR around the time I was born. When I grew up, my political consciousness had grown too: In the early 1980s, with Leonid Brezhnev running the Soviet show, I myself decided to adopt Khrushchev. To show my affinity with my grandfather, I chose to give up my father’s surname, Petrov, and to take that of my mother’s, Khrushcheva.
My father Lev Petrov, second top right, was also a soldier in World War II. Pictured here in 1941, he was 18 when the war began. He passed away in 1970 at the age of 47, and it was a terrible loss for me as a small child. Yet growing up, I felt that he didn’t need as much of my public memory, as my grandfather did. However, since then, in homage to my father, I always use my middle initial – L – for Lvovna, my Russian patronymic based on his first name, Lev.
Sometimes I want to go back to my old surname, but after 30 years Khrushcheva has become more than just my identification, it is my identity, too. Today Nina Petrova no longer exists. She was left in the USSR, the country that is also the thing of the past. So it is Ann Kay who may be an alter ego for my future projects. Although once discussing this with an editor I was stunned to hear that he would never publish me under this pseudonym. “The readers have no idea who that is,” he said. “And we don’t want to disappoint our readers.”
Indeed, we don’t, and for now I remain Nina L. Khrushcheva. As such I have written a memoir, The Lost Khrushchev (Tate Publishing, May 2014), the year of my grandfather’s 120th birth and 50th anniversary of his ousting from the Kremlin. It has taken four years to cohere this three-decades-coming-of-age story into a book. Rewriting it three times, probably the hardest thing I have ever done. I had to put together a somewhat comprehensible picture of Soviet history, to explain my grandfather’s reformist political legacy, despite his loyalty to Joseph Stalin before the dictator’s death in 1953. I had to address the rise of Vladimir Putin, and most importantly, I had to unravel deeply convoluted relations within the Khrushchev family.
The Lost Khrushchev: A Journey Into the Gulag of the Russian Mind is a family chronicle that tells the story of Leonid Khrushchev, my grandfather, and the oldest son of former Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev. Part memoir, part investigation, this book is a window into Leonid’s life and death – and what they mean for contemporary Russia. It is inspired by the persistent accusations in the Russian media that 25-year-old Leonid – a fighter pilot during World War II, the Great Patriotic War in Russia – did not die heroically in battle in 1943 as was once presumed, but instead was executed by Joseph Stalin for his alleged service to the Nazis. So what happened to that lost Khrushchev? Was Leonid really a deserter? Or did he, like 20 million other Russians, lose his life during the war? Throughout this book, I also address the legacy of my great grandfather, Nikita Khrushchev, whose leadership from 1953 to 1964 still has much bearing on Russian politics today.
In 2019, The Lost Khrushchev was published in Russian as well. Moscow publisher AIRO-XXI titled it Propavshiy Khrushchev, ili kogda Gulag v golovkh, and suggested to replace much Putin-bashing with more history and sociology. Who was I to argue?! The wonderful translation by Irina Davidyan made the book even more personal and passionate, not a bad thing for a Russian.
June 4, 2019, the Russian book was presented at the Andrei Sakharov Center in Moscow, with very thoughtful commentaries by Nadezhda Azhgikhina, journalist and activist, and Andrei Kolesnikov of Carnegie Moscow Center. On June 7, my brother in law Igor Makurin wrote about the event for Sut Sobytyi (Essence of Events), an online news site, to which he contributes a column.
April 28, I discussed the book (in Russian) with Dmitry Volchek of Radio Svoboda (RFERL–Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty), “Gulag in the Head: What has Happened to Khrushchev’s Son?”
October 13, discussion of The Lost Khrushchev with Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute, at Columbia University.
July 10, an awesome review of The Lost Khrushchev in The Economist, Lost in Translation: What Happened to Nikita Khrushchev’s Son? So honored and grateful!
June 29, a conversation with Radio Pacifica’s Ian Masters of Background Briefing.
June 23, I talked to Mark Barton of Bloomberg about Ukraine and about why Russia is always Russia–the Gulag of our minds.
In May 2014, coinciding with the book’s publication, Newsweek has run excerpts from the book: 1. Khrushchev. Hero or Villain; 2. A Breath of Fresh Air in the Kremlin; 3. Once KGB Agent, Always a KGB Agent.
In February 2013, I spoke about The Lost Khrushchev at The New School — it was a horrible blizzard that day, still didn’t stop almost 200 diehard downtown liberals and Cold Warriors from attending. I am grateful for their interest and attention.
Moreover, the following articles, written over the year, have formed the basis for The Lost Khrushchev:
- “The Show Trial State” Foreign Policy, May 2013
- “Is Vladimir Putin Czar of the Intelligentsia?” Newsweek, October 15-21, 2012
- “Shades of Stalin” Newsweek, October 10-16, 2011
- “The Lost Lessons of Freedom” Foreign Policy, August 19, 2011
- “The Memory Trap” Foreign Policy, November 6, 2009
- “Legally Lawless Russia” Forbes, July 7, 2009
- “Russia’s Rotting Empire” World Policy Journal, Fall 2008
- “A Fatal Desire for Order” The New York Times-International Herald Tribune, February 26, 2006
- “The Day Khrushchev Buried Stalin” Los Angeles Times, February 19, 2006
- “Why Russia Still Loves Stalin” The Washington Post, February 12, 2006
- “‘Rehabilitating’ Stalin” World Policy Journal, Summer 2005
- “Happy Birthday, Nikita Khrushchev” The New York Times, April 16, 2005
- “Vova the Dread” Wall Street Journal, March 5, 2005
- “Russia’s New Inspector General” The New York Times-International Herald Tribune, August 10, 2007
- “The Empire Sneaks Back” The New York Times-International Herald Tribune, October 30, 2004