Friday, March 28, 2014

Eavesdropping on farts

The 80s was a great time to grow up.  Not only did we have great music, but world events made things interesting (and those events affected the music, of course).  The Cold War heated up and many people feared a nuclear war was imminent.  But I think it might have been worse back in the 60s when the Russians were lead by a guy who seemed unstable and had a propensity toward violent outbursts.  He was a guy who said what was on his mind and did crazy things.  Turns out he was crazy  crazy like a fox.

Nikita Khrushchev had been one of Stalin's deputies and a military leader during WWII.  In his own words he'd been up to his elbows in blood.  And while that's a fact, I wonder if it doesn't give us a distorted picture of who he really was.  After all, everyone did what Stalin said without question or they didn't live long.  And as soon as Stalin was dead Khrushchev loosened things up (a little) and did away with some of the harshest practices.  But perhaps the most interesting – and certainly the strangest – image we get of him was when he came to the United States.

It was an accident, really.  Ike had only intended to invite Khrushchev if he'd back down on some inflammatory statements he'd made about Berlin, but the US ambassador messed up the invitation.  And Khrushchev was so thrilled to be invited that he pretended to be offended by Sweden so he could cancel an already planned visit there.  K Blows Top: A Cold War Comic Interlude Starring Nikita Khrushchev, America's Most Unlikely Tourist by Peter Carlson recounts some of the most bizarre historical events I've ever read.  Khrushchev – or "K" as he was often referred to in America – was still a leader with an outsize ego, and he insisted on having the biggest plane, the Tu-114.  Unfortunately, it was taller than the stairway ramps and initially they needed a ladder to get out.  And that's only the beginning!

From the "kitchen debates" at the World's Fair in Moscow with Vice President Richard Nixon (it was at a display of an "modern American kitchen") to an actual supermarket visit in the US, where members of the press stood on moving check stand conveyor belts, climbed on store shelves, and knocked women shoppers into displays of potato chips, the trip was the first media circus.  Khrushchev was initially wary of being invited to Camp David (the Soviets didn't know it was a presidential retreat), but he was a master politician and once he was allowed a little freedom to interact with the crowds he enjoyed himself immensely, hamming it up, swapping hats, and playing the vaudevillian.  He most loved the cafeteria at the IBM offices with its self-serve style, and laughed on a visit to a corn farmer in Iowa who threw trash in an angry fit at the reporters trampling his crops.  But the book isn't all funny as World War III seemed about to start when he exploded at being harangued by the mayor of Los Angeles and denied a visit to Disneyland.

Peter Carlson has written an easy and fast read that was both hilarious and frightening.  K comes across as the funniest dictator imaginable, with his playing the crowds one moment and throwing a tantrum the next (and it turns out most of the time it was all for show).  And yet, it demonstrates why Cold War tensions ran so high with such a volatile personality running the largest nation on earth.  (He engineered a return trip to the US where he famously banged his shoe on the desk at the United Nations.)  In fact, he was so unpredictable that he was subsequently deposed as leader and later lamented to Nixon that the KGB had even bugged his bathroom so they could eavesdrop on his farts.  But his story would make a great summer read, so if you're looking for a great beach book, I'd recommend this one.

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