The Year I Was Peter the Great: Khrushchev, Stalin’s Ghost, and a Young American in Russia

  • Marvin Kalb
  • Brookings Institution Press
  • 304 pp.
  • Reviewed by Chris Bort
  • October 13, 2017

Russia reinvents itself in recurring cycles, and this memoir from the famed journalist recounts one of the shortest

How Russia keeps inflicting wounds on itself, periodically destroying and then recreating itself in different yet still eerily familiar forms, is one of those questions that has occupied scholars for generations. The Tsarist Empire, the Soviet Union, Vladimir Putin’s personalist authoritarian rule: Russia’s historical cycles and often bizarre contradictions sometimes suck in foreign visitors who thereafter can never get the place out of their blood.

Marvin Kalb, whose Russia is that of Nikita Khrushchev’s during the famous “thaw” of 1956, tells the story of those people — the Russians, the peoples in their empire, and the foreign visitors like himself who find the country endlessly fascinating.

Kalb’s timing was auspicious. His year in the Soviet Union coincided neatly with Khrushchev’s risky experiment in de-Stalinization that began with Khrushchev’s denunciation of the late despot at the infamous 20th Communist Party Congress in February and ended, more or less, with the political re-freezing that followed the Soviets’ brutal suppression of the Hungarian uprising in November.

The thaw appeared to open up all sorts of possibilities for the then-26-year-old Kalb, who had landed a job as a translator for the U.S. embassy thanks to his Russian-language skills. The book charts his interactions — in Moscow, provincial Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, Georgia, Sochi, Azerbaijan, and Leningrad — with bureaucrats and ordinary citizens alike.

Kalb meanwhile holds down a day job and spends his evenings researching a doctoral dissertation on the 19th-century conservative education minister Sergey Uvarov, an experience that exposes him to the bubbling anger, skepticism, and insubordination of Moscow’s intellectuals and youth.    

Along the way, the author encounters traits that sound familiar to visitors of Russia at almost any time in its history: a mix of a desire to be friendly with, or part of, the West, and a reflexive reliance on official narratives about the West and its decay, dysfunction, and injustice, as if by finding fault with the United States, Russians can feel better about themselves.

The people Kalb encounters compare themselves to Americans, sometimes absurdly and needlessly so, as if they have something to prove. Khrushchev himself, whom Kalb meets during a visit to the U.S. ambassador’s residence for a July 4th celebration, is an ardent practitioner, insisting that Soviet basketball teams are better than American teams.

Kalb calls out the Soviet leader for what he considers a laughable comparison, nearly provoking an international incident just moments after Khrushchev has remarked on Kalb’s basketball-player-like height (which prompts Khrushchev to compare Kalb to Peter the Great, Russia’s towering 18th-century ruler).

“In the oddest ways, I thought, Russians would disclose chronic feelings of inferiority,” Kalb writes, “in this case by boasting wildly about basketball. They had made major contributions to literature, music, and science, and much else. There was no need for Russians to feel inferior, and yet they did.”

Those who are accustomed to thinking of Russia — especially Soviet Russia just three years after Stalin’s death — as a police state in which foreign diplomats’ contacts with citizens must be tightly restricted, will be struck by how seemingly freely Kalb is able to interact with people during his travels. In place after place, the author finds someone willing to open up to him, sometimes to rant against the United States, sometimes to complain bitterly about life in the Soviet Union, sometimes to do both at the same time.

Especially effective is Kalb’s chance encounter, in a synagogue in the rundown Podol section of Kyiv (Kiev), with an old man. The man, it turns out, remembers Kalb’s grandfather and mother — then a child — and how they left Ukraine for the United States in 1914, just before the war and revolution that would turn Russia upside-down.   

And above all this, there is social and intellectual ferment. Khrushchev’s effort at de-Stalinization has opened a Pandora’s box of dismay, anger, and unmet expectations. The de-sacralization of an icon breeds violence in restive parts of the outer empire — among workers in Poznan, Poland, for instance — and pro-Stalin counter-violence in the late dictator’s homeland of Georgia.

Kalb gets up-close exposure to this dynamic in Moscow’s Lenin Library, where students around him erupt spontaneously in anti-Soviet diatribes, or dismiss and shout down lecturers who patronize them with canned, ideological interpretations of literature or events in Hungary.

The Year I Was Peter the Great is a rich and accessible snapshot of a unique time and place. It will not resonate with all readers but will strike a chord, at a minimum, with generations of those who know and are fascinated by Russia and its historical cycles.

Kalb writes about arriving in a bitterly cold Moscow on January 28, 1956, not long before Khrushchev’s speech. I myself stepped out of a plane in Moscow for the first time 30 years to the day after Kalb did, just as Mikhail Gorbachev’s experiment in glasnost was unfolding. That attempt to reinvent the Soviet Union hastened its demise and, in a way, culminated the processes that Khrushchev had unleashed. By the time Kalb leaves Moscow, the chill — both literal and figurative — is once again palpable, and that, too, is part of the cycle.

Chris Bort is a longtime Russia expert for the U.S. Government.

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