Study Guide

Nikita Khrushchev in Ich bin ein Berliner Speech

By John F. Kennedy

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Nikita Khrushchev

Nikita Khrushchev's name doesn't appear anywhere in Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech. So why is it worth reading about him?

Easy: he built the Berlin Wall.

Okay, no, he didn't actually pour the concrete or unspool the barbed wire or do any of the actual construction work. But he was the guy in charge when the wall got built. Even though he wasn't The Man in East Germany, Khrushchev was in charge of the USSR, which was controlling East Germany like a puppet—a puppet with a big new wall.

Let's back up a little.

From Proletariat to Pro

Khrushchev's life was basically the polar opposite of rich, pretty-boy Kennedy. Khrushchev grew up poor and worked in a Russian factory. Lucky for him the Russian Revolution swept through the country, making heroes out of working-class people just like little Nikita. Where once he wouldn't have had a frosty Russian snowball's chance in hell of becoming important enough to be discussed in a history book, the Russian Revolution made him relevant.

They killed the Czar and raised workers like Khrushchev up off of the filthy factory floor all the way to the Kremlin.

It's important to remember that the Soviet Union was not a democracy. The people didn't elect their leaders. Instead heads of the USSR emerged from the managers of the Communist Party. So Khrushchev gained power by slowly working his way up the ranks of communist committees—without the public voting for him. His rise was all about befriending the right communist officials—most importantly Josef Stalin.

Nikita and Joe were such good friends that when Stalin died, finally joining the millions of people that he murdered in his purges, famines, and wars, Khrushchev became the new leader. It should be said that while Khrushchev went along with Stalin during his bloody campaigns of mayhem, he actually wasn't that into them.

Almost immediately after seizing power Khrushchev started talking about reforming the Soviet Union so that maybe Stalin-esque shenanigans wouldn't happen so often anymore.

Sounds reasonable right? Actually it was talking like this that was ultimately Khrushchev's downfall.

Three Strikes and You're Sent Far, Far Away

Powerful Soviet leaders hated the idea of reform and suggesting it made Khrushchev suspect to the dudes he beat out to become the big red leader. They took advantage of a couple of key mishaps to oust him from his position—and both of his biggest whoopsies involved President Kennedy.

First was the Cuban Missile Crisis. Khrushchev tried to put nuclear missiles in Cuba where they could have very easily targeted the U.S. Kennedy successfully blocked that attempt and Khrushchev wound up looking foolish in front of his uber-macho comrades.

Second was the Berlin Wall and the "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech. The USSR was controlling most of the countries in Eastern Europe, making sure they had communist governments and that their leaders remained loyal to Mother Russia Soviet Union. The plan was to do the same thing to East Germany, but the problem was that the unenthusiastic Germans could just move to West Germany. And they did. A lot.

So Khrushchev ordered a wall built to keep them in. He could have saved some money and just put up a giant billboard saying "We failed to sell communism to the Germans" because, to the world, that's what the wall symbolized. And then Kennedy just had to go all the way to Berlin to point that out, "we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us."

About a year and a half after Kennedy's speech, Khrushchev became the first Soviet leader to not die in office. He was forced to resign and allowed to retire to his country house. Which is really, really nice…considering that his country house wasn't a prison in Siberia, which is where they usually put people who wanted reform.

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