Part 2: The Khrushchevs: From Red to red, white and blue
July 11, 1999
CRANSTON - The son of the late Soviet ruler Nikita Khrushchev lives in a neat ranch house in a typical American suburb, a land of lawn sprinklers and swing sets and back-yard grills.
His house has central air and a Jacuzzi. The kitchen has a center island and a bread machine, and there's an entertainment center in the living room.
The garage doors open automatically to reveal a Buick and a Pontiac.
These are only the most outward signs that, tomorrow, at 2 p.m. at Bishop McVinney Auditorium, in Providence, when Sergei Khrushchev and his wife are sworn in as citizens of the United States, it will be something of a formality.
Khrushchev has been a Communist and he has been a capitalist.
He likes capitalism better.
"YOU ARE THINKING in much more Soviet way than I am!" Khrushchev chides when asked whether he doesn't find America a bit excessive, what with its whole supermarket aisles of cereals and soaps.
"In Soviet way, they think is too much razor blades, [so] let's stop production in this factory" - and then what happens? "Shortages of razor blades!"
The former rocket scientist is at his desk in his cramped, third-floor office at Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies, where he's been teaching and writing about Russia for the last eight years. (His latest book, Nikita Khrushchev: Creation of a Superpower, is due out in October.)
The walls are hung with memorabilia - of his father with world leaders; of his own travels around the country, to places like the Rotary Club of Islip, Long Island; and of encounters with various celebrities. ("Thanks for being a great guest!" reads a note from Larry King.)
A TV and VCR near his desk are set to tape the daily Moscow news.
"Is good!" continues Khrushchev, about America's relentless producing. "They can do this, can make everything profitable - this means that this society is healthy!"
Of course, he's not talking here about spiritual health, he says, but "economically, structurally, if you produce and then consume everything, it's working. It cannot be a bad thing if it's working.
"If you don't like this cereal, don't buy it!"
KHRUSHCHEV, WHO turned 64 on July 2, is a lively character with bright blue eyes, wispy, white hair and a friendly, open expression. People tell him he looks like his father, but then, he says, people thought his father looked like President Eisenhower.
"Yes, I am bald, I am gray, I am old!" he says, but "really, I know I look like my mother." In disposition, however, he says he is like his father. "My mother was more serious."
Khrushchev came to America with his father in September 1959. It was the first trip for both and, diplomatically, quite a big deal. In Khrushchev Remembers, Nikita writes of being surprised to receive a note from Eisenhower, suggesting a friendly visit:
"I must say, I couldn't believe my eyes. We had no reason to expect such an invitation - not then, or ever for that matter. Our relations had been extremely strained. . . . "
The younger Khrushchev was 24 at the time, and though he recognizes the historical importance of the trip in those post-Stalin years - "each side trying to figure out, are these people like us, are they really human beings?" - he was, personally speaking, bored to death.
He was stuck in the back row of the Soviet delegation, he says, listening to the same speech three times a day or more, "trying not to fall asleep."
There were two highlights, however, he says, both involving butterflies.
He was an avid butterfly collector and had brought his net with him, "to catch American butterflies." When he learned of a place called Brooklyn where he could find some, he asked to go.
"I don't think Secret Service was very happy with me," he says. They looked to him as if they'd rather be dealing with spies, he says, but they dutifully escorted him to the Brooklyn address, which, as it turned out, was a store.
Khrushchev was amazed - "As a Soviet-educated person, I could not imagine it was possible to sell such useless product as butterflies!"
He purchased a few specimens, and upon returning to the Soviet Union, sent some of his own to Brooklyn. So much red tape was cut to accomplish these deliveries that, ultimately, the State Department relaxed its restrictions on the mailing of butterflies.
In the other butterfly story, Khrushchev asks the Secret Service to let him go chase butterflies with his net.
Again, the Secret Service is not thrilled, but they take him from the White House to an underground tunnel that leads to a remote area. There, he is met by a car, which takes him outside the city, to a field.
And so off he goes, "running with my net," he says, as "these four big guys are looking at me."
Khrushchev has since lost his taste for the harsher aspects of butterfly collecting - "I feel bad to kill them. It's a shame" - but he is still attuned to the beauty of nature, particularly flowers, bees and spiders. "If you look at the spider in the Florida, they are so beautiful."
He even likes the squirrels and skunks in his yard, and actually, just about everything about life in Rhode Island. Its climate is so much like home, he says, his wife, Valentina Golenko, calls the state Little Ukraine. For recreation, they like to take walks at Roger Williams Park and Arcadia Pond. Though they are not so fond of the beach, now that they are older, they do take guests there.
"Same as taking tourists to Bolshoi," quips Khrushchev.
KHRUSHCHEV seems to have made an easy enough transition, physically, from Russia to America.
But what about intellectually? How did he make a mental shift from being a true believer in communism to embracing a market economy, especially given his unusual pedigree?
Simple, says Khrushchev with a shrug. Capitalism works, communism doesn't - not on a large scale, anyway. And he refuses to feel "nostalgia" for it.
"Of course, I was very upset at the dissolution of the Soviet Union and that now the country falls down and people are living in poverty and the level of life is lower than when my father came to power," he says. "But this is nothing to do with the idea of communism."
The idea of a centralized economy was too "pure" to work, he says. But then, so, too, is the idea of "free market." In America, the market is not really free, he notes, but is closely regulated by the Federal Reserve.
Khrushchev sees no point in dickering over labels. He paraphrases Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping: "I not care too much about the color of the cat in the dark room if this cat is catching mice."
Besides, he says, "the failure of Russia is not the failure of the idea," but "the failure of the leaders," specifically, of "drunk, stupid" Boris Yeltsin (whom he regrets having voted for once) and of his corrupt friends.
This is a theme Khrushchev has sounded again and again in speeches and published essays about Russia's continuing crisis.
The fact that America has backed Yeltsin adds nothing to his legitimacy in Khrushchev's eyes, because America is just pursuing its own interests, as is only "natural."
But for Russia, he says it is another story. People are weary, and there is a leadership vacuum, just as there was in 1917, he warns.
"Water is heating and begins to boil. Once began to boil, you cannot close the top and think it will be all right."
ARRIVING BACK in Garden City, Khrushchev removes his shoes before entering the house, making it impossible not to think of his father, alarming the Western world by banging an Oxford on a desk at the United Nations.
But this Khrushchev seems blessed with more equanimity. In fact, a kind of peace permeates his home, inside and out.
Barefoot, and with Valentina beside him, Khrushchev - limping from arthritis in his hip ("the famous American disease") - gives a tour of their prolific garden:
There are Early Girl tomatoes, grown from seed. Cherry tomatoes. Seedless grapes. Cornelian cherries, good for making jam. Peaches. Pears. Hollyhocks. Black currants. Alpine strawberry plants that Valentina says "produce and produce and produce."
Like her husband, Valentina has made a smooth transition to American life, largely, she says, with the help of a neighbor, Mary Morrissey.
"She put English in like nailing!" says Valentina.
Morrissey, for her part, reports that Valentina is a quick study and very eager to learn. "She'd hear a word somewhere, and she'd run over to me, she wants to pronounce it right. She'd say, 'Put it in a sentence.' She was very aggressive, very aggressive."
Valentina is also willing to take on daunting projects, says Morrissey, such as finishing the basement and removing a tree limb from over the roof - "She loves Home Depot. Oh, God, she's in Home Depot more than my husband."
She is also a good seamstress and cook, and knows how to budget her money, says Morrissey.
(On the day she was interviewed, Valentina proved all of this true: she was wearing a lovely, sleeveless shift, which she'd sewn herself out of a $3.50-remnant; had made doll clothes for her granddaughter out of velvet scraps; and offered visitors a taste of the dinner she'd prepared from salmon, purchased - on sale, it turned out - at Shaw's.)
Morrissey's sense is that Valentina also has a spiritual side, so once she took her Russian friend along to noon Mass at nearby St. Mark's Church.
She'd heard Valentina talk about "our Lord" and "my Blessed Mother" in a way that suggested she'd be open to it.
(Asked about religion, Sergei Khrushchev said he has no faith, but neither is he an atheist (like his father) or an agnostic. He thinks there must be "something existent that's doing something," but, a true scientist, he says he doesn't have enough information, and considers religion "too important" to be casual about.
(He laughed that, when he came to America, a friend said, "We'll baptize you, and then we'll have an excellent party," to which Khrushchev replied, "I think we have excellent party without baptizing.")
One day, Valentina had a problem and asked Morrissey to pray on it. "I said, 'Valentina, you're gonna pray. You're gonna do the prayers. Not me, 'cause God's gonna listen to you.' She said it worked. I was kind of happy about that."
Catholic or not, though, the Khrushchevs are wonderful neighbors, she says, and a great couple.
"I think they were made for each other. They see eye to eye. They're gonna make nice Americans."