Khrushchev at home in U.S.

Son: The late Soviet premier's only surviving son has two cars, a suburban ranch house and this week hopes to become a U.S. citizen.

June 20, 1999|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

CRANSTON, R.I. -- Nikita Khrushchev's son lives in a modest suburban ranch house with a Buick and a Pontiac in his garage, a lovingly tended garden in the back yard and a ball field across the street. Radiating in all directions from his driveway are similarly sunny homes on similarly sculpted parcels with sprinkler systems, lawn ornaments and barbecues.

Sergei Khrushchev is ensconced here in America, the very place his father predicted would one day fall to communism. That was 40 years ago. Instead, the Soviet empire is no more, and Nikita's only surviving son is studying a booklet about American government in preparation for a trip Wednesday to a federal office building, where he will take a U.S. citizenship test.

A hint of gloating was evident in the news stories on this turnabout: The son of the blustering Soviet premier who promised to surpass America has now succumbed to its charms. But Khrushchev isn't a willing foil. Having spent the past 30 years trying to secure his father's historic legacy, he knows he has given the full measure of a son's devotion to Nikita. In Khrushchev's mind, his decision on U.S. citizenship is no more a repudiation of his father than his preference -- yes, it's true -- for beer over vodka.

"It's impossible to move historical figure from one historical era to another," says Khrushchev, 64, in heavily accented English. He refuses to feel guilty. The world today would be unrecognizable to the Nikita Khrushchev who ruled the Soviet Union from 1953 until his abrupt removal in 1964. Khrushchev finds the question of what his father, who died in 1971, would think about his decision absurd.

Nowadays, no interview passes without that question being put to Khrushchev. As befits any Ivy League lecturer -- at Brown University in Providence -- he replies with an analogy.

"It would be like asking George Washington what he thought about gulf war," Khrushchev says. "He'd say, `We Americans have gone crazy. Our real enemies are the British. Why are we fighting these Arabs?' That was [Washington's] historical vision at the time, and he was right. The same if you're trying to say, `What would Khrushchev say in 1950 about my decision in 1999?' "

The right thing to do

What Khrushchev says about his pending U.S. citizenship is that it seems the right thing to do. After living here eight years, it recently occurred to him that he and his wife, Valentina, are likely to live out the rest of their days in the United States. That being the case, he felt obliged to become a citizen.

"Some people prefer to return what they borrowed from the other people," he says. "I'm thinking that I have to return the money. The same way I think if I live here, I have to be a citizen."

He is speaking now in the closet-sized, third floor, walk-up office at Brown, where he is a senior fellow in international studies. He writes and teaches classes about Russia's tortured struggle toward democracy and a market economy, both of which he, a former member of the Soviet Communist Party, supports.

Though far thinner than his bowling ball-shaped father, Khrushchev shares his father's blunt-as-a-potato face beneath the same expansive, nearly hairless dome. He also reveals a warmth and a sense of humor that Nikita Khrushchev occasionally flashed when not pounding his shoe on a desk.

The younger Khrushchev especially demonstrates this side in his gentle jibing with Valentina, whom he frequently reaches out to pat.

Although the spotlight has been acute recently, since the news of his citizenship plans, Khrushchev has not exactly been in hiding. A United States map on his office wall marks dozens of places where he has made speaking appearances.

Theoretically, some of those spots might well have been targeted by the guided missiles he helped design when he, an engineer by profession, worked in the Soviet armaments industry.

`He was so proud of me'

Sergei Khrushchev was already a young adult when his father was in power, but Nikita Khrushchev discouraged his children from politics. "He came to believe an engineer was better than a politician. He was so proud of me for that."

Still, father and son were close. Sergei accompanied Nikita on many of his foreign visits, including his famous trip to the United States in 1959. He was present during many of the critical moments of Nikita's tenure, including the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. And Sergei Khrushchev was at the family home in Moscow when his father returned from the Kremlin in 1964 after being toppled from power.

`I'm retired'

"It's over," his father wanly told his family that day. "I'm retired."

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