From the book RED MOON RISING: Sputnik and The Hidden Rivalries That Ignited the Space Age by Matthew Brzezinski. Reprinted by arrangement with Times Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC.. Copyright (c) 2007 by Matthew Brzezinski. All rights reserved. Image:
[Editor's Note: The following is the first chapter from Red Moon Rising, a new book from writer Matthew Brzezinski.]
One after another, the big ZIS limousines pulled away from the curb. Black and burly, their whitewall tires not yet soiled by slush, the armored behemoths glided gently through the snow--three-and-a-half-ton dancers in a synchronized automotive ballet.
From Central Committee headquarters on Staraya Square, the chrome-fendered procession headed east past Gorki Street and slipped under the shadow of one of the Gothic skyscrapers that Stalin had ordered built after the war. Seven of the sinister high-rises dominated the Moscow skyline, and they rose in stone layers like fifty-story wedding cakes decked in dark granite icing. On the Ring Road, another Stalinist creation, an eight-lane motorway that surrounded the city center in an asphalt moat, the dozen limousines and chase cars turned north, breezing past block after block of leviathan government buildings that heralded the new Moscow.
The old mercantile city had been branded with Stalin's indelible stamp; it was now a metropolis of bronze bas-reliefs of giant steelworkers with bulging forearms, of cast-iron tributes to collective farmers brandishing sixteen-foot scythes, of statues of Lenin six stories high. Monumental and monochromatic public works had risen on the trampled foundations of prerevolutionary pastel palaces. The gilded cathedrals of old were gone--ripped down or buried under layers of soot--and in their stead rose hulking cement fortresses whose towering porticos paid architectural tribute to the insignificance of the individual in the one-party state. Red banners hailing the Twentieth Party Congress draped the gray edifices, though the plenum had ended tumultuously two days before. glory to the workers, they proclaimed. peace to the proletariat. Beneath the propaganda placards, long lines of shoppers formed outside food stores, their breath steaming in the cold, while elderly women in fingerless gloves swept dirty snow from the sidewalks.
If Nikita Khrushchev noticed any incongruity between the lofty slogans and the harsh socialist reality of Moscow street-corner life, he said nothing to his driver, or to his son, Sergei, sitting beside him in the backseat. He had said more than enough at the Twentieth Congress, and although six weeks would pass before the Central Intelligence Agency got wind of his secret speech, the Americans would be just as stunned as the 1,500 shocked delegates who had heard him in the Great Kremlin Palace less than forty-eight hours earlier.
Father and son sat in silence, behind the ZIS's pleated curtains, watching the city stream drably past. Directly behind them, in the lane reserved exclusively for party high-ups, rode the three other Presidium members who had jointly ruled Russia since Stalin's death three years earlier: Nikolai Bulganin, Lazar Kaganovich, and Vyacheslav Molotov. Behind them, in descending order of importance, rode lesser officials in less imposing ZIMs and Pobedas: Dmitri Ustinov, the armaments minister; Aleksei Kirichenko, a new addition to the Presidium; and the usual entourage of KGB bodyguards and eager aides.
Khrushchev's car led the convoy, as befitting his new rank as first among equals in the Presidium, as the Politburo was then known. But the men in the rear were crowding his bumper, biding their time for an opportunity to overtake him. This Khrushchev knew, understood almost instinctively, from the survival skills he had honed during two treacherous decades in Stalin's inner circle. When the "boss" was alive, they had all vied for his favor, slid tomatoes onto each other's chairs in prank-filled drinking contests that lasted till dawn. Like sixty-year-old frat boys, they all laughed when Lavrenty Beria, the secret police chief and serial rapist, pinned little notes with the Russian word prick spelled in big Cyrillic letters on Khrushchev's unsuspecting back. But the day the boss died, the jokes ended and the plotting began. This Khrushchev also knew from personal experience, for it was he who had masterminded the coup against the psychopath Beria. Stalin's chief henchman and self-anointed successor had been dispatched with a bullet to the brain, and it was Khrushchev, the class clown of this murderous fraternity, who had unexpectedly emerged to fill the power vacuum.