Khrushchev's lack of education was a sore point, a source of embarrassment and frustration--not only to him but to the party as well. The leaders of the revolution had been learned men: Trotsky, Bukharin, the lawyerly Lenin. Even Stalin had studied in a seminary before finding Marx. But in the Soviet version of upward mobility, the next generation of Communist Party functionaries had risen from the bottom of the proletariat, sons and daughters of the peasantry suddenly catapulted into the twentieth century, as Khrushchev himself conceded with remarkable candor. "We weren't gentlemen in the old-fashioned sense," he wrote in his memoir, recalling his wartime stay at the estate of a Polish nobleman. "It became impossible to enter the bathroom. Why? Because the people in our group didn't know how to use it properly. Instead of sitting on the toilet seat so that people could use it after them, they perched like eagles on top of the toilet and mucked up the place terribly. And after we put the bathroom out of commission, we set to work on the park grounds."
Throughout his late twenties and thirties, Khrushchev had struggled to better himself, attending the Rabfak high school equivalency programs offered to rising party functionaries and enrolling in special courses at the Stalin Industrial Academy for promising technocrats. But party business always interfered, and he never managed to finish any of them. "He could barely hold a pencil in his calloused hand," one of his teachers later told the biographer William Taubman. "She recalled his struggling to grasp a point of grammar and, when he at last understood it, smiling and shouting, 'I got it.'"
Sergei was thus on the cusp of fulfilling his father's unrealized dream. In a few months he would defend his master's thesis and become a full-fledged engineer. "My father felt this was the best, most honorable profession a man could have," he recalled fifty years later. "In technical matters, he was very creative and curious."
Khrushchev's passion for technology could at times lead to childlike bursts of enthusiasm, and whenever state business took him to a plant or research facility of technical interest, he brought Sergei. "He wanted me to see the theories I had been learning at university applied in practice," Sergei recalled. The two had recently gone to the Tupolev factory to inspect the first Soviet jet-engine passenger plane, and Nikita had boyishly rubbed his hands in glee at the prospect of impressing foreigners with it on his next trip abroad.
Today, though, was a special outing for Sergei. Ever since the ZIS had picked him up outside class at the Moscow Institute of Power Engineering that morning, he had been giddy with anticipation. "You see, I was studying to become a rocket scientist, a guidance systems expert to be precise," he noted. And today his father was taking him to NII-88, the USSR's top-secret rocket research facility.
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The design bureaus of NII-88 were discreetly tucked away outside Moscow, where too many foreigners with prying eyes roamed the streets. To get there, then as today, visitors took the main road to Yaroslavl. Khrushchev's motorcade, with the other Presidium members in tow, turned onto what is now called the M8 highway, and the cranes and suburban construction sites soon gave way to the countryside. The transition came abruptly, like crossing some imaginary threshold between the twentieth and eighteenth centuries. Roads turned to mud, settlements into ramshackle villages. Wooden farmhouses and huts with thatched roofs leaned at crazy angles. Most had no electricity or running water. Their inhabitants had few teeth. They walked around half dazed, as if in slow motion, swaddled in rags, filthy peacoats, and sleeveless jackets made from the hides of farm animals. The herds of cattle were scrawny and clumped with manure. Skinny chickens scampered underfoot.
Though the Communist Party viewed the backward peasants with undisguised contempt for both ideological and practical reasons (stemming from perennially poor harvests), Khrushchev had always felt comfortable in the countryside. He had made agriculture his bailiwick under Stalin, and he had grown up in similar circumstances, tending sheep as a young boy in the tiny farming community of Kalinovka, near Kursk. "Every villager dreamed of owning a pair of boots," he recalled. "We children were lucky if we had a decent pair of shoes. We wiped our noses on our sleeves and kept our trousers up with a piece of string."