Friday, September 30, 2011

Khruschchev's Water Wings

Still enjoying Henry Kissinger's On China; a lot of good stories but one of the best is lifted from William Taubman's superb biography of Nikita Khrushchev from a few years back. Both Kissinger and Taubman offer insight into the never-smooth relationship between Khrushchev and Mao.  It is hard to imagine two Marxist insurgents less well endowed by chemistry to understand each other: Khrushchev who never got over his beginnings as a bumptious peasant and Mao who came to see himself as a kind of scholar-emperor (with a knack for hurt feelings).  Here is Taubman on a pivotal encounter during a visit by Khrushchev to China:
Mao set the tone ... by receiving Khrushchev not in a ceremonial room but in his swimming pool.  Khrushchev, who could not swim, was obliged to wear water  wings. The two statesmen conversed while swimming, with the itnerpreters following them up and down the side of the pool.  Khrushchev would later complain:  "It was Mao's way of putting himself inh an advantageous position.  Well, I got sick of it....I crawled out, sat on the edge of the pool, and dangled my legs in the pool.  Now I was on top and he was swimming below."
I wonder, did anybody ever not look silly in water wings?   Here's an especially good review of the Kissinger book by Jonathan D. Spence.   Spence does offer one highly specific point of correction to the Kissinger narrative.  The topic is the brutal repression of demonstraters in Tiananmen Square in 1989:
As to the “harsh suppression of the protest,” writes Kissinger, that was “all seen on television.” In fact, I believe it is still accepted by most analysts in the West that the television lights were turned out on the square, and much of the killing took place in darkness—hence the great disparity in reports of what happened where, and when, and of how many fatalities there really were.

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