It was such fun!
He was a survivor. He gained political power under the Bolsheviks and unlike many others, later successfully aligned himself with Stalin. He helped implement the notorious purges of the 1930s without ever falling victim to them. His service with the Red Army during the siege of Stalingrad in World War II became a particular source of pride. Following Stalin’s death, he deftly navigated the power struggles and in 1953 became the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In 1958 he also became Premier and simultaneously, one of the two most powerful men in the world. With a word he could unleash a nuclear holocaust—but Nikita Khrushchev couldn’t get a pair of shoes that fit.
It wasn’t as if he hadn’t tried. While Soviet consumer goods weren’t noteworthy for their high quality, there were special places that the elites could shop for superior products. That hadn’t helped. Now he was walking into the General Assembly of the United Nations and as an American wag might have put it, “his dogs were barking.” Squeezing his ample girth behind one of the UN’s tiny desks, he surreptitiously removed the offending footwear. The relief was immediate and he was ready to get down to business. Khrushchev was at the UN to propose a resolution condemning western colonialism. In response, a delegate from the Philippines charged the Soviets with hypocrisy for having themselves “swallowed up” Eastern Europe and whose citizens had been, “deprived of political and civil rights.” In protest of the speech, the Soviet bloc delegates began pounding their desks with clenched fists. Khrushchev was pounding so vigorously, that his watchband snapped. And this is where things get confusing.
A correspondent for the New York Times reported that when Khrushchev reached for his watch, he also picked up his shoe, brandished it at the Assembly and then famously began pounding the desk with it. Another Times reporter, also on the scene, claimed Khrushchev picked up his shoe and waved it “pseudo-menacingly” before placing it on the desk. No banging. On the other hand, a KGB general claimed his leader banged his shoe rhythmically, “like a metronome.” Another eyewitness claims Khrushchev held the shoe in his hand but the shoe itself never struck the desk. (A very fine distinction, indeed!) His granddaughter, Nina Khrushcheva, confirmed the banging but now finds comfort in what was once a source of deep family embarrassment. She writes, “…history sometimes gives us the chance to replace horrifying reality with a funny anecdote. When bombing or peacekeeping do not work, we might want to try humor again.”
Time has made the incident seem benign, but in 1960 it had a menacing edge to it. Here was a man who could destroy us all, whaling away at a desk with his shoe. Could such a man be trusted to avoid Armageddon? On the other hand it was funny. Here was a rotund Russian acting like a toddler on the world stage. Could he be taken seriously? Think about the shoe next time something or someone gets your goat. It may feel good to momentarily “go off” but what the folks around you are unlikely to say, is that they trust you a little less and take you a little less seriously when you do. There’s a price to pay when you act like a lunatic or behave like a fool. You won’t know the price until you’re called upon to pay it. Shoe banging and similar incidents cost Khrushchev his job and his reputation. Were he with us today he might suggest that we all keep our shoes on. —Ebert