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Remembering Khrushchev's Visit to Iowa

posted on September 18, 2009 at 2:26 PM

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2009 marks the 50th anniversary of Soviet dictator Nikita Khrushchev’s visit to the U.S. and Iowa.  We take a look back to 1959.


TV announcer: "The main crowd welcoming Mr. Khrushchev to Des Moines, it’s a bit of applauding as you can see but not any overly enthusiastic welcome.  And those signs protesting his appearance here, are still there."

The polite crowd in Des Moines was not atypical of the many stops during the 14-day journey of then Soviet premier Nikita  Khrushchev... so says the author of a recently published book chronicling the historic 1959 tour.

Peter Carlson, author, "K Blows Top":  "Everywhere he went people didn't really know how to react. They didn't want to get him mad because the man had all these nukes and kept talking about them. But on the other hand, no one wanted to cheer for a communist dictator so everyone wanted to see him so the strteets would be packed and people would just kind of stand there.

At first, Khrushchev found it eerie, he says in his memoirs that all the people lined up in Washington, there were like 200,000 people on the route from the airport and there were just looking at him he said like I was some kind of zoo animal."

In many ways, much of Khrushchev's visit could've been characterized as taking place in a zoo-like environment.  Almost all of his actions were on public display and captured by the swarm of media following his every step.

Carlson: "Khrushchev was a big traveler. He loved to travel and he wanted to see the United States and he also knew that it would be a chance to make propaganda to Be covered wherever he went by a huge crowd of reporters from all over the world."

Nancy Crowfoot, IPTV: "He knew how to use the media, sounds like."

Peter Carlson: "yeah, I don't know that was the term of art in those days, "using the media", but he was certainly somebody who had an instinctive feel for what would go over. He was great at populous gestures, waing through crowds, shaking people's hands, kissing babies. He loved that kind of thing. He as very funny, off the cuff."

While Khrushchev embraced the media during his journey, the Iowa friend he most wanted to visit – farmer and seed corn salesman Roswell Garst –shunned such attention. With Khrushchev on his farm, the Coon Rapids farmer tried to keep reporters at bay by throwing silage at them and even thrusting a corn stalk in their direction.

Liz Garst, granddaughter of Roswell, was eight years old at the time of the visit.

Liz Garst: "He wanted to show Khrushchev how to raise corn and feed it to cattle that what he wanted to do. He found the press and attention a huge bother.  He was really on the mission of helping Khrushchev grow food.

I think Khrushchev thought it was okay. He brought along his own press corps to this event because we think his real motive to come here was to convince his own people it was okay to look at western technology."

By the time of the visit, Khrushchev had already purchased seed corn from Garst and ordered it planted in several regions of the Soviet Union.  While the crop did well in the first few years, it did not meet long term expectations.

Liz Garst: "But he tried to grow corn everywhere.  He really overdid it. He was known as corn crazy over there. And a lot of the people blame my grandfather for that but I think he was fairly innocent because he spent a lot of time yelling at Khrushchev, 'slow down, slow down, test it, test it, put in strip plots, figure out where it fits or not.'  But Khrushchev was just too eager to feed his people.  His motive just overdid it."

No matter the failed corn crop in the Soviet Union – and eventual ouster of Khrushchev – Liz Garst sees a relevance in the relationship established 50 years ago between the two countries.

For example, Garst family members – including Liz's uncle John Chrystal who died in 2000 – also worked with the Soviets on agricultural issues

Liz Garst:"I think it really show-cased the importance of agriculture in the world. It is an agriculture story above all else. How cool is it the first interaction between two mortal enemies was coming together on how to eat?"

The coming together of so-called "mortal enemies" is unique in any time frame, but author Peter Carlson points out – it was a first for the U.S.

Carlson: "None had ever come before. George III did not come to the United States. Hitler didn't come. Stalin didn't come.  Mao didn't come. Mussolini didn't come. Khrushchev was the first enemy leader that came to the United States and he's the only enemy leader who has ever traveled around for 14 days pretty much wherever he wanted to go. That never happened before."

When Khrushchev came to the United States, he also brought his wife and then 25-year-old son Sergei. Sergei Khrushchev is now a U.S. citizen and Senior Fellow at Brown University in Rhode Island. He came to Iowa in August during the 50th anniversary of his father's visit. The 4-day celebration included a conference ... a parade ... and a visit to the Garst farm.  It was an event he says, would have pleased his father.

Sergei Khrushchev, son of Nikita Khrushchev: "I think he would be very pleased because his interest was just to create the best life for all the people. First for the Soviet people and then for the rest of the people of the world. And I think the best legacy is if we remember him not on the military basis, not on the space center, but in the fields of Iowa. I think he would like that."


Tags: agriculture Iowa Nikita Khrushchev Russia Soviet Union