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May 10, 2005 9:52 pm

Did Khrushchev Really Bang His Shoe?

Matthew Temple, in the Financial Times of London (5-7-05):

On October 11, 1960, the power of a man's shoe to make a statement left fashion homiletic and entered history. The venue was the United Nations and the man, an unlikely footwear model, was Nikita Khrushchev.

Most sons don't care about their father's shoes and Sergei Khrushchev was no different until he moved to America and everyone wanted his version of the incident. Being a good historian - he teaches at Brown - Sergei did some research and came up with this.

The UN was tense that day. The U-2 spy plane incident was still raw in Khrushchev's mind. "He thought it the highest level of provocation from the US to the Soviet Union and himself personally," says his son, now 70.

Khrushchev was ready to fight. But as he entered the UN chamber, a journalist stepped on the back of his shoe. It came off. Khrushchev's "big belly" meant he couldn't bend over, so he "walked to his chair with one bare foot".

Later, someone brought the shoe "on a tray to be polite", but with no gap between desk and chair, and with that stomach, Khrushchev left the shoe on his desk: "He didn't want to make all this exercise in front of journalists who would make photos."

The session began: decolonisation. Most speakers condemned the old empires but the Philippine delegate, a brave man, took a shot at Soviet imperialism.

Khrushchev, incensed, responded. The chairman ignored him. Khrushchev raised his hand. Then the other. Then he grabbed his shoe and waved that. "My father told me he was just trying to get attention."

It worked. Khrushchev walked to the podium - "I don't know in one shoe or both" - and, in another footwear moment, called the Philippine delegate "an American boot-licker". The delegate objected but, after discussion, accepted "lackey of American imperialism".

Despite the headlines, some say Nikita never banged the shoe. Sergei disagrees: "My father said he banged his shoe on the podium several times."

Time passes, theories arrive. To the West, Nikita's shoe was "a big gift", a metaphor for the wild Soviet bear. To Khrushchev's granddaughter, proof he was "different from the hypocrites of the West with their appropriate words but calculated deeds". To Nikita, "part of the democratic behaviour" he'd seen in the pre-revolutionary duma where members "used fists to prove they were right". ..

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