The list of things that Nikita Khrushchev would never be and could not do was long; some of them would change history. It has been seriously suggested, for example, that the reason Khrushchev survived the murderous Soviet-era purges of the paranoid 1930s and early 1950s—when tens of thousands of other apparatchiks were rewarded for their loyalty with a bullet in the back of the neck—is that, standing just 5 feet 3 inches tall, he was the one member of the politburo who did not tower over the man he would replace, the 5-foot-6 Stalin. It is also possible that, had he been a better swimmer, the disastrous break between the Communist parties of Russia and China—the Sino-Soviet Split, which would help guarantee the west victory in the Cold War—might have been averted.
Explaining why Khrushchev’s prowess in the pool mattered means explaining Khrushchev. The Soviet premier came from peasant stock and was working in a mine when revolution came to Russia in 1917. For years afterward he was a minor player on the Soviet stage and a figure of fun to many senior Communists; the perception that he posed no threat, indeed, became a major asset. Barely educated—he had only four years of formal schooling—and hailing from a rural backwater in the Ukraine, Khrushchev was sometimes coarse, often foul-mouthed and all too easily intimidated by an effortless patrician such as the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan (who stood 6 feet tall and was a former Oxford classics scholar, Guards officer and war hero). An enthusiast for hopeless scientific “breakthroughs,” such as a death ray for rats, Khrushchev had a variable attention span and a sketchy grasp of technical detail. He was also so ungainly that Stalin once amused himself by forcing his protégé to dance a gopak—the famous squatting, spinning, kicking Cossack dance that demands precisely the sort of athleticism and agility that Khrushchev conspicuously lacked.