“Stalin used to make Khrushchev dance.
“That Russian dance. Got your arms folded in front of you. Squat down and kick out your legs. Called the Hopak, and here’s the funny thing, cats and kittens: it ain’t Russian at all. Ukrainian. Russkies stole it like they stole the rest of Eastern Europe.
“You know the dance your pal Frankie Nickels is talking about. Looks real good in polished boots. Maybe a red tunic and a hat. Get down low as you can go and kick kick kick and jump up high as you can and back down and kick kick kick. Makes my knees hurt just thinking ’bout it, but Russians are known for their suffering, ha ha ha.
“Khrushchev was a little fat man and Stalin used to laugh and laugh when he danced. Stalin liked his vodka and used to get drunk and make all his apparatchiks stay up all night with him laughing at his jokes.
“Dictators always like staying up all night scaring people.
“Not that our pal Nikita was a good guy. No! No, cats and kittens, we are not dealing with a babe in the woods here. An innocent. A naïf. Nikita Khrushchev had professors killed, and kulaks, too. Those were the wealthy peasants. Russians called ’em kulaks. I guess they’d be burghers in Germany, or clarks in England, or shopkeepers here in the good old Yoo Ess of Ay. Not the salt of the earth, but the folks who sold the salt of the earth their trousers. Slightly-upper-middle class. He had thousands of ’em executed. Tens of thousands.
“Wonder if he signed every kill order? Maybe he had his secretary do it for him. Paperwork’s important in an execution. That’s what makes it legal, the paperwork. Otherwise, it’s just murder, but if you got the right paperwork then it’s okay.
“Called the Great Purge. The Moscow Trials. You should look it up. History’s so interesting to them that ain’t living it. Gotta get a little distance on history, right? Otherwise it’s current events and ain’t no fun at all.
“In general, one does not want to be present for history.
“But we’re past history, ain’t we? We’re post-modern, or so the swells tell us. Verging on post-scarcity. Caught between the factories and the future, that’s us. Ain’t it fun?
“Anyway, Communism’s easy. Collectivize the farms, nationalize the industries, weaponize the newspapers. Easy-peasy. ‘Cept for the people. People are always getting in the way of Communism.
“People are the problem, cats and kittens. Twas always thus.
“But Stalin had a saying. No person, no problem.
“He liked Westerns. Did you know that? Joseph Stalin–Uncle damn Joe–that man liked Western movies. He had his spies steal ’em out of movie theaters on Long Island and Delaware and Mexico City. Saloons and injuns and horses and whatnot. Westerns. Roy Rogers. Gene Autry. Tom Mix. Dinner started at around one in the morning, and then the projectionist would reel up one of them stolen flicks about stolen land.
“Aw, man, he was in his glory. Loved those cowboys, Stalin did. He’d get excited by the doings and happenings, and he’d be blind off his vodka, and he’d order Khrushchev to do the Hopak. And our pal Nikita knew that not doing the dance would be a problem.
“No person, no problem.
“So Khrushchev would dance and Stalin would laugh.
“So anyway, it’s 1959. Stalin’s dead. Khrushchev’s in charge of the Soviet Union, we like Ike, everyone’s got nukes pointed at each other, and Elvis is in the Army. Eisenhower can’t figure the little sucker out, right? What does he want? The State Department’s full of Kremlinologists, but none of the pointy-headed mopes can give him an answer.
“So Ike sends Nixon.
“Called the Kitchen Debate. Now why are these two movers and shakers hanging out in a kitchen? Well, cuz there was an exhibition type of deal going on in Moscow. Like the World’s Fair, but with an edge to it, ha ha ha. We built a whole house over there. Buy it right now for fourteen grand. Housing for Joe Sixpack and his wife, Lucy.
“But the important stuff happened behind closed doors. Khrushchev had a dacha by the Black Sea. This is story about the Russians, cats and kittens. There’s always a dacha by the Black Sea.
“And while they were chatting, Nixon invites our pal Nikita to tour America.
“And wouldn’t you know it, the little pig-farmer with the nukes says yes.
“Flies over here on a Tupolev-114. Biggest plane the Soviets got. Doesn’t need to stop to refuel between Moscow and D.C. Khrushchev brought his family. Wife, son. Bunch of fancypants Party members, too. Guy named Andrei Gromyko. Now get this: the engineers found cracks in the Tupolev’s engines. Little bitty ones, but still. Khrushchev didn’t care. Needed his big plane.
“Ike and Mamie go to Andrews to meet him. All the networks cover it live.
“This is after Sputnik. You wanna go to sleep under the light of a Communist moon? Me, neither, ha ha ha. And Luna II, too. You don’t remember Luna II. Russkies slammed an 800-pound metal basketball into the moon in September of ’59. Soviets beat us to the moon, cats and kittens, for a certain definition of ‘beat.’ And, oh man, were they testing their nukes.
“Things was tense, is what I’m saying.
“And here he comes down the stairs. This round little man. Gap-toothed with a hat nine sizes too big. Got his medals on his light-grey suit.
“He’s smiling. He’s waving. Couldn’t be happier.
“Then he gives Ike a model of the Luna II just to mess with him.
“And off he goes, man. Into America. Ten days. Ten days! Making his own schedule and seeing his own sights and riding the rails like a hobo drinking vodka ‘stead of whiskey. Now, our muckety-mucks ain’t gonna let him just flitter about without an escort, so Ike sends Henry Cabot Lodge to babysit our guest.
“Can you imagine such a thing? Henry motherloving Cabot Lodge and Nikita Khrushchev gallivanting around America getting into adventures and solving mysteries together? Surprised we haven’t seen a movie ’bout it yet. Our pal Nikita’s got three years of school under his belt, maybe. He was a metalworker. Farmed sometimes. Henry went to Harvard. Was in the same final club as T.S. Eliot. Now he’s our man at the UN.
“The scorpion and the WASP, ha ha ha.
“First stop: New York. How you gonna keep ’em on the collective once they seen the city? Khrushchev gives some speeches, meets some people, waves his big hat around.
“Guess where he stays?
“You’re right, you know it, of course you are! The Supreme-est Soviet, Captain Commie, that menshevik of the people…he laid his head down at the Waldorf-Astoria. Contemporary reports all note that the Chairman was enthusiastic in his love for room service. Capitalism will kill you with kindness, cats and kittens! System’s got a ton of faults, but room service ain’t one of ’em!
“Reporter asks Khrushchev about New York City. He says, ‘You’ve seen one skyscraper, you’ve seen ’em all.’ He said it in Russian, but you get the idea.
“So he gets back on his big, broken plane and does what so many before him have: Khrushchev heads west. Los Angeles, to be specific.
“And Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe. Liz Taylor, too. They had a lunch for him. All the Hollywood swells. Ginger Rogers and Gary Cooper and Jack Benny and Debbie Reynolds. Bob Hope, man! Bob ‘Proxy War’ Hope coming at ya live and in color. Dean Martin, cats and kittens. Dean Martin and Nikita Khrushchev sitting in a sound studio on Pico Boulevard eating squab.
“Don’t ask me, man. I’m a chicken girl, myself. Rich folks eat squab, I guess. Fancy birds for fancy people, ha ha ha.
“But now Khrushchev gets some bad news during lunch. Turns out he can’t go to Disneyland. I swear, I swear! Khrushchev wanted to go to Disneyland. To buy a hat with ears, I guess. Ride the Matterhorn, maybe. And, hey: who can blame him? Whole point of Disneyland is that people wanna go there. Can’t fault a man for his humanity, I figure.
“So he starts yelling about it. President of 20th Century Fox gave his little speech about the greatness of America, and then that little pig-farmer with the nukes gets up and starts screaming his head off about not being allowed to go to Disneyland.
“It put Dean Martin off his squab, I tell you.
“Then the mayor got up. Guy named Norris Paulson. Hell of a name, huh? Mayor lets our pal Nikita have it. ‘You’ll bury us? Sucker, we’ll bury you!’ That kinda thing. Not the best way to treat a guest. It’s bad, man! Khrushchev’s pissed! Henry Cabot Lodge has to sit him down and explain to him that mayors don’t do what the President tells ’em. Gotta explain the concept of ‘freelancing’ to the Supreme Soviet. Harvard didn’t prepare him for that!
“Luckily, room service is available to soothe the savage beast.
“And that’s his act, man. All around this big ol’ nation of ours. He smiles and he waves, and then he starts yelling.
“Visits IBM up in Silicon Valley before it was called that. Smiles, waves; yells.
“Supermarket. Smiles, waves; yells.
“Goes to Iowa.
“Swear to God! Iowa! Just like he was running for president! Knew a guy there. Corn farmer that sold the Soviet Union seeds. Now, cats and kittens, you know that Frankie Nickels would not lie to you and so you must believe me when I tell you that his friend’s name was Roswell Garst and he lived in Coon Rapids.
“Not a word a lie, not one word.
“And, see, here’s the thing: the folks flocked out. Iowans. Salt of the earth and those who sold trousers to them. Solid citizens and their wives, Republicans most. John Birchers, some of ’em. They all come out and trampled Roswell Garst’s corn to see this man who kept threatening to sling nuclear weapons at ’em. Wasn’t for this jug-eared sonofagun, the kiddies wouldn’t have to neither duck nor cover. Said he’d bury us, and here’s America gathering in a field to get a glimpse.
“Looky-loos, the lot of us. Can’t fault people for their humanity, I guess.
“Anyway, that was the high point. Khrushchev was more interested in farms than in Hollywood or New York. He and Ike hung out at Camp David for a bit. Planned a big summit in Paris in the spring. You ever been to Paris in the spring? Knock your socks off, cats and kittens.
“But then a missile knocked a guy named Francis Gary Powers’ socks off and that was it for Paris.
“Next time our pal Nikita came to America, State Department confined him to Manhattan. No more waving and smiling. No more Iowa. No more Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe. No more hot dogs.
“The kind of treatment make a man pound on a table with his shoe.
“Cold War got colder after that, cats and kittens, or hotter. Whichever is worse. You wanna keep me on an island, Khrushchev said, then I’ll continue the theme. Cuba became involved. Things was tense, is what I’m saying.
“But for a second, just for a little bit, it looked like maybe we could work it out.
“Hot dog diplomacy, right?
“But here’s what Frankie Nickels didn’t tell you. Here’s what she left out of the story. That last night at Camp David? Well, our pal Nikita and his crew got all schnockered on vodka in one of those rustic-style cabins they got out there. And, see, Ike had asked if they wanted any movies to watch. Khrushchev asks for a Western. Ike gives him Shane.
“So the Russians got Shane playing and they’re deep into their cups by now. Middle of the night in the middle of the Maryland woods. Cowboy movie’s on the screen.
“And Khrushchev says, ‘Hey, Gromyko.’
“That’s Andrei Gromyko. Minister of Foreign Affairs. Valued advisor. Smart guy.
“Khrushchev says, ‘Hey, Gromyko. Do the Hopak.’
“You think the room got quiet for a second? I bet it did. Maybe you could hear the little kid. Come back, Shane! Ha ha ha
“And Gromyko did the Hopak and Khrushchev laughed and laughed and laughed and laughed.
“There’s a point to that story, but it’s up to you to figure it out, cats and kittens.
“You’re listening to the Frankie Nickels show on KHAY–hey!–and how ’bout something from ’59? Little something from MacHeath and all his teeth. Could be our pal’s done something rash. Might have to duck and cover.
“Never do know in America.”