The rockets that, according to Khru­sh­­chev, were coming off his production line “like sausages” ran on kerosene and liquid oxygen.  So did Soviet foreign policy.  The kerosene was operational secrecy, an ingredient virtually unchanged since the 1920’s, whereby the regime concealed its expansionist aims.  The oxygen was maniacal braggadocio, which persuaded the West to see rockets where there was only cardboard and glue.

A new book that reassesses Khrushchev’s reign is pegged to the 50th anniversary of the explosion in Novaya Zemlya of “Devil’s Mama,” otherwise known as Device 602, equivalent to 57 million tons of TNT, compared with the 20,000 tons’ TNT equivalent that felled upward of 100,000 Japanese at Hiroshima.  On October 30, 1961, the shock wave from the blast of the device, weighing over 25 tons and dropped from a specially adapted TU-95, circled the globe thrice.  This was the most powerful nuclear blast and the biggest p.r. exercise in history.

As the book, entitled Devil’s Mama, has only been published in Russia, it is my privilege to mention it here.  Besides, of the more than 20 books written by Viktor Suvorov in the last 30 years, only four have appeared in English—the last of these, The Chief Culprit, received my frenzied plaudits in the April 2010 issue of this magazine—so it is unlikely that the English-speaking reader will be reading a proper notice of the book anytime soon.

The kerosene-oxygen, hide-bluff delivery mechanism of Khrushchev’s foreign policy was no substitute for the real thing.  In fact, if the purveyors of the collapse-of-the-Soviet-Union-because-the-Americans-won-the-arms-race-and-the-Russians-wanted-to-drink-Coca-Cola theory of history were confronted with the facts Suvorov enumerates, even they would probably be embarrassed to have said something so tooth-fairy ridiculous.  If there was ever a time for Soviet totalitarianism to throw in the towel, it was 1960, not 1985, when Soviet submarines, then really coming off the production line like sausages, were being made of titanium while the Americans still cobbled theirs in steel.

In every year of Khrushchev’s reign the United States added an aircraft carrier to her fleet, including a nuclear-powered one in 1961.  That same year saw the launch of seven nuclear submarines.  The boastful Russians had produced one such vessel, with three very short-range missiles on board, when the taciturn Americans had 41, armed with 656 missiles of varied capability.  One could go on ad infinitum, and in his book, Suvorov does just that.

The bluster, backed up by the blast, did what the industry could not.  The explosion of Devil’s Mama worked as a prelude to the eviction of the West from Berlin—an open loophole and vivid example that, like the discrepancy in the capabilities of their respective submarines and missiles, really did threaten the Soviet empire with collapse.  Western intelligence services, meanwhile, were unable to bring to democracy’s decisionmakers the news that the whole thing was a charade.  That yes, the bomb had exploded, but there isn’t another, and certainly there isn’t a way of getting it to Washington other than the horse-drawn open sleigh on Christmas Eve.  That yes, Gagarin’s gone into orbit, but the poor fellow weighed 70 kg, whereas the parachute of Devil’s Mama alone weighed 800 kg.  That yes, there were missiles in Cuba, but by the time they’d be made ready to fire every dog on Capitol Hill would know that Khrushchev was about to start World War III.

Not only was Western intelligence unable to deliver these certainties in the hands of democracy’s decisionmakers, but the CIA, thinks Suvorov, was unwilling to do so.  A controversial thesis of the book is that Oleg Penkovsky, the colonel in Soviet military intelligence (GRU) who eventually managed to ram down the CIA’s throat the news that the Kremlin was bluffing, had been acting on orders of his superior, GRU head Ivan Serov.

Serov perceived, Suvorov believes, that World War III was the suicidal outcome where Khrushchev’s kerosene-oxygen foreign policy was headed, and resolved to shoot it down.  Colonel Penkovsky was his intercept, and unlike its real-life Soviet counterparts it hit home, saving the world from nuclear conflagration.  One cannot exclude the possibility that Serov had political reasons and alliances of his own to motivate his actions, but the fact remains that Penkovsky’s self-sacrifice did open the eyes of the West to Soviet weakness.

Deprived of the oxygen of bluff, Khrush­chev’s juggernaut stalled.  Yet in the end, as with all of Suvorov’s writings, the fascinating thing about Devil’s Mama is the nearly unimaginable degree of secrecy, duplicity, and deception of which it shows a totalitarian regime capable in the pursuit of its policies, however delusive or self-destructive.  And the frightening thing is that, in this, Western democracies are now catching up.