The picture above was taken in 1958. The two men, all smiles, are Mao Zedong, left, then the Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, and therefore the leader of China; and Nikita Khrushchev, the leader of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and therefore the USSR’s head of state. They look happy, but they’re hardly getting along. While both were leaders in the Communist world, they had a major ideological rift. Zedong was a follower of former Soviet premier Josef Stalin, but Khrushchev was not. After Stalin’s death in 1953, Khrushchev was one of the leading voices in favor of more friendly relations with the non-Communist West and eschewed the Stalinesque cults of personality common to both the USSR and China. Mao, on the other hand, was closer to an ideological purist, taking a much more aggressive approach to relations with the United States and Europe.
Starting in the mid-1950s, the relationship began to fracture, and the period from 1960 through 1989 is now known as the Sino-Soviet Split, marking the two nations’ irreconcilable differences. But being the world’s two most important Communists, its leaders at the time put on a good show leading up to that point. The meeting above was one such photo op, but what followed a soon after was likely better — until some details began to emerge. That next meeting?
Mao invited Khrushchev to a pool party.
The discussions between Mao and Khrushchev were focused on joint defensive efforts but went nowhere, quickly, as neither side wished to give in to the other. The tension during the talks, perhaps, gave Mao and idea — ratchet down the hostilities by reducing the formalities. He invited Khrushchev to join him at one of Mao’s many palatial homes, and on August 3, 1958, the two met at one such private residence.
According to Smithsonian magazine, on that day, Mao greeted Khrushchev in a bathrobe and slippers. One of Mao’s aides presented Khrushchev with a gift — a green bathing suit. Khrushchev and Mao, per the Chinese leader’s insistence, were going to cool down their negotiations by cooling down themselves. They were going for a swim in the pool.
That sounds great, except for one big problem — if you’re Khrushchev, that is. The Soviet premier knew many things about the world, but “how to swim” was not one of them. And this fact was almost certainly known to Mao beforehand, who likely used the knowledge to embarrass his Soviet counterpart. Mao swam laps while translators ran back and forth, poolside, relaying his words to Khrushchev, who was standing in the shallow end waiting, and almost certainly steaming as well. Mao wasn’t done, though — he insisted that Khrushchev join him in the deeper water. Smithsonian describes the result:
A flotation device was suddenly produced—Lorenz Lüthi describes it as a “life belt,” while Henry Kissinger prefers “water wings.” Either way, the result was scarcely dignified. Mao, says Lüthi, covered his head with “a handkerchief with knots at all the corners” and swept up and down the pool while Khrushchev struggled to stay afloat. After considerable exertion, the Soviet leader was able to get moving, “paddling like a dog” in a desperate attempt to keep up. “It was an unforgettable picture,” said his aide Oleg Troyanovskii, “the appearance of two well-fed leaders in swimming trunks, discussing questions of great policy under splashes of water.”
Yes, that’s right: on the urgency of Mao Zedong, Nikita Khrushchev donned a pair of swimmies — and, a bit more than coincidentally, the two nations’ relations were never quite the same.
From the Archives: To Kill a Sparrow: One of Mao’s worst ideas.
Related: “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Swimming.” No offense to Mr. Khrushchev intended.