"Imagine if President Obama invited Kim Jong-il to the United States and then Kim Jong-il said, 'Yeah, I'll come, but how about I travel around the country for two weeks before we meet at Camp David?' and then he went to Hollywood and interacted with Madonna and Beyoncé—that would be roughly comparable." Peter Carlson is talking about Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev's extraordinary visit to the United States 50 years ago, which not incidentally is the subject of Carlson's book, K Blows Top: A Cold War Comic Interlude, Starring Nikita Khrushchev, America's Most Unlikely Tourist, excerpted herein by the author as "Nikita in Hollywood". Carlson got interested in writing a book about Khrushchev's 14-day visit to the United States nearly 25 years ago, when, as a writer for People, he came across some contemporaneous accounts of it. The more he read, the more enthralled he got. Khrushchev "sort of became my favorite Communist dictator—not that that's a tough list to make," he says. "He's so human. He's really funny, and yet he's really thin-skinned. He gets angry, he gets happy. All his emotions are right on the surface. He's just a great character to write about."
Carlson put the project aside when, in 1986, he became a reporter and feature writer for the Washington Post, where he also wrote a column about magazines (and had generally nice things to say about this one). Then, a few years ago, he realized the 50th anniversary of the trip was approaching. "If I'm ever going to do anything," he recalls thinking, "I'd better hurry up." So he resumed interviewing journalists who'd covered the event. And when Khrushchev's son, Sergei, came to the National Archives to participate in a panel discussion on the cold war and the Cuban missile crisis, Carlson cornered him for an interview. "Afterwards, he invited me to come see his home movies of the trip," he recalls, "so right after Christmas I flew up to Providence, Rhode Island, where he teaches at Brown University. I brought a plate of my wife's Christmas cookies, and he picked me up at the airport with a couple of salami and cheese sandwiches. We drove to his office at Brown, which was closed for vacation, so there was nobody around. We went to his office and he popped in a DVD, and we sat there and ate the salami and cheese and the Christmas cookies and watched his home movies. That was really cool."