PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Symbolism is a funny thing.
For Americans, an indelible image of the cold war came in 1960 at the United Nations, when Nikita Khrushchev - famous for declaring "We will bury you" - pounded the table with his Italian-leather shoe.
This week, his son became a symbol of how much the world has changed in the 40 years since he toured the United States with his father, the Soviet premier. Standing in a Providence auditorium, hand over his heart, he declared, "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America...."
"I am like newborn," said Sergei Khrushchev, smiling as he and his wife emerged from the darkened theater into the summer sun with 245 other freshly minted Americans.
But if there's any historical irony in the fact that a Khrushchev is now an American, it seems lost on the unassuming man who, engulfed by a media swarm, can't grasp what all the fuss is about.
"The world has changed.... It's no different than a Canadian becoming an American citizen," says Khrushchev, a Soviet missile engineer who created a new career as a biographer of the father he more than a little resembles.
And that, experts say, is meaningful in itself. It's significant "that it's no longer a political decision; it's a personal choice," says Fiona Hill of Harvard's Center for Strengthening Democratic Institutions Project in Cambridge, Mass. "It shows how far we've gone since the cold war.... In 10 short years [since the Berlin Wall fell], we've had the most unprecedented period of change. He's a sign of that change."
Earlier, inside the auditorium where toddlers fussed in the stagnant air and a ragtag carpet looked as if it had been around since the Cuban missile crisis, Khrushchev waited patiently with natives of Senegal, China, and 45 other countries to take the oath of citizenship.
When the moment came, Khrushchev raised his right hand and pledged to "renounce and abjure any allegiance" to the state his father ran during the height of the cold war.
To Khrushchev, who lectures on cold-war politics at Brown University', the hullabaloo around what he and his wife regard as a private decision is "a sign that most Americans are still living in the cold war.... You're still in the middle of the battle," he says. "It's an important lesson that [shows] it will take much more time to go from cold-war to post-cold-war thinking."
The accidental celebrity
Sitting in the front row of the hall, holding a tiny version of the Stars and Stripes (a present from the US government to all its new citizens), he cheerfully signs autographs for fellow inductees and tolerantly speaks with reporters.
"I want to chat with the Rus-sian fellow, and see what he thinks of all this," said Joe Lara, a naval lieutenant commander based in Newport, R.I., whose wife, Lucia, was also sworn in. A native of South Africa, she seems calmly satisfied with her new status. "It's a big moment for our family. I now have a say in governmental structures that affect our children," she said, as her husband whisked her off to pose for a picture with Khrushchev.
While he'll smile for photos, Khrushchev won't speculate on what his father would think of this day. "It's not like the movies" - it's impossible to move someone through history to see what they would think of the future, he says.
His friends are not so circumspect. "If anyone had told his father back in 1962, 'Some day, your son is going to be a citizen on the other side,' " chuckles Donald Sennott, a Khrushchev acquaintance and an aide to Rhode Island's Sen. John Chaffee (R). "It would be like if John F. Kennedy Jr. were being sworn in in Moscow."
The son as biographer
The colorful Soviet premier, who once compared capitalism to "a dead herring, shining brilliantly as it rotted," has captured the imagination of American historians. After rising through the ranks of the Communist Party, the son of a Ukrainian coal miner became premier in 1958. He denounced the Stalinist repressions in which he and most party members participated, and tried to liberalize Soviet society before he was ousted in 1964.
It's the reformer, "not the propagandist image" that Khrushchev would like people to remember. He's edited three volumes of his father's memoirs and written five books, including "Nikita Khrushchev: Creation of a Superpower," due out this fall.
Khrushchev's three children and three grandchildren still live in Moscow, and he and his wife, Valentina Garlenka, travel between the Russian capital and their home in Cranston, R.I.
He is hopeful that his old country will find prosperity, but compares the government of President Boris Yeltsin to the court of Nicholas II, the last czar of Russia. "Nicholas II was also a ruler who was weak pretending that he was strong."
As for politics in his adopted country, Khrushchev looks forward to exercising his right to vote, "if my wife will permit me," he says, laughingly adding that she still berates him for voting for Mr. Yeltsin 10 years ago.
"I follow all politics very closely," he said. "We'll see what the candidates say to the people, how they perform." After all, "now is only the beginning of the race."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society