Soviet Union Table of Contents
Stalin died without naming an heir, and none of his associates had the power to immediately claim supreme leadership. The deceased dictator's colleagues initially tried to rule jointly through a collective leadership, with Malenkov holding the top positions of prime minister (chairman of the Council of Ministers; the name changed from Council of People's Commissars in 1946) and general secretary (the latter office for only two weeks). The arrangement was first challenged in 1953 when Beria, the powerful head of the security forces, plotted a coup. Beria's associates in the Presidium, however, ordered Marshal Zhukov to arrest him, and he was secretly executed. With Beria's death came the end of the inordinate power of the secret police; the party has maintained strict control over the state security organs ever since.
After the elimination of Beria, the succession struggle became more subtle. Malenkov found a formidable rival in Nikita S. Khrushchev, whom the Presidium elected first secretary (Stalin's title of general secretary was abolished) in September. Of peasant background, Khrushchev had served as head of the Ukrainian party organization during and after World War II and was a member of the Soviet political elite during the Stalin period. The rivalry between Malenkov and Khrushchev surfaced publicly through Malenkov's support for increased production of consumer goods, while Khrushchev conservatively stood for development of heavy industry. After a poor showing by light industry and agriculture, Malenkov resigned as prime minister in February 1955. The new prime minister, Nikolai A. Bulganin, had little influence or real power; Khrushchev was now the most important figure within the collective leadership.
At the Twentieth Party Congress, held in February 1956, Khrushchev further advanced his position within the party by denouncing Stalin's crimes in a dramatic "secret speech." Khrushchev revealed that Stalin had arbitrarily liquidated thousands of party members and military leaders (thereby contributing to the initial Soviet defeats in World War II) and had established a pernicious cult of personality (see Glossary). With this speech Khrushchev not only distanced himself from Stalin and from Stalin's close associates, Molotov, Malenkov, and Lazar M. Kaganovich, but also abjured the dictator's policies of terror. As a direct result of the "de-Stalinization" campaign launched by the speech, the release of political prisoners, which had begun in 1953, was stepped up, and some of Stalin's victims were posthumously rehabilitated (see Glossary). Khrushchev later intensified his campaign against Stalin at the Twenty-Second Party Congress in 1961, winning approval to remove Stalin's body from the Lenin Mausoleum, where it had originally been interred. De-Stalinization encouraged many in artistic and intellectual circles to speak out against the abuses of the former regime. Although Khrushchev's tolerance of critical creative works vacillated during his years of leadership, the new cultural period- -known as the "thaw"--represented a clear break with the repression of the arts under Stalin.
After the Twentieth Party Congress, Khrushchev continued to expand his influence, although he still faced opposition. Khrushchev's rivals in the Presidium, spurred by reversals in Soviet foreign policy in Eastern Europe in 1956, potentially threatening economic reforms, and the de-Stalinization campaign, united to vote him out of office in June 1957. Khrushchev, however, demanded that the question be put to the Central Committee of the CPSU, where he enjoyed strong support. The Central Committee overturned the Presidium's decision and expelled Khrushchev's opponents (Malenkov, Molotov, and Kaganovich), whom Khrushchev labeled the "anti-party group." In a departure from Stalinist procedure, Khrushchev did not order the imprisonment or execution of his defeated rivals but instead placed them in relatively minor offices. Khrushchev moved to consolidate his power further in the ensuring months. In October he removed Marshal Zhukov (who had helped Khrushchev squelch the "anti-party group") from the office of defense minister, presumably because he feared Zhukov's influence in the armed forces. Khrushchev became prime minister in March 1958 when Bulganin resigned, thus formally confirming his predominant position in the state as well as in the party.
Despite his rank, Khrushchev never exercised the dictatorial authority of Stalin, nor did he ever completely control the party even at the peak of his power. His attacks on members of the "anti-party group" at the Twenty-First Party Congress in 1959 and the Twenty-Second Party Congress in 1961 suggest that his opponents still retained support within the party. Khrushchev's relative political insecurity probably accounted for some of his grandiose pronouncements (for example, his 1961 promise that the Soviet Union would attain communism by 1980). His desire to undermine opposition and mollify critics explained the nature of many of his domestic reforms and the vacillations in his foreign policy toward the West.
Data as of May 1989
Soviet Union Table of Contents