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Soviet Union Table of Contents

Soviet Union


Two weeks before the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the Bolshevik leadership formed the Politburo as a means to further centralize decision making and to permit effective adaptation of party policies to rapidly changing circumstances. Since the Bolshevik Revolution, the Politburo of the Central Committee of the CPSU has consisted of the highest party and government officials in the Soviet Union. Despite the importance of this body, only a small amount of space was devoted to it in the Party Rules, which noted only that the Central Committee chose the Politburo for "leadership of the work of the party between plenums of the Central Committee." The Politburo formed the highest decision- making body in the Soviet Union. Its full and candidate members served on the Politburo by virtue of their party or government positions.

The Politburo was a standing subcommittee of the Central Committee. Like the Central Committee, the Politburo was composed of full and candidate (nonvoting) members. The Party Rules neither specified the size of the Politburo nor mentioned candidate status.

Four general career patterns determined accession to membership in the Politburo. Officials of the central party apparatus could rise within that hierarchy to acquire a position that led to a seat on the Secretariat. In 1989 several secretaries of the Central Committee sat on the Politburo. Other officials, such as Mikhail A. Suslov (the party's leading ideologist under Brezhnev) and Aleksandr Iakovlev, who also made his career in ideology, attained membership in the Politburo because of their expertise. The technical or economic specialist was a third pattern. For example, Nikolai Sliun'kov probably was brought into the Politburo because of his expertise in economic administration. Finally, a successful career in the provinces often led to a call to Moscow and a career in the central apparatus. Volodymyr Shcherbyts'kyy exemplified this career pattern.

Several interlocking trends have characterized the Politburo since Stalin's death in 1953. Membership in the Politburo has become increasingly representative of important functional and territorial interests. Before 1953 the party leadership concentrated on building the economic, social, and political bases for a socialist society. In the post-Stalin period the leadership has sought instead to manage society and contain social change. Management of society required a division of labor within the Politburo and the admission of people with specialized expertise. Stalin kept the lines of responsibility ambiguous, and he tightly controlled the kinds of information his comrades on the Politburo received. Since 1953 Politburo members have had greater access to information and hence more opportunity to develop consistent policy positions. Because the party leadership eliminated violence as an instrument of elite politics and restrained the secret police after Stalin's death, Politburo members began advancing policy positions without fear of losing their seats on this body, or even their lives, if they found themselves on the wrong side of the policy debate.

Data as of May 1989