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This period of the Soviet Union was dominated by Cold War politics, as the Soviet Union and the United States struggled both directly and indirectly to expand their influence, while working to further their political ideologies. This period bore witness to the first and only standoff between the two superpowers that could have potentially ended in a nuclear exchange.


De-Stalinization and the Khrushchev era

See also: Nikita Khrushchev

After Stalin died in March 1953, he was succeeded by Nikita Khrushchev as First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and Georgi Malenkov as Premier of the Soviet Union. However the central figure in the immediate post-Stalin period was the former head of the state security apparatus, Lavrentiy Beria.

Beria, despite his record as part of Stalin's terror state, initiated a period of relative liberalisation, including the release of some political prisoners. The leadership also began allowing some criticism of Stalin, saying that his one-man dictatorship went against the principles laid down by Lenin. The war hysteria that characterized his last years was toned down, and government bureaucrats and factory managers were ordered to wear civilian clothing instead of military-style outfits. However, the Politburo members hated and feared Beria for his role under Stalin and with the support of the armed forces, had him arrested three months after Stalin's death. At the end of the year, he was shot following a show trial where he was accused of spying for the West, committing sabotage, and plotting to restore capitalism. The secret police were disarmed and reorganized into the KGB, ensuring that they were completely under the control of the party and would never again be able to wage mass terror. In the post-Beria period Khrushchev rapidly began to emerge as the key figure.

The new leadership declared an amnesty for some serving prison sentences for criminal offenses, announced price cuts, and relaxed the restrictions on private plots. De-Stalinization also spelled an end to the role of large-scale forced labor in the economy.

During a period of collective leadership, Khrushchev gradually rose to power. At a speech "On the Personality Cult and its Consequences'' to the closed session of the Twentieth Party Congress of the CPSU, February 25, 1956, Khrushchev shocked his listeners by denouncing Stalin's dictatorial rule and cult of personality. He also attacked the crimes committed by Stalin's closest associates. Furthermore, he stated that the orthodox view of war between the capitalist and communist worlds being inevitable was no longer true. He advocated competition with the West rather that outright hostility, stating that capitalism would decay from within and that world socialism would triumph peacefully. But, he added, if the capitalists did desire war, the Soviet Union would respond in kind.

The impact on Soviet politics was immense. The speech stripped the legitimacy of his remaining Stalinist rivals, dramatically boosting his power domestically. Afterwards, Khrushchev eased restrictions, freeing millions of political prisoners (the Gulag population declined from 13 million in 1953 to 5 million in 1956–57, and a vast majority of the remaining inmates were common criminals). Communists around the world were as shocked and confused by his condemnation of Stalin as they had been in 1939 by the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact.

Khrushchev initiated "The Thaw" better known as Khrushchev's Thaw, a complex shift in political, cultural and economic life in the Soviet Union. That included some openness and contact with other nations and new social and economic policies with more emphasis on commodity goods, allowing living standards to rise dramatically while maintaining high levels of economic growth. Censorship was relaxed as well. Some subtle critiques of the Soviet society was tolerated, and the artists were not expected to produce only works which had government-approved political context. Still, artists, most of whom were proud of both the country and the Party, were careful not to get into trouble. On the other hand, he reintroduced aggressive anti-religious campaigns, closing down many houses of worship.

Such loosening of controls also caused an enormous impact on the Soviet Union's satellites in Central Europe, many of which were resentful of Soviet influence in their affairs. Riots broke out in Poland in the summer of 1956, which led to reprisals from national forces there. A political convulsion soon followed, leading to the rise of Władysław Gomułka to power in October. This almost triggered a Soviet invasion when Polish Communists elected him without consulting the Kremlin in advance, but in the end, Khrushchev backed down due to Gomułka's widespread popularity in the country. Poland would still remain a member of the Warsaw Pact (established a year earlier), and in return, the Soviet Union seldom intervened in its neighbors' domestic and external affairs. Khrushchev also began reaching out to the third world, which was in sharp contrast to Stalin's Europe-centered foreign policy. And in September 1959, he became the first Russian head of state to visit the US.

In the same year, the 1956 Hungarian uprising was brutally suppressed by Soviet troops. About 250 Hungarian insurgents and 700 Soviet troops were killed, thousands more were wounded, and nearly a quarter million left the country as refugees. The Hungarian uprising was a blow to Western communists; many who had formerly supported the Soviet Union began to criticise it in the wake of the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian uprising.

Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space.

The following year Khrushchev defeated a concerted Stalinist attempt to recapture power, decisively defeating the so−called "Anti-Party Group". This event also illustrated the new nature of Soviet politics—the most decisive attack on the Stalinists was delivered by defense minister Georgy Zhukov, and the implied threat to the plotters was clear; however, none of the "anti−party group" were killed or even arrested, and Khrushchev disposed of them quite cleverly: Georgy Malenkov was sent to manage a power station in Kazakhstan, and Vyacheslav Molotov, one of the most die-hard Stalinists, was made ambassador to Mongolia and later the Soviet representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Khrushchev became premier on March 27, 1958, consolidating his power — the tradition followed by all his predecessors and successors. This was the final stage in the transition from the earlier period of post-Stalin collective leadership. He was now the ultimate source of authority in the Soviet Union, but would never possess the absolute power Stalin had.

Aid to developing countries and scientific research, especially into space technology and weaponry, maintained the Soviet Union as one of the world's two major world powers. The Soviet Union launched the first ever artificial earth satellite in history, Sputnik 1, which orbited the earth in 1957. The Soviets also sent the first man into space, Yuri Gagarin, in 1961.

Khrushchev outmaneuvered his Stalinist rivals, but he was regarded by his political enemies — especially the emerging caste of professional technocrats — as a boorish peasant who would interrupt speakers to insult them. Incidents such as pounding his shoe on a table at the UN in 1960 and red-faced rants against the West and intellectuals were a source of grave embarrassment to Soviet politicians.


Reforms and Khrushchev's fall

Throughout his years of leadership, Khrushchev attempted to carry out reform in a range of fields. The problems of Soviet agriculture, a major concern of Khrushchev's, had earlier attracted the attention of the collective leadership, which introduced important innovations in this area of the Soviet economy. The state encouraged peasants to grow more on their private plots, increased payments for crops grown on collective farms, and invested more heavily in agriculture.

Khrushchev continued to believe in the theories of the quack biologist Trofim Lysenko, a carryover from the Stalin era. In his Virgin Lands Campaign in the mid−1950s, he opened many tracts of land to farming in Kazakhstan and neighboring areas of Russia. These new farmlands turned out to be susceptible to droughts, but in some years they produced excellent harvests. Later agricultural reforms by Khrushchev, however, proved counterproductive. His plans for growing corn and increasing meat and dairy production failed, and his reorganization of collective farms into larger units produced confusion in the countryside.

In a politically motivated move to weaken the central state bureaucracy in 1957, Khrushchev did away with the industrial ministries in Moscow and replaced them with regional economic councils (sovnarkhozes).

Although he intended these economic councils to be more responsive to local needs, the decentralization of industry led to disruption and inefficiency. Connected with this decentralization was Khrushchev's decision in 1962 to recast party organizations along economic, rather than administrative, lines. The resulting bifurcation of the party apparatus into industrial and agricultural sectors at the oblast (province) level and below contributed to the disarray and alienated many party officials at all levels. Symptomatic of the country's economic difficulties was the abandonment in 1963 of Khrushchev's special seven−year economic plan (1959–65) two years short of its completion.

In defense policy, Khrushchev began cutting the military's budget, feeling that the Soviet nuclear arsenal was an adequate deterrent to outside aggression. This had a practical reason in that there was a shortage of military-age men due to the lower birth rate of the 1940s, but it alienated key figures in the Soviet military establishment and culminating in the fiasco (in Soviet eyes) of the Cuban missile crisis. Despite large reductions in Soviet conventional forces since 1956, the construction of the Berlin Wall, made under initiative of the East German authorities, created a source of tension with the West. Khrushchev's boasts about Soviet missile forces provided John F. Kennedy with a key issue to use against Richard Nixon in the 1960 U.S. presidential election—the so−called 'Missile gap'. But all Khrushchev's (probably sincere) attempts to build a strong personal relationship with the new president failed, as his typical combination of bluster, miscalculation and mishap resulted in the Cuban fiasco. After the Berlin and Cuba crises, tensions tapered off between the two superpowers.

By 1964 Khrushchev's prestige had been damaged in a number of areas. While industrial production, living standards and consumer goods were still growing at a very rapid pace, the agricultural sector faced a bad harvest in 1963. Abroad, the split with China, the construction of the Berlin Wall, and the Cuban missile crisis hurt the Khrushchev's own prestige in his own country, and his efforts to improve relations with the West antagonized many in the military. Lastly, the 1962 party reorganization caused turmoil throughout the Soviet political chain of command. Power started going to his head, and he began to act more autocratically than before. He was also the subject of a growing personality cult, which was noticeable at the celebrations of his 70th birthday in April 1964. Furthermore, he travelled outside the country constantly, which allowed plots to be formed against him.

In October 1964, while Khrushchev was on holiday in Crimea, the Presidium unanimously voted him out of office and refused to permit him to take his case to the Central Committee. He retired as a private citizen after an editorial in Pravda denounced him for "hare−brained schemes, half−baked conclusions, hasty decisions, and actions divorced from reality." However, Khrushchev must also be remembered for his public disavowal of Stalinism, significant liberalization in the country, and the greater flexibility he brought to Soviet leadership.

The Era of Brezhnev

See also: Leonid Brezhnev

Following Khrushchev's expulsion, a triumvirate consisting of General Secretary Brezhnev, Premier Alexey Kosygin, and President Nikolai Podgorny took power. They began pursuing more stable policies, while retaining the basic elements of de-Stalinization and peaceful competition with the West. Anti-religious activities were also toned down. On the other hand, censorship was tightened, and Stalin was partially rehabilitated. In terms of foreign policy, the Soviets began supplying aid to North Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Relations with China devolved into open hostility during the Cultural Revolution, and the two communist giants were mortal enemies by the 1970s. The Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia during 1968 was crushed by Soviet tanks, and the Brezhnev Doctrine was instituted, whereby the Soviet Union claimed the right to intervene in any country that was deviating from the correct path of socialism.

The space program continued, but the Soviet attempt to land men on the moon failed disastrously, and by the 1970s had switched to a program of manned space stations. Economic growth peaked out in the early part of the decade, and after 1975 the period of "Brezhnev Stagnation" began. Poor crop yields in the early 1970s forced the Sovied Union to import large quantities of wheat, corn, and soybeans at high prices, worsening the country's financial position.[1] Dissidents were relentlessly harassed by the KGB under Yuri Andropov, and many were sent to labor camps or mental hospitals. The most prominent dissidents attracted widespread sympathy and support from the West, but in their own country they had little relationship with the common people, and a grassroots anti-government movement never formed as it did in countries like Poland.

A new constitution was adopted in 1977, replacing the 1936 constitution. It was basically the same, but was longer and more thoroughly mentioned the leading role of the CPSU. By that point, the triumvirate of 1964 was over, and Brezhnev had overshadowed Kosygin and Podgorny. Despite increasingly poor health, he continued to hold onto power, and his rule marked the zenith of Soviet political and military strength. Like the previous leaders of the Soviet Union, a personality cult began to form around him in his last years, but the populace mostly treated it with apathy. The Soviet Union hosted the 1980 Summer Olympics, another source of national pride, but it was boycotted by the United States and 60 other countries in retaliation for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the previous year to prop up that country's Marxist government. The Afghan War, the only major conflict fought by the Soviet Union after World War II, bogged down in a stalemate against Islamic militias who enjoyed American support.

Leadership transition

By 1982 the stagnation of the Soviet economy was obvious, as evidenced by the fact that the Soviet Union had been importing grain from the U.S. throughout the 1970s, but the system was so firmly entrenched that any real change seemed impossible. A huge rate of defense spending consumed large parts of the economy. The transition period that separated the Brezhnev and Gorbachev eras resembled the former much more than the latter, although hints of reform emerged as early as 1983.

The Andropov interregnum

Brezhnev died on November 10, 1982. Two days passed between his death and the announcement of the election of Yuri Andropov as the new General Secretary, suggesting to many outsiders that a power struggle had occurred in the Kremlin. Once in power, however, Andropov wasted no time in promoting his supporters. In June 1983, he assumed the post of chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, thus becoming the ceremonial head of state. It had taken Brezhnev thirteen years to acquire this post. Notably, Andropov was the first Russian head of state since 1894 to take power without anyone being killed, imprisoned, or forced out of office. During his short rule, he replaced more than one−fifth of the Soviet ministers and regional party first secretaries and more than one−third of the department heads within the Central Committee apparatus. As a result, he replaced the aging leadership with younger, more dynamic administrators. But Andropov's ability to reshape the top leadership was constrained by his poor health and the influence of his rival Konstantin Chernenko, who had previously supervised personnel matters in the Central Committee.

Andropov's domestic policy leaned heavily toward restoring discipline and order to Soviet society. He eschewed radical political and economic reforms, promoting instead a small degree of candor in politics and mild economic experiments similar to those that had been associated with Kosygin in the mid−1960s. In tandem with such economic experiments, Andropov launched an anti-corruption drive that reached high into the government and party ranks. Unlike Brezhnev, who possessed several mansions and a fleet of luxury cars, he lived quite simply. His solution to the country's economic difficulties was basically for the people to work harder and show more discipline.

In foreign affairs, Andropov continued Brezhnev's policies. US−Soviet relations deteriorated rapidly beginning in March 1983, when US President Ronald Reagan dubbed the Soviet Union an "evil empire." The official press agency TASS accused Reagan of "thinking only in terms of confrontation and bellicose, lunatic anti-communism". Further deterioration occurred as a result of the Sept. 1, 1983 Soviet shootdown of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 carrying 269 people including a sitting US congressman, Larry McDonald, and over Reagan's stationing of intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Western Europe.

Andropov's health declined rapidly during the tense summer and fall of 1983, becoming the first Soviet leader to miss the anniversary celebrations of the 1917 revolution that November. He died in February 1984 of kidney failure after disappearing from public view for several months. His most significant legacy to the Soviet Union was his discovery and promotion of Mikhail Gorbachev. Beginning in 1978, Gorbachev advanced in two years through the Kremlin hierarchy to full membership in the Politburo. His responsibilities for the appointment of personnel allowed him to make the contacts and distribute the favours necessary for a future bid to become general secretary. At this point, Western experts believed that Andropov was grooming Gorbachev as his successor. However, although Gorbachev acted as a deputy to the general secretary throughout Andropov's illness, Gorbachev's time had not yet arrived when his patron died early in 1984.

The Chernenko interregnum

At 72, Konstantin Chernenko was in poor health, suffering from emphysema, and unable to play an active role in policy making when he was chosen, after lengthy discussion, to succeed Andropov. But Chernenko's short time in office did bring some significant policy changes. The personnel changes and investigations into corruption undertaken under Andropov's tutelage came to an end. Chernenko advocated more investment in consumer goods and services and in agriculture. He also called for a reduction in the CPSU's micromanagement of the economy and greater attention to public opinion. However, KGB repression of Soviet dissidents also increased.

Although Chernenko had called for renewed détente with the West, little progress was made toward closing the rift in East−West relations during his rule. The Soviet Union boycotted the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, retaliating for the United States boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. In the late summer of 1984, the Soviet Union also prevented a visit to West Germany by East German leader Erich Honecker. Fighting in Afghanistan also intensified, but in the late autumn of 1984 the United States and the Soviet Union did agree to resume arms control talks in early 1985.

The poor state of Chernenko's health made the question of succession an acute one. Chernenko gave Gorbachev high party positions that provided significant influence in the Politburo, and Gorbachev was able to gain the vital support of Foreign Minister Andrey Gromyko in the struggle for succession. When Chernenko died in March 1985, Gorbachev assumed power unopposed.


  • Baradat, Leon P., Soviet Political Society, Prentice−Hall, New Jersey, 1986. ISBN 0-13-823592-9
  • Nenarokov, Albert P., Russia in the Twentieth Century: the View of a Soviet Historian, William Morrow Co, New York, 1968.
  • Schapiro, Leonard, The Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Vintage Books, New York, 1971. ISBN 0394-70745-1


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