Embattled Leader of the “Second World,” 1953–1982

After Stalin’s death, his successors continued to rule his far-flung empire for another three and a half decades, successfully conveying the image that the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc were a serious rival of the Western world led by the United States. But in reality the effort to catch up and overtake the Western capitalists became increasingly strained. The planned economy and tightly controlled society of the Soviet Union left too little room for the creativity and innovation needed to shepherd the country into the postindustrial world that began to take shape by the 1970s. The regime’s planning straitjacket stalled the development of a consumer society, and its unduly centralized distribution system hindered the availability of goods for sale (and even of materials needed by Soviet industry to manufacture its products). And even in terms of industrial modernization the Soviet regime missed out: whereas it lavishly funded the use of computers in military endeavors (to which the Soviet space program belonged as well), the Soviet Union missed out on developing computers for personal use. By the 1980s, the Soviet leaders belatedly admitted that their country had dangerously fallen behind. Ultimately, the disappearance of the Soviet Union in its rigidly regulated Stalinist form seemed inevitable to Mikhail Gorbachev and his allies.


Map 9.1. USSR (From Allen F. Chew, An Atlas of Russian History, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1967. Used by permission.)


If Stalin had been able to trust anyone, he might have bequeathed his empire to his successors with some confidence. From the Boss’s perspective in the early 1950s, Soviet Communism had made massive strides since he had replaced Lenin. When Stalin died in 1953, about one-third of the global population was ruled by Soviet-style Communist regimes. This “Second World” was quickly developing in terms of its economic might. Soviet boasting that the country would catch up and overtake the United States seemed more than empty rhetoric after the launch of the satellite Sputnik in 1957.


Figure 9.1. First woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova, 1960s (RIA Novosti archive)

By 1960, the Soviet Union was a country in which the majority of the population lived in an urban environment. Still, according to the 1959 census, well-nigh half of the Soviet population of slightly more than two hundred million people lived in villages in the countryside, a far higher proportion than in the contemporary Western world (in the United Kingdom, the urban population had surpassed the rural population around 1850, and in the United States around 1920). And this percentage was higher among the non-Slavs, who formed about one-fifth of the Soviet population at the time.1 But a radiant future, as it was called, seemed to beckon to the true believers, and Stalin, despite his otherwise twisted mind, remained one of them.

Stalin, however, did not have faith in other human beings. Toward the end of his life, he greatly worried about his successors’ capacity to rule his empire in an authoritative fashion. Indeed, he had surrounded himself with a rather mediocre set of yes-men because of his habit to eliminate talented figures in his surroundings, as he had recently done in the 1949–1950 Leningrad Affair. In a sense, Stalin’s anxiety was appropriate, for it took his successors barely longer to dismantle his empire (1953–1991) than the amount of time it had taken to build it under his leadership (1922–1953). Still, upon Stalin’s death in 1953, such a speedy unraveling seemed remote from the viewpoint of the Soviet leaders, their subjects, and foreign observers. True believers in the radiant future of communism were plentiful, not least at the very top: the dynamic Nikita Khrushchev, who emerged as Stalin’s heir by 1956, attempted to rekindle the enthusiasm of the early days of revolution and Five Year Plans among Communist Party members and Soviet citizens. Khrushchev strenuously appealed to the newly emerging Third World of former colonies in Asia and Africa to follow the Soviet Union as the global leader of the formerly downtrodden and encouraged them to adopt the Soviet model of development. He even meddled in the “American backyard” of Middle and South America.

But the Soviet economy in most of its sectors proved to be incapable of moving beyond a certain level of technological sophistication. Defense was the exception (and the Soviet space program was a spin-off of this branch) but swallowed up greater and greater amounts of budgetary expenditure. After the global oil crisis of 1973 and the worldwide economic downturn that followed it, the Soviet standard of living stagnated as well. Across the Soviet Union and in the countries of East-Central Europe in the second half of the twentieth century, most people lived in crowded dwellings and survived on a minimally adequate household budget. Meanwhile, the Soviet penchant to achieve economic growth at any cost began to lead to extensive environmental damage. The Chernobyl disaster ultimately became the symbol of Soviet ecological neglect.


While Stalin did not leave a testament such as Lenin had in 1924, another succession struggle that resembled the first years after Lenin’s demise developed upon his death in 1953. At first, the chief contenders publicly announced that they would lead collectively, implying that none of them was to be the first among equals. The Politburo was reduced from the inflated size Stalin had introduced in his dotage to the normal number of eight to ten full members.2 All the survivors were long-term apprentices of Stalin, who had served the dictator in high posts since at least the 1930s. During that time, they had become patrons of a large network of clients: to outmaneuver their rivals, they now strategically joined their networks during crucial votes in the Central Committee. Thus, Georgii Malenkov’s and Khrushchev’s group teamed up in causing the dismissal of Lavrentii Beria.

Resuming full control over the secret police upon Stalin’s death, Beria was feared by almost all his Politburo colleagues. They suspected that he kept compromising material about all of them, which he could use against them in the power struggle for Stalin’s mantle. In the spring of 1953, as vice premier, Politburo member, and police chief, Beria initiated a series of policies that aimed to end some of the worst features of the Stalinist system, including an amnesty of well-nigh one million camp inmates. He further tried to counter the hypercentralized ruling system by advocating the replacement of Russians with representatives of the local population to lead the republican Communist Parties. Furthermore, Beria suggested to his colleagues that the East-Central European satellites should be given a greater measure of freedom from Moscow. But Beria failed to see how his liberalized version of Communist despotism lost him the support of virtually all his Politburo comrades.

Nikita Khrushchev, who had become the first secretary of the party following Stalin’s death, led the operation that dethroned Beria. In tandem with military commanders, he conspired to have Beria arrested at a Politburo meeting. The hero of Stalingrad, Marshal Georgy Zhukov himself, did the honors. A Central Committee meeting ratified Beria’s arrest in July 1953. Beria was now accused of having been a British spy and (with apparently solid evidence) of raping young women whom his bodyguards plucked from the streets of Moscow. After an investigation that lasted about half a year, he was convicted with several of his assistants in a secret trial. His crimes included espionage, counterrevolution, and being an “enemy of the people,” standard Stalinist clichés. Stalin’s ghost was to haunt the Soviet leadership and Soviet society until its very end and beyond.

Following Beria’s fall, Prime Minister Malenkov seemed the leading light among the Soviet bosses, but this was more apparent than real. Khrushchev controlled the crucial party apparatus and manipulated the nomenklatura appointment system just as skillfully as had Stalin in the 1920s. Malenkov did not aid his own cause by making a couple of ill-advised public announcements. In August 1953, at a session of the Soviet parliament (the Supreme Soviet), the prime minister announced that the burden carried by the collective farmers would be considerably lightened. Prices paid by the state for kolkhoz deliveries would drastically increase, while debts incurred by the farms would be written off. In the eyes of his colleagues, the agricultural policy Malenkov advocated reversed too strongly the previous policy of prioritizing investment in heavy industry. It was “corrected” at a Central Committee meeting in September 1953, even if this gathering agreed to alleviate the burden placed on the kolkhozniks as well.

In March 1954, Malenkov made a second cardinal error in publicly declaring that a nuclear war between East and West could not be won. This last point flew in the face of Marxist beliefs, which held that the historical triumph of communism was inevitable. In January 1955, Malenkov was forced out as prime minister. His demotion went at least in part back to the distrust he had brought on himself by his previous friendship with Beria (and his implication in the latter’s crimes as secret police chief). His alleged incompetent management as prime minister and his lust for power were, however, especially singled out. His so-called demagoguery about agricultural prices and the impossibility of nuclear war was cited as proof of the latter trait.

In retrospect, it appears that Beria and Malenkov shared an outlook that was too pragmatic for the Soviet Union’s elite in the 1950s. Senior Communist Party leaders had participated in the Great Turn and had faithfully memorized the relevant passages from Stalin’s Short Course. They saw the outside world as implacably hostile to their sacred cause. They believed that any compromise with the non-Communist world could only be temporary, in anticipation of the next Communist advance. This followed a tried-and-true recipe. Such tactical truces with capitalism had been agreed to at Brest-Litovsk in 1918, in signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939, and in concluding the alliance with the Western Allies from 1941 to 1945. But actually retreating from territory that was firmly in Communist hands went too far. Therefore, Eastern Germany should remain Communist rather than unifying with Western Germany, unless a united Germany was a Communist-controlled country.

Nevertheless, Nikita Khrushchev, who remained a true believer in the Communist cause until his death in 1971, was willing to concede minor points to the American-led Western Bloc in the Cold War. He had personally participated in the slaughter at Stalingrad and had taken stock of the utterly devastated Ukraine as its party chief during the Second World War. If at all possible, Khrushchev preferred that his country stay out of any war, despite the saber-rattling in which he occasionally engaged. The new Soviet leaders persuaded North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung and his Chinese backers to agree to an armistice on the peninsula in 1953. Viacheslav Molotov, once again foreign minister, agreed in Geneva in 1955 to the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Austria. Relations with Josip Tito’s Yugoslavia were normalized, although the Yugoslavs stayed outside of the Warsaw Pact, the military alliance of Eastern European Communist states created as an answer to NATO in 1955.


Khrushchev and the new Soviet prime minister, Nikolai Bulganin (1895–1975), visited newly independent India, Afghanistan, and Burma in 1955. They portrayed their country as an anti-imperialist state that had successfully broken free from the Western economic stranglehold after the 1917 Revolution. The Soviet path of development, with its planned economy, was held up to the postcolonial states as the road to full freedom from ongoing Western economic dominance. The cost of Soviet industrialization in human terms was muffled. Twenty-five years after the Great Turn began, Khrushchev boasted of some significant tangible results, not in the least the victory in the Second World War. He omitted to mention that all of it cost several dozen millions their lives.

Khrushchev believed that his courtship of the “Third World” would prepare the ground for the next phase of Communist expansion, which was envisioned as the addition to the camp of most postcolonial states in Asia and Africa. He was not just deluding himself by wishful thinking. For example, the Communist Party of Indonesia numbered hundreds of thousands of members, North Vietnam had been Communist since 1945 (and had successfully forced the French from Indochina), and several states within India’s federation were ruled by the Communist Party. In the Middle East, various nationalist Arabic movements adopted quasi-Communist policies, such as the Ba'ath Party in Syria and Iraq, or Gamal Abdel Nasser’s (1918–1970) regime in Egypt. When other African countries received their independence, their political leaders, too, established one-party states that introduced multiyear economic plans and professed to stand for equality and social justice. These efforts had at best mixed results, while clashes between Soviet clients and pro-Western political movements sometimes escalated into real civil wars, for instance, in the former Belgian Congo, a very poor region awash with heavily sought-after raw materials. The Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba (1925–1961) was murdered by rebels supported by the United States. At a UN meeting in New York, the discussion about Congo reached such a feverish pitch that Khrushchev took off his shoe and banged it on the table. While colorful, such behavior was deplored among Soviet diplomats as a sign of primitive crudeness. Lumumba was posthumously honored when Moscow’s university for foreign students was named after him.

Much of the rest of sub-Saharan Africa was divided into pro-Soviet and pro-Western countries. In order to prevent the spread of Communism, the United States supported colonial and racist regimes in Angola, Mozambique, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), and South Africa, and corrupt and brutal dictatorships such as that of Mobutu Sese Seko (1930–1997) in Congo (Zaire). The Soviets seemed to gain the upper hand in the 1970s: apart from the informal allegiance to their bloc by socialist regimes such as that of Julius Nyerere (1922–1999) in Tanzania or Leopold Senghor (1906–2001) in Senegal, genuine Marxist states were founded in Ethiopia in 1973 under Haile Mengistu (b. 1937) and in Angola after it received its independence from Portugal in 1975. But the horrible failure of the Mengistu regime in particular caused a sharp decline in the popularity of the Soviet model of economic development in Africa. The Ethiopian famine of 1984–1985, in part the result of an attempt to impose collective farming on an unwilling population, cost about one million people their lives.

In South America, too, Communists gained strength in the first decades after the Second World War, even if extreme economic dependence on the United States prevented most countries’ governments from introducing any policies that smacked of Communism or “socialism.”3 Most governments in Latin America felt that they could ill afford to lose U.S. investments. In 1954, the United States made clear that it was implacably hostile to left-wing governments in its own backyard, when it backed a military coup that toppled the democratically elected administration of Jacobo Arbenz (1913–1971) in Guatemala. Later U.S. interventions in the Dominican Republic and Grenada reiterated this point.

But an opportunity for Soviet infiltration arose in 1959, when the corrupt dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista (1901–1973) in Cuba was overthrown by a left-wing guerrilla group. Its leader, Fidel Castro (b. 1926), and his comrades at first hesitated about jeopardizing ties with the United States by nationalizing foreign-owned property. However, egged on by his brother Raúl (b. 1931) and the Argentinian doctor Ernesto “Che” Guevara (1928–1967), both secretly members of the Communist Party of Cuba, Castro took ever more radical steps. This ultimately led the U.S. government to announce that it would no longer buy the Cuban sugarcane crop in 1961. The boycott was a potentially devastating blow to an economy that was dependent on the sale of this monoculture (its prime cash crop) to the United States. Khrushchev saw his chance. He offered to buy the entire sugar harvest at a guaranteed price, thus saving Cuba from economic collapse. In addition, the Soviet Union began to deliver arms to Cuba and dispatched “military advisors,” especially after the U.S.-sponsored (failed) Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.

Khrushchev then decided to up the ante. In 1962, with the backing of the Politburo, he ordered the stationing on the island of ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, having convinced Castro that this made Cuba unassailable. Before the first rockets were operational, however, U.S. spy planes photographed the missile launching pads that were under construction. In October 1962, President John F. Kennedy demanded the dismantling of the launching pads and the removal of Soviet missiles from the island. U.S. warships enforced a quarantine, inspecting any ships carrying goods destined for Cuba. After a tense few days, Khrushchev decided to agree to the American demands, without telling Castro first. The Cuban dictator was enraged but nonetheless remained a loyal member of the Soviet Bloc in subsequent years. Khrushchev received a guarantee from the U.S. government that it would no longer threaten to invade Cuba, while U.S. missiles stationed in Turkey were removed. But the Cuban Missile Crisis diminished Khrushchev’s stature at home further, especially among the Central Committee membership.


The Cuban crisis was not the only foreign policy failure to haunt Khrushchev. Whereas Khrushchev mended the fences with Yugoslavia, the country never became a full member of the Soviet Bloc again. The quarrel that erupted with China, however, was of far greater significance. Perhaps all politics are personal, and Mao Zedong certainly was not impressed with Stalin’s successor. Khrushchev, indeed, was no theorist as Marx, Lenin, or even Stalin had been. Mao, a librarian by education, considered the Soviet boss somewhat of an unlettered bumpkin (rumors persist that Khrushchev never properly mastered writing Russian). Far more than under Stalin, however, Khrushchev’s Soviet Union sent aid and advisors to China to help it embark on the road to communism. Soviet engineers did not merely build roads, dams, and bridges but also aided the fledgling Chinese arms industry. The Chinese People’s Army was further equipped with arms and ordnance made in the Soviet Union or East-Central Europe.

But Mao, still basking in the glow of his 1949 triumph, was chomping at the bit for further victories. He wanted to chase the nationalist government of his rival Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi, 1887–1975) from the island of Taiwan, to which it had fled upon its defeat in 1949. There Chiang enjoyed the protection of the United States, which intimated that it would use nuclear arms to stop the People’s Republic from ousting him. During a visit by Khrushchev to China, Mao suggested to the Soviet leader that the USSR back a Chinese invasion with Soviet nuclear bombs. Mao stated that, because of its overwhelming numbers, the Communist world was guaranteed a victory in a nuclear war. Khrushchev was aghast at such cynicism.

Meanwhile, Mao and the zealots who surrounded him in the Chinese leadership became utterly annoyed at Khrushchev’s criticism of Stalin in 1956, accusing the Soviets of being “revisionists” and, eventually, “Trotskyites.” When Khrushchev engaged in a renewed round of criticism of Stalin in 1961 and particularly attacked the Albanian Communist leader Enver Hoxha (1908–1985) for copying Stalin’s megalomania, the Chinese delegation attending the Twenty-Second Party Congress of the Soviet Communist Party walked out and returned home. With a leadership as puritanically Communist as Mao’s, Albania remained the single Chinese ally in East-Central Europe. Soon after the Twenty-Second Party Congress, meanwhile, the Soviet Union withdrew its specialists and advisors from Communist China.

Mao oversaw a profound albeit disastrous transformation of his country during a dozen frantic years (1957–1969). He introduced the policies of the Great Leap Forward (1958–1961) and the Cultural Revolution (1966–1969), which resembled that of Stalin’s Great Turn, although perhaps yielding even fewer positive results. A famine during the early 1960s cost tens of millions of Chinese their lives. The successful detonation in October 1964 (exactly at the time Khrushchev resigned as Soviet leader) of a Chinese atomic bomb did not compensate for such human suffering. Soviet engineers, before their recall, had provided the blueprint for the nuclear bomb. Mao purged any rivals in the leadership during the Cultural Revolution, which imposed a particularly outdated regimented way of life on his country.

The Chinese dictator eventually provoked Khrushchev’s successors into an armed conflict about the exact location of the Chinese-Soviet border along the Ussuri and Amur Rivers. Thus, the centuries-old border dispute between Qings and Romanovs was rekindled in 1969. After some battling, somehow cooler heads prevailed and an all-out war between the erstwhile Communist brethren was avoided. Nevertheless, by the time of Mao’s death in 1976, China enjoyed better relations with the United States than with the USSR.

After Mao’s death, the thaw that descended on China also allowed for better relations with the Soviet Union. China chose a path other than that of the Soviet Union and its successor states to overcome the worst consequences of the naive and suffocating planning of its economy. Although the Chinese maintained their Communist Party’s political dictatorship, they allowed the introduction of a capitalist economy. Unwilling to shoot at its own people as the Chinese bosses had ordered their troops to do at Tiananmen Square in 1989, the Soviet leadership introduced capitalism together with a democratic type of government, guaranteeing human rights and freedoms to its population. Today, Communist China is as important a trading partner of Russia as it is of the United States. Because of the shrinking population of Russia (not in the least in Asian Russia), and the vast mineral wealth of Siberia, some observers predict a renewal of Russian-Chinese hostility as China casts a covetous look on the riches of its northern neighbor.


After the fall of Beria and the relegation of Malenkov to the second tier, Nikita Khrushchev appeared to be the uncontested first leader of the Soviet Union. But his power was far from unlimited. Although Molotov lost the foreign office in 1955, defense minister Kliment Voroshilov, prime minister Nikolai Bulganin, trade minister Anastas Mikoian, and ideological chief Mikhail Suslov were far from Khrushchev’s yes-men. Observers at the time, and historians afterward, have wondered whether or not Khrushchev’s proposal to denounce Stalin’s crimes before the Twentieth Party Congress was part of a strategy to rid himself of the more recalcitrant types among his fellow leaders.

After “Beria’s” initial amnesty of 1953, which had primarily released those accused of minor (and mainly nonpolitical) crimes from the Gulag, Khrushchev and his colleagues ordered a wholesale review of the cases of all of those who lingered in the camps. This led to the release of the great majority of the camp inmates (some of whom had participated in large-scale riots after Stalin’s death). The authorities stopped short of full (mainly posthumous) rehabilitation of most who had suffered under Stalin, for two key reasons. First, acquitting so many people from crimes they had not committed might add up to an admission that the regime had terrorized its population in the previous quarter century. And second, the Soviet authorities did not have sufficient means to compensate the victims for the wrongs that they had suffered.

But the review of many dubious judicial cases did lead the Soviet leadership to order an investigation into the extent of Stalin’s crimes. The numbers that were conveyed to the Politburo by the judiciary, the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD, which had fewer responsibilities than under Stalin), and the new security police, the KGB (formed after Beria’s fall), were staggering: more than four million people had been convicted for “counterrevolutionary crimes” between 1920 and 1953, almost all of them after 1929. Millions more had been tried for nonpolitical crimes (usually receiving shorter sentences than political convicts). Such bewildering amounts shook Khrushchev and several of his comrades to their core. The Politburo established an investigative commission to assess the terror in the party’s own ranks. It disclosed that tens of thousands of honest Communists had fallen victim to Stalin’s meat grinder. The revelation of the magnitude of Stalin’s purges seems to have been the catalyst leading to the Secret Speech. Khrushchev suggested to his fellow leaders that an attempt should be made to wipe the slate clean at the first Party Congress after Stalin’s death.

It remains curious that Khrushchev was astounded by the scale of the Great Terror. As the city’s party boss in 1937, he had been in Moscow a member himself of one of the special judicial trios sentencing thousands of alleged counterrevolutionaries to their death and had been likewise involved in Ukraine in 1938. On the eve of the congress in early 1956, Lazar Kaganovich and Molotov (who recalled perhaps better than Khrushchev the extent of the operations in 1937 and 1938) in particular protested against the idea of admitting to any wrongdoings. They believed that admission of error in even a fraction of the cases might damage the party’s reputation at home and abroad. Khrushchev persisted, however.

Khrushchev’s Secret Speech concluded the Twentieth Party Congress in February 1956. It was far from comprehensive in sketching the extent of Stalin’s tyranny. Nikita Khrushchev tried to perform a balancing act of separating the good Stalin, who had led the country through the successful introduction of a planned economy, industrial modernization, and collectivized agriculture, from the bad Stalin, who in the last fifteen years of his life had become morbidly suspicious, killing some of his most talented military and political collaborators in sudden bouts of paranoia. Khrushchev did not go as far as to call for the rehabilitation of Trotsky, Zinov'ev, or Bukharin, but he did sponsor the posthumous restoration of the good name of Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevskii, Politburo members Robert Eikhe (1890–1940) and Ian Rudzutak (1887–1938), and those who had been executed in the Leningrad Affair.

Khrushchev implied that Stalin had begun his tyranny when at the 1934 Seventeenth Party Congress the Boss learned about an effort to replace him with Sergei Kirov. Kirov’s murder later that year was probably carried out on Stalin’s orders, Khrushchev suggested. This assassination provided the excuse for the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD) to detect an ever-widening circle of conspiracies against the Soviet leaders, the government, the economy, and society. The NKVD’s investigative zeal was halted only in late 1938. In 1956, a commission was organized to investigate the Kirov murder, but it could never find definitive evidence that pointed at Stalin as ordering the death of his onetime close friend.

Khrushchev’s balancing act did not really convince independent observers sympathetic to the Soviet cause. Few were willing to believe that Stalin had only in 1934 descended into madness. Indeed, Khrushchev noted Lenin’s doubts about Stalin in his speech, which implied that Lenin had already discovered Stalin’s evil side in 1922! Meanwhile, Khrushchev deliberately leaked the speech. While this can be interpreted as showing his good faith in trying to come clean, it may have been a ploy to prevent his opponents from removing him and pretending that nothing had ever happened. Everyone in 1956 had dirty hands, but some hands were dirtier, especially those of Khrushchev’s rivals Molotov, Malenkov (who was hoping for a comeback), and Kaganovich.

An integral English version already became available in the West in the spring of 1956. But rather than its restoring faith in Communist honesty, in response many Western Communists left the movement altogether. In Poland and Hungary, voices were raised that challenged the Communist dictatorship ruling the countries. In Poland, the former party secretary Wladyslaw Gomulka (1905–1982), who had been jailed, was restored as chief of the Communist Party. His considerable personal authority in the country, his reputation as a Polish patriot, and a variety of economic reforms (by which, among other things, Poland abandoned collective farming) prevented a widespread protest from turning into a revolution. In the fall of 1956, Soviet leaders visited Poland, worried about a repeat of 1830–1831 or 1863. They allowed Gomulka considerable leeway when events in Hungary took an even stronger anti-Soviet turn.

The Hungarian Communist leader Imre Nagy (1896–1958), who like Gomulka was released from prison after Stalin’s death, declared his country a neutral country, abandoning the recently created Warsaw Pact. This went too far in Soviet eyes. The Soviet army moved into Hungary, taking control of government offices, radio stations, and the press, and arresting the ringleaders of the plot. The Hungarians fought with rifles, bricks, and sticks against the Soviet tanks but were overcome at the cost of hundreds of lives. Imre Nagy fled to the Yugoslav embassy, only to be given up to the new Hungarian dictators, who had him executed after a perfunctory trial in 1958.

The Western world merely expressed its disapproval of the suppression of the Hungarian revolt. The NATO countries honored the division of Europe into a Soviet and a Western sphere, to which Stalin and Churchill had agreed in October 1944. In addition, the revolt unfolded right at the moment of a serious crisis over the Suez Canal, which threatened the unity of NATO. Khrushchev was thereby given a most opportune lightning rod to divert the world’s attention away from the Soviet violence in Hungary. He even went as far as to threaten Britain and France with nuclear bombing, if their soldiers and their Israeli allies did not withdraw from the Suez Canal region.

After the bloody suppression of the Hungarian rebellion, tranquility descended over the Soviet camp. The bloodshed made abundantly clear that the Soviet rulers would not tolerate any serious threat to the Communist dictatorships in their satellites. Whereas a modest version of the Soviet “Thaw” can be noticed across East-Central Europe after 1956, this seldom entailed a direct challenge to Communist rule but for two celebrated cases, those of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Poland in 1980–1981.

In the Soviet Union, only parts of the Secret Speech were read to selected audiences of party members and others deemed sufficiently loyal to the regime, while the so-called Cult of the Personality of Stalin was more broadly condemned in a rather watered-down version. But those who had cautiously raised their voices immediately after Stalin’s death were emboldened by the criticism of Stalin. Between early 1956 and Khrushchev’s dismissal in October 1964, a steady current of publications (fiction and nonfiction), films, and other works of art were released that decried the crimes committed by Stalin’s regime. Some went too far for even the liberal censors of the age, such as the novel Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman. It made a direct comparison between Stalin’s Gulag and the Nazi German extermination camps. In 1962, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s startling novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was published in the journal Novyi Mir (“New World”), to which hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens subscribed. It depicted in stark terms one day in the life of a concentration camp inmate in Kazakhstan.

Stalin’s name was more or less banned from public life. During the Twenty-Second Party Congress of 1961, his embalmed body was removed from the mausoleum on Red Square, where it had been lying next to Lenin since 1953. Nonetheless, Stalin had been the architect of the Soviet system over which Khrushchev now presided. Denouncing him could end in denouncing everything that had happened since 1924 in the USSR, for the Gulag and mass killings predated 1934. During the 1960s and 1970s, many “dissidents” (the term used for opponents of the regime) indeed concluded that the system had failed from the beginning. Molotov and Kaganovich had warned of this dangerous consequence, and the Chinese Communists eventually began to see the criticism of Stalin as blasphemy. Mao may have begun to truly despise Khrushchev because the Soviet leader did not even understand the elementary logic that condemning part of Stalin really amounted to criticizing all of Stalin.


Neither his erratic foreign policy nor his naive denunciation of Stalin caused Khrushchev’s fall in 1964, however. At first he seemed to ride a wave of popularity that was generated by the greater liberalization of the regime, the higher incomes given to collective farmers, and a sustained economic growth. Before 1962, Khrushchev’s ouster indeed seemed inconceivable.

In June 1957, Khrushchev overcame a last-gasp attack by his political rivals by staging a Central Committee meeting that overrode the Politburo. Instead of Khrushchev resigning because of his decentralization policies, he forced out most of the old guard (Molotov, Kaganovich, Malenkov, Bulganin, and eventually Voroshilov as well).4 Only Marshal Zhukov, ideological boss Suslov, and trade expert Mikoian supported Khrushchev in the Politburo, but the party’s first secretary had the overwhelming support of the provincial and republican party secretaries in the country, whose power had increased in recent months. Since the 1920s, almost all of them were Central Committee members. An impromptu Central Committee meeting was organized after many of them flew into Moscow in military planes (provided by Zhukov’s subordinates). The meeting ousted the “Anti-Party Group” from the Politburo. In the end, Khrushchev’s moves amounted to a sort of Stalinist strategy, following the recipe used by Stalin in the 1920s against his Politburo rivals.

A few months later, Khrushchev deftly forced out Zhukov, by then defense minister, on accusations of behaving too independently and of organizing a personality cult. Even KGB chairman Ivan Serov (1905–1990) was removed in 1958, an act that made Khrushchev the unrivaled leader of the country. His position seemed unassailable. Nevertheless, he managed to lose this credit within the next five years.

It can be argued that whoever led the Soviet Union in the first five years after Stalin’s death would have presided over a gradual improvement of the standard of living and an improvement in the general sense of well-being. The spartan circumstances resulting from the devastation of the war and Stalin’s prioritizing of expenditure on defense in the early Cold War had made the “hungry 1940s” resemble the “hungry 1930s.” By 1952, the acute capitalist threat perceived by the Soviet leadership, and especially Stalin, lessened. The Soviet detonation of the hydrogen bomb in that year occurred a mere three years after the successful test of a regular atomic bomb.

It seems that around this time, that is, even before Stalin’s death, Beria, Malenkov, and Khrushchev all concluded that the heavy burden carried by the long-suffering Soviet population could be lessened. Once Stalin died, they agreed that some radical steps were needed. More consumer goods were being produced, and construction of apartment buildings boomed: most urban Soviet families acquired a separate apartment in the 1950s and 1960s, no longer sharing a kitchen and bathroom with their neighbors. Gradually, households acquired radios, televisions, and refrigerators, even if waiting lists for such goods were long and waiting times sometimes reached a decade. More Soviet citizens began to travel on their vacations, both within their country and sometimes, in groups, within the countries of the Communist Bloc.

Buoyed by these developments, Khrushchev, fondly remembering the titanic labor he had supervised in building the Moscow subway during the 1930s, decided that another leap forward was in the offing. He announced at the Twenty-First Party Congress in early 1959 that the Soviet Union was embarking on the building of communism, having completed its socialist phase. This new society would witness an economy in which everyone could enjoy all the goods that they needed and would be ruled by the people themselves, because the state would “wither away,” as Marx and Lenin (in his State and Revolution of 1917) had predicted. A new party program was developed and released at the Twenty-Second Party Congress in 1961. It announced that communism, the society of plenty and of social harmony, would become a reality in the Soviet Union by 1980. Although much remained unclear about this plan, the leading role of the Communist Party was for the time being confirmed. In practice, the creation of a society of plenty depended on formidable economic growth rates, which were to remain out of reach. After Khrushchev’s fall in 1964, his ambitious program was quietly shelved.

Khrushchev felt it necessary at the same time to tinker with the economic and political system, especially when toward 1960 growth levels did not meet expectations and shortages continued to plague the economy. A plan to outstrip the United States in terms of meat and dairy production by 1961 miserably failed. In 1959, Khrushchev visited the United States and was highly impressed with the vast farms he saw growing corn in Iowa. He decided that Soviet kolkhozes, too, needed to plant maize as a fodder crop, but the plant failed to thrive in the cold climate of much of the Soviet Union. He tried to amalgamate collective farms into large agribusinesses (called “state farms,” or “sovkhozes”). In the sovkhozes, farmers were paid a wage instead of being remunerated on the basis of the amount of crops, meat, or dairy delivered to the state. But the wages were low and little incentive was offered to work harder; in addition, the farms were to submit their decisions to local party secretaries, and this proved to be a further break on initiatives toward innovations in the production process or practical measures to increase yields.

Even before he had become the unrivaled leader of the Soviet Union, Khrushchev had organized the cultivation of millions of acres of previously unused land in Kazakhstan and western Siberia. On the regime’s invitation, thousands of enthusiastic, overwhelmingly young, people moved there in the middle of the 1950s to work the new farmland. This Virgin Lands project at first seemed a roaring success, dramatically increasing grain production. But the poor soil, dry weather, and incessant wind of the region led to the development of a dustbowl. It destroyed much of the newly sown land in the early 1960s, almost negating the increased crop yields reached in the 1950s. In 1963, the entire Soviet Union was affected by extreme drought, leading to a shortage of grain for bread baking and cattle foddering. Khrushchev, showing his rediscovered humane side once again, ordered the importation of foreign grain to prevent a famine. But this was a blow to his own prestige within the country and to that of the Soviet Union abroad. The country that with Yuri Gagarin (1934–1968) had put the first man into space in 1961 was unable to feed itself two years later.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was Khrushchev’s effort to improve economic results by splitting the party organizations at regional levels into an industrial and agricultural section. This diminished the power of the provincial party secretaries, who had managed both areas before but now were assigned only one of these sections. Khrushchev thus lost the support of those who had been his greatest allies when he had defeated the Old Guard in 1957 and who had stood by him after that. As the secretaries were members of the party’s Central Committee, it was now heavily stacked against him. Returning from a holiday on the Crimea in 1964, Khrushchev was puzzled when he was met at the airport in Moscow by an unusually small delegation. He was driven to the Kremlin, where he was denounced for his “voluntarism” and his attempt to begin his own “cult of the personality.” The seventy-one-year-old leader was forced to retire, ironically mainly by his own protégés whom he had promoted to the Politburo from 1957 onward.

Khrushchev, perhaps, had indeed become overconfident and began to believe too much in his own invulnerability, forgetting about the all-important role played by the party secretaries in the Soviet power structure. Their backing had sustained both Stalin and him. With Khrushchev’s departure, Soviet Communism likely lost its “last best chance.” His successors lacked his energy and possibly even his unwavering faith in the radiant future of communism. Mikhail Gorbachev was to model himself for a while after Khrushchev but was forced to concede that too much time had been wasted in the intervening period that separated his tenure from that of Khrushchev, the last of the true believers. In retirement, Khrushchev was to speak his memoirs into a tape recorder, thus leaving us with the most extensive and invaluable account provided by any Stalin-era leader about his life.


Leonid Brezhnev (1906–1982) had risen through the party’s ranks since the 1930s. A Russian speaker, he had been a client of Khrushchev’s when the latter was Ukrainian party chief. Brezhnev became the party secretary of the Ukrainian city of Dnipropetrovsk (the former Ekaterinoslav) during the Great Terror, when he was barely thirty years old. He had subsequently been first secretary of the party organization of the Moldavian Socialist Soviet Republic and was in 1952 promoted to the central leadership. He had joined the Politburo permanently in 1957 and was official head of state from 1960 to 1964. He had also become second party secretary behind Khrushchev in the last months of the latter’s leadership, replacing the ailing Frol Kozlov (1908–1965). At first, Brezhnev shared power with prime minister Aleksei Kosygin (1904–1980) and Soviet president Nikolai Podgornyi (1903–1983), as well as with other Politburo members, among whom Mikhail Suslov proved to have the most staying power.

After 1964, only through very careful maneuvering did Brezhnev rise to a position of power that began to resemble that of Stalin or Khrushchev before him. He reached such status only in the middle of the 1970s. Brezhnev’s key support was located once again in the party apparatus, and he carefully cultivated a patronage network among the regional party secretaries. He had learned from Khrushchev’s demise that these local bosses preferred to rule their fiefs without too much upheaval. Brezhnev appeared to guarantee quiet stability and full enjoyment of the perquisites as well as the more unambiguously corrupt practices in which many engaged. Indeed, Brezhnev set himself as the example for the lavish lifestyle in which the elite indulged (usually in places that were far away from the view of those kept outside of the circle of power). The general secretary owned dozens of fancy Western-made cars and went on luxurious hunting trips with his colleagues and friends.5

Brezhnev replaced the notion that the Soviet Union had moved toward the final establishment of communism with that of a country that was at the stage of “developed socialism.” What this exactly meant was unclear. The new 1977 constitution did not make it any clearer. Brezhnev and company seem to have been primarily concentrating on foreign policy, endeavoring to match the United States in global influence and military might. They meddled in the Middle East but failed to find many loyal friends among the Arab countries, despite their hatred of Israel on which the Soviets played. In the Soviet Union itself, anti-Semitism flared up again when more and more Soviet Jews began to apply for exit visas. Soviet Jews, traditionally urban because of the long-term prohibition for Jews to own land in Eastern Europe, were often highly educated but frequently barred from work at top levels in scholarship and science, the military, economy, and government. Others chafed at the Soviet antireligious policies. Many therefore tried to move to Israel or via Israel elsewhere but were often refused an exit visa. In the West they became known as refuseniks.

In other parts of the Third World of developing nations, Soviet success was equally middling. The Soviet Union became the strongest supporter of North Vietnam and the Vietcong during the American intervention (1964–1973) in Indochina, but the North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh nonetheless steered an independent course in an effort to keep his Chinese neighbors happy. Relations with Cuba remained close, but of the African countries only Ethiopia after 1973 and perhaps Angola became close allies.

The most significant Soviet intervention in the Third World under Brezhnev began in late 1979, when Soviet troops crossed the border into Afghanistan to aid their client Babrak Karmal (1929–1996) in taking power in Kabul at the expense of a Communist rival. While the Afghan Communists engaged in internecine warfare, much of the rest of the country rose in revolt against their government, rejecting the Communists wholesale. The mujahedin (Islamic guerrilla fighters) proved tenacious, gradually taking control of much of the country outside the few big cities and incessantly harassing Soviet troops. The Afghan resistance performed so well not only because of its knowledge of the terrain and its capacity to sustain great hardship but also because it was better equipped by advanced U.S.-made arms. The Afghan adventure contributed to the growing self-doubt that was to beset the Soviet leadership after Leonid Brezhnev’s death in 1982.

Meanwhile, in the Soviet Bloc itself, unrest flared up after a quiet decade following the Polish and Hungarian episodes of 1956. The Romanian leaders Gheorghe Gheor-ghiu-Dej (1901–1965) and Nicolae Ceausescu (1918–1989) began to follow a more independent line in foreign policy, while imposing severe economic hardships on their own people in an attempt to have their country become economically self-sufficient. In Poland, strikes broke out in Gdansk in 1970 against price increases. But at first the strongest anti-Communist and anti-Soviet movement emerged in Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1968. In this Prague Spring, students and intellectuals ever more boldly questioned the one-party dictatorship in their country, after censorship had been relaxed by the Communist leader Alexander Dubcek. Especially harsh criticism was leveled at Dubcek’s Stalinist predecessors and their kowtowing to the Soviet leadership. In August 1968, tanks from the Warsaw Pact states (Romania excepted) moved into Czechoslovakia. Party leader Dubcek was called before the Soviet leaders to explain his liberal policies (he himself had called it “socialism with a human face”) and to be told to whittle them down. The Czechs and Slovaks desisted from resisting violently. Dubcek was stripped from his positions in 1969, while many of the intellectual leaders of the Prague Spring either fled abroad or spent years in jail for alleged subversion.

But the greatest challenge to Soviet supremacy in East-Central Europe was issued by the Poles in 1980 and 1981. In 1980, food shortages in shops led to another round of strikes on the Gdansk shipyards. On this occasion, however, the strikers found support across the country and organized an independent trade union, called Solidarity (Solidarnosc). For more than a year, the Polish Communist Party’s monopoly on power was challenged by Solidarity. Poland witnessed a degree of open public discussion of the country’s social, economic, and political ills unprecedented in Communist states. The Soviet leadership was utterly reluctant to adhere to the principles of the protection of “socialism” in allied countries by way of an armed intervention, as had ended the Prague Spring in 1968. Not only was Poland a larger country than Czechoslovakia, but the Soviet armed forces had their hands full in propping up the “socialist allies” in Afghanistan. Instead, the Soviets encouraged the senior army commander Wojciech Jaruzelski (b. 1923) to execute an armed coup and declare martial law, ostensibly to preempt a Soviet military intervention. Jaruzelski jailed thousands of trade union activists and managed to restore order. But Poland’s adherence to Communism seemed utterly wobbly.

And foreign protest to Soviet domination was echoed by opposition at home, even if perhaps only a few hundred people between 1964 and 1985 were bold enough to raise their voices in opposition, for which most suffered heavy retribution. It is actually a mistake to suggest that the suppression of the dissident movement started after the fall of Khrushchev, for the young poet Iosif Brodskii (Joseph Brodsky; 1940–1996) had already been sentenced in 1964 to hard labor for his alleged parasitic life. Although living as a full-time writer, the future Nobel Prize laureate Brodskii had refused to join the Soviet Writers’ Union and had preferred to draw his own plan without its patronizing and censorious tutelage. Such artistic freedom was not permitted in the Soviet Union. When Khrushchev’s successors tightened censorship rules, more people fell victim to accusations of anti-Soviet activities. Thus, Andrei Siniavskii (1925–1997) and Yuli Daniel (1925–1988) were tried in 1966 for publishing their works abroad without permission from the Soviet authorities. They had already incurred the wrath of the KGB when they had been the pallbearers for Boris Pasternak’s coffin. Pasternak had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958 for his novel Doctor Zhivago, which had been published abroad without permission from the regime. Pasternak had been denounced in a noisy press campaign but had not been jailed, perhaps an indication that Khrushchev’s bark was louder than his bite.

In protest to Daniel and Siniavskii’s sentence, demonstrations (by only a few individuals) were organized, leading to further arrests and sentencing. An underground system gained force by distributing subversive literature and information about human rights abuses perpetrated by the regime. Books and pamphlets were copied by way of retyping them and using carbon copy to make two copies of each original (this so-called self-publishing was called samizdat). Forbidden literature was smuggled in from abroad, as were vinyl phonograph records and eventually tape recordings with Western pop music. Powerful broadcasting stations in the West beamed Russian-language radio programs across Soviet territory, where they were often jammed by load noises but occasionally received. This further fueled an atmosphere in which a slowly increasing number of people began to question the regime’s legitimacy.

Apart from the spread of literature that defied the aesthetics of socialist realism and the return of non-Communist political opposition for the first time since the 1920s, the 1960s and 1970s witnessed as well the rise of religious and nationalist protest against Moscow’s Communist dictatorship. Whereas open defiance was practiced by only a very small number of individuals, it is evident that across the Soviet Union the protesters often had sympathizers who preferred to remain silent until the opportunity to voice disagreement offered itself in earnest.


1. Russians formed slightly over half the population according to the 1959 census, Ukrainians one-fifth. Eastern Slavs always formed at least 80 percent of the Soviet population, and more than two-thirds of them were Russian. The Azeri and Central Asian populations in particular grew rapidly during the second half of the twentieth century, with their populations doubling from the 1959 to the 1989 census. The number of Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusyns grew only by approximately 20 percent over the same period.

2. The Nineteenth Party Congress of October 1952 renamed the Politburo the Presidium, but it reverted to Politburo at the Twenty-Third Party Congress in 1966.

3. In the United States, the terms “socialism” and “communism” were (and often are) conflated, ignoring the clear distinction between social democracy as represented by the British Labour Party, the SPD in Germany, or indeed the Mensheviks (all believing in democratic government and personal liberty) and the Bolshevik Soviet type of Communist rule.

4. Khrushchev had abolished several ministries and delegated decision-making power over industry to regional party organizations and soviets.

5. “General secretary” was a title restored to that of the Politburo at the Twenty-Third Party Congress of 1966.


Translated Primary Sources

Abramov, Fyodor. The New Life: A Day on a Collective Farm. Translated by George Reavy. New York: Grove Press, 1963.

Amalrik, Andrei. Will the Soviet Union Survive until 1984? Edited by Hilary Sternberg. New York: Harper, 1981.

Baranskaia, Natalia. A Week Like Any Other. Translated by Pieta Monks. Emeryville, CA: Seal Press, 1990.

Brodsky, Joseph. Less Than One. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1987.

Chuev, Feliks. Molotov Remembers: Inside Kremlin Politics. Edited by Albert Resis. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2007.

Grigorenko, Petro G. Memoirs. Translated by Thomas P. Whitney. New York: Norton, 1980.

Khrushchev, Nikita. Memoirs of Nikita Khrushchev. Edited by Sergei Khrushchev. Translated by George Shriver and Stephen Shenfield. 3 vols. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005–2007.

Kozlov, Vladimir A., et al. Sedition: Everyday Resistance in the Soviet Union under Khrushchev and Brezhnev. Translated by Olga Livshin. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011.

Maximov, Vladimir. The Seven Days of Creation. Translation of Sem' dnei tvoreniia. New York: Knopf, 1975.

Reddaway, Peter, ed. and trans. Uncensored Russia: Protest and Dissent in the Soviet Union. New York: American Heritage Press, 1972.

Rubinstein, Joshua, and Alexander Gribanov, eds. The KGB File of Andrei Sakharov. Translated by Ella Shmulevich, Efrem Yankelevich, and Alla Zeide. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005.

Sakharov, Andrei. Memoirs. Translated by Richard Lourie. New York: Random House, 1995.

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr. The Oak and the Calf: A Memoir. Translated by Harry Willetts. New York: HarperCollins, 1987.

———. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Translated by Max Hayward and Ronald Hingley. New York: Bantam, 1984.

Voinovich, Vladimir. The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin. Translated by Richard Lourie. Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1995.

Zinoviev, Aleksandr. The Yawning Heights. Translated by Gordon Clough. London: Bodley Head, 1979.

Scholarly Literature

Andrews, James T., and Asif A. Siddiqi, eds. Into the Cosmos: Space Exploration and Soviet Culture. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011.

Bacon, Edwin, and M. A. Sandle, eds. Brezhnev Reconsidered. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2002.

Baron, Samuel. Bloody Saturday in the Soviet Union: Novocherkassk, 1962. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002.

Denisova, Liubov. Rural Women in the Soviet Union and Post-Soviet Russia. New York: Routledge, 2010.

Fursenko, Aleksandr, and Timothy Naftali. One Hell of a Gamble: Khrushchev, Kennedy and Castro, 1958–1964. New York: Norton, 1998.

Gorbachev, Mikhail Sergeevich. Memoirs. New York: Doubleday, 1996.

Heller, Mikhail, and Aleksandr Nekrich. Utopia in Power: A History of the USSR from 1917 to the Present. New York: Summit Books, 1988.

Igmen, Ali. Speaking Soviet with an Accent: Culture and Power in Kyrgyzstan. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012.

Jenks, Andrew. The Cosmonaut Who Couldn’t Stop Smiling: The Life and Legend of Yuri Gagarin. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2012.

Knight, Amy. Beria: Stalin’s First Lieutenant. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995.

Medvedev, Roy. Let History Judge: The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism. 2nd ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.

Medvedev, Zhores. Andropov. New York: Penguin, 1984.

Reddaway, Peter, and Sidney Bloch. Russia’s Political Hospitals: The Abuse of Psychiatry in the Soviet Union. London: Victor Gollancz, 1977.

Siegelbaum, Lewis. Borders of Socialism: Private Spheres of Soviet Russia. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

Suny, Ronald Grigor. The Structure of Soviet History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Taubman, William. Khrushchev: The Man and His Era. New York: Norton, 2004.

Weiner, Douglas R. A Little Corner of Freedom: Russian Nature Protection from Stalin to Gorbachev. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.


Cold War, maps, communism, and its legacy today: http://www.globalsecurity.org/

Cold War: http://www.wilsoncenter.org/program/cold-war-international-history-project


Moscow Does Not Believe In Tears. DVD. Directed by Vladimir Menshov. New York: Kino Video, 2004.

Not by Bread Alone. DVD. Directed by Stanislav Govorukhin. Washington, DC: Vox Video, 2006.

Siberiade. DVD. Directed by Andrei Konchalovskii. New York: Kino Video, 2007.

Solaris. DVD. Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. New York: Criterion, 2002.

Stalker. DVD. Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. New York: Kino Video, 2006.

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