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Soviet Union Leadership After Stalin

By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

Soviet Leadership After Stalin

The major turning point in the rise and fall of the Soviet Union took place in 1953, with the death of seventy-four-year-old Joseph Stalin. His successors would never impress their personalities on the nation as he had done. They lacked both his personal brutality and his insistence on personal control over every aspect of Soviet life as well as Soviet government.

In terms of the rivalry with the United States, Stalin had followed a policy of bluffing. He deceived the United States and the world into believing the USSR was much stronger militarily than was in fact the case. In truth, so many mil- lions of Soviets had been killed during the wars, and the western region of the country had been so badly damaged by the German invasions, that the USSR would take a long time to recover. Stalin created an atmosphere of secrecy and mystery that was highly successful in maintaining the illusion of the Soviet state as a mighty superpower. The purpose of his bluff was mainly defensive; he wanted at all costs to prevent any American attack on the USSR. In fact, there was never any real danger of such an attack. The United States had no desire to engage in all-out war with the Soviet Union unless such a situation absolutely could not be avoided. Stalin, however, always believed that capitalist nations were his natural enemies and that they would crush the Soviet Union if they could.

A gradual thaw in Soviet foreign and domestic policy followed Stalin’s death. Nikita Khrushchev, his successor, clearly showed the course of the future when he gave a 1956 speech denouncing Stalin’s crimes against humanity. From this time on, the cult of personality that Stalin had cultivated began to fade; he was no longer officially venerated in the USSR. This “de-Stalinization” process helped lead to the Hungarian revolution of 1956.

Khrushchev also oversaw substantial domestic reforms. Although he could not have predicted the breakup of the Soviet Union that would come later, he helped lay the groundwork for it by decentralizing the bureaucracy of the state, shifting authority from Moscow to the fifteen individual republics. He also relaxed censorship in the arts, although he did not by any means eliminate it. New agricultural policies led to a short-term economic surge. In addition, Khrushchev presided over the space race, in which Soviet astronaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person to orbit the Earth.

In 1964, Party leaders forced Khrushchev to resign from his post. A down- turn in the economy, plus long-standing discontent with some of his policies, had made him unpopular among the leadership. His successor, Leonid Brezhnev, is most notable for signing the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) Treaty with U.S. President Richard Nixon. This treaty limited the number of intercontinental nuclear missiles for both nations. In addition, the two leaders discussed relaxing trade restrictions between their countries.

The milder political climate under Stalin’s successors gave rise to some degree of political protest within the Soviet Union. Soviet workers were well aware that while they were badly housed, poorly paid, and had little access to consumer goods or even much choice in basic items like groceries, the Party elite lived in comparative luxury. Since everyone in a Communist state is sup- posed to be treated equally, this had long caused resentment. That resentment began to find public expression under Khrushchev and those who succeeded him. Soviets were no longer content to accept the high degree of inequality, nor the censorship that was an international embarrassment to a nation that had always prided itself on its great artists. For example, Boris Pasternak, an acclaimed poet and the author of the novel Dr. Zhivago, was ordered to refuse the 1958 Nobel Prize for literature, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn was deprived of his Soviet citizenship because he wrote honestly about the gulags (the notorious Soviet prison camps).

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

Fall of Communism Practice Test

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