A New Leader: The Death of Stalin

Nikita Khrushchev, who took over leadership of the Soviet Union two years after Stalin’s death, was considered a reformer and a beacon of change.

For almost thirty years, the Soviet Union had known only one leader, the seemingly all-knowing and all-powerful Joseph Stalin. Stalin had consolidated his power firmly in the late 1920s and from then on ruled all of the Soviet Union, using purges and the secret police, the NKVD, to keep the Soviet people in line. However, as Freeze puts it, “Stalin himself had so personalized power, leaving the lines of institutional authority so amorphous and confused, that many key organs had atrophied and virtually disappeared”(Freeze 407). It was apparent that after Stalin’s death, the next leader of the Soviet Union would need to be almost entirely different from Stalin in order to succeed.

Stalin’s death took place on March 5, 1953 and the movement at which the Central Committee moved to find a successor was almost immediate. Georgy Malenkov, who had been the Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers and Stalin’s potential heir, quickly promoted himself to Chairman and took control of the state apparatus(Freeze 409). Khrushchev, it seemed, was the one person in the Central Committee that looked the least likely to succeed Joseph Stalin, as he lacked the power and presence of other leading Soviet officials such as Malenkov, Lavrenty Beria, and Vyacheslav Molotov. However, Khrushchev would use his position as First Secretary to gain power within the party, very similar to how Stalin used his position as General Secretary to do the same. Beria would become an obstacle in Khrushchev’s quest for power as Beria controlled the NKVD and was pushing for some major reforms, such as the release of almost all the political prisoners that Stalin had put into the Gulag system(Seventeen Moments). This posed a major problem for Khrushchev as he was the one who saw himself as the reformer in the party and Beria was the figure who helped to purge many people in the name of Stalin. On June 26, 1953, at a meeting of the Central Committee, Beria was unanimously removed from power and arrested for criminal anti-party and anti-state activities, effectively removing all of Beria’s influence in one move(Freeze 410). With the removal of Beria, Khrushchev now had only one major opponent for leadership of the Soviet Union in Malenkov, however, by 1954 Malenkov had effectively been sidelined and Khrushchev was in control.

With himself now in control of the country, Khrushchev now began the process of De-Stalinization, seeking to reform of dismantle almost all of Stalin’s policies. It was a slow and gradual process to remove the cult of personality that had been pervasive throughout the rule of Stalin and was spearheaded by Khrushchev. As noted by Freeze, “Zealous ‘de-Stalinzers’ (including Khrushchev) were zealous communists: they denounced the cult for its voluntarism and for crediting Stalin, not the party or people, for the great achievements of industrialization and victory over fascism(Freeze 414). Khrushchev’s major reforms also included building up the agricultural sector of the Soviet Union as it had been fairly neglected during Stalin’s reign, however, this was opposed by Lazar Kaganovich, who had always been a die hard supporter of Stalin and his policies(Freeze 410). What is very interesting to note out of all this is that Khrushchev had, during Stalin’s rule, supported all of his policies and purges of people, including people he was personally close. Stalin targeted close family members of party leaders and the party leaders themselves felt incredibly vulnerable during the final years of Stalin’s rule. Khrushchev’s now famous Secret Speech at the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956, was momentous for the history of the Soviet Union. Officially called “On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences”, the speech delved into the rule of Stalin, where Khrushchev was very critical of Stalin’s rule in regard to the purges and the the cult of personality that Stalin had created for himself(Freeze 417). After all of this, Khrushchev had finally asserted himself as the true leader of the Soviet Union, a position he would only hold until 1964 when he was pushed out by one Leonid Brezhnev. As a side note, I think a really cool and informative movie to check out if anyone’s interested is The Death of Stalin, which I think is actually pretty funny and fits the class kinda well.

Sources Used:

Russia A History: Gregory L. Freeze

Seventeen Moments of Soviet History


The Cult of Personality: Stalin Edition

Joseph Stalin, pictured above, was leader of the Soviet Union from the mid 1920s until his death in 1953.

Joseph Stalin, born in modern day Georgia, was and still is one of the most influential people of the entire 20th century for his role as leader of the Soviet Union. Stalin is also seen as the embodiment of a totalitarian dictator, whose iron fist crushed any dissent in the country and kept a very watchful eye on his citizens. However, none of this would be possible if Stalin had not made himself this revered figure nor could he have ruled as long as he did without it. In this post, I will be looking at how Stalin, a man whose actions in his rule are very questionable at best, cultivated a cult of personality in the Soviet Union that people in Russia even today revere.

Stalin’s official position was called General Secretary of the Soviet Union and he was able to use this position within the government to be able to consolidate his power after Lenin’s death. His main rival for leadership of the Soviet Union was Leon Trotsky, who was the founder and commander of the Red Army, and Stalin would seek to discredit him and his beliefs in a book known as the “Short Course.” ” Instances of Trotsky’s “practices” were cited at the congress. For example, he had attempted to shoot a number of prominent army Communists serving at the front, just because they had incurred his displeasure”(Stalin Short Course). In this book, Stalin also states that, “Either we create a real worker and peasant-primarily a peasant- army, strictly disciplined army, and defend the Republic, or we perish”(Stalin Short Course). All of this serves to prop up Stalin as a hero of the early Soviet Union and to show that Trotsky, was a cruel and vain villain who did not care much about the Revolution.

The reality of it all was that Stalin needed a cult of personality because of the policies of collectivization in the early 1930s. “The industrialization drive itself was suffused with military metaphors, but collectivization was the real thing, a genuine war against the peasants”(Freeze 347). These policies would make Stalin generally unpopular with the peasants as they were losing all of their land and possessions, with some even losing more. “But collectivization and the resistance it provoked among the peasants cost vastly more in lives than the October Revolution or even the ensuing civil war”(Freeze 348).

In closing, Joseph Stalin, while never in real danger of being overthrown, wanted to be able to wield absolute power in the Soviet Union and was prepared to use all available resources in order to make that a reality. The men around him also helped in creating the cult, with Robert Tucker noting, “The one indispensable quality shared by all of the glorifiers, high and low, was pliability. In very many ways the aggrandizement of Stalin required the twisting of truth and the falsification of historical fact”(Tucker 363). Stalin’s use of mass media and propaganda was so pervasive that after he died, his successor Nikita Khrushchev would begin a process known as De-Stalinization in order to bring a sense of normalcy back to the Soviet Union.

Sources Used:

Russia A History by Gregory L. Freeze

History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union(Bolsheviks), Short Course by the Central Committee; edited by Joseph Stalin

The Rise of Stalin’s Personality Cult by Robert C. Tucker