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

12 replies on “A New Leader: The Death of Stalin”

Isaiah, I did watch the movie “The Death of Stalin”, actually twice. It was a ‘black humor film’ but did portray the events fairly accurately. The one major flaw was the trial and death of Beria actually occurred 6 months after the funeral, not immediately. The film also portrayed the utter chaos after Stalin’s death due to his absolute control. The guards wouldn’t even check on Stalin after his stroke due to the fear he forced on everybody.

Thanks for the comment Tom! Yeah after watching the movie and seeing how accurate it was it made me appreciate it more and really enjoyed it. I totally agree with your point about Beria’s trial in that in the movie it was very rushed and not immediate, but I do think that it fits nicely in the context of the film.

You cover a lot in this post and are using the Freeze text to good advantage. Thank you! I’m especially interested in your point about Khrushchev’s complicity with the aspects of Stalinism he would soon be criticizing. How did this dynamic play out during his tenure as leader?
Also, check out the Current Digest (linked in the prompt) — there are some fabulous articles on this topic there.

Yes I was very interested in how Khrushchev pivoted to change almost all of Stalin’s policies very quickly after his death, when he had voiced nothing but support for Stalin when he was alive. During Khrushchev’s leadership he tried to push more reforms, however, other party leaders began to see his actions as increasingly erratic so he was then replaced by 1964.

Hi Isaiah, I really liked your post! I think Khrushchev is such a fascinating figure in Soviet history given his role as Stalin’s successor and the tension with the US that was present during his reign.

Thanks Michael! I agree with you that Khrushchev is an incredibly interesting figure in Soviet history. A lot of his policies, while not always successful, did try to change the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death.

My question is did Khrushchev go along with Stalin’s purges out of fear or because he agreed with Stalin. You mentioned that Stalin purged people that Khrushchev was personally close to. Khrushchev supported Stalin’s policies and purges and he may have done it out of fear for his own life, but that is not a good excuse. Even though he would have been killed for speaking out against Stalin, he should have done something if he did oppose Stalin’s actions. This would make his De-Stalinization process seem hypocritical if people learned that he supported Stalin’s policies.

Thanks Matt, I really appreciate your comment! Yeah I also thought it was very interesting that Khrushchev did nothing while Stalin was alive and afterwards tried to change policies of the Soviet Union. I think that it all speaks to the power that Stalin held, not only over his own people, but also over his fellow communist leaders.

Isaiah, good post. I think it’s very interesting how right after Stalin’s death the party began to criticize him. It makes me wonder why the party did not forcibly remove him after the war.

Hey Chris, thanks for your comment! I think it all stems from the fact that Stalin had total control over the Soviet Union and the fear he inspired really forced his ministers to just overlook all of Stalin’s crimes until his death.

It is very interesting how prior to Stalin’s death there was no clear plan for a successor. It is almost like Stalin never expected to die. Great post!

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