History of the Soviet Union (1953-1985)

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This period in Soviet history was inaugurated by the death of Joseph Stalin and the so-called "Secret Speech" by Nikita Khrushchev to the Twentieth Party Congress of the Soviet Communist Party. Under Khrushchev's leadership, the Soviet Union ended the widespread use of terror, although the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (KGB), or “Committee for State Security,” continued to suppress dissidents. The 1970s were characterized by the arms race and the rise and fall of detente. By the early 1980s the Soviet Union had slid into a period of economic and political stagnation.


De-Stalinization and the Khrushchev era

After Stalin died in March 1953, he was succeeded by Nikita Khrushchev as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and Georgi Malenkov as Premier of the Soviet Union. 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 consolidated power. In his famous speech On the Personality Cult and its Consequences to the closed session of the Twentieth Party Congress of the CPSU on 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.

On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. Here, a crowd in Red Square listens to him speak.

The impact on Soviet politics was immense. The speech stripped the legitimacy of his remaining Stalinist rivals, dramatically boosting his power domestically. Afterward, Khrushchev eased restrictions, freeing millions of political prisoners (the Gulag population declined from 13 million in 1953 to 5 million in 1956–1957) and initiating economic policies that emphasized commercial goods rather than coal and steel production, allowing living standards to rise dramatically while maintaining high levels of economic growth.

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 local forces. A political convulsion soon followed, leading to the rise of Władysław Gomułka to power in October 1956. 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 intervened less frequently in its neighbor’s domestic and external affairs.

In the same year, the 1956 Hungarian Revolution was brutally suppressed by Soviet troops. About 25,000 to 50,000 Hungarian insurgents and seven thousand Soviet troops were killed, thousands more were wounded, and nearly a quarter million left the country as refugees. The revolution was a blow to communists in Western countries; many western communists who had formerly supported the Soviet Union began to criticize it in the wake of the Soviet suppresion of the Hungarian Revolution.

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 was killed; one was posted to manage a power station in the Caucasus, and another, Vyacheslav Molotov, became ambassador to Mongolia.

Khrushchev became Premier on March 27, 1958, seizing absolute power in the country—the tradition begun by his successors and followed by his predecessors. The 10 year period that followed Stalin's death also witnessed the reassertion of political power over the means of coercion. The party became the dominant institution over the secret police as well as the army.

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.

Reforms and Khrushchev's fall

Nikita Khrushchev in 1962

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.

In his Virgin Lands Campaign in the mid-1950s, Khrushchev 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.

Khrushchev's attempts at reform in industry and administrative organization created even greater problems. In a politically motivated move to weaken the central state bureaucracy, in 1957 Khrushchev did away with the industrial ministries in Moscow, replacing them with sovnarkhoz, or regional economic councils.

The Khrushchev era saw increased construction of rapidly built, prefabricated apartment complexes. (photo circa 1950s)

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, or province, level and below contributed to the disarray, alienating 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 (1959–1965) two years short of its completion.

By 1964 Khrushchev's prestige had been damaged in a number of areas. Industrial growth had slowed while agriculture showed no new progress. Abroad, the Sino-Soviet Split, the construction of the Berlin Wall, and the Cuban Missile Crisis hurt the Soviet Union's international stature, and Khrushchev's 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.

In military policy Khrushchev relentlessly pursued a plan to develop the Soviet Union's missile forces with a view to reduce the size of the armed forces, thus freeing more young men for productive labor and releasing resources to develop the economy, especially consumer goods. This policy, too, proved personally disastrous, alienating key figures in the Soviet military establishment, culminating in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Despite large reductions in Soviet military forces, there was only a slight thawing in relations with the West as Europe's “iron curtain” remained fortified.

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 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.

In October 1964 while Khrushchev was vacationing in the Crimea, the Presidium voted him out of office and refused to permit him to take his case to the Central Committee. Khrushchev retired as a private citizen after his successors denounced him for his "hare-brained schemes, half-baked conclusions, and hasty decisions." Still, whatever his real deficiencies as a leader, Khrushchev will always be remembered for his public disavowal of Stalinism, significant liberalization in the country, and the greater flexibility he brought to Soviet leadership.

Stagnation and the Brezhnev era

Leonid Brezhnev

After 1964 CPSU First Secretary Leonid Brezhnev and Premier Aleksei Kosygin emerged as the most influential candidates in the new collective leadership. Eager to avoid Khrushchev's failures, Brezhnev and Kosygin, who represented a new generation of post-revolutionary professional technocrats, conducted state and party affairs in a discreet, cautious manner.

By the mid-1960s the Soviet Union was a complex industrialized society with an intricate division of labor and a complex interconnection of industries over a huge geographical expanse that had reached rough military parity with the Western powers. Social and political reforms were, however, largely stopped, which led to the emergence of the term zastoy (lang-ru|застой), or "stagnation," generally referred to as the "Brezhnev stagnation" in reference to this period of Soviet history.

Concerning the economy, when the first Five-Year Plan drafted by the Gosudarstvennyi Planovyi Komitet, aka Gosplan, established centralized planning as the basis of economic decision making, the Soviet Union was still largely an agrarian nation lacking the complexities of a highly industrialized one. Thus, its goals, namely augmenting the country's industrial base, were those of extensive growth or the mobilization of resources. At a high human cost, due in large part to prison labor, and the effective militarization of factories, the Soviet Union forged a modern, highly industrialized economy more rapidly than any other nation beforehand.

Under Brezhnev's tutelage, the Soviet economy still had not yet exhausted its capacity for growth. The Soviet Union improved living standards by doubling urban wages and raising rural wages by around 75 percent, building millions of one-family apartments, and manufacturing large quantities of consumer goods and home appliances.

Industrial output also increased by 75 percent and the Soviet Union became the world's largest producer of oil and steel. The 20 years following Stalin's death in 1953 were the most successful years for ordinary citizen in the history of Russia, as the country saw rising living standards, stability, and peace.

Terror, famines, and world war were largely horrific memories while the tide of history appeared to be turning in favor of the Soviet Union. The United States was bogged down with an economic recession resulting from the OPEC oil embargo, inflation caused by excessive government expenditures for the Vietnam War, and the general malaise caused by the wartime failures. Meanwhile, Moscow was able to advance state interests by gaining strategic footholds abroad as pro-Soviet regimes were making great strides, especially in the Third World. North Vietnam had successfully thwarted the United States, becoming a united Communist State while other Marxist insurgencies were spreading rapidly across Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America.

Problems of economic planning

During the later years of the Brezhnev era, however, the Soviet economy began to stagnate and the population increasingly began demanding greater quantities of consumer goods.

In the postwar years, the Soviet economy had entered a period of intensive growth based on productivity improvements. With this growth came a new set of challenges, different from those of the extensive growth due to mobilization of capital and labor experienced in the Stalinist era.

As the Soviet economy grew more complex, it required more and more complex disaggregating of control figures, or plan targets, and factory inputs. As it required more communication between the enterprises and the planning ministries, and as the number of enterprises, trusts, and ministries multiplied, the Soviet economy, lacking market incentives and mechanisms, started stagnating. The Soviet economy was increasingly sluggish when it came to responding to change, adapting cost-saving technologies, and providing incentives at all levels to improve growth, productivity, and efficiency.

At the enterprise level, managers were often more preoccupied with institutional careerism than with improving productivity. They received fixed wages and only received incentives for plan fulfillment on the basis of job security, bonuses, and benefits like special clinics and private dachas. Managers received such benefits when targets were surpassed, but when, for instance, they were “greatly” surpassed, the managers only saw their control figures increased.

Hence, there was an incentive to exceed targets, but not by much. Enterprises often understated capacity in order to bargain for more advantageous plan targets or control figures with the ministries (targets that, of course, would be easier to implement).

Another problem was that production quotas usually stipulated the quantity of goods to be produced by a given factory but not the quality. Therefore managers were often tempted to meet their production quotas by sacrificing the quality of the goods they produced. Thus, much of the output of the Soviet economy was of very low quality by international standards. This led to the frequent problems of badly made machinery breaking down, and disrupting the rest of the economy.

Planning was also very rigid; plant managers were not able to deviate from the plan and were allocated certain funds for certain capital and labor inputs. As a result, plant managers could not lay off unnecessary workers in an attempt to improve productivity due to such labor controls. There was substantial underemployment due to controls in plans drafted during collective bargaining between enterprises and ministries.

At the enterprise level, incentives were lacking for the application of price-saving technology. Planners would often reward consumers with lower prices, rather than rewarding the enterprise for its productivity gains. In other words, technological innovation would often fail to make the industry more profitable for those who had a stake in it.

The Khrushchev and Brezhnev years saw concessions to consumers: wages for workers were relatively high, while prices were kept down at artificially-low, administratively-set levels. Yet income levels rose far more rapidly than price levels, despite slow productivity gains. As a result, supply shortages were increasingly common.

The arms race was another drain on the consumer economy. With a gross domestic product (GDP) that rarely exceeded 70 percent of that of the U.S., the Soviets faced an uneven burden in the arms race, forcing the country to devote a far higher share of their resources to the defense sector.

Calls for reform

As the political atmosphere gradually became more relaxed after de-Stalinization, a reform movement high up in party ranks was able to survive the expulsion of Khrushchev in 1964.

Most remarkably, the market-oriented reforms of 1965, based on the ideas of Soviet economist Evsei Liberman and backed by Soviet Premier Aleksei Kosygin, were an attempt to revamp the economic system and cope with problems increasingly evident at the enterprise level. The Kosygin reforms called for giving industrial enterprises more control over their own production mix and some flexibility in wages. Moreover, they sought to turn enterprises' economic objectives toward making a profit, allowing them to put a proportion of profit into their own funds.

However, the style of the new leadership posed some problems for its own reform policies. The collective leadership sought to reconcile the interests of many different sectors of the state, party, and economic bureaucracy. As a result, the planning ministries and the military—the sectors most threatened by Kosygin's reforms—were able to obstruct considerably the reform efforts.

Fearing a move away from detailed central planning and control from above, the planning ministries—whose numbers were proliferating rapidly—fought back and protected their old powers. The ministries controlled supplies and rewarded performance, and were thus a formidable element of Soviet society. To maintain their grip over industry, planners started issuing more detailed instructions that slowed the reforms, impeding the freedom of action of the enterprises.

Kosygin, meanwhile, lacked the strength and the support to counteract their influence. Since these reforms were aimed at increasing productivity by pushing aside surplus labor, support from workers was minimal. Although enterprise management stood to gain the most from the reforms, their support was lukewarm, given their fears that the reforms would eventually falter.

Finally, pressure from without, in the form of the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia in 1968, signaled an end to the period of political liberalization. It came to an end later that summer, on August 20, when two hundred thousand Warsaw Pact troops and five thousand tanks invaded the country, following the Brezhnev Doctrine.

By the early 1970s the party's power vis-à-vis the economic bureaucracy and the military was weakening considerably. Momentum for economic and political reform stalled until the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev in the mid-1980s.

In 1980 a reformist movement in Poland, called Solidarity, was suppressed when the communist government leader, Wojciech Jaruzelski, declared martial law, fearing that the continued Solidarity-led protest could trigger a similar Soviet intervention as Czechoslovakia experienced during the Prague Spring. However, Solidarity survived the year of martial law and would continue to undermine Soviet Union influence and remain in control of Poland.

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 not yet ready for drastic change. 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

Two days passed between Brezhnev's 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. Brezhnev had needed 13 years to acquire this post. During his short rule, Andropov 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 avoided 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 anticorruption drive that reached high into the government and party ranks. Andropov also tried to boost labor discipline and initiate an anti-alcoholism campaign.

In foreign affairs, Andropov continued Brezhnev's policies. U.S.-Soviet relations began deteriorating more rapidly in March 1983, when U.S. President Ronald Reagan dubbed the Soviet Union an "evil empire." Soviet spokesmen criticized Reagan's "bellicose, lunatic" anti-communism statement.

Andropov's health declined rapidly during the tense summer and fall of 1983, and he died in February 1984 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 favors 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 power base was not yet sufficient to acquire the top spot when his patron died early in 1984.

The Chernenko interregnum

At 72, Konstantin Chernenko was in poor health 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 in retaliation for the United States boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow four years earlier. 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 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 was well positioned to assume power.


  • 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. ISBN 0394-70745-1
  • Schapiro, Leonard. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Vintage Books, New York. 1971.


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