The end of the Stalin era brought immediate liberalization in several aspects of Soviet life. Party leader Nikita S. Khrushchev is best known for his denouncement of Stalin's tyrannical reign and attempts at cooperation with non-Communist nations. Khrushchev's tenure was marked with continual maneuvering against his political enemies. His critics condemned his plans of increased agricultural output, raising the standard of living and reorganization of the party as hairbrained schemes. Khrushchev served as first secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) from 1953 to 1964, and Soviet prime minister from 1958 to 1964.
Party control of cultural activity became much less restrictive with the onset of the first "thaw" in the mid-1950s. Khrushchev attempted reforms in both domestic and foreign policy, with mixed results. During his term, world politics became much more complex as the insecurities of the Cold War persisted; Khrushchev ultimately was undone by a combination of failed policy innovations in agriculture, party politics, and industry.
Khrushchev was born into a peasant family near the village of Kursk in 1894. His grandfather had been a farm laborer and his father a peasant. Nikita did not have a formal education and left school at an early age to work in the fields and later as a pipe fitter in the coalmines of Donets Basin (modern Ukraine). Khrushchev joined the Bolsheviks in 1918 and was a junior Red Army political officer during the Civil Wary (1918 - 1921). After the Civil War, he returned to Ukraine and served in the Donets coal mine as an assistant manager.
Khrushchev moved to Moscow in 1929 and attended the Stalin Industrial Academy. He began working as the secretary of Communist Party groups in Moscow in 1931. Khrushchev caught the eye of Lazar Kaganovich, first secretary of the Moscow City Party Committee, who oversaw his early career. In 1938, Nikita became to first secretary for the party in Ukraine and a member of the Politburo in 1939. From this time till the end of WWII, Khrushchev served as a commissar overseeing the activities of army officers. He obtained the rank of lieutenant general.
Initially, Khrushchev was a strong supporter of Joseph Stalin and was appointed secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in 1949. Stalin died in March 1953 and Khrushchev became the party leader. He inherited a shambles as the party had been seriously damaged by Stalin's constant purges of the upper leadership.
When Stalin died, leaving no heir, several party leaders held more authority than Khrushchev. At first Stalin's colleagues tried to rule jointly, with Malenkov holding the top position of prime minister. The first challenge to this arrangement occurred in 1953, when the powerful Beria plotted a coup. However, Beria, who had made many enemies during his bloody term as security chief, was arrested and executed by order of the Presidium. His death reduced the power of the KGB, although the party's control over state security ended only with the demise of the Soviet Union itself.
Malenkov and his officers attempted to address the wide sweeping problems within the Soviet Union by implementing a new policy called the New Course. The goal was to increase the standard of living for Soviet citizens, increase the output of agriculture and industry and reduce the quotas placed upon workers on collective farms.
After Beria's execution, Khrushchev became Malenkov's primary contender for control of the party. The Presidium elected Khrushchev to the position of first secretary. This was the same position that Stalin held but the title of general secretary had been dropped after his death in September 1953. Malenkov and Khrushchev locked horns over their difference in national priorities. Malenkov was intent on increasing production of consumer goods while Khrushchev was equally committed to the development of heavy industry. As it happened, light industry and agriculture did not do well and Malenkov resigned as prime minister in February 1955. This event made Khrushchev the most powerful individual within the collective party leadership.
Khrushchev delivered his secret speech on February 24,1956, at the Twentieth Party Congress. He dramatically denounced Stalin's tactics as crimes, revealed that Stalin had arbitrarily liquidated thousands of party members and military leaders, thereby contributing to the initial Soviet defeats in World War II, and had established what Khrushchev characterized as a pernicious cult of personality. Khrushchev ended his rousing presentation with, Long live the victorious banner of our Party - Leninism!
Khrushchev's speech enabled him to distance himself from Stalin supporters, namely Molotov, Malenkov and Lazar Kaganovich. One of the most immediate results of Khrushchev's de-Stalinization speech and policy was the increased release of political prisoners. This program had begun shortly after Stalin's death in 1953.
Khrushchev intensified his campaign against Stalin at the Twenty-Second Party Congress in 1961, winning approval to remove Stalin's body from the Lenin Mausoleum, where it had originally been interred. De-Stalinization encouraged many in artistic and intellectual circles to speak out against the abuses of the former regime. Although Khrushchev's tolerance for critical creative works varied during his tenure, the new cultural period, known as the thaw, represented a clear break with the repression of the arts under Stalin.
Khrushchev's policies and de-Stalinization were popular but the leader was not without enemies. His critics in the Presidium, who did not appreciate Khrushchev's reversal of Soviet foreign policy with regards to Eastern Europe, voted to have him ousted in June 1957. Khrushchev countered this effort by demanding that the matter be taken before the Central Committee of the CPSU, where he enjoyed strong support. The Central Committee overturned the Presidium's decision and expelled Khrushchev's primary opponents (Malenkov, Molotov, and Kaganovich), who Khrushchev labeled the antiparty group. Further proving his distain for Stalinist tactics, Khrushchev did not have his enemies imprisoned. Instead, he gave them jobs in minor offices of the party.
Khrushchev became prime minister in March 1958. Despite his rank, Khrushchev never exercised the dictatorial authority of Stalin, nor did he ever completely control the party, even at the peak of his power. His attacks on members of the "antiparty group" at the Twenty-First Party Congress in 1959 and the Twenty-Second Party Congress in 1961 suggest that his opponents retained support within the party. His desire to undermine opposition and mollify critics explained the nature of many of his domestic reforms and the vacillations in his foreign policy toward the West.
After Stalin died, the collective leadership of the Soviet Union began changing its foreign policy towards the West. Malenkov broke the ice by speaking out against nuclear war. At first, Khrushchev stated that civilization would not be destroyed in a nuclear war, only the demon capitalism. This was, of course, a rather bizarre statement, one that Khrushchev later turned away from.
In 1955, Khrushchev recognized permanent neutrality for Austria. Later in 1955, Khrushchev promised President Dwight D. Eisenhower the Soviet's commitment to peaceful coexistence with capitalism. Regarding the developing nations, Khrushchev endeavored to gain the friendship of their national leaders, instead of following the established Soviet policy of shunning the governments while supporting local communist parties. Soviet influence over the international alignments of India and Egypt, as well as of other Third World countries, began in the middle of the 1950s. Cuba's entry into the socialist camp in 1961 was a coup for the Soviet Union.
With the good came the bad. The basic ideals of de-Stalinization were the end of official state terror against the population and the decreased role of the KGB. At the same time, Soviet control of the Communist Party remained intact. This led to riots in Poland, which brought about a change in their communist party leadership in 1956. A popular uprising against Soviet control then broke out in Hungary, where the local communist leaders, headed by Imre Nagy, called for a multiparty political system and withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact. The Soviet army crushed the revolt early in November 1956, causing numerous casualties. Although the Hungarian Revolution hurt Soviet standing in world opinion, it demonstrated that the Soviet Union would use force if necessary to maintain control over its satellite states in Eastern Europe.
Another fallout of Khrushchev's new policy of coexistence with the West was a schism in Sino-Russian relations. The Chinese Communist Party, under the dictate of Chairman Mao Zedong, considered Khrushchev's policies as a betrayal to Marxist - Lenin doctrine. China resented the weak support they received from Moscow regarding their disputes with Taiwan and India.
In 1960, China set forth its own nuclear arms program and declared that communism would defeat imperialism. Soon after, satellite nations took up sides. Albania and Romania sided with Beijing and other communist parties around the world proclaimed loyalty to Moscow or Beijing. The huge communist bloc had been shattered.
Soviet - U.S. relations had their ups and downs during the Khrushchev years. For his part, Khrushchev wanted peaceful coexistence with the West, not only to avoid nuclear war but also to permit the Soviet Union to develop its economy. This was demonstrated through Khrushchev's meetings with President Eisenhower in 1955 and John F. Kennedy in 1961. The Soviet leader's U.S. tour in 1959 proved to many his sincerity. In 1955 Khrushchev reopened diplomatic relations with Yugoslavia, whose leader Josip Broz Tito had broken with Stalin in 1948. Khrushchev became known for his unconventional behavior. One of his best-known antics was when, to emphasize a point, he removed his shoe and began banging it on a table during a United Nations meeting in 1960.
While Khrushchev was making overtures to the West, he needed to show that he was still a strong defender of socialism. In 1958, he challenged the status of Berlin; when the West would not yield to his demands that the western sectors be incorporated into East Germany. Khrushchev approved the erection of the Berlin Wall between the eastern and western sectors of the city in 1961. To maintain national prestige, Khrushchev canceled a summit meeting with Eisenhower in 1960 after Soviet air defense troops shot down a United States reconnaissance aircraft over Soviet territory. Cold War distrust and fear grew as the West felt threatened by Soviet advances in space and the widening gap that Soviet military build up created.
There is usually two sides to every coin. While the West was in fear of the Soviets, the USSR felt threatened by the rearming of West Germany by the U.S. The West's superior economic strength also threatened the Soviet Union. To offset the United States military advantage and thereby improve the Soviet negotiating position, Khrushchev in 1962 tried to install nuclear missiles in Cuba, but he agreed to withdraw them after Kennedy ordered a blockade around the island nation.
After coming close to war during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Soviet Union and the United States took steps to reduce the nuclear threat. In 1963 the two countries established a "hot line" between Washington and Moscow to provide instant communication that would reduce the likelihood of accidental nuclear war. The line was tested but never used. In the same year, the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which forbade nuclear weapons testing in the atmosphere.
Khrushchev attempted many sweeping and controversial reforms that deviated from the era of Stalin's terror and oppression. In the area of agriculture, Khrushchev attracted the attention of the collective leadership, which introduced important innovations in this area. Peasants were encouraged to grow more on their private plots, payments for crops grown on collective farms were increased and the state invested more heavily in agriculture in general.
In the mid-1950s, Khrushchev introduced his Virgin Lands project. It opened huge tracts of land for farming in the northern part of the Kazak Republic and neighboring areas in Russia. At first, these new farmlands suffered from droughts, but eventually provided outstanding harvests. Some of Khrushchev's other agricultural policies failed miserably. His plan to grow corn and increase meat and dairy output failed dramatically. The same was true of his effort to reorganize the collective farms into larger units. This accomplished nothing more than widespread confusion and disorganization.
Khrushchev's attempts at reform in industry and the decentralization of industrial control also failed. In 1957, he did away with the industrial ministries in Moscow and replaced them with regional economic councils. Khrushchev believed that these localized groups would be more attentive to local needs and, thus, production would increase along with conditions. Instead, this shift in control resulted in disruption of production and inefficiency.
In 1962, Khrushchev decided to further decentralize the nation by dividing it up along economic rather than administrative lines. The result was complete disarray and confusion among party leaders. The division of oblasts (provinces) into smaller industrial and agricultural sectors contributed to the country's growing economic hardships forcing Khrushchev to abandon his seven-year economic plan two years early in 1963.
As industry slowed to a grind and only minor progress was being made in agriculture, Khrushchev lost prestige and power. The leader's efforts to smooth relations with the West irritated many. This, along with the schism with China and the Cuban Missile Crisis, had harmed the Soviet Union's international stature.
In October 1964, while Khrushchev was vacationing in 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.
Khrushchev failed to achieve most of his near impossible goals. His attempts at thawing out Cold War relations with the West were noble but almost impossible while maintaining a communist regime and vowing to protect with force socialist ideals. Khrushchev had a profound effect on the youth of the time, many of whom would go on to serve under Mikhail Gorbachev and witness the final demise of the Soviet system. Khrushchev must also be remembered for his public disavowal of Stalinism and the greater flexibility he brought to Soviet leadership after a long period of monolithic terror.
Photo at top of post: Khrushchev in East Berlin, 1963 (Bundesarchiv, CC)
Doctor Zhivago and Khrushchev
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