History of the Soviet Union (1953-1985)

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De-Stalinization and the Khrushchev era

For further details, see Nikita Khrushchev

After Stalin had died in March 1953, he was succeeded by Nikita Khrushchev as First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and Georgi Malenkov as Premier of the Soviet Union. The new leadership declared an amnesty for some serving prison sentences for criminal offences, 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. At a speech "On the Personality Cult and its Consequences'' to the closed session of the Twentieth Party Congress of the CPSU, 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.

Missing image
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. Afterwards, Khrushchev eased restrictions, freeing some dissidents and initiating economic policies that emphasized commercial goods rather than coal and steel production.

In the same year, 1956 Hungarian Revolution was brutally suppressed by Soviet troops. About 25-50,000 Hungarian insurgents and 7,000 Soviet troops were killed, thousands more were wounded, and nearly a quarter million left the country as refugees. The revolution was a blow to the Communists in Western countries; many who had formerly supported the Soviet Union now criticized it.

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 defence minister Georgy Zhukov, and the implied threat to the plotters was clear; however, none of the "anti-party group" were killed: for instance, 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 after a long and complex series of maneuvers, notably the crucial removal of Stalin's obvious successor, Lavrenty Beria, head of the NKVD (as the secret police were then known).

The ten-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 and 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 Soviets sent up the first-ever artificial earth satellite in history, Sputnik, 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.

Khrushchev's reforms and fall

Nikita Khrushchev in 1962
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 dramatic Virgin Lands Campaign in the mid-1950s, Khrushchev opened vast 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 innovations by Khrushchev, however, proved counterproductive. His plans for growing corn and increasing meat and dairy production failed miserably, 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 and replaced them with regional economic councils (sovnarkhozes).

Missing image
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 (province) level and below contributed to the disarray and alienated 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 (1959-65) 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 split with China, the Berlin crisis, and the Cuban fiasco hurt the Soviet Union's international stature. The Berlin wall made evident the severe measures necessary to suppress emigration or escape in order to maintain a captive workforce. Those few who were allowed to emigrate under official policies were either elderly or had to pay for the privledge, allegedly to compensate for the education and training the state had provided to them. 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 policy of developing the Soviet Union's missile forces with a view to reducing the size of the armed forces, thus freeing more young men for productive labour and releasing resources to develop the economy, especially consumer goods, more generally. This policy too proved personally disastrous, alienating key figures in the Soviet military establishment and culminating in the fiasco (in Soviet eyes) of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Despite large reductions in Soviet military forces there was only a slight thawing in relations with the West.

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 (probably sincere) 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 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." However, Khrushchev must also be remembered for his public disavowal of Stalinism, significant liberalization in the country, and the greater flexibility he brought to Soviet leadership.

The Brezhnev era

After 1964, CPSU First Secretary Leonid Brezhnev and Premier Aleksei Kosygin emerged as the most influential cadres 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 with complex interconnection of industries over a huge geographical expanse that had reached military parity with the Western powers. Social and political reforms were however largely stopped, which led to the emergence of the term "stagnation" (застой, zastoy) in that respect.

As far as the economy is concerned, when the First Five-Year Plan drafted by Gosplan established centralized planning as the basis of economic decision-making (see Overview of the Soviet economic planning process), 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%, building millions of one-family apartments, and manufacturing large quantities of consumer goods and home appliances.

Industrial output also increased by 75%, and the Soviet Union became the world's largest producer of oil and steel. The twenty years following Stalin's death in 1953 were the best period in the history of Russia for the ordinary citizen in terms of 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 mired in economic recession resulting from the OPEC oil embargo, inflation caused by excessive government expenditures for the Vietnam War, and not to mention the wartime quagmire. Meanwhile, pro-Soviet regimes were making great strides abroad, especially in the Third World. Vietnam had defeated the United States, becoming a united, independent state under a Communist government while other socialist insurgencies were spreading rapidly across Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America.

Problems of economic planning

For further details see Soviet economic development.

During the later years of the Brezhnev era, however, the Soviet economy (see Economy of the Soviet Union) 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 a new set of challenges from those of the extensive growth (mobilization of capital and labor) of the Stalinist era.

As the Soviet economy grew more complex, it required more and more complex disaggregation of control figures (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 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 over-fulfilled, but when, for instance, they were greatly over-fulfilled, they 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 improve productivity by laying-off unnecessary workers 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 Cold War was another drain on the consumer economy. With a far smaller economy than the US, the Soviets faced an uneven burden in the arms race, forcing the country to devote a far higher share of their society's resources to the defense sector.

Calls for reform

Leonid Brezhnev
Leonid Brezhnev

As the political atmosphere gradually moved toward becoming more relaxed since de-Stalinization, a reform movement high up party ranks was still able to survive the ouster 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 Prime Minister 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 over wages. Moreover, they sought to turn the enterprises' economic objectives toward making a profit, allowing them to put a proportion of profit into their own funds.

Until the late 1960s the Soviet Union was still sustaining higher rates of growth than the Western powers. With this in mind, some Soviet and Russia specialists have argued that the Kosygin Reforms of 1965 - not Gorbachev's reforms in the 1980s - were the last chance to spare the leadership of the Soviet administrative command economy and to spare the population of the hardships of the past twenty years.

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 efforts for reform considerably.

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 retarded 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, by 1968, there was the unfortunate example of the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia, where a period of political liberalization came to an end on August 20, when 200,000 Warsaw Pact troops and 5,000 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 considerably until the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev in the mid-1980s.

In 1980 a reformist movement in Poland, Solidarity, was suppressed when the communist government leader, Wojciech Jaruzelski, declared martial law, fearing that the continued Solidarity-led prostest 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 control over 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 US 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 thirteen 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. 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 eschewed 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.

In foreign affairs, Andropov continued Brezhnev's policy. 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 decried Reagan's "bellicose, lunatic" anticommunism.

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 time had not yet arrived when his patron died early in 1984.

The Chernenko interregnum

Missing image
Konstantin Chernenko with Leonid Brezhnev

At seventy-two, 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, retaliating for the United States boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. 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 also 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.

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