The Soviet Union was one of the dominant world powers throughout the 20th century, and it has left a powerful legacy that is still felt today in both Russia and the West. 8 men led the Soviet Union in its 70 year existence, each leaving their mark and several developing cults of personality either during their lifetime or after their death.
So who exactly were these men, and what did they do for the USSR?
1. Vladimir Lenin (1917-1924)
Lenin was a revolutionary socialist: exiled under Tsar Nicholas II for his political beliefs, he returned following the February Revolution of 1917 and played a major role in the October Revolution the same year.
His political ideology was centred on Marxism (communism), but he believed Russia could never make such a dramatic departure from centuries of autocratic rule by the tsars. Instead, he advocated for a period of socialism, a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, to transition from one political state to the next.
The 1917 revolutions were far from a complete victory however, and the next few years saw Russia engulfed in a bitter civil war. Lenin had assumed that there would be widespread support amongst the working classes for Bolshevism – and whilst there was support, it was not as much as he had hoped for. It took 3 years for the White Army to be defeated.
In 1920, Lenin also introduced his divisive New Economic Plan (NEP): described as a retreat by some, NEP was a kind of state-run capitalism, designed to get Russia’s economy back on its feet following a disastrous five years of war and famine.
By the second half of 1921, Lenin was seriously ill. His incapacitation gave his rival Stalin a chance to build up a power base. Despite attempts to dictate his successor (Lenin advocated for Stalin’s removal, replacing him with his ally Trotsky), Stalin’s influence and ability to portray himself as close to Lenin won out.
Lenin suffered a stroke in March 1923, and died in January 1924. His body was embalmed, and is still on display in a mausoleum in Red Square today. Although he showed little care for the immense suffering inflicted on the Russian people during the revolution, civil war and beyond, Lenin is credited with being one of the most important – and often revered – men in Russian history.
2. Joseph Stalin (1924-1953)
Stalin was born in Georgia in 1878: his real name is Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, but he adopted the name ‘Stalin’ which literally means ‘man of steel’. Stalin began to read Marx’s works and join local socialist groups when he was at seminary school.
After joining the Bolsheviks, Stalin met Lenin for the first time in 1905, and quickly began to climb the ranks within the Bolshevik party. In 1913, he was exiled to Siberia for 4 years, returning just in time to play a part in the revolutions of 1917.
During Lenin’s premiership, Stalin consolidated his position as a senior party official, although his relationship with Lenin was far from perfect. The two clashed over questions of ethno-nationalism and foreign trade.
Stalin quickly assumed power on Lenin’s death: as General Secretary of the party, he was in prime position to do so. He ensured those loyal to him were dispersed through his new administration and across the country in order maintain his position of power.
A new ideology, ‘Socialism in One Country’ was adopted by the party, and in 1928, the first of Stalin’s Five Year Plans was announced. This basically amounted to rapid industrialisation (Stalin was concerned about threats from the West) and collectivisation of farming: this was met with opposition, and resulted in the deaths of millions, both through famine and targeting purges of kulaks (land-owning peasants).
A cultural revolution followed, as conservative social policies were implemented and old ‘elite’ culture was bulldozed, in favour of culture for the masses. By the 1930s, Stalin had begun a period known as ‘The Great Terror’, where any potential opposition was quashed in a brutal series of purges.
After initially signing pacts with Stalin, Hitler turned on his former ally and invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. Despite heavy casualties (including famously the Siege of Leningrad), Soviet forces held out, engaging the Wehrmacht in a war of attrition that they were not fully prepared for. The Soviets began launching attacks of their own on weakened German forces, and pushed back into Poland, and eventually, Germany itself.
Stalin’s later years in power were characterized by increasingly hostile relationships with the West, and growing paranoia at home. He died of a stroke in 1953.
3. Georgy Malenkov (March-September 1953)
Malenkov’s inclusion in this list is divisive: he was de facto leader of the Soviet Union for the 6 months following Stalin’s death. With links to Lenin, Malenkov had been one of Stalin’s favourites, playing a major roles in the purges and the development of Soviet missiles during the Second World War.
When Stalin died, Malenkov was his (initially) unchallenged successor. It did not long for the rest of the Politburo members to challenge this, and he was forced to resigned as head of the party apparatus although allowed to remain as premier.
Khrushchev mounted a serious leadership challenge, and following a brief power struggle, Malenkov was forced to resign as premier. Following a failed coup in 1957, he was briefly exiled to Kazakhstan and returned to Moscow once this was over, living the rest of his life out quietly.
4. Nikita Khrushchev (1953-1964)
Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev was born in western Russia in 1897: he worked his way up the party hierarchy following his role as a political commissar during the Russian Civil War. A supporter of Stalin’s purges, he was dispatched to govern the Ukrainian USSR, where he enthusiastically continued purges.
Following the end of the Second World War (known as the Great Patriotic War in Russia), Stalin recalled him from Ukraine to Moscow as one of his most trusted advisors. Khrushchev was involved in a power struggle with Malenkov after Stalin’s death in 1953, emerging victorious as the First (General) Secretary of the Communist Party.
He is perhaps most famous for his ‘Secret Speech’ in 1956, in which he denounced Stalin’s policies and announced a relaxation of the repressive Stalinist regime, including permitting foreign travel and tacitly acknowledging the West’s more desirable living standards. Whilst this rhetoric was welcomed by many, Khrushchev’s policies were not in fact that effective, and the Soviet Union struggled to keep up with the West.
Khrushchev also backed the development of the Soviet space programme, which in turn helped to lead to some of the most tense periods of the Cold War, including the Cuban Missile Crisis. For the majority of his time in office, Khrushchev enjoyed popular support, thanks to victories including the Suez Crisis, Syrian Crisis and the launching of Sputnik.
However, his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis, combined with his ineffective domestic policies, led members of the party to turn against him. Khrushchev was deposed in October 1964 – pensioned off generously, he died of natural causes in 1971.
5. Leonid Brezhnev (1964-1982)
Brezhnev had the second longest term as General Secretary of the Communist Party (18 years): whilst he brought stability, the Soviet economy also seriously stagnated during his tenure.
Becoming a member of the Politburo in 1957, Brezhnev ousted Khrushchev in 1964 and took over his position as Secretary of the Communist Party – a role which was tantamount to leader. Keen to minimise dissent in the party, Brezhnev was a natural conservative and encouraged decisions to be made unanimously rather than dictating them.
However, this conservatism also manifested in an opposition to reform, and lack of progress. Living standards and technologies in the USSR began to lag dramatically behind those in the West. Despite a massive arms build-up and an increased global presence, frustrations grew within the Soviet Union.
Corruption also proved to be a major problem, and there was little done by Brezhnev’s regime to combat this. Brezhnev suffered a major stroke in 1975, and effectively became a puppet leader: decisions were made by other senior politicians, including his eventual successor, Andropov. He died in 1982.
6. Yuri Andropov (1982-1984)
Andropov was born in 1914 and his early life is relatively obscure: he gave away a variety of stories about the year and place of his birth and his parentage.
Named Chairman of the KGB (the USSR’s national security agency) in 1967, Andropov wasted no time on cracking down on dissent and ‘undesirables’. Following Brezhnev’s stroke in 1975, Andropov was heavily involved in policymaking, alongside Gromyko (Foreign Minister) and Grechko / Ustinov (successive Defence Ministers).
In 1982, Andropov formally succeeded Brezhnev as General Secretary of the Soviet Union: he was totally incapable of reinvigorating or saving the increasingly worrying state of the Soviet economy, and further escalated Cold War tensions with the US.
Andropov died in February 1984, 15 months after formally being appointed leader. Whilst his time in office is relatively unremarkable, he did begin to streamline the party system, investigating corruption and inefficiency. Some see his legacy as the generation of reformers who emerged in the years following his death.
7. Konstantin Chernenko (1984-1985)
Chernenko held the role of General Secretary for 15 months: many see Chernenko’s election as a symbolic return to policies of the Brezhnev era, and he did little to ease hostilities with the US, going as far as to boycott the 1984 Olympics.
For most of his premiership his health was seriously failing and he left little tangible mark on the Soviet Union, dying from chronic emphysema (he had smoked from the age of 9) in March 1985.
8. Mikhail Gorbachev (1985-1991)
Gorbachev was born in 1931, and grew up under Stalin’s rule. He joined the Communist party and went to study in Moscow. After Stalin’s death, he became an advocate of the de-Stalinization proposed by Khrushchev.
As a result, he rose through the ranks of the party, eventually joining the Politburo in 1979.
Gorbachev was elected General Secretary (de facto premier) in 1985 and he promised reform: he is most well known for two of his policies – glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring).
Glasnost meant relaxing rules surrounding press regulation and restrictions on freedom of speech, whilst perestroika involved the decentralisation of government, the relaxation of rules on political dissent and an increased openness with the West. Gorbachev and Reagan worked together to limit nuclear armament and effectively end the Cold War.
Perestroika as a policy undermined the idea of a one-party state, and increasingly nationalistic sentiments from countries within the Soviet Union became problematic. Faced with dissent from both within and outside the party, and attacked in several coups, the Soviet Union eventually dissolved, and Gorbachev resigned his office in 1991.
Whilst he may have been the last leader of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev’s legacy is mixed. Some view his regime as a total failure, whilst others admire his commitment to peace, curtailing human rights abuses and his role in ending the Cold War.