In 1950, Josef Stalin was still the leader of the Soviet Union. World War II had devastated the country economically, but Stalin distanced the communist nation from its former Western allies and declined any U.S. assistance. The USSR exploited the resources of Eastern European states to fuel its effort to rebuild, intervening with force to prop up governments subservient to Soviet interests. The Cold War had begun.
The Death of Stalin
In the early 1950s, Stalin's health was deteriorating. Georgi Malenkov, Stalin's top aide, took over many of his daily administrative duties. The Politburo announced Stalin's death by natural causes on March 5, 1953. The circumstances surrounding his death were shrouded in secrecy, however, and people suspected that he may have been murdered. In March 2013, 60 years after his death, Stalin's official autopsy report was made public for the first time. According to the 11-page report, the Soviet leader suffered a stroke on March 1, 1953 that caused him to suffocate. At the time of his death, he was 74 years old and in poor health. He hadn't named a successor before his death, and the Soviet government briefly fell into turmoil.
Soon after Stalin's death, the party named Malenkov prime minister, which at that time was the top-ranking position in the party hierarchy. Lavrenti Beria, the powerful chief of the secret police, planned a coup to seize power from Malenkov. However, his plot was discovered and he was arrested and executed. In 1953 and 1954, Nikita Khrushchev appeared as Malenkov's greatest adversary. Khrushchev had supported Stalin when the dictator was alive, and advocated continuing his economic focus on increased development of heavy industry. Malenkov, on the other hand, promoted a shift in focus from heavy industry to agriculture and consumer goods. The failure of those areas to perform well led to Malenkov's resignation in 1955. Nikolai Bulganin was named the new prime minister, but he had no real influence. The party turned to Khrushchev to fill the vacuum.
The Secret Speech
In 1956, First Secretary Khrushchev gave a secret speech before the 20th Congress of the Communist Party. He condemned Stalin's leadership as a "cult of the individual" that went against the core values of collective leadership Vladimir Lenin had established in the Soviet Union. Khrushchev reminded the party that Stalin had large numbers of party members executed when they disagreed with his polices. He used extreme methods even when they weren't necessary, imposing his will on others by brute force. The speech launched a period of de-Stalinization in which prisoners were released and rehabilitated and the arts and sciences began to flourish once again in the Soviet Union.
The Cold War Thaws
As Khrushchev rose in the party ranks, he promoted warmer relations with the West in general and the U.S. in particular. Meeting President Dwight Eisenhower in 1955, he assured the American leader that his country remained committed to maintaining a peaceful coexistence with capitalist states. To some extent, Khrushchev's leadership became mired in contradiction. For example, literature written by dissidents was published at the same time Soviet tanks were crushing a popular revolt in Hungary. He tried to maintain a balance between smoother relations with the U.S. and proving to China that the Soviet Union would stand strong for communism. When Bulganin resigned in 1958, Khrushchev officially became prime minister and head of the collective leadership of the Soviet Union, a position he held until the Central Committee voted him out of office in 1964 while he was away on vacation.
- Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress Country Studies/Area Handbook Series: Russia -- Reconstruction and Cold War
- Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress Country Studies/Area Handbook Series: Russia -- The Khrushchev Era
- Mail Online: Stalin Died of Natural Causes -- Autopsy Published for First Time Says Soviet Leader Suffocated After Suffering a Stroke
- Russia Beyond the Headlines: Khrushchev -- The Man Behind the Thaw
- Fordham University Modern History Sourcebook: Nikita S. Khrushchev -- The Secret Speech -- On the Cult of Personality, 1956
- Hulton Archive/Hulton Archive/Getty Images