Succession to Stalin

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

On March 1, 1953 Iosif Stalin, the 73 year-old leader of the Soviet Union, suffered a cerebral hemorrhage from which he died four days later. His death foreshortened a bloody purge looming on the horizon, arising from the so-called “Doctors’ Plot,” a purported conspiracy by Kremlin doctors, most of them with Jewish surnames, to kill the great leader. Stalin’s lying-in-state in the Kremlin was the occasion for tens of thousands of grief-stricken Soviet citizens to crowd into the center of Moscow. In the chaos, many were crushed to death. Even as Stalin lay dying, the party’s Presidium, an enlarged body that had replaced the Politbiuro at the Nineteenth Congress in October 1952, met to decide who would exercise ultimate authority. Three individuals emerged as part of what was described as a “collective leadership”: Georgii Malenkov, who had given the all-important general report to the Nineteenth Congress, was appointed chairman of the Council of Ministers; Lavrentii Beria, Malenkov’s erstwhile ally, remained in charge of the secret police; and Nikita Khrushchev, secretary of the Moscow party organization, was made the top secretary of the Central Committee. Each of them had fallen into disfavor with Stalin at one time or another since the end of the Second World War. Now they were faced with the awesome task of leading the country in his absence.

In the weeks that followed, Beria emerged as the one who was most anxious to depart from previous policies. He sought to scale back grandiose construction projects, advocated the release from prison and exile of all but “especially dangerous state criminals,” denounced the so-called Mingrelian Affair in Georgia over which he reasserted his control, and argued for a unified and neutral Germany. Alarmed at Beria’s growing prominence and control of the police, Khrushchev conspired with Malenkov and several other presidium members to arrange for Beria’s arrest at the hands of the military. This plot was sprung on Beria on June 26, 1953. Accused of “criminal, anti-party and anti-state activities,” Beria was secretly tried and executed on December 24, 1953.

In the meantime, Malenkov had launched his “New Course” which stressed consumer goods production, a shift in policy that was considerably more radical than Khrushchev’s emphasis on the parallel development of heavy and light industries. Malenkov also pushed through an important initiative in collective farm policy which resulted in reducing tax payments by peasants of up to fifty percent. But Khrushchev also fancied himself an expert on agricultural policy, and in early 1954 got the party behind his program to develop millions of new, “virgin” lands in the Volga region, western Siberia, and northern Kazakhstan. The early success of the Virgin Lands scheme and the alliances that Khrushchev forged with key party figures such as Anastas Mikoian and Nikolai Bulganin as well as Marshal Georgii Zhukov, the new Defense Minister, strengthened his position to the point where Malenkov became isolated and was forced to resign as prime minister on February 8, 1955. In short, Khrushchev won the battle over Stalin’s succession by reviving the party apparatus and reasserting its control over the state ministries, the military, and the new Committee for State Security (KGB).

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