Leader of the Soviet Union

Leader of the Soviet Union
Former Communist state
Union coat of arms
Last leader:
Mikhail Gorbachev
(as President)
First leader(s) Vladimir Lenin
(as Premier)
Last leader(s) Mikhail Gorbachev
(as President)
Appointer A leader would not be able to rule, or hold on to power, without support in the Politburo, Central Committee and/or the Secretariat of the Central Committee
Communist rule started 30 December 1922
Communist rule ended 25 December 1991
State ended 26 December 1991

Under the 1977 Soviet Constitution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the Chairman of the Council of Ministers was the head of government[1] and the Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet was the head of state.[2] The office of the Chairman of the Council of Ministers was the equivalent to a First World Prime Minister,[1] while the office of the Chairman of the Presidium was equivalent to the office of the President.[2] In the Soviet Union's seventy-year history there was no official leader of the Soviet Union offices but a Soviet leader usually led the country through the office of the Premier and/or the office of the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). In the idea of Vladimir Lenin the head of the Soviet state was a collegiate body of the vanguard party (see What is to Be Done?).

Following Joseph Stalin's consolidation of power in the 1920s[3] the post of the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party became synonymous with 'Leader of the Soviet Union'[4] because the post controlled both the CPSU and the Soviet Government.[3] The post of the General Secretary was abolished under Stalin and later re-established by Nikita Khrushchev under the name of First Secretary; in 1966 Leonid Brezhnev reverted the office title to its former name. Being the head of the communist party,[5] the office of the General Secretary was the highest in the Soviet Union until 1990.[6] The post of General Secretary lacked clear guidelines of succession, so after the death or removal of a Soviet leader, the successor usually needed the support of the Politburo, the Central Committee, or another government or party apparatus to both take and stay in power. The President of the Soviet Union, an office created in March 1990, replaced the General Secretary as the highest Soviet political office.[7]

Contemporaneously to establishment of the office of the President, representatives of the Congress of People's Deputies voted to remove Article 6 from the Soviet constitution which stated that the Soviet Union was a one-party state controlled by the Communist Party which, in turn, played the leading role in society. This vote weakened the Party and its hegemony over the Soviet Union and its people.[8] Upon death, resignation, or removal from office of an incumbent President, the Vice President of the Soviet Union would assume the office, though the Soviet Union collapsed before this was actually tested.[9] After the failed August Coup the Vice President was replaced by an elected member of the State Council of the Soviet Union.[10]



Vladimir Lenin was voted the Chairman of the Council of People's Commissars of the USSR (Sovnarkom) on 30 December 1922 by the Congress of Soviets.[11] His health, at the age of 53, declined from effects of two bullet wounds, later aggravated by three strokes which culminated with his death in 1924.[12] Irrespective of his health status in his final days, Lenin was already losing much of his power to Stalin.[13] Alexei Rykov succeeded Lenin as Chairman of the Sovnarkom, and although he was de jure the most powerful person in the country, the Politburo of the Communist Party began to overshadow the Sovnarkom in the mid-1920s. By the end of the decade, Rykov merely rubber stamped the decisions predetermined by Stalin and the Politburo.[14]

Stalin's early policies pushed for rapid industrialisation, nationalisation of private industry[15] and the collectivisation of private plots created under Lenin's New Economic Policy.[16] As leader of the Politburo, Stalin consolidated near-absolute power by 1938 after the Great Purge, a series of campaigns of political repression and persecution.[17] Nazi German troops invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941,[18] but were repulsed by the Soviets in December. On Stalin's orders, the USSR launched a counter-attack on Nazi Germany.[19] Stalin died in March 1953,[20] his death triggered a power struggle in which Khrushchev after several years emerged victorious against Georgy Malenkov.[21]

Khrushchev denounced Stalin on two occasions: in 1956 and 1962. His policy of de-Stalinisation earned him many enemies within the party, especially from old Stalinist appointees. Many saw this approach as destructive and destabilising. A group known as Anti-Party Group tried, but failed, to oust Khrushchev from office in 1957.[22] As Khrushchev grew older, his erratic behavior became worse, usually making decisions without discussing or confirming them with the Politburo.[23] Leonid Brezhnev, a close companion of Khrushchev, was elected First Secretary the same day of Khrushchev's removal from power; Alexei Kosygin became the new Premier and Anastas Mikoyan kept his office as Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. In 1965, on the orders of the Politburo, Mikoyan was forced to retire; Nikolai Podgorny took over the office of Chairman of the Presidium.[24] The USSR in the post-Khrushchev 1960s was governed by a collective leadership.[25] Henry A. Kissinger, the American National Security Advisor, mistakenly believed that Kosygin was the 'Leader of the Soviet Union' and that he was at the helm of 'Soviet foreign policy' because he represented the Soviet Union at the 1967 Glassboro Summit Conference.[26] The "Era of Stagnation", a derogatory term coined by Mikhail Gorbachev, was a period marked by low socio-economic efficiency in the country and a gerontocracy ruling the country.[27] Yuri Andropov succeeded Brezhnev in his post as General Secretary in 1982. In 1983 Andropov was hospitalised, and rarely met up at work to chair the politburo meetings due to his declining health. Nikolai Tikhonov usually chaired the meetings in his place.[28] Following Andropov's death, an even older leader, Konstantin Chernenko was elected to the General Secretariat. His rule lasted for little more than a year.[29]

Gorbachev was elected to the General Secretariat by the Politburo on 11 March 1985.[30] By the mid-to-late 1980s Gorbachev had launched the policies of perestroika (literally meaning "reconstruction", but varies) and glasnost ("openness" and "transparency").[31] The dismantling of the principal defining features of communism in 1988 and 1989 in the Soviet Union led to the unintended consequence of breaking-up the Soviet state into 15 successor states after the failed August Coup of 1991 led by Gennady Yanayev.[32]

List of supreme leaders

The following list includes only those persons who were able to gather enough support from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and the government, or one of these to lead the Soviet Union.

Portrait Supreme Rule Congress Notes
Vladimir Lenin
30 December 1922[33]

21 January 1924[13]
11th12th Congress  Chairman of the Council of People's Commissars (Sovnarkom) and informal leader of the Bolsheviks since their inception.[33] Was leader of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) from 1917 and leader of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) from 1922 until his death.[34]
Joseph Stalin
21 January 1924[13]

5 March 1953[35]
13th19th Congress  General Secretary from 3 April 1922 until 1934, when he resigned from office; the post of General Secretary itself was abolished in October 1952.[36] Stalin served as Premier from 6 May 1941 until his death on 5 March 1953.[35] He also held the post of the Minister of Defence from 19 July 1941 until 3 March 1947 and Chairman of the State Defense Committee during the Great Patriotic War[37] and became the only officer to hold the office of People's Commissariat of Nationalities from 1921–1923.[38]
Georgy Malenkov
5 March 1953[39][40]

16 March 1953[41]
 Succeeded to all of Stalin's titles, but was forced to resign most of them [42] within a month. Malenkov, through the office of Premier, was locked in a power struggle against Khrushchev.[43]
Nikita Khrushchev
27 March 1955[44]

14 October 1964[45]
20th22nd Congress  Served as the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Soviet Union (from September 1953) and Chairman of the Council of Ministers from 27 March 1958 to 14 October 1964. While vacationing in Abkhazia, Khrushchev was called by Leonid Brezhnev to return to Moscow for a special meeting of the Presidium, to be held on 13 October 1964. There, at the most fiery session since the so-called "anti-party group" crisis of 1957, he was fired from all his posts[46] and became a "non-person".
Leonid Brezhnev
14 October 1964[45]

10 November 1982[47]
23rd26th Congress  Served as First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, was later renamed General Secretary,[23] and was co-equal with premier Alexei Kosygin until the 1970s. To consolidate his power he later assumed the title of Chairman of the Presidium.[24]
Yuri Andropov
12 November 1982[48]

9 February 1984[49]
 General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party[26] and Chairman of the Presidium from 16 June 1983 until 9 February 1984.[50]
Konstantin Chernenko
13 February 1984[51]

10 March 1985[23]
 General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party[52] and Chairman of the Presidium from 11 April 1984 to 10 March 1985.[53]
Mikhail Gorbachev
(born 1931)[54]
11 March 1985[23]

25 December 1991[55]
27th28th Congress  Served as General Secretary from 11 March 1985,[53] and resigned on 24 August 1991,[56] Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet from 1 October[52] 1988 until the office was renamed to the Chairman of the Supreme Soviet on 25 May 1989 to 15 March 1990[53] and President of the Soviet Union from 15 March 1990[57] to 25 December 1991.[58] The day following Gorbachev's resignation as President, the Soviet Union was formally dissolved.[55]

List of troikas

On three occasions, between Lenin's death and Stalin's rise, Stalin's death and Nikita Khrushchev's rise to power, and between Khrushchev's fall and Leonid Brezhnev's consolidation of power in the government apparatus, a collective leadership known as the troika (meaning "threesome")[59] governed the country, with no single individual holding leadership alone.[24][40]

Tenure Notes
May 1922[60]

When Vladimir Lenin suffered his first stroke a Troika was established to govern the country in his place. The Troika consisted of Lev Kamenev, Joseph Stalin, and Grigory Zinoviev. The Troika was dissolved when Kamenev and Zinoviev decided to break with Stalin in 1925 and oined the faction led by Leon Trotsky.[61] Later, Kamanev, Zinoviev and Trotsky would be brutally murdered at Stalin's orders.
Lev Kamenev
Joseph Stalin
Grigory Zinoviev
13 March 1953[40]

26 June 1953[64]
This Troika consisted of Georgy Malenkov, Lavrentiy Beria, and Vyacheslav Molotov[65] and ended when Malenkov and Molotov joined Nikita Khrushchev in murdering Beria.[44]

In 1957, as members of the so-called "Anti-Party Group", they tried to oust Khrushchev, but failed.

Lavrentiy Beria
Georgy Malenkov
Vyacheslav Molotov
14 October 1964[45]

16 June 1977[24]
The Troika consisted of the leading members of the collective leadership, and consisted of Brezhnev as First Secretary, Kosygin as Premier and Anastas Mikoyan as Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. In 1965, Mikoyan was succeeded by Nicolai Podgorny. During Brezhnev's gradual consolidation of power, the Troika was "dissolved" when he succeeded Podgorny in 1977 as Presidium chairman.[24] However, the collective leadership continued to exist in a different shape after Podgorny's ouster in the Party leadership throughout the rest of Brezhnev's rule.[66]
Leonid Brezhnev
Alexei Kosygin
Nikolai Podgorny

See also



External links

  • Dean Peter Krogh Foreign Affairs Digital Archives
  • Heads of State and Government of the Soviet Union (1922–1991)

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