The 10-year reign of Nikita Khrushchev as First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was arguably the period of the greatest tension in the Cold War. It saw the modernization of the Red Army from a manpower-focused juggernaut to a full-fledged nuclear power. It marked the greatest geographical extent of the Soviet sphere of influence, stretching westward all the way to Berlin and south and eastward through China and portions of East Asia. However, it was also marked by a period of political liberalization known as “de-Stalinization”, a process which did not sit well with hardliners within the Communist Party. In October of 1964, Khrushchev’s rivals within the Party staged a stunningly swift, efficient, and bloodless coup d’état against the Premier, deposing him from power and forcing him into a “voluntary” retirement.
Nikita Khrushchev rose to power in 1955, two years after the death of Josef Stalin. In the interim, he had built a base of political influence through his position in the Communist Party’s Presidium of the Central Committee. The struggle for power among high-ranking officials had created a great division within the Presidium, one that Khrushchev was able to exploit by cultivating the support of key Communist Party leaders eager to restore the influence that had been taken away from them by Stalin. By the end of 1954, Khrushchev had marginalized or eliminated almost all of his rivals, and those that remained largely deferred to his leadership until it was made official a few months later.
The tenor of Khrushchev’s rule would become evident in a speech made to the Party Congress in February of 1956. Khrushchev spent four hours detailing each and every abuse of power, crime, and transgression committed by Stalin during his reign. He told the Party -- and subsequently, the world -- about the horrific political repression, the inhumane gulag prison system, the millions of citizens murdered, and the ever-present climate of fear throughout the Soviet Union under Stalin. The speech shocked both the attendees in the Congress as well as all Soviet citizens who subsequently heard it, and marked the beginning of the period of “de-Stalinization”.
Nikita Khrushchev sought to move the Soviet Union away from the highly authoritarian policies of Stalin. He set free millions of political prisoners, formally ended forced labor in the Soviet Union and its satellite states, abolished the secret tribunals of the Soviet security agencies, advocated education in the rural areas of the Union, liberalized the arts, and opened travel to and from the country. In addition, he sought to dissolve the cult of personality that Stalin had created for himself, removing the previous leader’s name from the various landmarks, monuments, and cities upon which Stalin had originally placed it.
Khrushchev’s push against a way of life that had become so ingrained in the Soviet consciousness naturally generated a backlash, both from within and outside the nation. Polish workers took the reforms as a signal to begin mass protests against the Communist government there in 1956. Hungary’s population was inspired to begin an all-out revolution against its Communist rulers, one that ultimately failed. However, not all of the response was in support of Khrushchev’s policies. Stalin’s supporters in his native Georgia engaged in four days of rioting after Khrushchev’s speech denouncing him. Mao Zedong, the leader of the newly communist China, was so angered by Khrushchev’s reforms that he formally denounced the Soviet government as "Revisionist Traitors" in 1961.
Within the Soviet Union, Khrushchev’s policies of reform created tension with the hardliners of the Communist Party. Combined with the failure of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the security of his position within the Party began to weaken. In 1964, Supreme Soviet head Leonid Brezhnev, who was a protégé of Khrushchev’s but still privately a staunch opponent of his reforms and a critic of his perceived failures, gathered together KGB Chairman Vladimir Semichastny and First Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Shelepin. With Khrushchev away on frequent holidays and state visits in the first half of 1964, the three men began to discuss options for removing Khrushchev from power.
On October 12, 1964, Nikita Khrushchev was vacationing in the resort town of Pitsunda when he received a phone call from Mikhail Suslov, the leader of the opposition faction in the Communist Party’s Central Committee and himself part of Brezhnev’s conspiracy. Suslov requested that Khrushchev return to Moscow to discuss the troubling state of Soviet agriculture. Khrushchev, a veteran of Communist Party politics for many decades, reportedly had a suspicion that he was about to be removed from power, but made the trip back to Moscow nonetheless.
When he arrived, Khrushchev was whisked away to a meeting with Brezhnev, Semichastny, Shelepin, and the other conspirators, wherein he was ruthlessly attacked for the policy failures and economic hardships experienced by the country during his term in office. Brezhnev, in particular, made an issue of Khrushchev’s age and what was perceived to be “erratic behavior” on his part. Khrushchev was informed that the Central Committee had voted not only to remove him from his leadership position, but from Soviet politics entirely.
Khrushchev, perhaps knowing in advance what was going to happen, did not offer much resistance. He is reported to have said to his friend Anastas Mikoyan, "I'm old and tired. Let them cope by themselves. I've done the main thing. Could anyone have dreamed of telling Stalin that he didn't suit us anymore and suggesting he retire? Not even a wet spot would have remained where we had been standing. Now everything is different. The fear is gone, and we can talk as equals. That's my contribution. I won't put up a fight."
In a possible credit to Khrushchev’s efforts towards “de-Stalinization”, he was not executed after the coup, or even placed in prison. Instead, the Committee allowed Khrushchev to “voluntarily” retire to his vacation home and gave him a generous (by Soviet standards) pension to live out the rest of his life. Nonetheless, he slipped into a deep depression and suffered a great deterioration in his health. In 1971, seven years after the coup d’état that removed him from power, Khrushchev passed away following a heart attack.
Leonid Brezhnev, the leader of the conspiracy against Khrushchev, succeeded him as First Secretary and head of the Soviet government. He immediately set about to systematically undo Khrushchev’s efforts at liberalization, and instituted crackdowns on political and cultural freedoms. He greatly increased spending on the Soviet military, and sought to expand the nation’s sphere of influence into Central Asia. However, his 18-year term in office was marred by a period of severe economic and social stagnation that ultimately set the stage for the dissolution of the Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Despite attempts made by Brezhnev and the Communist Party to discredit him after the coup, Nikita Khrushchev’s legacy ultimately survived into the annals of Russian history. A recent poll of the Russian population revealed that the only periods of the 20th Century which are remembered as positive were the reigns of Khrushchev and Tsar Nicholas II. Khrushchev is the only Communist leader for whom the Russians do not harbor negative feelings. Ultimately, the coup against him and the decision not to punish him for his perceived failures may have salvaged his reputation in the eyes of history.
MG Singh emge from Singapore on December 18, 2019:
It's a wonderful article. I am an admirer of Khruschev and feel he was good for the world. In particular, he realized the importance of India and cultivated close relations with it.
David Hunt from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on August 09, 2015:
This is a wonderful overview of Krushchev's impact on the Soviet Union. Stalin was a murderous sociopath, along the lines of Adolf Hitler; Brezhnev was a miserable, if powerful, bureaucrat. Krushchev seemed to be the only human face of the entire Soviet era. The Cuban Missile Crisis was not a failure for the Soviets-- the US was forced to remove its missiles from Turkey, but, as part of the deal, that was kept quiet.
CJ Kelly from the PNW on November 03, 2013:
Great article. Soviet politics is an endless topic. You encapsulated Khrushchev's reign really well. Voted up.