The Soviet Union was a world superpower that helped to shape and define almost the whole 20th century. The Soviet Union formed out of the ashes of World War One, was a victor of World War Two and went on to challenge the United States as a world superpower during the Cold War. This article will analyze the lives, achievements, and criticisms of the nine men who led the Soviet Union.
Leaders of the Soviet Union
Vladimir Lenin was born in Ulyanovsk, Russia, in 1870. He founded the Communist Party in 1912, but he spent years leading up to the Russian Revolution in exile abroad before Germany arranged for him to go back to Russia to get them out of World War One. From there Lenin led the October Revolution to overthrow the provisional government that had overthrown the monarchy during the February Revolution. Lenin and the Communists then quickly consolidated power and eventually won the Russian Civil War (1917-22). Lenin then spent the last few years of his life trying to shape the future of the Soviet Union.
Lenin's warning in his final years about the unchecked power of party members went unheeded, however, and this led to a power struggle for control following his death, Joseph Stalin was born in Gori, Georgia in 1878, which was then a part of the Russian Empire. Like Lenin, Stalin was in exile leading up to the Russian Revolution. Stalin then helped shape the young Soviet Union through the resulting Russian Civil War, the Polish-Soviet War, and the invasion of Georgia. During this period Stalin clashed with Lenin and other Soviet Leaders over ideology, strategy, and his violent tendencies. After Lenin's death, Stalin accumulated power, eventually become the unquestioned leader by 1929. Stalin then spent years leading up to World War Two pushing his economic policy of Collectivization and trying to industrialize the country. Stalin also spent this time purging, executing and deporting his enemies to Siberia. The Soviets and the Germans signed a non-aggression pact and agreed to split up Eastern Europe but then Hitler violated it and invaded the Soviet Union. Stalin led the Soviet Union to victory in World War Two over Germany. Stalin took control of Eastern Europe after World War Two and established the Soviet Bloc. Relations with the West deteriorated and the Cold War started in 1947. Stalin died a few years later in 1953.
Georgy Malenkov was born in Orenburg, Russia in 1902. His advancement through the party was advance by his family connections with Lenin and later under the watchful eye of Stalin. He was heavily involved in Stalin's purging of his enemies in the 1930s, gaining Stalin's favor and avoiding his wrath. Upon Stalin's death, Malenkov became the leader of the Soviet Union. However, Malenkov had a reformist streak as he called for cuts in military spending and easing up on political repression. This fact led to his undoing as a few weeks later Nikita Khrushchev organized a coalition as him and undercut all of his authority as leader. By 1955 Malenkov was no longer the leader of the Soviet Union. In 1957, he joined a failed coup attempt against Khrushchev and was expelled from the Communist Party. Malenkov was then sent to Kazakhstan to serve as manager of a hydroelectric plant to spend the rest of his life in disgrace. He died in 1988.
In 1894, Nikita Khrushchev was born in Kalinovka, Russia. In 1918, Khrushchev joined the Communist Party and fought in the Red Army. Khrushchev rose quickly through the ranks of the Communist Party during the 1930s and '40s. Shortly after taking over the leadership of the Soviet Union from Malenkov, Khrushchev gave a speech where he denounced the excesses under Stalin. This speech was the start of his policy of de-Stalinization, which resulted in protests in Poland and Hungary that were put down. Khrushchev relaxed restrictions on free expression, released political prisoners and launched bold but ultimately unattainable agricultural goals. He largely tried to pursue a policy of peaceful coexistence with the West but at the same time started the Cuban Missile Crisis and started construction on the Berlin Wall. Poor economic growth, deteriorating relations with China and other issues eventually led to Khrushchev being ousted from power by "retiring" due to his health. Khrushchev spent his remaining years at his estate, dying in 1971.
Leonid Brezhnev was born in Kamianske, Ukraine in 1906, which was then part of the Russian Empire. He joined the Komsomol (political youth organization) in 1923 and in 1929 became a full member of the Communist party. Brezhnev fought in World War Two, reaching the rank of major general and in 1952 became a member of the Central Committee. Brezhnev took over as the leader for Khrushchev and ended his cultural reforms by clamping down on the cultural freedom and he gave the KGB back some of their former powers they had under Stalin. The Soviet economy grew under Khrushchev at a rate that was on pace to catch up with America but by the mid-1970s entered an era of stagnation and never recovered. Brezhnev also built up the Soviet Union's military at the cost of their economy. During the 1970s Brezhnev pursued a policy of detente with the West trying to normalize relations but the Soviet's costly decision to invade Afghanistan in 1979 ended the detente policy. In his last few years, Brezhnev's health deteriorated, and he was mostly a figured head. He died in 1982.
Yuri Andropov was born in the Stavropol Governorate in 1914, which was then a part of the Russian Empire. Andropov joined the Communist Party in 1939, and his superiors quickly noticed his abilities making him head of the Komsomol. After being transferred to Moscow in 1951, he was assigned to the Secretariat staff and then became ambassador to Hungary from 1954-57. After returning to Moscow from his ambassadorship he rose quickly through the party ranks and became head of the KGB in 1967. Andropov started positioning himself for succession as leader of the Soviet Union with Brezhnev in poor health. Andropov was declared his successor and quickly consolidated power. Andropov led an anti-corruption campaign and dismissed many party ministers and secretaries. Andropov also did reluctantly continue the Soviet war in Afghanistan. His rule was short however because by August of 1983 his ill health overtook him and he spent his last days in the hospital, dying in 1984.
Konstantin Chernenko was born in the Yeniseysk Governorate in 1911, which was then part of the Russian Empire. Chernenko joined the Komsomol in 1929 and became a full member of the Communist Party in 1931. Chernenko started working for the propaganda department in 1933 and rose through the ranks. The turning point in his career was a meeting with future Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in 1948. Brezhnev continued to help him rise through the ranks, with Chernenko gaining full membership to the Central Committee in 1971. Chernenko replaced Andropov as leader despite his own ailing health. Chernenko supported a greater role for labor unions and reforming education and propaganda. Chernenko negotiated a trade pact with China but did little to de-escalate the Cold War, boycotted the 1984 Summer Olympics and did not end the war in Afghanistan. By the middle of 1984, Chernenko's health started deteriorating and he died in March of 1985.
Mikhail Gorbachev was born in Stavropol Krai, Russia in 1931. He joined and became very active in the Communist party while at Moscow State University and also graduated with a law degree. By 1979 he had become a candidate member of the Politburo and in 1985 he became the leader of the Soviet Union after Chernenko's death. Gorbachev engaged in a race to amass nuclear weapons in space with the United States, which proved costly for the suffering Soviet economy. Gorbachev managed to end the costly Soviet war in Afghanistan in 1987. He worked to provide more freedoms and reforms to the Soviet people with his policies of glasnost and perestroika (openness and restructure). In 1989 Gorbachev organized elections to require Communist Party members to run against non-members to make a more democratic electoral system. He also removed the Communist Party's constitutional role in governing the state, which inadvertently led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. This fact was in spite of Gorbachev wanting to keep the Soviet Union together. By 1990 Gorbachev was grappling with different groups waging war and demanding independence, along with a sputtering Soviet economy. In 1991 Gorbachev's rival Boris Yeltsin was elected President of the Russian Republic and was pushing radical changes to the economy. By the end of December of 1991, the Soviet Union had completely crumbled, and Gorbachev stepped down and gave Yeltsin complete power over Russia.
Gennady Yanayev was born in Perevoz, Russia in 1937. He spent years in local politics before he rose to prominence as Chairman of the All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions. This fact helped him to gain a seat in the Politburo in 1990 and later that year with Gorbachev's help he became the first vice president of the Soviet Union. Yanayev quickly had growing doubts about Gorbachev's reform policies and started working with the Gang of Eight against Gorbachev. He took formal leadership of the Gang of Eight and deposed Gorbachev during the August coup of 1991. The coup collapsed after three days due to the growing popularity of Boris Yeltsin, and Yanayev was arrested. He was pardoned in 1994 and spent the rest of his life working for the Russian tourism administration until his death in 2010.
A Reflection on the Soviet Union and its Leaders
The Soviet Union grew out of the revolution lead by men like Lenin and Stalin to eventually become a world superpower to challenge the United States for world dominance for the second half of the 20th century. You know how the various Soviet leaders rose to power and what they did in their time as leader. From their greatest achievements to their biggest failures, I hope that you now know more about the leaders of the Soviet Union.