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USSR: Communist Party: Leadership

Despite the clear party structure, subordination to higher bodies and discipline, the Soviet Communist Party lacked legalization of the institute of head of the party. It took years to define the essence of the general/first secretary office and the mode of succession to the top party post. The lists of Soviet leaders presented at many web sites are riddled with errors and simplification putting in succession the names of Lenin, Stalin, Hruščëv, Brenev, Andropov, Cernenko and Gorbacv. However, the nature of the Communist party leadership appears to be more complex as presented in the following article.

By the time when the Bolsheviks seized the state power in Russia in 1917, the All-Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks) was practically guided by Vladimir Lenin and his close associates, who formed two major party committees - the Central Committee and the Central Body. However, the party's charter did not provide for a post of either party chairman or chairpersons in the two committees. In the first years of Soviet power, the Central Committee became the most important executive board, which was designed for considering all political issues. Nominally, the supreme power was invested in the party congress, which usually met almost each year in the early 1920s. Obviously, the Congress could not make day-to-day decisions as it was not in session most of the time.

The pressure of political environment and the Civil War in Russia forced the Bolsheviks to fill in the vacuum within the party structure. In March 1919, the 8th party congress reinstated the Politburo (in full Political Bureau) that briefly existed on the eve of the 1917 Bolshevik coup to provide effective leadership during the revolt. The new Politburo was to be elected by the Central Committee immediately after each party congress, which in turn elected the Central Committee. The immense authority of Vladimir Lenin, who himself maintained the vague idea of party equality, gave enough basis for effective decision making without electing a formal chairman. The Politburo soon assumed enough authority and practically replaced the functions of the Central Committee. It also played a role of collective presidency, while Lenin retained only the post of a member of the Central Committee and that of the Politburo. Some researchers mistakenly attribute holding the post of general secretary to Lenin, who in fact never held it.

Increasing bureaucratization of party executive bodies prompted creation of the secretariat within the Central Committee with purely technical tasks. The organization of effective leadership required to appoint a person responsible for the work of the secretariat. On 3 Apr 1922, the Central Committee elected Joseph Stalin to the new post of general secretary with Valerian Kuybyshev and Vyacheslav Molotov as secretaries. This post was never considered to be that of a party chairman at that time. The party charter adopted by the 12th party conference in August 1922 prescribed to elect the Secretariat of three members, but it did not include a clause on general secretary [1]. As the secretariat dealt with all practical issues, collected documentation for the party plenums, selected and placed party cadres and forwarded directives and orders to the local party committees, the general secretary of the Central Committee (sometimes incorrectly named the general secretary of the Communist Party) became the most influential figure.

The death of Lenin in January 1924 did not cause formal changes in the structure of party executive bodies, but in fact the Politburo assumed the collective leadership that persisted until late 1920s when Stalin succeeded in expelling the Lenin's comrades from the Politburo, the Central Committee and, in some cases, the party itself. Despite the huge authority of Stalin, the amendments in the party charter adopted by the congresses in 1925 and 1934 did not set up any new office that might be regarded as supreme party post. Apparently, Stalin, who considered himself Lenin's successor, saw it unnecessary to assume any special title as did not Lenin, but built his dictatorship on personal authority. Moreover, Stalin dropped using the title of general secretary when he signed party directives and remained only one of the secretaries of the party's Central Committee. The 17th party congress held in 1934 elected the Central Committee, which in turn elected the Politburo, the Orgburo and the Secretaries without confirming the Stalin's title as it used to be after each party congress in 1922-1930.

The complex structure of higher party bodies by the time of Stalin's death (1953) was complicated with creation of a new body, the Presidium, on place of the Politburo, at the 19th party congress (October 1952). The new party charter adopted by this congress was immediately violated by creating the Bureau (buro) of the Presidium that was never meant to be set up according to the charter. The complexity of this structure probably influenced the decisions of the joint session of the Central Committee, the Council of Ministers and the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, which two hours prior to Stalin's death appointed Georgy Malenkov as his successor in the office of the Chairman of the Council of Ministers, but never debated the election of the general secretary. The Central Committee plenum held on 14 Mar 1953, relieved Georgy Malenkov of his duties as secretary of the Central Committee as it was recognized "not feasible" to combine the duties of the head of government with those of the secretary. The plenum put Nikita Hruščëv in charge of the secretariat assigning him to preside at the secretariat meetings, but his title was not officially changed until 7 Sep 1953, when the Central Committee elected him the first secretary.

Hruščëv used this title to consolidate his power and by 1957 it was clear that the post became crucial in the party top leadership. When conservative wing of the Communist leaders (Malenkov, Kaganovic and Molotov) tried to seize power on 18 Jun 1957, they orchestrated a Presidium vote to dismiss Hruščëv from this post by a vote of 8-4 (Suslov, Furtseva and Mikojan supported Hruščëv), but the Central Committee overturned the vote on 29 Jun 1957. Hruščëv retained the office and turned it into a post equal to the party president.

The downfall of Hruščëv in October 1964 resulted in appointment of Leonid Brenev as the first secretary. At that time the post of first secretary had already been seen as the highest office in the party. The destalinization movement initiated after the 20th party congress in 1956 was interrupted by the new party leadership under Brenev. The 23rd party congress (1966) changed the party charter, reinstated the Politburo and the post of general secretary that became an official post of the party head from that time. In contrast with the Stalin regime, the new structure was clearly defined in the party charter. The general secretary was to be elected by the Central Committee after each party congress in 1966-1986. This practice changed only in 1990 when Mihail Gorbacv was re-elected general secretary not by the Central Committee, but by the delegates of the 28th congress (10 Jul 1990).

The failure of the August coup in 1991, during which Gorbacv was under arrest in his summer dacha in Crimea, prompted him to announce publicly his resignation from the post of general secretary on 24 Aug 1991. Then on 29 Aug 1991 the Supreme Soviet of the USSR suspended the Communist Party of Soviet Union. Deputy General secretary Vladimir Ivashko became acting head of the party as he did not resign his post.


[1] The party charter adopted at the 23rd Congress in 1966 officially reinstated the post of General secretary and included the clause on his election.

This page was last updated on: 26 Jun 2009 04:27:25

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