USSR: Communist Party: Politburo - Archontology

USSR: Communist Party: Politburo

The history of the Politburo might be divided into four periods. Each period had its features, but throughout the whole Soviet history Politburo played a special role in party and state politics.


The first period lasted for only about two weeks from 10 [23] Oct 1917 to 24 Oct [6 Nov] 1917, the day when the Bolsheviks staged a successful coup in Petrograd. The Central Committee meeting of 10 [23] Oct 1917 approved the course for "military uprising" and elected a Political Bureau "to provide political leadership" during the revolution. The Politburo was composed of seven members - Lenin, Zinov'ev, Kamenev, Trockij, Stalin, Sokol'nikov and Bubnov, but it did not play any role during the November uprising. Trockij wrote that it never held a meeting at all [1]. After the coup in Petrograd it ceased to function and the Central Committee took over the leadership.


The second period in the history of the Politburo began in 1919, when the 8th party congress (8 Mar 1919 - 23 Mar 1919) made amendments to the party charter and created the Politburo, the Orgburo and the Secretariat as permanent bodies. The Politburo was supposed to be subordinate to the Central Committee, and its members were to be elected by Central Committee plenums. Though the charter did not require any division within the Politburo, the Central Committee elected both full members and candidate members [2]. The latter participated in the debates, but lacked a right to vote.

The Politburo was elected on 25 Mar 1919, by the plenum of the Central Committee. Lenin, Kamenev, Krestinskij, Stalin and Trockij became full members, Buharin, Zinov'ev and Kalinin - candidate members. The Politburo held its first meeting on 16 Apr 1919. In 1919-1921, this body met 95 times to debate the most important issues and passed decisions on key questions. After each party congress the newly elected Central Committee held elections of the Politburo, but the membership just slightly changed during this period. In 1924-1930, Stalin succeeded in expelling all original Politburo members and achieved complete dominance over this body by eliminating his political rivals. On 23 Jul 1926, the Central Committee, for the first time in the Politburo's history, dismissed a member (Zinov'ev), whose political views differed from the general course, and set a precedent for the practice, which dominated throughout the Soviet history. Most of the Politburo members were usually "relieved of duties" on various pretexts by the Central Committee plenums.

The second period ended in October 1952, when the 19th party congress in accordance with Stalin's will changed the party charter and replaced Politburo with a larger Presidium. Apparently, Stalin planned major changes in the structure of the party highest bodies, but his death (5 Mar 1953) allowed his successors to return to the old scheme and the Presidium assumed the same functions as Politburo.


The Politburo was reinstated in 1966, when Leonid Brenev took course for return to conservatism. The 23rd party congress amended the charter and re-established the Politburo. It consisted of about 15 members and 6-8 candidate members. The election of the Politburo by the Central Committee became purely nominal procedure. In fact, the Politburo itself decided who would be elected and who would be expelled. In 1970s and early 1980s Brenev, as the General Secretary, also used his position for occasional shuffles within the Politburo, but he never faced a real opposition. Such Politburo members as Voronov, Shelest, Kosygin, Podgornyj and others were expelled for their independent position rather than political views.


In the course of perestroika, Mihail Gorbacv faced the demand of Soviet republics for equal representation in the party bodies and agreed to the last reform of the Politburo in mid-1990. The 28th congress of the Communist Party decreed that the Politburo will include a representative of each constituent republic of the Soviet Union and that all its members will be equal in their rights. According to the new regulations, whenever a first secretary of the party organization of a constituent republic was dismissed, his successor had to enter the Politburo at the next Central Committee plenum [3]. The plenum of 14 July 1990 elected 24 full members including 15 first secretaries of the national Communist parties. The institute of candidate membership was abolished.

Several top government officials were dropped from the Politburo in the course of perestroika; though they remained party members, they were to concentrate on their responsibilities as members of the presidential council.

The Politburo ceased to exist in the wake of unsuccessful August coup in 1991.

[1] See Leon Trockij Istoriya Russkoy Revolutsii, vol. 2, part 2, p. 171, Berlin, 1931.
[2] The term "full members" is not strictly correct. Officially, they were called members of the Politburo (chleny) and candidate members of the Politburo (kandidaty v chleny).
[3] Increasing disintegration of the Soviet Union prevented the Central Committee from following this regulation. Successors of Gumbaridze (Georgian Communist party), Pogosyan (Armenian Communist party) and Polozkov (Communist party of the Russian SFSR) were never elected to the Politburo.