March 20

This Day in History

Cold War

Mar 20, 1953:

Khrushchev begins his rise to power

The Soviet government announces that Nikita Khrushchev has been selected as one of five men named to the new office of Secretariat of the Communist Party. Khrushchev's selection was a crucial first step in his rise to power in the Soviet Union—an advance that culminated in Khrushchev being named secretary of the Communist Party in September 1953, and premier in 1958.

The death of Joseph Stalin on March 5, 1953 created a tremendous vacuum in Soviet leadership. Stalin had ruled the Soviet Union since the 1920s. With his passing, the heir apparent was Georgi Malenkov, who was named premier and first secretary of the Communist Party the day after Stalin's death. This seemingly smooth transition, however, masked a growing power struggle between Malenkov and Nikita Khruschev. Khrushchev had been active in the Russian Communist Party since joining in 1918. After Stalin took control of the Soviet Union following Lenin's death in 1924, Khrushchev became an absolutely loyal follower of the brutal dictator. This loyalty served him well, as he was one of the few old Bolsheviks who survived Stalin's devastating political purges during the 1930s.

In the 1940s Khrushchev held a number of important positions in the Soviet government. Yet, when Stalin died in March 1953, Khrushchev was overlooked in favor of Malenkov. It did not take long for Khrushchev to take advantage of the mediocre Malenkov. First, he organized a coalition of Soviet politicians to force Malenkov to relinquish the post of first secretary—the more important post, since it controlled the party apparatus in the Soviet Union. Malenkov publicly stated that he was giving up the position to encourage the sharing of political responsibilities, but it was obvious that Khrushchev had gained a crucial victory. To replace Malenkov, the party announced the establishment of a new position, a five-man Secretariat. Even Western journalists noted that in announcing the five-person position, Khrushchev's name was always listed first, while the others were in alphabetical order. It was soon apparent that Khrushchev was the driving power in the Secretariat, and in September 1953, he secured enough backing to be named secretary of the Communist Party. In February 1955, he and his supporters pushed Malenkov out of the premiership and replaced him with a Khrushchev puppet, Nikolai Bulganin. In March 1958, Khrushchev consolidated his power by taking the office of premier himself.

Officials in the United States, including Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, badly underestimated Khrushchev. Initially, they considered him a lackey of Malenkov, but soon came to learn that the blunt and unsophisticated Khrushchev was a force to be reckoned with in Soviet politics. Despite their concern, Khrushchev's rise to power did initiate a period in which tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union began slightly to ease, as he called for "peaceful coexistence" between the two superpowers.

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