The Soviet Union had eight leaders during its existence from 1922 to 1991. Unlike countries in which a president or prime minister is the designated head of state, the leaders of the USSR mostly assumed power by becoming the head of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party, in addition to any other roles they may have taken on along the way.
The men who ruled the Soviet Union the longest were Joseph Stalin and Leonid Brezhnev, who each served several decades as head of the Communist Party. Lesser-known are Soviet heads of state such as Georgy Malenkov, who lost power to Nikita Khrushchev after only a few weeks, or Konstantin Chernenko, who died after barely a year in office and was succeeded by Mikhail Gorbachev. Each of these eight men, however, in some way shaped the USSR.
Vladimir Lenin (1922-1924)
Vladimir Lenin was the founder of the Russian Communist Party and the first Soviet head of state. Following the February Revolution that ousted the Russian monarchy and ended the Russian Empire in 1917, Lenin helped lead the October Revolution (or Bolshevik Revolution) that established a new Soviet government.
The October Revolution sparked the Russian Civil War, which lasted for the first few years of Lenin’s tenure. Lenin’s Red Army won the war, cementing the power of the new Soviet government. In 1922, Lenin’s government signed a treaty with Ukraine, Belarus and Transcaucasia (a region including Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan) to form the Soviet Union, or USSR.
That same year, Lenin’s health began to deteriorate. Doctors removed a bullet from his neck that had been lodged there since an assassination attempt in 1918, but his health continued to worsen. On January 21, 1924, he died of a stroke at age 53.
Lenin had begun his revolutionary career as a Marxist who wanted to give political power to workers and peasants. Yet when he died, the actual Soviet government he had established was much different than the type of socialism he’d advocated for. His successor, Joseph Stalin, would make this difference even more stark.
Joseph Stalin (1924-1953)
Joseph Stalin participated in the 1917 October Revolution and started working for the Soviet government during Lenin’s tenure. His concentration of power began in 1922 when he became secretary general of the Communist Party’s Central Committee—a position he held until his death in 1953.
Lenin disapproved of Stalin, and even sought to remove him as secretary general. Before Lenin’s health issues, many had considered Leon Trotsky, another participant in the October Revolution who helped shape the Soviet government, to be Lenin’s heir apparent. Stalin considered Trotsky one of his main rivals, and Stalin was able to take over co-leadership of the Soviet Union with Grigory Zinovyev and Lev Kamenev.
During the 1920s, Stalin edged Zinovyev and Kamenev out of power, established a dictatorship and exiled Trotsky. In the 1930s, he began in the Great Purge, in which he killed both political rivals and people who appeared to be political allies. Stalin forced Zinovyev and Kamenev, his former co-leaders, to give false confessions in a show trial, then had them shot.
Stalin formed a tense alliance with U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill during World War II, in which Soviet troops helped liberate Nazi concentration camps. Afterward, a Cold War pitted the United States and its western European allies against the USSR, which had now annexed many more territories in eastern Europe.
On March 5, 1953, Stalin died after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage. His death spurred a scramble for power among Soviet leaders that resulted into two different men seizing power that year.
Georgy Malenkov (1953-1953)
The first to take control of the Soviet Union was Stalin’s heir apparent Georgy Malenkov, who had helped facilitate Stalin’s purges in the 1930s. Of all the Soviet leaders, Malenkov is the one who held power for the least amount of time.
The day after Stalin died, Malenkov succeeded Stalin as the Soviet Union’s premier and de facto leader of the Communist Party. Yet within only a few weeks, Nikita Khrushchev wrested control of the party away from Malenkov. By the end of the year, Malenkov was no longer the Soviet Union’s main leader. He retained his position as premier until 1955, when a Khruschev ally took over the position. After that, Malenkov was no longer a major player in Soviet politics. He died in 1988.
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Nikita Khrushchev (1953-1964)
Nikita Khrushchev became first secretary of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party and, in 1958, its premier. His rule was characterized by his attempts at de-Stalinization and improving the Soviet Union’s international relationships.
Khrushchev ruled the Soviet Union during the construction of the Berlin Wall, the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion (in which the CIA attempted to overthrow Cuban leader Fidel Castro) and the Cuban Missile Crisis, which many believe to be the closest the United States and the Soviet Union ever came to nuclear war. Though he and U.S. President John F. Kennedy got off to a bad start, the leaders developed a relationship in which they understood that neither of them wanted nuclear war.
Khrushchev lost his status as first secretary of the Communist Party and premier of the Soviet Union in 1964, when Leonid Brezhnev and his allies arranged for Brezhnev to take over as the party leader. Khrushchev died several years later in 1971.
Leonid Brezhnev (1964-1982)
Leonid Brezhnev was one of the longest-serving Soviet leaders, second only to Stalin. Brezhnev was 10 years old during the 1917 revolutions, which means that he was the first Soviet Union leader to come of age under the Soviet state. He joined the Community Party youth organization as a teen and served in the Soviet military during WWII.
Brezhnev was second secretary of the Communist Party in 1964 when he arranged for Khrushchev’s ouster. With Khrushchev gone, Brezhnev took his place as the Communist Party’s first secretary (which became “general secretary” in 1966) and with it, leadership of the Soviet Union.
Brezhnev established a policy of détente from 1967 to 1979 that saw the easing of Cold War tensions and increased trade with the United States and its allies. Brezhnev is also known for the Brezhnev Doctrine, in which he asserted that the USSR should intervene in countries where socialist or communist rule was under threat. This was the rationale he used when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. The invasion led to the end of détente between the Soviet Union and the United States, which retaliated by boycotting the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
Relations between the Soviet Union and the United States were still strained when Brezhnev died on November 10, 1982 of a heart attack.
Yuri Andropov (1982-1984)
Yuri Andropov was head of the KGB, the Soviet national security agency, between 1967 and 1982. When Brezhnev began to have health problems, Andropov left the KGB to compete to be Brezhnev’s successor. Andropov was successful—two days after Brezhnev died, he became the new general secretary of the Communist Party.
The strained relationship that Brezhnev had had with U.S. President Ronald Reagan continued with Andropov. It was during his administration that Soviet forces shot down Korean Airlines flight 007, a passenger plane, killing all 269 people aboard in 1983. That year, Andropov began to experience kidney failure, leading to his death in 1984.
Konstantin Chernenko (1984-1985)
Konstantin Chernenko, who had also competed to succeed Brezhnev in 1982, took over as the Communist Party’s general secretary in 1984. That year, the Soviet Union led a boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics in retaliation for the United States’ boycott four years before.
Like Andropov, Chernenko suffered from poor health during most of his tenure. He died from complications from emphysema just over a year after taking control of the party.
Mikhail Gorbachev (1985-1991)
The last leader of the Soviet Union was Mikhail Gorbachev, who succeeded Chernenko as general secretary after Chernenko’s death in 1985. He initiated the period of glasnost, or “openness,” in which the Soviet Union loosened restrictions on the press and personal expression, and began to reevaluate its Stalinist past.